Friday, July 10, 2015

Most overused concept in the 21st century: Evolution?

The idea of evolution—that species change over time—is as old as, well, recorded history. Early Greek thought proposed that animals and humans descended from previous varieties. St. Augustine, himself, explained how forms of life had been transformed slowly over time. Of course, everyone thinks Darwin’s writings were some kind of watershed, transformative moment. Darwin did lay out some better evidence, but the ideas had been around forever. Interestingly, Darwin’s grandfather, Erasmus, wrote a long footnote on evolution in his clever and erotic poem, The Loves of the Plants and, later, another poem on evolution, The Temple of Nature (originally called the The Origin of Society). Anyway, for some strange reason, evolution/Darwinism is currently popular as a modern notion and has taken on a life of its own.

As far as I can tell this life of its own focuses on “survival of the fittest”, a term which even biologists shun. They prefer “differential reproduction”, which gives a clue why they disdain the popular phase. I’ll give the classic example.

Hardly a party goes by without someone bringing up the “fact” that the reason humans are such good long distance runners is that we evolved that way because, as hunters, we had to chase down game to survive. This could be true, but it is evolution turned on its head.

Why didn’t we evolve wings, or poison spittle, or a taste for stationary plants (vegans a million years ago), or a better sense of smell, or high frequency speech that would stun the game, or… pick whatever gene package would make hunting easier. Running all day and night must be the least effective, most excruciatingly difficult method to hunt! Plus evolution does not work that way—it needn’t make rational sense, it just happens randomly.

If long distance running is evolutionary in that sense, then no one could mate with the opposite sex until they proved they could run long distances chasing game, …and not just males. This is where biologists better recognize the meaning of evolution. What gets filtered out are traits of a species that don’t let it survive to the age of reproduction, after that it makes no difference.

Evolution is based on random genes mutating. There is no hand of a long-distance-running-god or any other fictional science-god involved. It’s not what could make us better, but what makes it to reproductive age. I don’t think being good at cross country would qualify.

A gene package to be weeded out by evolution would seemingly be one that is susceptible to a fatal disease. The example that comes to mind is the Bubonic plague, but even that didn’t kill susceptible people before puberty. So, while it helped the genetic pool (at a cost), for the most part, we are still not immune. Over the next million years we need more outbreaks.

Genes in our species are so diverse that I’m not sure what would qualify for 100% saturation in a million years. One that seems to qualify for elimination would be a genetic package that inhibits mating with the opposite sex. Wouldn’t that be filtered out in a few million years? But, surely, that is not so. We have theories why not, but, again, they seem to be asserting some sort of overall benefit to the human race. Homosexuals may suffer, but, in the end, it makes the human race as a whole more reproductive.

This seems to be science conjuring up some rationalistic god to explain, in convoluted ways, random events. I guess I’m not persuaded by these why-the-elephant-got-its-trunk stories. They seem simplistic and forced, but I’m no evolutionary biologist. Help me out.

1 comment:

Big Myk said...

I'm afraid that, even should he return from the grave, Charles Darwin himself could not help you out:

“...But I own that I cannot see as plainly as others do, and as I should wish to do, evidence of design and beneficence on all sides of us. There seems to me too much misery in the world. I cannot persuade myself that a beneficent and omnipotent God would have designedly created the Ichneumonidæ with the express intention of their feeding within the living bodies of Caterpillars, or that a cat should play with mice... I feel most deeply that the whole subject is too profound for the human intellect. A dog might as well speculate on the mind of Newton. Let each man hope and believe what he can.”
― Charles Darwin