Demystifying Evolution

Why The Theory of Evolution Shouldn’t Threaten Anyone’s Beliefs

The Curious Learner
Mar 1 · 8 min read
Photo by Adam Mathieu on Unsplash

In some of my previous posts (“Thinking, The Past and Where-to-Go“, “Social Heuristics“, “Machine Learning vs Human Learning“), I briefly mentioned that the way humans learn and use heuristics have been shaped by evolutionary forces over the course of human history. People who are skeptical of evolution might dismiss the rest of what I have written, just because of such a statement. But the thing is, people who are against the idea of evolution, have more often than not misunderstood the concept of evolution. If they had made a concerted effort to find out more, they will realise that evolution doesn’t actually conflict with their values or beliefs.

Every once in a while, jokes about how modern day humans came from apes are being made. But jokes aside, it is a serious mistake to interpret human evolution as the determination of ancestral apes to change themselves into modern day humans. There are also people who will say that they “don’t believe in evolution” or that “evolution is just a theory”. The truth is, evolution is as much a fact as gravity is, and a fact isn’t for anyone to decide whether or not to believe [1].

Evolution of Man.

I do not claim to be an expert in evolution, but based on my understanding, I hope to change the perspective about evolution by highlighting 3 common misconceptions.

Misunderstood Process

Most people understand evolution as a change over time, but the mechanism behind the change is rarely well-explained. A common misconception that people have is that birds grew wings in order to fly. That’s not how evolution works. The key to understanding how evolution works is to always remember that the environment plays a very large role in shaping evolution. The ancestor of the bird most likely didn’t have wings. Through random mutation, some of these ancestral birds probably had a little more feathers than others (just like how some people have more body hair), and by a stroke of luck, it was more advantageous to have these extra feathers in the environment that the ancestral bird was living in.

Whether the feathers helped them to jump a little higher or kept them a little warmer, these ancestral birds with more feathers managed to survive and pass down their genes. Their descendants carried those genes, and somehow, those with even more feathers survived even better. Many generations later, the descendants would be so distinct from their ancestors that we would classify them as a separate species. These descendants with thicker plumage may not immediately know how to fly. After generations of being able to jump higher, control muscles better or glide further, the eventual creature is the category of animals we know today as birds. And the only reason why they are flying is not because they wanted to, but because being able to helped their ancestors survive better in their environment.

Evolution of Birds.

One might ask, where is the evidence of such a process taking place, and how are we suppose to observe it? Such processes are difficult to observe in animals with long life spans and low reproduction rate, but we’re always hearing of new species being discovered. Is it because we haven’t yet found all the species that are on our planet, or because evolution is taking place right under our noses? In April 2014, birds in the exclusion zone around Chernobyl have been found to be adapting to low levels of radiation [2]. If you understood the process described above, you would interpret the news as birds that had random mutations of better resistance to low levels of radiation, survived and their descendants that carry these genes continue to live today, while others that did not have such resistance died. Such a mouthful isn’t it? That’s why we sum that up in one word: evolution.

If you’re still not convinced that one species can evolve into another just like that, you don’t need to search outside of what you know for more evidence. Dogs may be one of the best ways to illustrate this process. Even though dog lovers would like to classify their pets as pure-breeds or cross-breeds, the truth is all dogs originated from domesticated wolves [3]. Strictly speaking, this may be considered as evolution but it isn’t natural selection, because the entire process right from the start of wolf domestication is human-induced. The moment humans decided to domesticate tamer wolves, they are already selecting for a very specific trait. And later when humans chose to breed certain sizes of dogs for aesthetic purposes, they too are artificially creating a new sub-species.

Evolution of Dogs.

The point of mentioning this is to show that if specific traits can be selected for, the same should happen in nature, just that the selection will be controlled by the environment. If I were to put it this way, it probably means that dogs wouldn’t have existed if humans didn’t exist, especially if the traits that are possessed by breeds we see today are not useful in their environment.

The trouble people have with evolution is trying to comprehend how a process like this can create organs as complex as eyes. If we think of complex organs popping into existence all of a sudden, it would definitely be very far-fetched. But like the wings of birds, the most primitive eyes were probably just cells that were sensitive to light. Somehow, this sensitivity helped the organism survive better and improved versions of light receptors were developed in later generations. Incrementally, the eye that we use today came into existence. As you can see by now, it isn’t that hard to explain what we observe in nature if we understand the underlying principles of evolution.

