Even ardent believers in evolution often don’t truly understand it. A case in point recently occurred at a dinner with old friends. One of our companions opined that without evolution, progress would be impossible. The implication was that evolution is a force for continual improvement. Onward Darwinian soldiers! My boyfriend felt like squeezing my arm to signal that I should keep my mouth shut, but that was unnecessary. I knew better than to embarrass my friend by correcting his misconception.
However, I couldn’t resist being drawn into an extended internet war with a fundamentalist friend. She kept insisting that mutations don’t impart new information. That’s crazy because mutations are by definition novel genetic code, just as switching one letter spills the word spelling into another meaning. I carefully explained the various genetic mechanisms which do, in fact, create new information, such as chromosomal duplication. But of course she understood evolution even less than my friend. To her, a god who has always existed, created the universe 6000 years ago, and formed Eve from Adam’s rib, makes much more sense. She provided link after link from Answers in Genesis, as if Ken Ham was God’s latest prophet and these links were His holy writ. I continually repeated that it was pointless to argue about evolution because we would never change each other’s minds. And yet I got sucked into the disputation anyway.
As you can see, I’m passionate about evolution. While evolution doesn’t have a direction, natural selection ensures that deleterious mutations are weeded from populations. Neutral changes can bide their time for the day when they might become advantageous and confer an evolutionary advantage.
Oops, I just made it sound like evolution has a mind of its own. It’s so hard to talk about evolution without implying a sense of purpose.
Even paleontologists often use language that seems to impart a directional intention to evolution. To be fair, it’s extremely difficult to talk about the evolution of traits without implying that they evolved to do this or that. I once watched a documentary about human evolution which implied that early hominins decided to walk upright. It was as if a couple of anthropoids one day hopped down from the trees and said, “Why don’t we try walking without using our hands?” “Good idea! Hey, now I can hold things as I walk!” Not that they could talk, but maybe they decided to try that for good measure.
Of course, evolution doesn’t work that way. Traits evolve because they confer an evolutionary advantage, such as feathers, which once provided insulation and sexual signaling. Combined with hollow bones and a keel-like breast bone, feathers pre-adapted avian dinosaurs to flight. Despite the claims of creationists, the individual traits involved with flight were not useless on their own.
One of the favorite arguments of creationists is that the eye would be useless without all of its component parts. What use would there be for half an eye? Quite a bit, as it turns out. Scientists have now been able to trace the evolution of the eye at every level, starting with light-sensitive spots. And each stage has been found in living organisms. The eye was once considered one of the best proofs of God’s perfection, but instead it makes for an excellent case for the power of natural selection.
I tend to get annoyed when I read references to the continuing evolution of Homo sapiens. They always bring up the recent (in evolutionary terms) evolution of lactose tolerance about 8,000 years ago. My pique is partly related to the fact that my ancestors didn’t get the memo on the benefits of retaining the ability to digest dairy into adulthood. But it’s also because lactase persistence was an adaptation which had a clear survival advantage, at a time when starvation was as close as the next failed harvest. Other changes allowed our bodies to process our new high-grain diets efficiently. All happened during the Neolithic Revolution. It’s not like humans up and decided that it would be a good idea to evolve the ability to drink milk. And with modern technology and medical science, there are fewer and fewer environmental pressures that could drive continuing human evolution.
Indeed, in an age when—at least in the Western world—obesity, not famine, is an epidemic, no further dietary adaptations are likely. After all, instead of evolving tolerance to our high fat and sugar diet, we take drugs or undergo surgery. In order for natural selection to take place there must be differential survival. In other words, people have to die or leave behind fewer progeny. And those deaths have to occur before the person has had a chance to produce children. Unless, of course, you want to go back to a Dickensian society where orphans are forced to beg or steal on the street. If that sounds appealing, you have your chance this election year….
That leaves disease as a driving evolutionary force. Though medical science has made incredible strides against the scourges of the past—take that, smallpox!—we can’t seem to race ahead of microscopic viruses, those little genetic machines which aren’t even technically considered life. And don’t get me started on bacteria, like the kind that nearly killed me in 2013.
I don’t mean to bring you down as we embark on a new year. This should be a hopeful time, as we imagine a bright future, making resolutions to transform into new and improved versions of ourselves. We’ll lose weight, start exercising, clean out that garage, and stop writing clichéd lists of imagined resolutions. Even the language we use in referring to the future suggests progress. We step, advance, and march into the future, but we retreat into the past. Our notion that we must always move forward is embodied by the term futurist. Has anyone ever called themselves a pastist?
To many atheists, it’s a given that religion is something humanity will eventually leave behind. After all, unlike evolution, the future, by definition, advances, and growing past primitive beliefs would definitely be an advance. Certainly, the fact that the so-called “nones” are the fastest growing religious group is a hopeful sign. But that doesn’t mean society is evolving into a non-religious one. I think it’s safe to say that Western society is becoming more secular, but as the polls indicate, the majority of those nones profess some spiritual beliefs; they just don’t adhere to any specific set of tenents. And, unfortunately, too many people still wants to party like it’s 1099.
There are numerous theories which suggest that religious belief itself is a result of natural selection, evolving because it conferred an evolutionary advantage. These theories are based on the idea of kin selection—that traits can evolve which help advance shared genes in a related population, even at the expense of individual survival, much like worker ants. According to these theories, religion increased social cohesion and encouraged altruism. One theory actually posits that humans evolved regions in their brain for religion. In other words, we literally have God on the brain. Out, damn God spot!
If that is indeed the case, the hope for a world where’s there’s no religion, like the one John Lennon imagined, could well be dashed. Next time you give into that irresistible treat, you’ll see how hard it is to fight programmed instincts that evolved in a time of feast or famine.
But I favor the theory that religion is a side effect of the instinctive human need to see patterns and understand them, even to the point of inventing just-so stories to explain them. And if that’s the case, there still hope that through reason human society will one day evolve away the need to believe in an all-powerful genie. And then there will truly be no Hell below us, above us only sky.