1. "We’re the pinnacle"
This misconception is based on the idea that evolution is a linear progression whose ‘purpose’ or ‘end goal’ is the development of the human species. This simply is not how the evolutionary process works, natural selection favours the individuals who are best able to survive and reproduce in the current environment. When environments change the goal posts are shifted and individuals with different characteristics will now survive and reproduce more. As we are all too aware with global warming, environments change and so the evolutionary goal posts are constantly changing. This means that there is never an end point in sight for the evolutionary process, just optimizing for what’s in front of it. A great example of this is the fact that lots of now ‘simple’ worm like species had ancestors that were fairly ‘complex’, the evolutionary goal posts shifted and the ‘simpler’ individuals did better than the more ‘complex’ ones.
2. "it's just random"
In almost the polar opposite direction to the previous misconception is the one that it’s all just completely random. This misunderstanding has probably arisen due to the use of the word ‘random’ when describing how mutations occur. Mutations are a crucial aspect of evolution; they provide the variation in individuals on which natural selection can act and without it the great diversity of life would never have happened. Mutations are random in the sense that it’s not possible to predict when they will happen, where in the genome they will happen or if they are good or bad. What is not random is whether those mutations will make a difference to the evolution of that species. Most mutations are bad, they occur in genes in a way that makes them no longer work or have a negative effect on an individual’s ability to survive and reproduce, some mutations don’t do anything as they occur in non-coding areas of the genome (although we’re finding out more and more about these areas and they may be important), only a tiny fraction of mutations will result in an individual being better adapted to its environment. So the mutations are random but natural selection is not.
3. "Species want to get taller" and "It's for the good of the species"
‘Giraffes are tall because they wanted to get taller to eat the leaves at the top of the tree.’ This misconception is from mixing up the end result of the evolutionary process with some sort of conscious decision on the part of the individuals that led up to that point. Firstly, giraffes have long necks for fighting not for eating leaves (although that’s unimportant here). Secondly, the ones with longer necks will be the ones that do have more offspring and there genes will be maintained in the population. But just because we can see the ‘end results’ of the evolutionary process, i.e. the species that exist today, and so can hypothesize and test the driving forces that have led to their current adaptation (ornaments, behaviours and abilities) does not mean that their ancestors were consciously trying to evolve them.
The phrase 'for the good of the species' is used because many people think that all members of the species are striving for the species to keep existing. Unfortunately this idealistic, utopian view of intraspecies harmony is not borne out by our observations of the natural world: infanticide, homicide and inter- and intra-group conflicts. Individuals will do best to maximize the number of their offspring, ensuring that their genes are passed on. Sometimes, due to ecological constraints, like availability of mates to breed with (and a few others), individuals will actually help others (almost always their closest relatives) to breed - cooperative breeding or eusociality. But these situations can always be explained by these individuals either doing the best of a bad job and helping their relatives to breed, kin selection, while they wait for a breeding position to open up for themselves.
4. “We’re Just constantly ‘eyeing’ up each other for mates” or “I can’t help it, I’ve evolved to be this way”
This is another misconception between intention, behaviour and the evolutionary process. A lot of human behaviour is driven by our unconscious, if we had to think about every single thing we did it would be crazy – I’d have to be thinking about every single muscular movement in my hand as I type rather than using muscle memory. Lots of studies have shown unconscious biases in behaviour that the individuals were not even aware of. Sexual preferences for members of the opposite sex fits easily into that, but it doesn’t mean that you’re some sort of sex drive beast. The humans subconscious is an area that we are only just beginning to understand, from why certain colour placebo pills work better than others to why men tip strippers who are on their period more than those who aren't. There are probably evolutionary reasons for these but they do not define us as individuals, understanding them empowers us as a species. It also does not mean that you can just blame bad behaviour on such things, we are highly conscious individuals and we can rationalise our behaviour and take responsibility for it.
5. ‘If we evolved, why are there still chimps?’
Chimpanzees are not what humans evolved from, they are our closest relatives. Roughly 2 million years ago there was a species, probably more like modern chimpanzees than us but was not a modern chimpanzee – this is our common ancestor. This species went along two evolutionary trajectories that have living decedents today, one leading to humans and one to chimpanzees, both of which are different from this ancestral species. Humans have common ancestors with every living species on the planet, something that blows my mind, and these species are the points at which we diverged on the evolutionary tree.
This misconception is also influenced by people calling crocodiles ‘living fossils’. Modern crocodiles are very similar to ancient ones, but they are different, they have evolved. Some ancient crocodiles had long legs and could probably run very fast (modern ones can too but only short distances). Things do change over the course of millions of years, it’s just that some (like crocodiles) don’t change quite so much.
If this has either interested you or confused you then I recommend reading Richard Dawkins’ ‘The Ancestors Tale’. It’s a really complete and accessible way of understanding how evolution works and provides a myriad of examples that are used in most university course.