The Word “Devolve” Makes Me Cringe!

These days the word “devolve” has gotten quite popular in the media. Every few days I encounter the word in a news report or a printed article. The authors use the word to mean decline, degrade, descend, degenerate, decay, or regress. Examples include:

– “Don’t let a job interview devolve into a debate.”

– “The Benghazi committee hearings have devolved into political theater.”

– “Portions of Baltimore soon devolved into chaos.”

– “We’re wondering if the show will devolve into an episode of Celebrity Wife Swap.”

This is primarily an American phenomenon. In the UK, the word “devolve” refers to a process of decentralizing government powers. There is an ongoing discussion in that country as to which aspects of national government authority should be transferred (“devolved”) to regional parliaments or local councils. This, of course, is a very different meaning of the word than seen in the examples above. While the British use of the word might seem a bit odd (especially to Americans), it is the American use of the word that makes me cringe.

The use of “devolve” in place of “degenerate” is a quite recent trend. If I look in a dictionary from 40 or 50 years ago, there is no mention of this use of the word. But today I can find dictionaries that define “devolve” as “to gradually go from an advanced state to a less advanced state”. Another dictionary explicitly says “the opposite of ‘evolve’”. Most of the time, I have no quarrel with changes in the use of words (which is, of course, a type of evolution). The meanings of words will naturally change over time, and new definitions will appear — which is all perfectly fine with me. But I have to draw the line when a new meaning is based on a scientific fallacy — and when the new use of the word helps to perpetuate that fallacy.

The word “evolve” — in the general sense — means to change or develop gradually. For example, you could say that America’s taste in popular music has evolved considerably in the past 50 years. Therefore the true opposite of “evolve” is to remain unchanged. However, the new use of the word “devolve” did not arise from this general meaning of “evolve”, but from popular notions regarding biological evolution — often called Darwinian evolution. In the popular imagination, biological evolution is a linear progression from an inferior low-level state to a superior high-level state. It’s like being on a railroad track. If you travel the normal direction on the track, then you progress to a higher state. But if you take the track in the wrong direction, then you regress to a lower state. In this model, going the normal direction is to evolve, and therefore going the reverse direction is to “devolve”. By analogy, any decline into a less desirable state could therefore be described by the word “devolve”.

Unfortunately, this line of thinking is based on a misunderstanding of what biological evolution is, and how it works. Evolution does not necessarily equal progress or represent climbing to a higher state. Evolution is simply a slow change. If a species undergoes evolution, then by definition the species changes somewhat — but there is no requirement that the new state must be “higher” than the previous state. For example, the world today contains somewhere between six and ten million species of insects. Every one of these species is different, to some degree, from the various species of insects that inhabited the earth 30 million years ago. But does that mean that every species alive today is “higher” than the ancestral species of 30 million years ago? Certainly not! It simply means that the species have changed over time, primarily as an adaptation to changing local conditions or because of a move to a new location. For example, the local climate might have grown hotter or colder or wetter or dryer, or new food sources might have become available, or new predators arrived — and the species survived because it adapted to these changes. The individuals that best tolerated or took advantage of the new conditions passed their genes on to succeeding generations.

Likewise, the idea of evolution as a linear track is a serious misconception. Evolution quite frequently occurs in episodes of “adaptive radiation”, where an existing species gives rise to several new species that co-exist, at least for a while. Each of the new species may in turn generate several new species. If you were to diagram this process, it would look like a branching tree. At the same time, there is a constant process of extinction, where existing species disappear. This means that in our tree diagram, lots of branches and twigs lead to dead ends. These two processes — evolution and extinction — operate simultaneously, resulting in an ever-shifting balance of species in the world, especially when viewed on a timeframe consisting of millions of years. The result is certainly not linear.

Darwin’s finches provide a great example of adaptive radiation. On the Galapagos Islands there are 14 species of finches that have all descended in just a few million years from a common ancestral species. These 14 species differ in several physical traits, the most obvious being the size and shape of the beaks. These differences have allowed the various species to specialize in different sources of food. In effect, each new species was able to utilize a resource that had been underutilized before, thereby gaining an advantage. This was certainly not a linear process, and it would be a stretch to consider any of the species as “higher” than the others.

Science fiction has played a role in perpetuating the myths about the nature of biological evolution. Most of us have seen at least one — and usually many — TV shows and movies where scientists work to “speed up evolution”. For example, we might see a volunteer step into a chamber that sports many dials and flashing lights. The attending scientist makes a few adjustments and then starts up the machine. A few minutes later the volunteer steps out, having “evolved” by millions of years. Perhaps the volunteer now has a huge head, to accommodate a gigantic brain. And of course, the volunteer has now acquired several super-powers.

This vision of scientific progress is, of course, riddled with errors. Evolution operates at the species level, not the individual level. No single individual has all the necessary genes to carry the species into the future. Evolution works because the individuals in a species have slightly different sets of genes from one another, providing a huge pool of potentially useful characteristics. But the most critical flaw in this TV scenario is the idea that the evolution of a species is predetermined by an existing, linear track to a future state — and you simply need to hop onto that track and turn up the speed. Instead, evolution is determined in part by what random new genes are created by future mutations, and in part by the future conditions that the descendants of that species will experience. A very small percentage of the mutated genes will provide advantages in those future conditions, and these new genes will therefore survive and be passed down to later generations.

