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Evolution Isn’t Improvement


Image credit: Manuel Cernuda

Evolving is not the same thing as improving. Whether the change is physical or habitual, to evolve is to become better suited to the current environment. If the current environment is radically altered, all those millennia of gradual adaptations go to waste. Worse–they might become disadvantages.

Humans themselves are generalists, and capable of surviving in a wide array of environments, from desert to tundra. Our culture, however, is highly specialized–it has evolved in such a way that is is utterly dependent on a globalized system of agriculture.

Global agriculture itself is reliant on the current planetary climate. And during the last 10,000 years or so, we’ve grown used to having vast tracts of land suitable for a variety of crops.

But the stability we’ve enjoyed since the last ice age ended is actually unusual for planet Earth. For most of the billions of years before the glaciers receded, the climate was highly unstable, often switching quickly from ice age to global sweat to ice again, all in a matter of decades.

Humanity got a lucky break, existing at a time like this. There weren’t many other periods during which today’s global civilization could have emerged.

Image credit: flickr user PhillipC

And how are we showing our gratitude? By pumping CO2 into the atmosphere, screwing with a planetary climate that till now was characterized by great instability.

We’ve evolved to thrive in this climate, and right now humanity is certainly thriving. But if we can’t curtail our abuse of the climate and of the environment, we might find ourselves living on a very different planet.  If that happens, all our evolving won’t mean a thing.

20 Comments leave one →
  1. 08/13/2011 12:48 AM

    Would you not say that when evolution is by natural selection, such as when fitness is increased, then evolution does mean improvement? It’s improvement for that population.

    • 09/08/2011 12:39 PM

      I agree, evolution does result in improvement for a population, with regards to fitness in that population’s current context.

      My argument is that evolution doesn’t necessarily lead to fitness in a universal sense. If a population’s environment changes radically, what was once an improvement might become a disadvantage.

      I believe threats such as climate change could effect such a radical change on our environment.

  2. 09/07/2011 7:50 PM

    Evolution isn’t even becoming better for a particular environment. A lot of evolution (= genetic change) occurs randomly as well. For example, small populations are dominated by genetic drift.

  3. 09/07/2011 9:25 PM

    How do we know fitness in increased? How would that be measured. If it was it was for pressures in the past — not today. There are 7B++ humans. Is that more or less “fit”? By what definition? Over what time frame?

    Dinos, were really “fit” — until they won’t. They became like ultra unfit in fact. lol

    All we can really say is more offspring are produced. Why? — seems unknowable. There is always climate change. That seems the main driver of bio change.

    Fitness is an ideological term from the 19th century not a scientific one. So is the term “selection.” Is it selection or just what’s left behind after others die off or reproduce less.

    These are silly positivist ideas that have no place in science but the media love ’em.

    • 09/08/2011 12:38 PM

      Devin: True, evolution is dominated by randomness. But this randomness must result in at least some changes that translate into success for a species’ environment–else we wouldn’t have any species left on Earth! The changes don’t occur consciously, to suit the environment. It’s more like the environment prunes individuals with unsuitable changes.

      Elmer: My reaction to your question, how do we know fitness is increased, is similar to my reaction to Devin’s point. I think we’re simply forced to conclude that fitness has increased over the millennia, by simple virtue of life’s continued existence.

      There’s a lot of chance involved, of course. Like you said, the Earth’s climate has changed repeatedly over the course of its history, and some organisms who were unsuccessful in a previous environment become extremely successful in the next. And vice versa.

      As for a precise measure of fitness, I can’t do much better than that. Maybe a species’ population might be viewed as one. I think the fact that the number of humans has exceeded 7 billion demonstrates our biologically generalist nature. We are able to prosper in various environments (often through technology such as clothing and shelter), just as our culture prospers in the same stable climate the planet has experienced for the past 10,000 years or so.

      I agree that the terms ‘fitness’ and ‘selection’ are suspect. Fitness is transient (as I point out in the post) and the idea of selection seems to suggest a conscious selector, which is ridiculous. It’s just that I don’t know of better terminology. Can you suggest any?

      • 09/08/2011 4:49 PM

        Effectively all species go extinct. How is that fit? All we can say is more offsping survive, making a value judgement is like driving looking in the rear view mirror.

        Now we can say that more complexity and more living things is “fit” but that’s a circular short-cut that is deceptive. It seems if we want to advance our understanding of decent, apparently the more accurate term than evolution, we need to avoid the misleading terms and stick with description of the actual events. That is a lot more boring and harder to do than throwing terms like fit, better, selection, etc. but seems more accurate and informative.

