The word evolution carries with it a lot of baggage. Throughout the time it’s been in use, people have been attaching various connotations, dogmatic beliefs, and associations to it that they’ve formed on the basis of how they think the world works. During its evolution, evolution has rid itself of some of this baggage; however, seeing as it’s also constantly been picking up new stuff, it remains weighed down.
Some of the ideas and conceptions that are associated with evolution are both valid and fascinating; however, others are fallacious and unsubstantiated. In this article, we’ll break down and sequester 10 of the most troublesome ones, in the hopes of purifying evolution, lightening its load, and easing its journey.
1. The theory of evolution is just a theory. We don’t really know for certain that the ecosystem of the Earth is a Darwinian creation
Virtually all scientists acknowledge that Darwin was right when he said that the living world has been – and continuous to be – shaped by an evolutionary process in which organisms compete for finite resources and have to struggle to survive in the face of adversity. Among the general public however, opinions are more mixed. In some countries, such as Norway, where I live, the vast majority of people acknowledge that biological evolution is a real thing and that humans descend from ape-like, tree-dwelling creatures; however, in certain other parts of the world, religion has prevailed at the expense of science and a substantial number of people hold the belief that one or more almighty gods created the world in its present form. Some even think that the world is only a couple of thousand years old.
This is concerning, seeing as there’s absolutely no shred of evidence to support these notions. On the other hand, a massive pile of evidence supports the idea that we, as well as all of the other life forms we share this planet with, are evolved beings, shaped by natural selection. Unlike what some people seem to think, the fact that the word theory is frequently used to describe Darwin’s most famous idea doesn’t mean that we have yet to ascertain the validity of his idea.
It’s important to recognize that the word theory isn’t used in a similar manner in scientific language as it is in everyday language. The average Joe may use the word theory to describe a wild guess or speculation. In science, however, the word theory is used to refer to something that can be repeatedly tested in a scientific manner. The theory of evolution is an established, substantiated theory; which means that it has withstood intense scientific scrutiny.
2. Health doesn’t matter in evolution; only reproductive success does
This is a very common misconception about evolution. Even some scientists appear to operate under the belief that organismal health is virtually inconsequential in Darwinian evolution. As I’ve pointed out several times here on the site, I think that’s an erroneous assumption. Obviously, it’s reproductive success that natural selection ultimately “cares about”; however, it’s important to recognize that there is a firm link between health and fitness in Darwinian evolution.
Not only do healthy organisms (e.g., animals) generally stand a better chance of warding of dangers such as pathogens and predators, overcoming adversity in the form of for example wounds and injuries, and getting a hold of food than unhealthy organisms, but they tend to be more sexually robust and fertile and have an easier time attracting healthy mates. In other words, whether organisms are able to survive and reproduce or not is partly determined by how healthy they are. This is extremely important to recognize, as it has widespread implications for nutrition and medicine.
3. Some organisms are “more evolved” than others
It’s often assumed that some organisms are more evolved than others. Typically, large, brainy creatures such as ourselves are considered to be elevated above smaller organisms with less brain matter, such as parasites, mice, and caterpillars. This belief is somewhat fallacious, in the sense that it doesn’t really make sense to say that something is more evolved than something else, at least not without first defining the measure that one uses to decide how evolved different organisms are compared to each other. After all, all organisms on this planet share a common ancestor, and hence, have an equally long evolutionary history behind them.
It’s certainly true that some organisms are larger and more complex than others with respects to their morphological configuration; however, it’s somewhat ambiguous to say that they are “more evolved” on this basis. If anything, it could be argued that microorganisms are the ones that are more evolved, seeing as they evolve at a pace that far outspeed that of large plants and animals.
The fact that life on Earth is so diverse simply reflects the fact that the Earth supports a diversity of environments that impose different selective pressures, as well as the fact that many organisms have evolved clever ways of manipulating the conditions they live under to their advantage.
4. Humans have stopped evolving
Some people appear to hold the belief that we humans are no longer a part of the struggle for existence that exists in nature, and by implication, that we have ceased evolving. This is not a valid assumption, for a number of reasons. It’s certainly true that we have distanced ourselves from Mother Earth; however, that doesn’t mean that Darwinian rules no longer apply to us or that we are at a standstill, evolution wise.
We no longer face the imminent danger of predators that lurk in the wild, seeing as we’ve built large buildings and communities that separate us from the wilderness of the Earth. Moreover, we no longer have to spend hours tracking down game or digging for tubers in order to nourish our bodies.
That said, it’s important to recognize that our battle against pathogenic microorganisms and parasites is far from over. If anything, it has escalated recently, partly as a result of widespread use of antibiotics, which has triggered the evolution of antibiotic-resistant superbugs. The threat is particularly real and imminent in hot, developing countries where people live under unsanitary conditions. Malaria for example, a disease caused by parasites of the genus Plasmodium, kills hundreds of thousands of people every year, and hence, exerts a profound selection pressure.
Furthermore, it’s important to recognize that not everyone has easy access to unlimited quantities of food. In some parts of the world, people are struggling to get by and find something to fill their bellies with. Finally, the fact that health is an important determinant of fitness in Darwinian evolution implies that the selective pressures that are acting on modern human populations may be stronger than what they are generally believed to be.
