Explaining Evolution: Lessons from Friends

Image Credit: Friends, 1995

Yes, I watched Friends as a kid. Yes, I know it’s a comedy show. Yes, I loved it. Yes, I know it had serious problems in it’s depiction of a few minorities. Yes, I know Phoebe is a ball of whimsy and Ross is a condescending jerk. But I run a podcast called Cinematica Animalia and I’m an avid science communicator, so I want to talk about this scene, and what it potentially teaches us about how to talk about science.

If you can’t be bothered watching five minutes of two people who might seem fun on TV but let’s face it, would just be the worst to hang around in real life, here’s a concise summary.

Phoebe does not believe in evolution. Ross take personal offence to this. Ross gets angry. Ross does a very poor job of explaining evolution. Phoebe tells him he’s being a jerk (which he is). Phoebe gets Ross to admit that there’s “a teeny tiny possibility” that evolution is not real. Phoebe accuses him of caving. Ross throws a hissy fit.


Don’t be a jerk

We all have a friend who doesn’t quite get some scientific concepts. I had a conversation with a guy at a party last year who didn’t get why a water shortage was still a problem in Australia when the icebergs were melting. If they’re good people (and often even if they’re not), there’s no use being condescending or patronising or even just downright insulting to them when trying to explain something. They’re not trying to wind you up (unless they are in which case you should ALSO casually drop into the conversation that we are not only monkeys but also fish). Even though at the time I was quite a fervent proponent of science over, well, anything else, I never though Ross was the good guy in this scenario.

It’s OK to make concessions

Yes, the Theory of Evolution is not ‘just a theory’. The definition of a scientific theory has been misconstrued by large swathes of the public. To nick an analogy from Jon Oliver, the Theory of Evolution is about as airtight as the Theory of Knowing That If I Walk Off A Building’s Roof I Will Fall. Ross actually compares it to gravity, which is a law. But the differences between laws and theories often has nothing to do with how concrete our understanding of the forces behind them are (a topic we’ll get stuck into soon on this site).

Anyway, the whole “it’s just a theory” argument aside, there is absolutely a “teeny tiny possibility” that the whole evolution thing is wrong. You don’t have to “abandon your whole belief system” to admit that. Qualifying uncertainty is important in any form of science. There is uncertainty in everything. Our level of uncertainty regarding the role evolution played in establishing life on earth is quite low, however. Very low. I believe “teeny tiny” sums it up. We might be products of a simulation. Maybe there is a god. Although at this point, if they did reveal themselves, I think any scientist (and many non-scientists) could get away with the Bertrand Russell defence (“not enough evidence”).

Don’t just ignore it

When I watched this scene as a kid I remember thinking “honestly, why does he even bother”. But there are two reasons why we shouldn’t just take the “there’s no point even trying with these people” approach, especially if our friends are involved. First of all, maybe there is a chance that we can help them understand the basis of a really important scientific concept. And even if that doesn’t work, talking about evolution is a great chance to tell scientific stories. Talk about how whales or horses started, how human pubic lice evolved, why ducks and geese are so damn evil. They might go away with a few fun stories to spread around.

But arguments aren’t worth having if you’re not trying to understand someone else’s side of the story. So second of all, listening to people whose understanding of a topic radically differs from yours can shed light on how people perceive scientific topics, and maybe even help you understand how to explain them better. Instead of barreling over the top of them with indignation, find out more about their point of view (again, unless they’re being jerks). I mean goddamn Ross, Phoebe told you she felt like she was being pushed down instead of pulled down by gravity, a sign that she’d been having a hard time of late if there ever was one. Show some sympathy.

Lessons from Fox News on climate change last week, lessons from Friends on Evolution this week. I’m headed down the path of corporate shill here people. Feel free to call me out if I need it.

Sam Perrin is a freshwater ecologist currently completing his PhD at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology. You can read more about his research and the rest of the Ecology for the Masses writers here, see more of his work at Ecology for the Masses here, or follow him on Twitter here.


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