        We descended from chimps, we didn’t evolve in the positivist ideological usage.

        Because we don’t have a good word yet doesn’t mean we need to use the old ones.

      • 09/09/2011 12:44 PM

        I’m with you–I don’t believe there is such a thing as universal fitness. If there is, we’re a long way from achieving it. As for which characteristics proved fit at a given time, we can only extrapolate from the fossil record and from the species in existence today.

        It seems to me that the way of discussing evolution that you’re advocating would require all parties to agree on a definition of terms (or at least a rejection of the popular ones) beforehand. While this might prove more functional once accomplished, what can be done when faced with someone unwilling to change his or her language? In such a case, might refusing to use words like ‘fitness’ and ‘selection’ hinder the conversation?

    • 09/09/2011 5:56 PM

      Changing the language and way we talk about evolution will be a lot easier than trying to carry forward antiquated 19th Centruy (happy-talk) ideological rhetoric. If we haven’t learned anything more about evo than old ideas of fitness, selection, etc. we’re sunk.

      There is no talking to folks who use terms and ideas wrong. Sure they’ll change, they’ll get worse at understanding and usage. Let them be. Only the bold will forge ahead and try to work with the new data and need for more accurate language.

      Personally, we are marketers, and think it’s a major strategic mistake to try to make complex ideas popular. You see your doctor doing that?

      More diverse voices and views are needed and less agreement. The problem with the pop terms is they stifle critical thought and change — like comfortable shoes with holes that don’t fit anymore. Chances are , inside the old ideas and terms are multiple new ideas — and much more interesting ones.

      • 09/12/2011 1:28 PM

        Your call for more participants in the conversation seems contradictory to the idea that there’s no talking to people who use different terms. I believe a productive discussion can exist even if everyone doesn’t agree on the terms.

        I also disagree that it’s a mistake to withhold information from the public for fear it will be too complex. An effort to make these complicated ideas more widely understood will contribute to the broader discourse you espouse.

  4. 09/12/2011 3:23 PM

    No, our view includes:
    – More informed voices, not naive ones. The so-called wisdom of crowds does not exist outside of informed participants and motivated ones. See article posted below.
    – Yes, principled and informed arguments, even strong ones are good at problem solving.
    – The idealistic notion of mass interest is just that. In fact, no one really has any interest outside of specialists so it is not withholding but simple conservation of limited resources. There are not resources to include everyone.

    We also see that the more widely evidence-based knowledge is exposed the more it is unethically attacked and silenced.

    In addition,as we are seeing with so many science and technical topics:
    – The hostile-aggressive bullies are the most vocal and drown out all other voices
    – Political and religious (power -seeking) opportunists also push aside all other popular voices — in America.

    It would be great to have free, open and fair exchanges on all these matters. But there is too much $$ and power to get $$ at stake for the current power-holders of pop ideologies, including political, to let that happen. We can see that the main efforts of the Tea Baggers is to silence competing utterances — and the media is supporting that.

    “Why We Trust Common Sense and Authority, Not the Professional — We Think Like Kids”

    • 09/12/2011 3:42 PM

      That’s what I was getting at. By working to better inform the public, we can popularize complex ideas. Then groups like the Tea Party and the complicit media should have less clout.

      • 09/12/2011 3:56 PM

        Adult education is an oxymoron. It’s already been tried and backfired. Better to “teach the teachers.” Read the post. It is well known in education and brain science that disconfirming evidence just triggers > hostel aggressive attacks.

        They will have, and are getting more clout, but science graciously offering to engage them on the battlefield field of their choosing with their weapons. You don’t stand up to a bully by giving in.

        Logic doesn’t work. Story-telling and framing do, see other article below. But those are not for problem-solving of the kind we’re discussing. Principled problem solving is very hard work and, effectively, no one who isn’t already motivated even wants to know about it.

        We have a strong opposition to popular science — it too is an oxymoron. It’s like popular brain science, trial litigation, bridge building, commercial piloting, etc.. It’s a silly idea.

        In Politics and Business – It’s All About Framing and Storytelling —

      • 09/13/2011 11:52 AM

        I’m in agreement that scientists and activists should focus more on crafting a compelling story in order to motivate people to behave in a fashion more consistent with scientific finding. Your assertion that adult education doesn’t work seems a little generalized, however. I don’t think professionals/experts have a monopoly on understanding. In fact, with science developing as rapidly as it is, it’s increasingly common for experts to stubbornly resist new findings because of an attachment to old theories or models–whether it’s for emotional, political or financial (think: funding) reasons.

