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A recent evolution question made it to the hot network questions list. This caused one of big problems faced by some questions, particularly by evolution questions, in that it attracted a lot of low quality answers, and a lot of non-expert users to the site. The question can briefly be summarised as

If evolution is not an adaptive process then why is there so much adaptation?

To answer this question one needs to do two things, i) clarify for the user that evolution is a process of change not adaptation, and ii) explain that adaptation comes about as a process of selection which is one of the mechanisms of evolution.

Now I believe that this answer does not answer the question. The answer received 56 upvotes and was accepted as an answer, while only receiving 4 downvotes. I can understand why the post itself would get upvotes. It is, after all, an interesting post. However, it answers a different question, that of

Does evolution always increase complexity?

"The fundamental principal of natural selection is that it favours the organism most suited to a particular environment. But, that isn't always the most complex organism."


Now we come to the big issue, it is highly upvoted and accepted as an answer by the person who asked the question. However, this doesn't mean that the post actually answers the question. Anyone can turn up here and vote, regardless of how well they have read and understood the question and the answer. Like I said, the post is a good one so I can understand why people would upvote it, as a stand alone piece it is worthy of upvoting, but it answers the wrong question. Having been on the hot network questions it is likely to have attracted a number of non-expert users, and this is supported by the number of unfamiliar users who contributed comments, chat messages, and answers to the question. Given that the person who asked the question clearly has some strong misconceptions about evolution and exhibited hostility towards existing users on biology SE, I'm not sure that I would place much faith in his/her acceptance of the answer either.

It is a problem because some degree of expertise is necessary in judging the validity of the answer. Therefore, while most won't see the problem, some will. The question is

Is the majority always right?

Well as an evolutionary biologist I see first hand the massive popular misconceptions about evolution, so I can tell you that most people have an extremely poor understanding of evolutionary biology, and that if evolutionary theory was based on popular consensus of what evolution is then it would probably make no sense. Therefore, I think majority rule is potentially grossly invalid in this case, and that credible expertise should be given weight in discussions of the topic. And that brings me to me, I'm not suggesting I'm some world leader in evolutionary biology, but I think it is fair to say that I am considerably more qualified than the average person to comment on the validity of the answer; I have a PhD and Masters degree in Evolutionary Biology, my PhD thesis had the process of adaptation at it's very core, and I am currently doing a Post-doc on the process of adaptation in contemporary humans. My answer to the question deals with the misconceptions the user had about evolution, and explains why adaptation is so prevalent, thus dealing with both problems raised by the original question. This can serve as what I would consider a quite good answer to the question.


So what do we do about the answer? Well I have been researching this, including the existing biology meta posts on incorrect and upvoted answers and making a meta stack exchange post about it. It seems the correct process for dealing with incorrect answers is:

1) Downvote

2) Comment to explain criticisms, request improvement/clarification

3) Post an alternative answer

I have used all of these actions, and have made multiple requests to the original poster of the answer, all of which has been ignored (user has been online after each comment and done nothing). I have also commented to ask for references because there is no supporting material whatsoever, but that's another issue.

Obviously though, there is a problem in that the incorrect answer is still highly upvoted and accepted. I think this is a problem because i) as a site we should be striving to have material which is correct and useful and ii) as (evolutionary) biologists we should be striving to ensure that material is clear and consistent in order to straighten out peoples misconceptions, inconsistency in explanation will contribute to further misconception.

In the meta stackexchange answers one suggestion was to raise a flag on the post, but came with warning that it would likely be rejected. However, the same user, a mod on at least four other stack exchange sites and a heavily contributing meta stack user, suggested making a meta post to judge support for deletion of the answer as a popular consensus among the regular users may have more sway with the moderators.

Also see:

"For answers, any post that is not an answer (should be a comment, doesn't answer the question, etc.) should be deleted. Answers that are wrong or that dispense poor advice should be downvoted, not deleted."


So this is a call, please vote up and down fairly, and add answers or comments below. Should we delete the answer because it does not answer the question which was asked?

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  • $\begingroup$ I realise this is a long post, but I ask that you read and consider it carefully, because it is dealing with an important issue. Please vote fairly. This is not a question of whether the democratic approach of stack exchange is wrong or right, or effective or ineffective, but a specific case where popular consensus can be called in to question. $\endgroup$ – rg255 Mar 2 '16 at 9:31
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No, it shouldn't. If the OP feels that it answers their question, it seems kind of presumptuous of you to assume that you know better. This has nothing to do with how well anyone understands evolutionary theory and everything to do with what the OP was actually asking. That, given the OP's lack of expertise on the subject, might have very little to do with what was asked in the question.

So, since the OP has clearly decided that the post answers their question, and given the the answer is scientifically sound, there is nothing we can do. More importantly, there is nothing we should do.

Accepted answers are not The Right Answer©. They are simply the answer that the OP felt best answered their question. It is not uncommon that full-out, 100% wrong or nonsense answers are accepted on the SE network. That's where, usually, voting comes in. I have seen accepted wrong answers on various sites and, usually, there is also a correct answer with a far higher score.

Granted, in this case, the accepted answer is also the most highly votes but the accepted answer is not wrong. It simply doesn't answer the question you feel the OP asked. That doesn't matter. Your answer does address your interpretation of the OP's question so everything is fine. Both interpretations are answered and we have a page with multiple, interesting answers. That is good for the OP, good for the next visitor to stumble across the question and good for the site. It's a win-win.

So, in conclusion, no we should not delete the answer. First of all because it isn't wrong and is providing useful information; second because the OP felt it answered their question and—our academic credentials notwithstanding—the OP knows their own mind best, and we cannot presume otherwise.

