April 10, 2011 | David F. Coppedge

Is This What Darwin Had in Mind?

Evolution is a word loosely used in science these days.  Reporters and scientists talk about “the evolution of” this or that sometimes carelessly, without regard to how the explanation fits old Darwinism or neo-Darwinism.  Has the word evolution become a kind of catch-all hypothesis, for which rigor is no longer necessary?

  1. Survival of the discreetist:  Mark Buchanan on New Scientist coined a term exo-evolution to discuss how aliens evolve: “Aliens who hide, survive” is the idea in a nutshell.  “Has ET evolved to be discreet?” he began.  “An evolutionary tendency for inconspicuous aliens would solve a nagging paradox ? and also suggest that we Earthlings should think twice before advertising our own existence.”
        The paradox he mentioned is the Fermi Paradox: the puzzle of why we haven’t found aliens, and they haven’t found us, if the universe is full of them.  “In order to explain the Fermi paradox, [Adrian] Kent [Perimeter Institute, Waterloo, Ontario, Canada] turns to natural selection – and suggests that it may favour quiet aliens.”  From there, the discussion descended into what aliens might want to do.  Evolution as Darwin meant it has no purpose or intention.
  2. Survival of the sprinters:  In another article on New Scientist, Michael Le Page denied that slow and steady evolution (gradualism) wins the evolutionary race.  Darwin might be astonished to hear one of his disciples say, “it’s a sprint – one in which the runners might change direction at any minute.”
        The article told Michael Bell’s observations of stickleback fish that appear to adapt within decades.  They had been “assumed to evolve slowly, over thousands of years,” he said.  “Compared with the gradual process described by Darwin, this is evolution at warp speed.
  3. Instant evolution:  It would be harder to think of evolution any faster than warp speed; but how about instant?  Here’s an easy way to get whiteflies to evolve instantly: just add bacteria.  That was the headline of a press release from the University of Arizona.  Molly Hunter did experiments that showed Rickettsia-infected whiteflies had more offspring.  She assumed this was “instant evolution” on that basis; “In evolution, fitness is the money,” she quipped.  Darwin, Mr. Gradualist himself, would be shocked.
  4. Evolutionary interest:  Can organisms have an evolutionary interest in something?  Darwin assumed that natural selection is random and undirected; Dawkins assumed selfish genes were interested only in their own survival, the organism be damned.  Why, then, did Jiggins and Hurst say this in Science?1  “Being maternally inherited, these microbes have an evolutionary interest only in the production and survival of female hosts; consequently, they have evolved a variety of traits through which they promote the production and survival of daughters.”
        They were talking about a case of horizontal gene transfer in insects: “It has recently become clear, however, that horizontal transfer of traits can play a major role in arthropod evolution.”  Such transfer is contrary to 150 years of speculation about how evolution operates.
  5. Losing sleep over evolution:  Evolution might make you lose sleep.  If you are a cave fish, and lose your eyes, you might be able to get by with less sleep, according to a press release from New York University.  The researchers found behavioral changes in sleep patterns between cave fish and their counterparts on the surface, but did not tie them to any genetic changes, at least yet.  They did not explain whether this made them more fit in some way; if it’s always midnight, does evolution make you burn more midnight oil, and if so, is that good for you or for fish?

It appears from these and many other stories that evolution is a flexible word.  Any change of any kind, no matter how fast or slow it occurs, and whether it produces any fitness gain or not, can be called evolution.  Explanations that become too loose wind up explaining nothing.

1.  Francis M. Jiggins and Gregory D. D. Hurst, “Rapid Insect Evolution by Symbiont Transfer,” Science, 8 April 2011: Vol. 332 no. 6026 pp. 185-186, DOI: 10.1126/science.1205386.

  The phrase “the evolution of” now serves the same purpose as “the demon of” has in explanation, as in “the demon of obesity.”  It fits anything and everything the speaker wishes to blame on some unknown quantity operating by an unknown process.
    Darwin might be shocked by these abuses of his theory, but it’s all his fault.  He was the one that introduced storytelling into science.  How is his fiction any better than these?

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