The Pinnacle Of Evolution?

Not only is evolution not a thing, and so cannot “march” anywhere, but living creatures are not “marching” either. They are merely changing. Except that this phrase is equally misleading; for of course it is not that any given creature is changing, but rather that a later creature is differing from an earlier creature. When we say that one creature “evolves” into another creature, this is merely shorthand for the first creature having rather remote descendants that are unlike itself. We are thus trapped by our language into describing the succession of creatures by different creatures as the changing of the creatures themselves, which is as irrational as saying that the grandfather changes into his grandson. Worse, we carelessly talk as if the creatures want to change; and finally some of us speak as if these creatures are all marching in lockstep towards some distant goal, like the Vanguard of the Proletariat.

Earth’s fauna undergoes change, so that creatures of one period are different from creatures of another period, and this change is a response to their environment. In a static ecology, one might perhaps be able to predict the direction of change, but the ecology is not static, never was and never will be. When a given environment is destroyed, successful adaptation to that environment suddenly becomes a really bad idea. The “dinosaur-killer” asteroids are the most spectacular example, but lesser changes are always happening; the Antarctic ice-cap, the Brazilian rain-forest and the Himalaya are all very recent innovations. Some biologists think that not much evolution happens for long periods at a time, then the chessboard is overturned by climatic change and everything is up for grabs. When the dust settles, as it were, we have a lot of new species, adapted to the new environments, while a lot of the old species are no longer with us.

However, even to talk about the species responding to environmental pressure is yet another linguistic trap. Biologists argue whether a “species” is something that really exists, or is just another tendentious human classification imposed on untidy reality, like “Aryan” or “pervert”. Even if a species can be treated as something “really out there”, however, it is indubitable that it has no central command. Evolutionary “response” is thus not the same thing as a general’s responding to the news that he is being outflanked. “Responding” to environmental pressure is shorthand for the species” changing, which is in turn shorthand for animals (that we consider as) belonging to that species being different from what they were a few hundred thousand years ago.

A misconception about evolution is that natural selection favours attributes that help the species. It does no such thing. Natural selection favours anything that gives one individual a reproductive advantage relative to other individuals. Group selection was proposed as a solution to an apparent paradox, namely that superficial evolutionary theory seemed to demand that animals reproduced as much as they possibly could, whereas observation of nature generally shows the opposite. It was thought that genes that favoured overbreeding would be selected against via the extinction of the population groups that carried them; and yet no such mechanism was ever discovered. Eventually it was realised that reproductive restraint was caused by maximisation of lifetime reproductive success. It does not benefit an animal to reproduce so much in one year that it dies of exhaustion before the next. Everything that an animal does carries an energy cost, and breeding is very expensive: production of gametes; strenuous mating rituals; giving birth or laying eggs; feeding; caring and protecting of young. Plausible explanation of breeding restraint as a necessary consequence of selection at the individual level thus pulled the rug from under the notion of group selection; but it appears that group selection is more comprehensible to the popular mind than the ‘selfish gene’, probably because it accords with our observation of culturally self-destructive group behaviours.

A fortiori, all talk about a species striving for any distant goal is even more absurd. No apes decided to come down from the trees and evolve into human beings; no fish decided to crawl ashore and turn into mammals. That these things happened is the sum total of the reproductive advantages to some apes and fish over other apes and fish, caused by the cumulative interplay between minor genetic differences and the ever-changing environment. Homo sapiens sapiens is thus, like all other species, an accident.

Neither does it make any sense to talk about humanity as the pinnacle of evolution. That is mere species chauvinism. For one thing, the processes we call evolution have not yet stopped, and never will. Evolution can only occur by means of differential survival and/or reproductive success of individuals, and we have absolutely no idea what form this might take from now on. Our ignorance of exactly which genes are favoured by the selection pressures of our own cultural environments does not mean that no such favouritism exists. And the fact that humanity is not everywhere facing the same physical and cultural environment is irrelevant, since biologists do not consider that an entire species undergoes evolutionary change together; what happens is that one population mutates, and then either out-competes the old guard or becomes a separate species that goes its own way. The only way to stop human evolution, should we think this desirable, would be to ensure that (a) no genetic mutation occurred and/or that (b) everyone grew up to have the same number of children. In the age of chemical industries, nuclear power and wars fought with radiation weapons (three in the last three decades), the former method is hopeless and not even the Chinese communists managed the latter.

Moreover, we cannot even talk about humanity being the pinnacle of evolution “so far”. If that is supposed to mean that there are a lot of us, well so there are, but there are an awful lot of insects too. If we can do neat stuff that the other creatures can’t, so what? We would only be the pinnacle of evolution if that neat stuff had been what evolution had been aiming at all along, but evolution isn’t an entity and can’t aim. Human beings can look around them and ask “What’s it all about?”, which presumably the other animals don’t – not that we would know about it if they did – but unless this affects survival and reproduction, it is not an evolutionary factor. Our ability to formulate complex ideas is as likely to drive us extinct as anything else, since a human being can use his big brain to dream up impressive-sounding reasons for doing something incredibly stupid.

Posted on April 5, 2009 at 10:21 by Hugo Grinebiter · Permalink
In: AGAINST NATURE, Evolution Is Not Marching Anywhere

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  1. Written by mark
    on April 15, 2009 at 18:34

    I bookmarked this site, Thank you for good job!

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