The Branching Bush of Horse Evolution

At Laelaps, Brian Switek, a soon-to-be-graduating student at Rutgers University who is studying ecology and evolution describes the oft misunderstood evolution of the horse

The story of the evolution of the horse shows how science incorporated new data to update what was originally a overly simplified view of horse evolution and reveals an exciting example of evolution in action.

The author ends with an important lesson namely that simplification, an oft used tool in education, can also provide creationists with opportunities to spread “doubts”. What surprises me is that one seldomly hears creationists complain about how our science classes ‘linearize’ “laws” when in fact, everyone knows that much of the world around us is quite non-linear.

Still, our current understanding is incomplete, and further fossil finds will continue to rustle the branches of the evolutionary bush. In fact, I would not be surprised if more early forms came to light, and I would be especially interested to see if the “Oligocene Bottleneck” is real or merely a factor of fossil collecting bias. There should be no mistake about the amazing entanglement of branches horses represent, however, and it is somewhat surprising that the public does not often hear about the true form of horse phylogeny. While I did not do an in-depth study of how horse evolution was portrayed in the popular media, from what I have seen it seems that past scientists and authors have often opted for simplicity, getting the public to accept evolution has occurred being more important than giving them an accurate depiction of how evolution works. This is a harsh lesson that we are still learning, as inaccuracies in books, museum displays, and other outlets can leave the door open for creationists to spread distrust of science.