All The Times We Were Wrong


If I told you right now that humans are “perfect” organisms, and that in our mothers wombs, we first are fishes, who then develop into amphibians, and then reptiles, birds, primates, before finally becoming what we know as human. I’m sure you’d look at me like I’ve gone insane.

And I have, but that’s besides the point. 

Just as recently as 1811, because of the works of scientist Johann Friedrich Meckel, everybody thought that was true.

And this is because science is transient. What we once hold as truth quickly fades away upon closer inspection. And looking back, we can only laugh at ourselves for the scientific “facts'' we once held dear to our hearts. 

Some other times, these aren’t even actual scientific facts. They’re just very popular opinions that all of us have collectively agreed to be true, even though they are in fact not. 

These are all the times we were wrong.

Not everything Meckel said was wrong, though. In fact, he was the first scientist to correctly predict that embryos have gills. Well, slits on their necks that closely resemble gills, at least. However, unlike what he suggested, we don’t pass through a fish phase in our mothers’ wombs.

These slits are most likely due to the fact that both humans and fish share a common ancestor and some DNA, and not because we’re trying to attain some kind of biological perfection. I mean, who are we kidding, we are far from perfect. 

But for a long time, scientists believed this to be true, well, until the late 19th century when Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution started to gain traction. We realized that a linear series of evolution in our mothers’ womb was completely illogical. 

The theory of evolution is one that has been completely riddled with lots of false claims and ideas that are simply not true. In reality, evolution is a very difficult subject to research because of the limited amount of fossil information available. As a result, a lot of times, all we’re left with are hypotheses, some of which are brilliant, and others, err, not so much. 

For a long time, scientists believed that all of life was aquatic, until one day, many millions of years ago, a brave fish dared to walk on land. Starting with very short periods on dry ground, the fish started spending more and more time on land and gradually, its gills got replaced with lungs and it became amphibian. Then the amphibians became reptiles, who became birds, who became mammals. And while these scientists got the process of evolution right, that one brave fish was not the first animal to step on land. The earth was rich with insects, funguses, and was bubbling with life before that fish ever came into the picture. 

Another hypothesis that we all seem to collectively get wrong is where humans come from. If I asked you right now, you most likely would tell me that we evolved from chimpanzees, our closest living relatives. But while the second half of that statement is true, the first half is completely false. We didn’t evolve from chimpanzees. 

Yes we evolved from apes. However, we did not evolve from any apes living today. We, monkeys, chimps, and gorillas, all evolved from a common ancestor, the so-called “great apes” that lived in Africa around 7 million years ago. It was around that time in the evolution chain that we split.

So although chimpanzees are our closest living relatives, we’re farther apart on the family tree than a lot of us think. 

Our much closer relative, although now extinct, are the Neanderthals. Modern humans split from Neanderthals just around 500,000 years ago. But even these guys certainly came with their own controversy. For a long time, scientists believed that Neanderthals and humans never lived together, with some believing that Neanderthals evolved into humans, but that’s again not true.

Archaeologists have since found ancient human skeletons that prove that modern humans and Neanderthals coexisted for thousands of years. In fact, they didn’t just co-exist, they actually mated, which is why most humans living outside of Africa have anywhere between 1-4% of Neanderthal DNA still in them today.

When we start talking about the theory of evolution and ancient humans, we can’t help but talk about Dinosaurs. You know, those giant scary lizard looking things from Jurassic Park. The ones that have earth-like tones, lizard-like scales, and roars more earth-shattering than that of a lion? Well, in reality, the dinosaur was none of those things I just mentioned. 

First, Dinosaurs are more closely related to birds than lizards. In fact, every single living bird today is a modern-day dinosaur, a descendant of theropods, a species of ancient dinosaurs. And because they’re birds, they mostly had feathers covering their scaly skin. Fossil evidence has shown that a lot of tyrannosaurus had feathers, which means that even the great T-Rex probably had a few as well, mostly on its head and tail.

Dinosaurs also never ran fast. Because they always had to have one leg on the ground, they could only get to around 25mph. Which is still pretty scary because… well one, they’re massive, and two, the average speed of a human is 15mph. But if you’re Usain Bolt, you’ve got nothing to worry about; you can outrun these guys any day.

And let’s be honest, have you heard any bird roar? Yeah, me neither. Which is why a recent scientific study has shown that the T-Rex most likely hooted, cooed, or made deep-throated booming sounds like the emu, not a trembling roar like a giant lion. It’s funny when you think about it.

Now we can forgive ourselves for getting these details wrong. After all, all of these things happened tens of millions of years ago, before any of us ever existed. But if you look much closer in time, you will still see a lot of things we get wrong everyday. Even things that are as simple as George Washington’s teeth.

In 1789 when George Washington was inaugurated as president, he had only one natural tooth left. But because the president needed an amazing smile, he wore dentures. Now in reality, these dentures were made from hippopotamus ivory, brass, and gold. But for some reason, we like to believe they were made from wood. Why we believe that, I have no idea, but it’s not too late to change your mind.

According to the Merriam Webster dictionary, a person who often changes their beliefs or behaviors in order to please others or to succeed is called a chameleon. But are chameleons really chameleons?

This definition is derived from the assumption that chameleons change the color of their skin to match their surroundings, most likely to camouflage. And while there are animals that excel using this tactic like the octopus, the chameleon is not one of those animals. 