        I wasn’t familiar with the science behind the resistance to scientific ideas, but it makes sense. As the post points out, many scientific findings are counter-intuitive. The human brain is ill-equipped when it comes to grappling with big concepts. (Take global warming, for instance.)

  5. 09/12/2011 4:56 PM

    Essay on openness in science. As an ideal, it has all sorts of warm fuzzes, but precisely because of that it is likely unrealistic and will have blowback.

    Regardless, it going to happen anyway. We’re not going to spend our time on it, though.

    Big cultural differences. Brits/EU love science, Americans hate it. etc.

    Cameron Neylon: Time for total scientific openness

    07 September 2011 by Cameron Neylon
    Magazine issue 2828. Subscribe and save
    WITHIN scientific circles there is a lot of chatter about “openness”. As the reach of the web grows ever wider, scientists face increasing demands to share their data and results – not just with other scientists but with everybody.

    The UK’s Royal Society recognises the importance of the issue and recently set up a major study on openness. Should you care? Is it just an issue for academia, or is there a bigger picture? My view is that we should all care a great deal.

    Many people will be familiar with the open-access movement, which works for wider access to research papers. The arguments for this are well rehearsed. By removing barriers you let people, whether professional researchers or not, make more informed decisions and find new ways to reuse research. Some of these improve quality of life, some yield economic benefits, and some just help people to know more about the world they live in.

    Openness advocates are now taking these arguments further. Surely we can do even better if we improve access to the underlying substance of science: the ideas, data and methods.

    There are many different views and approaches to achieving this, but what unites them is that they use the internet to enable anyone, anywhere, to contribute to science. The growing success of citizen science, and improving access to data are signs that these approaches are taking root.

    It is not all positive or simple. Some scientists are reluctant to share “their” data, even if it was generated with public money. In some cases this has led to Freedom of Information requests, which many see as intrusive.

    On top of that there are privacy issues over medical data and concerns that making results freely available will prevent them being developed into useful products or new companies.

    We also need to strike a balance between costs and benefits. Openness requires work. How do we make sure that our efforts deliver results? A naive “open everything” is not the answer, but I think the balance should be much more towards open than it is now.

    But none of this answers the question I posed at the beginning. Why should you care? There are a lot of reasons.

    If you care about the place of science in society or are worried about the quality of information on the web, then openness offers massive potential to engage people more deeply, educate them about how science works and increase the store of quality information on the web.

    If you care about evidence-based policy then making that evidence available for criticism and investigation by any interested party, including those you disagree with, can only be a good thing.

    Above all, you should care because science thrives on new ideas and critical analysis, wherever they come from. Open science is better science. There will be growing pains as we figure out how best to enable that. But if we believe that science enriches society then we must accept that society can, and perhaps should, enrich our research. And that can only happen if it is open

    • 09/13/2011 11:59 AM

      I support openness in science. I think it will be a useful development for non-experts who seek to become better informed about important issues.

      Your cultural point is valid, of course, but I don’t think it’s the most important one when it comes to open science. I believe the biggest effect we’ll see will involve scientists. More scientists having access to more data can only be a good thing. I predict it will hasten progress significantly.

      Take the SARS virus. Even though China had the most interest in sequencing it (SARS broke out in China, and was most widespread there) and also had vast resources with which to do it (thousands of talented biologists, billions of dollars, etc.), it was a small Canadian team that got there first–a team whose technology and methodology were largely open-source.

  6. 09/13/2011 2:03 PM

    The human brain’s flexibility peaks at 27 (mating age) after that teaching the adult brain is more impossible. This is not counter-intuitive.

    Here’s the thing, there is effectively, no way for evolution to favor (not select) traits past mating age — 27. Childhood thinking thus predominates into adulthood.

    There is also growing evidence that genetics and early childhood experiences are permanent. For example, national IQ seems related to childhood diseases which effect brain development. Numeracy appears to be solely genetic, etc.

    We are apostates to pop(ular) science because:
    – The evidence is disappointing and even suggest it’s harmful
    – It is such a happy-talk idea it smells of ideology
    – It seems to be mainly a money making sales strategy

    Now Brits love science, with government encouragement, but Americans have zero interest, are actively hostile and would rather watch cartoons than hear anything about it. Now America loves tech and gadgets and making more money but hold evidence-based knowledge in contempt — look at Perry’s popularity.

    Most of the money spent in America on science, effectively all, has been military driven.

    Let’s put aside the fairy tale of making science popular and use our minimal resources to focus on policy makers and “teaching the teachers.”

