Teaching people about evolution is simultaneously one of the most difficult and most important jobs on the planet. It’s difficult because the concepts of evolution are contrary to many of our experiences in daily life, and it’s important because it gives us a realistic perception of how things work. Without an understanding of evolution, all sorts of irrational ideas can spread into government and education, resulting in bad decisions, such as the opening of churches to large singing congregations – perfect conditions for the transmission of infectious respiratory disease.
Most of us live in cities – worlds in which almost everything we encounter has been designed and made by humans. We live relatively short lives and go to zoos and safari parks where we observe different species of creatures that don’t seem to be changing. We pick up nuggets of information about biology, such as mutation, and we get fed simple ‘explanations’ of how things came about by our religious leaders. Those experiences do not lead to a good understanding of how the world works.
The fact that our local environment features many deliberately manufactured objects does not mean that everything is produced in that way; think of a canyon, volcano or delta and you will see that there is also a natural agent at work. Don’t make the mistake of assuming that ‘mother nature’ can’t ‘do’ complex or sophisticated. We are struggling to fight one of her viruses right now aren’t we?
The very fact that Covid-19 popped up in November 2019 should show us that change is happening. That’s all evolution is – change. The reason we don’t see it at the zoo is simply because we don’t live long enough. Look in the fossil record and you will see how the ancestors of today’s large creatures have gradually been modified over millions of years.
Evolution is not simply due to mutation. Mutation can be the result of errors in the transcription of DNA during development or reproduction or the effect of external factors such as UV light, heat and mutagenic substances. It happens independently of evolution. During your life it can cause cancer. When it happens during the production of your eggs or sperms it can alter your offspring: have you noticed that your kids are not identical to you?
A lot of mutations are fatal, some are neutral and a few may confer an advantage to the possessor under prevailing environmental conditions. The real mechanism of evolution is natural selection. Obviously, the fatal genes do not get transmitted but the neutral ones can be passed on through the generations. We have been fed a journalistic misconception about evolution. It’s less a case of survival of the fittest and more a case of simply not dying before reproducing. We are not ‘better’ than our forebears, we are just the lucky ones.
Covid-19 doesn’t seem to kill many of the young, so whatever they have that resists it might be passed on and become more common in future populations. Or, is it that the protection they possess becomes less effective with age? The answer will be provided by scientists not priests.