Misconceptions about evolution: why species are not “getting better”

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Part 5 in a series. Click here for part 4: why natural selection is not random

Things have felt a bit different lately. Perhaps it’s the weather. Maybe it’s the new baseball season. No? Oh, I’ve got it—it’s been too long since we had a Misconceptions About Evolution!

Evolution of Mario Video Games Nintendo NES WII N64 Gamecube Sunshine Brawl Super Bros Weekly Show

Oftentimes, the older version of a mascot or species seems better. Things were simpler back then.

My freshman year of college I had a floormate named Steve. Steve’s man goal in life was to get better—no matter the subject, his aim was to come out more accomplished than he came in. Everything Steve did had this goal in mind—he studied, exercised, and ate with more fervor than the competition, and sure enough he became slightly better. Well done, Steve.

Many see evolution in the same light. Species are constantly getting better, improving themselves to become evolutionarily superior…except not quite. Much like Steve’s devotion to self-improvement, there is much more to this than meets the eye.

Why species are not “getting better”

Let’s recall the basic ideas behind evolution. Over time a species’ genetic makeup changes. These alterations stem from mutations, outside pressures, and statistical phenomena. While many of these changes have little effect, some can increase an individual’s chances of survival and reproduction. Let’s use the example of a fish with improved eyesight. Our seafaring friend will be able to better identify food and predators, which will in turn increase his odds of survival.

As our fish reproduces, some of his offspring carry his new trait. These little fish again survive more often than the others, and in time a sizable portion of the fish population will have better eyesight. This is the beauty of natural selection. So far, it seems the Steve analogy applies—our fish friends are getting better.

Now imagine the lake experiences an algae outbreak. Microorganisms cloud the surface, cloaking the water in darkness. Our fishes’ eyesight, previously an optimal trait, can hardly make out anything at all. This is a bad day to be a fish. Any that relied on eyesight will either starve or find themselves in the belly of a predator.

So what happened? Even though the fish’s vision allowed it to thrive in direct sunlight, it became useless in the dark. An ability advantageous in one situation proved ineffective in another. This is the key to understanding natural selection—species adapt to their environments. This includes everything from amount of sunlight to terrain and predators. Unfortunately for Steve, “getting better” has no meaning in natural selection.

As for our fish friends, their future is uncertain. Maybe individuals with better hearing will find higher rates of survival in the new world. Perhaps the population will die out. It all depends on the fishes’ surroundings and which traits ensure higher chances of survival.

So there’s a bit of Misconceptions About Evolution to brighten your day. Is this surprising? Confusing? Remarkably good looking? Let me know in the comments below. As always—you know the drill, so please share, like, comment, and subscribe if you like the post! Thanks for reading! Don’t forget to subscribe for new content every Wednesday. IT’S FREE!

Comment question of the week

Are human beings currently “getting better?” Why or why not?

You might also like:

Misconceptions About Evolution: Why Natural Selection Is Not Random

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Misconceptions About Evolution: Why Transitional Fossils Exist

In the news:

When Evolution’s Controversial, Declaring a State Fossil Can Get Tricky (Smithsonian)

10 Ways Life Has Adapted to Its Environment (Discovery)

Congressional Candidate Claims He’s Running to Stop Schools From Teaching Evolution (ThinkProgress)

Misconceptions about evolution: why natural selection is not random

Part 4 in a series. Click here for part 3: why transitional fossils exist.

There are some mysteries I will never understand, such as why Pikachus can’t exist in real life or how anybody could like cilantro (Trust me. It’s horrible). One such conundrum is the vehement denial of evolution that has dogged science for centuries. According to Bill Nye, this organized opposition appears only in the United States, where far-right religious groups hold political sway in the South and Midwest. I hope he is correct, though I can’t know for sure. In my time abroad I have encountered extremists of different kinds but none of this kind. Then again, these are not the types of people I tend to associate with. Before I digress further, let’s take a look at another of our misconceptions. Continue reading

Misconceptions about evolution: why transitional fossils exist

Archaeopteryx Bird Dinosaur Transitional Fossil Exist Real Darwin Evolution Artists Impression Artist's

Part 3 in a series. Click here for part 2: why humans did not evolve from monkeys.

I can remember the morning I learned one of the most valuable lessons in arguing. My friend and I had been debating for days, and in the minutes before class I thought I had him beaten. As I prepared my final statements, I realized with horror that I had forgotten to define our terms. While my mind had focused on developing the final blows, I had allowed him to tweak our definitions and surreptitiously bring my argument crashing down.

Whale Vestigal Leg Bones Evolution Transitional Fossil True Exist Darwin

The vestigal leg bones in whale and their recent ancestors are prime examples of transitional species and fossils.

This lesson applies to science as well. While doing research or presenting results, a team must carefully define all terms as a foundation for its work. This is also important when addressing critics and naysayers. A prime example of this is the “debate” over transitional fossils. While some claim they do not exist, this argument can often be boiled down to people redefining scientific terms.

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Misconceptions about evolution: why humans did not evolve from monkeys

Part 2 in a series. Click here for part 1: why species, not individuals, evolve.

The one useful thing my sophomore year economics professor ever said came when discussing the first fundamental theorem of welfare economics (the idea that in a more or less perfect economy, markets optimize everything and government intervention is detrimental). “Nobody misunderstands the fundamental theorem,” he explained. “People who broadcast incorrect interpretations do so for their own gain.”

Charles Darwin Evolution Theory Natural Selection Genes Ape Monkey Drawing Hornet Ridicule Picture Weekly Show

This 1871 editorial caricature depicting Darwin as a monkey exemplifies the contemporary (and present day) ridicule of his theories.

Much is the case with evolution. Since Darwin’s famous On the Origin of Species, many have seen his theory as a threat to their social, political, or economic influence. As a result these people have spread false information to ridicule it, degrade its value in the public eye. This is how the most established fact in science has become riddled with controversy and why many people erroneously believe humans evolved from apes.

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Misconceptions about evolution: why species, not individuals, evolve

Evolution Species Individuals Evolve Pokemon Charmander Charmeleon Charizard Pokemon Weekly Show

My first exposure to evolution came through Pokémon. I can recall watching in awe as a creature became enveloped in an aura and morphed into a new monster. It looked something like this:

As you and I both know, this is not how evolution works. Aside from a protein named after Pikachu (Pikachurin), Pokémon does not offer a faithful lesson in biology. While evolution has become required in most classrooms in the US and the rest of the world, many misconceptions about the most established fact in science abound. In this new segment I will address the most common of these misunderstanding. Have any questions of your own? Please suggest them in the comments or message me directly. Enjoy!

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