In reality, most chameleon species can only change from green to brown and back to green. And they do not change colors to blend into their surroundings. They do it to regulate their body temperature. When the chameleon is cold, it becomes darker to absorb more heat, and when it’s hot, it turns pale to reflect more heat so it can cool down. 

There is one species of chameleon that can change into any color, though, and that’s the panther chameleon. But even those guys don’t do it to match their surroundings. Their flamboyant display of colors helps them fend off against males competing for territory... and also to attract females. I mean, isn’t that why we all buy designer in the first place?

Speaking of fancy, who else was taught that diamonds are made from coal? Sorry, but that's not true at all, it’s a terribly common misconception. In fact, most of the diamonds that have been dated were found to be far older than even the very first plants that appeared on Earth. And because you need trees to make coal, it’s impossible for coal to produce diamonds when diamonds existed long before the material that makes coal even existed.

NASA researchers have even found a number of nanodiamonds in meteorites. Nanodiamonds are diamonds that are just a few nanometers in diameter, simple enough. They’re too tiny to be considered gems, but it’s still pretty cool that you can have these precious objects just floating around in space. Still, it makes you question why we deem them as so precious when, in reality, they’re extremely abundant in our universe. There are planets in space where it literally rains diamonds.

Anyway, of course these asteroids are floating because there’s no gravity in space. Right? Well, unfortunately, wrong. There is gravity in space. It’s what holds the moon in orbit around the Earth, and the Earth close together around the Sun with all the other planets. It’s just that as you get farther away from the Earth, the Earth’s gravitational pull on you weakens, and other gravitational forces begin to take priority. 

But in reality, everything in space is falling… in every direction imaginable, all at the same time. The only reason it seems as if you’re floating and not falling is because space is very large and mostly very empty, at least compared to Earth. 

For instance, on Earth, if you were to... and I really, really don’t recommend it, jump off a building, you could feel the strong winds on your face, you would see the ground appearing closer and closer, you can tell that you’re falling quite easily. And in just a few seconds, impact. You’re on the ground because the distance between the height you fell from and where you landed isn’t that much. 

In space, there is no air, so no whooshing sound to accompany your fall, no buildings and landmarks to see becoming larger as you get closer to the surface, and because it’s so large, it takes you anywhere from a few hours to many years to land on one surface when you fall from another. So it feels like you’re floating. But you’re not. You’re falling, really, really slowly. And that’s because of gravity, one of man’s most important discoveries. 

When you think about the fact that it is one of man’s most important discoveries, you would imagine that the story behind it would be preserved carefully. But the version almost all of us have heard, has not been preserved at all. The old tale goes that Newton was tired from all the many failed experiments he had had in his career, tired and frustrated, he sat under a tree to rest his head. As he sat, a ripe apple dropped down from the tree and hit Newton on the head, and in a eureka moment, he discovered one of the most important forces in physics, gravity. 

But the truth is much less dramatic than that. In reality, Isaac Newton was observing the apples falling from the tree of their own accord when he discovered that there must be a force behind it. He wasn’t sitting under the tree, and the apple certainly didn’t fall on his head. 

You see, sometimes I understand why we make up some of these stories. They help make us feel better about ourselves. When we believe that some of humanity’s greatest achievements couldn’t have happened without a huge slice of luck, we can keep hope alive for our own share of luck, our piece of the apple pie. 

It’s the same with the story of Albert Einstein. We all heard growing up about how he failed in class but still went on to become one the greatest physicists the world has ever seen. But that’s just not true at all. Einstein always excelled in school. He didn’t learn to read late in life, and he most likely didn’t have a learning disability. 

Our teachers must have told us these stories to make us feel good about ourselves, give us hope that even if we have rough starts in school, we could still become geniuses later in life if we worked hard. And while there are a thousand examples of this exact theory, Einstein simply wasn’t one of them. 

Aristotle is one of the greatest philosophers who have ever lived and was the first true scientist.

He practically invented formal logic and he described and explored the different scientific disciplines and their relations to one another. But for all the good he did, there was one thing he got terribly, terribly wrong - he claimed that the Earth was at the center of the universe. I mean, why wouldn’t he? Most things you observe point to this exact conclusion.

Now while Aristotle wasn’t the first to say this, he championed the fight. He claimed that using logic, he had found this to be 100% true, and would not back down from his argument. It took the work of Galileo, almost two millennia later, to discover that the Sun was the center of the solar system and not our Earth. And still, people didn’t believe him, in fact, they ostracized him. 

And this is just one of the many times that we as humans have overemphasized our importance.

In the movie Lucy, Morgan Freeman says this in a room full of students, “It is estimated, most human beings only use 10% of their brain’s capacity… Imagine if we could access 100%. Interesting things begin to happen.” 

While it’s fun to think that humans are capable of a whole lot more if we could just find a way to tap into that remaining 90% resource, reality is far less exciting. 

Most of the brain is active almost all the time. While they might not actively be used for thinking, they’re working, busy doing other things... like keeping you alive, kind of important. Think about it, the brain is just 3% of the body’s weight, but it uses 20% of the body’s energy. To burn through that much energy, you have to be doing something, right?

Even though we get it wrong most of the time, it’s fun to explore the world around us. As a species, we will continue to make assumptions about everything we see, and chances are, most of it’ll be wrong. 

But that’s a good thing, because if we never know what’s wrong, we can never know what’s truly right. 

- EE, MM