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

Everything In Science Is Wrong

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)

Cosmos premiere review: fasten your seatbelts

Cosmos Poster Promo Seth McFarlane Neil deGrasse Tyson Weekly Show

In the 1980, famed astronomer Carl Sagan popularized science with his show Cosmos: A Personal Voyage. His show not only brought science to the masses but fostered a passion for discovery in viewers. Thirty-four years later, astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson is trying to resume Sagan’s mission with his new show Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey.

First things first: in case you don’t know Neil deGrasse Tyson (and you should), he is the Frederick P. Rose Director of the Hayden Planetarium at the Rose Center for Earth and Space as well as a research associate in astrophysics at the American Museum of Natural History. He is the former host of PBS’s educational science program NOVA: Science Now. Known for his intelligence and his wit, Tyson is a regular on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and The Colbert Report. If anyone can capture Sagan’s spark, it’s Tyson.

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Are faith and science compatible?

Darwin Fish Evolution Faith Science Compatible Weekly Show

Since this blog’s inception, I’ve tried to keep it as non-partisan as possible. Regular readers can probably deduce my leanings, but I have purposely strayed from any controversial subjects. Today that ends. With the near year this blog is going to address some of the most controversial topics in science and shed some much-needed light on important issues. First up: the relation between faith and science.

Before diving in, let me clarify the question. I am not asking whether science and religion can coexist. Many scientists are religious and have been for centuries. This is a fact. Rather, I want to explore whether science and religion make sense together, if they are compatible systems of discovery. Let’s stir the water.

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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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