However, it is not just science fiction that paints a misleading picture of evolution. Unfortunately, our educational materials have often portrayed evolution as a linear path to a superior state. Most of us, if we think of a specific example of evolution, tend to think of one of the following cases:

1) the evolution of our own species — Homo sapiens — from an early hominid ancestor

2) the evolution of the modern horse from the tiny ancestral Eohippus

When we think of either example, we often picture the evolution of the species (man or horse) as completely linear, without any branches. This is because we have seen pictures in books, or displays in museums, that presented this evolution as a linear, non-branching sequence. The reality, though, is quite different. Both man and horse have complicated family trees, in which there were often many related species living simultaneously in the world, giving rise to many other species, most of which eventually died out. If you take a look at a modern textbook or a modern museum display, this complexity is now typically shown. But the older, incorrect models remain in our minds and in our culture, seriously distorting our thinking.

Still, when we compare modern humans or horses against their ancestors, we cannot help but conclude that evolution has made us “better”. After all, today’s horses are much larger than Eohippus, and humans are clearly more intelligent than our ape-like predecessors. Furthermore, both humans and horses are far more complex than anything that was alive 500 million years ago. We like to think that bigger is better, and that more complex is better. We certainly have no doubt that smarter is better. So doesn’t that prove that evolution always makes a species “better” — that it moves us (or any other species) towards a “higher level”?

This line of thought has several flaws, but the biggest problem is that it is so human-centric. We like to imagine ourselves, in our current state, as the pinnacle of all life, superior to everything that currently exists or has ever existed. And what is the objective measure of that superiority? In a completely circular line of reasoning, we feel that anything that distinguishes us from the earliest forms of life must be a sign of superiority. We are much larger, more complex, and smarter than the earth’s earliest forms of life — and therefore being larger, more complex, and smarter must prove that we are superior. Furthermore, because evolution made us what we are today, and because we believe that evolution inevitably results in a “better” species, therefore evolution should eventually lead all species to become larger, more complex, and smarter.

However, any objective analysis shows that this is not the case at all. Evolution has led to ever greater amounts of diversity of life on earth — diversity in size, complexity, intelligence, and many other characteristics — but it has certainly not pushed every successful species into becoming larger, smarter, or more complex. There are some incredibly successful organisms out there, such as the perhaps one million species of bacteria, that rapidly evolve in response to new conditions, and yet remain small, simple, and stupid. As for size, there are plenty of species that have successfully adapted to new conditions by becoming smaller. The best-known examples deal with animals that have adapted to life on islands, but in fact the smallest examples of nearly any form of life tend to be smaller than some of their ancestors.

As for complexity, dolphins and whales descended from land animals that had legs — complex structures which later evolved into simple flippers and flukes. But we would not say that dolphins and whales are inferior to their ancestors, or that these species have “devolved”, just because their limbs have become much simpler. In fact, simplicity could be viewed as superior in this case. Furthermore, we would not say that humans have become inferior because our appendices no longer function, or because we have lost the ability to synthesize vitamin C in our bodies. It is true that in the long run, it might have been helpful to retain both of those abilities — but when we lost those traits, it had no significant impact on our ability to survive in the conditions of the time.

As for intelligence, there are certainly some species of animals (including humans) that have become more successful by becoming smarter. But for 99.999% of the species of life on earth, intelligence is not an evolutionary factor at all. We don’t consider an oak tree to be smarter than its ancestors, or a bread mold to be smarter than its predecessors — even though both represent highly successful examples of evolution.

Despite all this, we cling to the popular myth that evolution is a linear path to a higher state — rather than a gradual change of any kind — and that evolution is necessarily a form of progress, leading to something that is inherently superior or better. Few people see evolution for what it is — a series of adaptations that simply increase the odds of survival in current, local conditions. Our insistence that evolution leads to “better” is in essence a moral judgement. After all, “better” is the comparative form of the word “good”. If something is better, then it has greater goodness. And if evolution inevitably leads to goodness, then any change that results in a subjective decline — that is, producing a state or condition that we disapprove of — must be the opposite of evolution.

As a result, we happily embrace the false idea that the opposite of “evolve” is “degenerate”, and therefore that it makes sense to use “devolve” as a synonym for that word. However, because this use of the word not only betrays a misunderstanding of science, but also perpetuates that misunderstanding, I would humbly suggest that we all use the words “degenerate” or “descend” instead of “devolve”:

– “Don’t let a job interview degenerate into a debate.”

– “The Benghazi committee hearings have descended into political theater.”

– “Portions of Baltimore soon descended into chaos.”

– “We’re wondering if the show will degenerate into an episode of Celebrity Wife Swap.”

Alternatively, depending upon the context, one could use the words “decline”, “degrade”, “decay”, or “regress”. But let’s leave the word “devolve” to the British, for use in their debate about the proper distribution of governmental authority. Do I have any takers on this suggestion?

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