5. Our evolutionary journey spans many different environments; hence, it’s impossible to pinpoint what types of conditions we’re adapted to live under
The evolutionary health and Paleolithic nutrition concepts that were created via scientific processes are sometimes criticized for being too simplistic with respects to the environmental conditions that were used as the basis for their creation. Some people argue that we can’t really learn that much about how we should live or eat from hunter-gatherers, seeing as not all hunter-gatherers live under identical conditions. Whereas some of our primal ancestors lived in cold parts of Europe, where they ate a meat-heavy diet, others occupied warmer part of the world and ate a diet higher in plant matter.
What I think many of the people who’ve made this argument fails to recognize is that the people who’ve spearheaded the research on Paleolithic nutrition, organic fitness, and other related concepts are all aware of the fact that not all ancient humans ate an identical diet or lived under identical conditions. What’s important to recognize though, is that Africa is the ground zero for the evolution of our kind and that all of the natural environments that our hunter-gatherer forebears occupied have certain characteristics in common. By locating and examining these commonalities, we can make sense of what types of conditions that we’re genetically adapted to live under.
6. Humans have been around “forever”
Humans are today found all over the world and profoundly influence the workings of the planet. Over the most recent millennia, we’ve altered the world by creating massive buildings, inventing advanced technology, and transforming the way we transport ourselves between places and do our affairs. Given that there’s now so many of us and that we have such a dominating presence on Earth, it’s easy to make the mistake of thinking that we have been around forever. This is particularly true if one doesn’t know much about evolution, but simply base one’s opinions of the world on what one has experienced and observed in one’s own lifetime.
The reality however, is that we’re not a particularly old species. We certainly haven’t been around forever. Our genus Homo, which comprises several species not that unlike our own, has been around for about 2.5 million years; however, the first anatomically modern humans didn’t emerge until about 200.000-300.000 years ago. That may seem like a long time, but it’s actually not. At least not when compared to the 4.5 billion years that Earth has existed.
7. The creation of new species happens rapidly and spontaneously
If you go on Wikipedia and start reading about some of the species that are a part of the tree of life, you’ll quickly notice that each species has a “birth date”. For example, based on fossil findings, it has been determined that Homo erectus emerged some 2 million years ago. This fact, that we – contemporary humans – have a habit of separating and allocating organisms into groups and species based on their characteristics and their appearance in the fossil record may lead one to think that each species is clearly distinguishable from the one that came before it and that new species are created in a very short period of time. This is not actually the case…
The reality is that the creation of new species happens gradually. This is particularly true when talking about large, multicellular organisms that evolve at a glacial pace. It’s not like some of our ape-like-tree-dwelling ancestors suddenly woke up one day and found that their brain power had dramatically increased and that they were able to walk comfortably on two legs for prolonged periods of time. Morphological evolution is a slow process. This is particularly true if the prevailing selective pressures are fairly weak.
With that being said, it’s important to recognize that microorganisms evolve much more rapidly than plants and animals. They are not only capable of replicating at an insane rate under certain conditions, but they can swap DNA among themselves.
8. Each individual organism is a completely independent biological entity in evolution
It was long assumed that each organism on this planet is largely isolated from the rest of the living world with respects to its biological machinery. Scientific research conducted over the most recent decades has cast doubt on this notion. It has become increasingly clear that the evolution of large organisms such as ourselves is intertwined with the evolution of other organisms, in particular microorganisms.
The microbes that inhabit our bodies affect our ability digest food, regulate our immune systems, shape our thoughts and behavior, and influence our hormone levels, among other things. Hence, it goes without saying that they affect our ability to survive and reproduce. Conversely, we affect their fitness via our behavior and habits. The fact that mothers pass on some of the microbes they harbor to their offspring further blurs the lines that have long been thought to exist between separate organisms.
9. There’s an ultimate goal to evolution
It’s sometimes assumed that evolution is a goal-oriented process. This assumption is fallacious, in the sense that it’s based on an erroneous understanding of the processes that cause evolutionary change. Evolutionary change doesn’t happen as a result of a planned or conscious effort; rather, it happens naturally as a result of mutations and variation in reproductive success. Organisms that are good at reproducing pass on more of their genes to future generations than organisms that are not as good at reproducing. Over time, this causes significant changes in the ecosystem of the Earth. It’s as simple as that.
This is part of the beauty of natural selection: It happens naturally. There’s no conscious, almighty ruler that’s guiding the process (at least not one that we know about) and there’s not one special final event or outcome that everything is operating towards.
10. Epigenetic, evolutionary processes are completely separate from Darwinian processes
Epigenetics is among the hottest words in science at the moment. It’s thrown around a lot and is used to describe a variety of different phenomena. The problem we face today is that the science in this area is fairly immature and that there is no clear consensus as to what epigenetics really is. Many different definitions of the term exist and are employed by scientists. This has contributed to causing confusion, particularly among people who don’t know that much about evolution or epigenetic phenomena.
I’m not an expert on epigenetics; however, I do know a thing or two about it. Personally, I’m particularly interested in epigenetics as it relates to Darwinian processes. One of the things that concerns me in this regard is that I’ve gotten the impression that some people think that epigenetic evolution is an alternative to, or could replace, Darwinian evolution. Some may even think that Darwin’s theories have reached their expiration date and should be replaced by modern, epigenetic research.
What’s frequently overlooked is the fact that the epigenetic mechanisms of organisms’ genomes were ultimately shaped over evolutionary time as a result of Darwinian evolution. Natural selection acts to preserve organismal characteristics and qualities that are beneficial under the prevailing conditions of existence. Those characteristics and qualities obviously include those that arise as a result of epigenetic processes, which are ultimately guided by the workings of genes that are subject to natural selection.
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