Will Call: Debunking dubious Darwinism
On Nov. 24, 1859, Charles Darwin published “On the Origin of Species,” detailing his theory of natural selection.
A century and a half later, there remain some significant misconceptions on the subject of evolution even by those who accept the overarching premise. Personally, I don’t see any real conflict between the theory and all but the most literal interpretations of the Abrahamic texts, but those who do are hereby advised that this column is likely to just annoy or bore you. Really, though, misinterpretation worries me more than outright rejection of evolution, particularly when it’s misapplied to justify a ruthless ethical system.
Let’s start with the basics. Darwin was not the first person to notice species adaptations and changes and infer some form of evolution, he just came up with a better explanation.
The prevailing theory before that was Jean-Baptiste Lamarck’s idea that changes in the parent could be passed on directly to their offspring. The classic example is a giraffe that spends its life stretching for food would have babies with longer necks. It actually does turn out that a few environmental factors can change how genes are expressed in the next generation — a field called epigenetics — but it doesn’t appear to be a major factor in evolution.
More common effects on the development of species are sexual selection — when traits that increase the chance of reproduction become more common — and genetic drift — when reduced population or a move alter the ratio of traits in a group. Widely regarded as the most significant factor, however, is natural selection as posited by Darwin.
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Basically, noticing that most species produce many more offspring than live to reproduce themselves, he suggested that those that survive may be inherently better suited to their environment and pass that on. The classic example is the peppered moth, which underwent a dramatic transformation during the Industrial Revolution. Although most were originally patterned to blend with lichen covered rocks, a few were born entirely black. When soot killed off the lichen and coated the trees, the dark moths were suddenly harder to see while the regular moths stuck out and dwindled.
This brings me to the first big misconception about evolution: that natural selection always leads to the best outcome. I lay this firmly at the feet of Herbert Spencer, a philosopher and political thinker as well as a scientist who coined the phrase “survival of the fittest” with all its questionable connotations of superiority.
See, while the dark moth may have been the “fittest” of the variations that happened to arise in that place and time, light moths still had the advantage in less polluted areas and, with better air quality control, may again become the dominant form. Being fit or unfit is entirely a matter of circumstance. The toughest species in history might have had the bad luck to live right where the Chicxulub asteroid impacted or underneath the lava plains of the Siberian Traps.
Sometimes it’s not even that dramatic. One of the prevailing theories for the late Devonian extinction event is that, as land plants became larger and more prevalent, weathering increased and carbon dioxide levels went down, resulting in a cooler planet. Species well adapted to warm, pure water suddenly became less fit. The trees did it..
I’ll save the lesson on how the carbon cycle can impact climate with significant consequences and skip to genetic diversity. If you view species that go extinct as inherently inferior, you ignore the fact that our planet is always changing.
This is particularly significant when it comes to food. A slow growing, crop variety may also be the most reliable and resistant to disease, while one that grows quickly may also be vulnerable to a late frost. Putting all our eggs in one basket has backfired before, with the Irish potato famine as a prime example.
That’s why I’m glad to see efforts to preserve endangered species and stockpile seeds, and worried about unchecked genetic tampering and chemical use — emphasis on the unchecked, since I realize that these technologies are our best chance at feeding our bloated population.
Anyway, while I think it’s safe to say current species are better adapted to current conditions than those that preceded us, the idea that we’re somehow superior doesn’t hold water for me. Even more absurd is the idea that humans, in particular, are the pinnacle of evolution.
All the evidence I’ve seen indicates that life on earth came from a single ancestor, so we’re all on the same footing time wise — though the real starting gun was probably the Cambrian Explosion. If we’re counting generations or sheer number of mutations, bacteria would be way ahead of us in the race. Personally, I think lack of change is a better measure of fitness. Crocodiles and horseshoe crabs predate the dinosaurs and have survived several mass extinctions without very significant modification.
Humans, by contrast, have made it less than a million years in our anatomically modern form, and can scarcely be said to have passed the test of time.
As a quick side note, we didn’t evolve from apes. We remain both animals and apes, and our fellow apes — gorillas, orangutans, chimps, bonobos and gibbons, which, incidentally, are not monkeys — haven’t been idle in the meantime. If your objection to the idea of evolution is that you don’t look like a monkey, don’t worry. You both evolved from a common ancestor that didn’t look quite like either of you.
Anyway, back to the idea that the fit survive and those who perish are unfit, which is particularly scary when applied to people. In reality, humanity is beginning to violate the core premise of natural selection that many if not most of us will die before reaching reproductive age. Environmental factors may have caused regional variations — though I contend a handful of phenotypes hardly justify the genetically spurious idea of race — and continue to show up in high mortality areas, such as sickle cell trait in malarial Africa.
However, contrary to the Darwin Awards — which really should be named after Spencer — it’s unlikely that someone dying in a stupid fashion in the developed world makes us smarter. With billions of people and Craigslist and Tindr to help connect all those potential mates, I doubt genetic drift and sexual selection is any more operable.
Sometimes, social Darwinism isn’t even literal. Far too many people assume that those that succeed are inherently superior to those that don’t. Just as in nature, this ignores the massive impact of circumstances and discounts people who may have something great to contribute with a bit more support. In the end, a lot of it comes down to luck.
Will Grandbois is actually a determinist, but decided this column is long enough without getting into that. He can be reached at 384-9105 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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