Evolution of The Eye.

Misunderstood Terms

The reason why I want to talk about the terms in evolution that have been misunderstood, is because these terms play an important role in shaping our understanding.

One of the most well-known phrases in evolution is “survival of the fittest” [4]. The most common misinterpretation of this phrase is “the strongest will survive, and the weak shall perish”. Being the strongest is synonymous with being the fittest, but in the case of natural selection, being the fittest means being the one that best fits the environment. Strength may be a trait of fitness if the environment requires it, but other characteristics such as size, speed, beauty, intelligence, etc. can all be traits of fitness if their respective environments require them. In fact, if an environment requires an animal to be gentle yet it has too much strength, then strength would become a disadvantage to its survival. The Mandarin translation of “survival of the fittest” is “适者生存”, and I prefer this translation because it removes the ambiguity of the word “fit”. The word “适者” refers to “the one that adapts”, so the phrase means the one that adapts will survive.

The one that adapts will survive.

This brings me to the second term that I would like to clarify, “adaptation”. While the word “adaptation” has less ambiguity as compared to the word “fitness”, it kind of suggests an active process initiated by an animal in order to have a better life in its environment. As I have explained, this is not how natural selection works. A single species may have individuals that randomly develop different kinds of mutations, but only the mutation that is useful to the environment can be considered an adaptation. As you can see, this adaptation is pretty much passive and not a matter of choice.

The same goes for the term “natural selection” [5]. When evolutionary biologists explain evolution by saying “nature selects for these traits”, they are not referring to nature as a persona that actively chooses which animals should live or die. It simply means that because the animal has traits that matches the environment, its chance of survival increases as compared to another animal. Although natural selection is often synonymous with evolution, we have seen cases such as dog breeding where humans actively influence the evolutionary path of the species. In such cases, evolution would not be considered as natural selection.

Misunderstood Contention with Religion

If you understand everything that I’ve been trying to say so far, you will realise that the process of evolution mentions nothing about the origin of life. Evolution only explains how complex systems and organisms come from simpler beginnings, but as of now, it hasn’t been able to provide an answer to how life (as we know it) started. Many religions reject the idea of evolution, for fear that it undermines the existence of a god or creator. But the truth is, the concept of evolution is actually still compatible to the existence of a creator, if religions don’t take their stories of creations to be so literal.

For all we know, there could be a creator of the universe, who started the simplest form of life, and left evolution to run the rest of the show. In fact, theistic evolution claims that classical religious teachings about god are compatible with the modern scientific understanding about biological evolution and that the creator god uses the process of evolution [6]. As you can see, it doesn’t matter whether one believes in evolution or not, because it is a fact that doesn’t violate anyone’s values or beliefs.

* * * * * * * * * *

I focused on explaining the process of evolution more, because I believe that anyone who is able to understand how evolution works, will naturally discover the misconception of the terms we’ve been using, and the inaccurate incompatibility with religion. The point I’m trying to make is that people often decide how they want to feel about an issue before even understanding more about it. I’m not surprised that the ones who reject evolution will just take a glance at the title of this post and decide that I’m writing rubbish. My only hope is that I will be able to help someone learn something new and change their perspective, or even for someone to point out my mistakes and help me to learn as well.

As Einstein said, “He who can no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead; his eyes are closed.” The moment we stop being curious is the moment we stop learning.

For more misconceptions about evolution, please visit the following link:

References:

  1. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Objections_to_evolution#Status_as_a_theory
  2. http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2014/04/140424223057.htm
  3. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Origin_of_the_domestic_dog
  4. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Survival_of_the_fittest#History_of_the_phrase
  5. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Natural_selection
  6. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christian_apologetics#Scientific_apologetics

Dialogue & Discourse

News and ideas worth talking about. Fundamentally informative and intelligently analytical. Clarity and truth working against tribalism.

The Curious Learner

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Knowledge Sharing on Science, Social Science and Data Science.

Dialogue & Discourse

News and ideas worth talking about. Fundamentally informative and intelligently analytical. Clarity and truth working against tribalism.