Monday, April 19, 2010

Myths about Evolution

Just read this quote on a friend’s facebook status.
It is not the strongest of the species that survive, nor the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change - Charles Darwin
That’s just plain wrong. I have to point out here that perhaps evolution is the most misunderstood theory ever. It has been (mis)appropriated by every tom, dick and harry and misquoted to their hearts content.

So just what is wrong with the above quote? It is this: the members of the species most responsive to change survive.

This statement makes an underlying assumption: that members of a species /respond/ to change. That is, a change in the environmental condition /causes/ the members of the species to change. Notice the careful wording here. We are talking about the members of a species. Not the entire species over an evolutionary length of time.

The fact is that no mechanism is known by which a single member of a species can respond to an environmental change on the genetic level. If there is a shortage of water in an area, the animals living in that area cannot change themselves to survive on less water. Note again that evolution does not speak of ‘cultural’ changes. The animals may learn to find new water sources. They may even teach this knowledge to their children. This is adaptation of a kind. However, the theory of evolution does not speak of such cultural adaptations. In fact, a coherent theory of cultural adaptation doesn’t even exist.

The species as a whole can adapt over an evolutionary timescale. This is how it happens. Individuals in a species have children. Due to the way reproduction happens, these children are not exact copies of the parent. They have slightly different bodies than their parents. Some on these children are better equipped to survive than others. For example, some children might need less water than others. Thus, those needing more water may die out before they can make more children. Those needing less water may live on to produce their own offspring. This third generation of offspring will also be a little different from their parent. Again, some of them will live and some of them will die. Over an evolutionary timescale the species as a whole will ‘adapt’ to survive on less water. I put adapt in quotes because it’s not an active adaptation. It’s just passive selection by the environment. The individuals of the species play no role in deciding and are actually incapable of deciding what this adaptation will be.

Evolution is a passive process. The environment does NOT change individuals. It just chooses who lives and who dies. On the genetic level, individuals have no means of changing themselves or ‘responding’ to the environment.

So this passive interaction between the genetic stock of a species and the environment is quickly appropriated by everyone to inspire, explain or even justify things in the most wrongheaded way possible. Some people justify capitalism quoting survival of the fittest. Some people justify competition in the office stating it like some law of nature. Quoting a scientist and a scientific theory is seen to give these arguments some sort of truth value. However, theory of evolution applies ONLY to genetic evolution and nothing else.