    • 09/14/2011 11:13 PM

      I’m skeptical about how well we’ll do swaying policy makers with minimal resources. Corporate interests with billions of dollars to play with may have more luck with that.

      Of course evolution can’t favour–I’m using your term, though I think it’s almost as suspect as ‘select’ :P–any traits past mating age. After the reproductive period of one’s life is over, it’s all fluff, as far as evolution is concerned. And it makes sense that flexibility is reduced over the long-term. Children learn new languages with much greater facility than adults, while many senior citizens are almost completely unreceptive to change.

      Two points of information, however.

      First, I doubt the general trend of mental flexibility decreasing with age translates into complete inelasticity after the age of 27. I believe it’s still possible for people past reproductive age to alter their views. I’ll concede that it may take more effort, but it’s far from out of the question. Also, I think it’s possible, before one’s reproductive period has ended, to develop the habit of continually reevaluating one’s opinions in light of new information.

      Second, 27 years constitute a significant amount of experience, and I would argue they carry a person well out of childhood. There are places in the world today, and there have been many times in human history, in which the average life expectancy has been less.

      Society (and science) now changes at such a rapid pace that anyone who is currently in the reproductive period of life and paying attention will likely become accustomed to maintaining a frequently shifting worldview.

      You say that the prospect of making science popular is a fairy tale, but you also indicate that it clearly isn’t, by mentioning its popularity in England. Are you arguing from a biological perspective or a cultural one? And if it’s the latter, is the problem limited to America?

  7. 09/15/2011 12:12 PM

    There is evidence, that a policy maker and “teach the teachers”-centric approach works. Policy makers also need facts to act on — since fact-based knowledge work. For example, even the most conservative, anti-science pols, use the latest evidence-based marketing and science to get elected. As do the most religious.

    There are no faith-based politicions and political campaigns.

    Here is the conceptual dilemna with language and common notions of evolution. Quick story.

    The transporatation of the latest NASA rocket equipment is serverly restricted by the narrow guage of our rail system. That guage goes back to the Roman times and was determined by the width of a horses rear end. This adaptation was conserved over thousands of years and now determines much of our transporation system. If we were to create a new rail system, it would be very different from the tracks on up. But we can’t. We’re stuck with past adaptations.

    Is that fitness, selection, adaption, even what is implied by the word evolution? To the contrary.

    Our brains are a similar kind of adaption — backward looking, maybe optimal in the past but severly restrictive and maladaptive for our basic needs now and to just get around. See, there is no way for evolution to get rid of a sorta, kinda, used to work adaptation. We are stuck with the past which is neither adaptive nor a fit.

    So the process of descent is actually far more haphazard and just cludgy than our brains and ideologies want to accept and express.

    So putting a positivist spin on what happens and the results we see now, of this process. seems silly and just inaccurate.

    BTW, we understand the kumbayah notion of adult brain plasticity and all that — as a sales pitch. However, the evidence says no and the attempt seems just a defensive pop fantasy reaction to the hard realities of adult brain capabilities loss. We are all better to accept and go with the science and act to remediate the effects then pretend the opposite is true. Of course, you can’t sell or even give that idea away!

    • 09/16/2011 11:29 PM

      What if the teachers are below the age of 27? Shouldn’t the slogan be “teach the teachers still able to reproduce”?

      I understand there are evolutionary throwbacks and dead ends. I just don’t think the story of human brain flexibility is so cut-and-dried. I don’t believe any one group has a monopoly on mental agility–be they teachers, British people, people below the age of 27 or young British teachers (I’m still not sure which group is supposed to be most receptive to developments in science). Maybe my rejection of that notion is rooted exclusively in my ideological leanings, and not at all in logic. Who am I to say?

      As for policy makers and science, you’re right to point out their tendency to endorse science that advances their political careers. Personally, I doubt they’re concerned about anything else science-related. They may flirt rhetorically with science that isn’t politically useful–in a Machiavellian sort of way. But the best way to sway them is to influence their voter base, thereby changing the political landscape. The voter base are (more importantly) also consumers–i.e. the customers of policy makers’ campaign contributors.

  8. 09/18/2011 11:18 AM

    It’s prob easier in Britlund than Yanklund. Here’s the thing about evidence-based knowledge — it works. Ideology only works to fool yourself and others, so it’s a kinda “working.” At some point pols need to have knowledge that works, but it has to be mainly in secret since it challenges ideologies, less so in Britlund. Really a lot in Yanklund.

    The teachers don’t need to be < 27 cus they are mainly teaching folks , 27.

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