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I think the question itself is unclear. The OP asks: "why does evolution not cause improvement " without actually explaining what they mean by improvement.

Many people (in general, as a result of an anthropocentric thinking) assume that a highly "evolved" organism is something that is intelligent and can perform different tasks.

So I don't really think your interpretation of the question as:

If evolution is not an adaptive process then why is there so much adaptation?

is really what the OP intended to ask.

However, when you look at the history of life you see improvements, adaptation is seemingly everywhere.

This is your own edit and the original post does not say anything about adaptation. Even after repeated comments asking for clarification, OP did not respond but instead accepted an answer.

Technically, adaptation also refers to a situation in which some functional aspect of the system, in response to an environmental change, settles back to its original state (the pre-change state) after a brief period of perturbation. Adaptation has also been (traditionally) used to describe processes that are associated with a genetic change.

It is not apparent that improvement means adaptation; the original post does not mention adaptation anywhere and OP has accepted an answer that talks about complexity.

Therefore, I cannot dismiss Nathan's (the 56+ answerer) interpretation of "improvement" as complexity.

The answer, however, is unreferenced. Therefore, as per my opinions on where citations are required, this is may not be a great answer. Having said that, I would also say that I do not find any technical mistakes in the answer; it is not wrong and is scientifically quite valid.

Perhaps you can correct me here.

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  • $\begingroup$ If it seems the OP has an unclear understanding of adaptation then that would be beneficial to cover in the answer. Having discussed this with the OP across a number of comments on this, and other questions, I do believe they do intend the question "why is there so much improvement" to mean why do so many traits have an adaptive role if evolution isn't an adaptive process? Adaptive characteristics are more common than would be expected under random evolution. Even if the OP intended something else, I do not think the intended question is does evolution always lead to increased complexity? $\endgroup$ – rg255 Mar 2 '16 at 10:51
  • $\begingroup$ I am not saying that Nathan's answer is wrong scientifically (again, I think its a perfectly valid answer to "does evolution increase complexity?"), but in the context of the question posed by vonjd, it does not answer the question. $\endgroup$ – rg255 Mar 2 '16 at 10:55
  • $\begingroup$ I also think that you may be conflating your own not understanding the question with it being an unclear question. There are many questions on biology SE where I do not understand them because they require certain expertise which I simply don't have, but this does not mean they are unclear questions. Someone with the right expertise will understand a clear question. $\endgroup$ – rg255 Mar 2 '16 at 11:19
  • $\begingroup$ @rg255 if the OP felt that the answer answered their question well enough to warrant accepting it, then, by definition, it was the right answer. Perhaps the OP failed to explain what they were really asking. However, they felt that the provided answer covered them so I really don't see a problem here. $\endgroup$ – terdon Mar 2 '16 at 11:36
  • $\begingroup$ @rg255 I am not really an expert in this area but "improvement" is certainly a term that is quite subjective (and non-standard). You could use improvement in a sense of being able to adapt to multiple situations but that has to come out in the question. The OP also has not clearly indicated that they are not referring to complexity. As you inferred that OP does not have a great understanding of the subject, I think they could not have presented the actual context properly. Considering all these, I would call the question unclear. $\endgroup$ – WYSIWYG Mar 2 '16 at 11:38
  • $\begingroup$ @WYSIWYG As I've said, I discussed this with the user, and clarified his interpretation of "improvement" as adaptive traits. The answer focuses on the evolution of complexity, which is not relevant to the question. $\endgroup$ – rg255 Mar 2 '16 at 11:42
  • $\begingroup$ @Terdon the user showed hostility toward the existing bio SE community and clearly has a poor understanding of the intricacies of the question they posed, for those reasons I believe he/she would not be a good or fair judge of the answers $\endgroup$ – rg255 Mar 2 '16 at 11:43
  • $\begingroup$ @rg255 the OP clearly thought it was relevant. Also, the answer actually discusses the difference between improvement and complexity and discusses why one is not the other. $\endgroup$ – terdon Mar 2 '16 at 11:44
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    $\begingroup$ @rg255 that's not your call to make. Accepting an answer is the OP's prerogative. If they chose to accept a wrong one, that is their choice and theirs alone. "Accepted" does not mean "correct", it just means "the one the OP liked more". Given that the answer is not wrong and is scientifically sound, we have no reason and less right to touch it. $\endgroup$ – terdon Mar 2 '16 at 11:45
  • $\begingroup$ explaining why complexity is not equal to being highly adapted is not an explanation of why adaptation actually occurs so frequently if evolution is not about improvement [adaptation] $\endgroup$ – rg255 Mar 2 '16 at 11:46
  • $\begingroup$ @terdon again, "...any post that is not an answer (should be a comment, doesn't answer the question, etc.) should be deleted. Answers that are wrong or that dispense poor advice should be downvoted, not deleted." I'm saying it doesn't answer the question, I have said multiple times that it is a scientifically sound post, but it is not an answer to the question that has been asked. $\endgroup$ – rg255 Mar 2 '16 at 11:48
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    $\begingroup$ @rg255 it does answer the question. It just doesn't answer the question you think was being asked. You have a specific interpretation of what the OP was asking but, obviously, the OP has another one. I don't understand why you assume that you know what they wanted to ask better than they do. $\endgroup$ – terdon Mar 2 '16 at 11:52
  • $\begingroup$ From the discussions I had with the user it is clear what the question is $\endgroup$ – rg255 Mar 2 '16 at 11:55
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    $\begingroup$ Perhaps you should extend this discussion in chat? $\endgroup$ – WYSIWYG Mar 2 '16 at 12:24

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