What is Evolution?

A scientifically imperfect but easy to understand definition is that evolution is the changing of the gene set of a species over generations. It’s evident that this change is inherent to every species where the progeny is not an exact copy of it’s progenitor. A child does not have the exact same DNA set as either of his/her parents, thus s/he is “the next step in evolution”. This can be a bit misleading since the word “evolution” sounds like it’s development, advancement, but it not necessarily is in the biological sense. It simply means change.

A little “side note”… The whole argument of evolution vs. creation is meaningless because of two things:

  1. Evolution exists and it’s a fact. Even if we are god’s creation, evolution is in a sense just another word for “change” and thus it can not not exist.
  2. Evolution is not an explanation of how life came to be. Evolution presumes that life already exists. Material without life can’t “evolve” itself to live. So the theory of evolution is not an “opponent” of the theory of creation – the two are dealing with entirely different things.

The thing which made sure that evolution meant improvement in the biological sense is natural selection. The difference between these two can be understood if we realize that we as an advanced civilization “stopped” natural selection but not evolution. Our DNA set as a species is changing by the minute, only now it’s not necessarily improving (see Idiocracy) – but I digress.

Natural selection means two things: those who can’t adapt to the dangers of their surroundings (predators, etc.) die with more probability before leaving progeny behind, and those who have more progeny reaching the age of their fertility will have a better chance at their sets of DNA surviving in the long run. The survival of the fittest and the “prolification of the busiest”, respectively.

It’s very easy to make thought experiments with natural selection. Start with a wide range of features and properties and most of the times it’s easy to realize who survives and who doesn’t.

Example 1: There is a human population with 500 men and 500 women. The DNA of the men vary a lot. Some like sex a lot while others are not interested. Those who doesn’t want to have sex most probably won’t have children and so will have their genes removed from the common gene pool immediately or within 1 or 2 generations at most. Those who are obsessed with sex will have more children and thus their DNA has a better chance of surviving. Conclusion: we are all the descendants of people who liked f*cking very much.

Example 2: Same premises. The age of women these imaginary men desire varies from 1 to 100. Those who desire women too young or too old  to bear children will obviously have their genes removed from the pool. Conclusion: we are all the descendants of men who desired the most fertile women. We have it in our DNA to desire those women who exhibit signs of fertility even if we don’t recognise these things consciously.

The long-term effects of millions of years of natural selection are ingrained into us. It’s not something conscious; it “hides” in our desires and instincts. Those can’t be changed by social pressure. They can only be suppressed with more or less success but this “going against our very nature” almost always results in emotional stress and of course it will often result in dying without offspring, ie. an evolutionary dead end. Yes, instincts might change slowly over many generations as our environment and social norms change, but a handful of human generations cannot change what is “set in stone” by millions of years of natural selection. (The Stone Age lasted for 2.5 million years and is roughly the 99% of human history.)

By now it should be evident that knowledge about evolution and natural selection might be used to understand the instincts and desires of us humans. This knowledge can be vital today when birth rates are dropping and more and more people die without children. If you want to have children – or if you just want to have sex – this knowledge can give you a decisive advantage over others.

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7 Responses to What is Evolution?

  1. This theory of human instincts and desires being “set in stone” depends on the alleged millions of years of natural selection. Yet, what evidence is there that there really was a Stone Age which lasted for 2.5 million years?

    Also, I would like to point out that natural selection doesn’t necessarily ensure that the fittest survive, apart from tautalogical usage of the word “fittest.” Weaker people can work together to eliminate those with the best genes. Many who aren’t especially fit (physically or mentally) manage to reproduce. Survival of the luckiest might be a more fitting description of natural selection (which is a misnomer, since it doesn’t actually involve any “selection” at all).

    Having said that, I do agree with your point that desiring to have children, and working towards accomplishing that goal, does give you a reproductive advantage.

  2. Deansdale says:

    “what evidence is there that there really was a Stone Age which lasted for 2.5 million years?”
    It’s what historians say. Like many things in science this might also change but currently it’s considered “the truth”. (I linked the wikipedia article, see references there.)
    But let’s assume it was not 2.5M, only 1M years. What does that change? Not much. It’s still unimaginable compared to our written history of a few thousand years.

    “natural selection doesn’t necessarily ensure that the fittest survive”
    What you mean is that the chance of survival for the fittest is not a 100%, which is true, but their chances of survival are still BETTER than the chances of weaker beings. So over a couple of thousand generations this higher chance means radical differences in the outcome.

    “Weaker people can work together to eliminate those with the best genes.”
    Theoretically possible but very unlikely considering people lived in extended families or tribes and their survival pretty much depended on the stronger guys. Killing the best hunter or warrior would be a stupid thing to do.

    “Many who aren’t especially fit (physically or mentally) manage to reproduce. Survival of the luckiest might be a more fitting description of natural selection”
    Nowadays it seems to be true but in tribal times things were different. To be alpha, ie. to be good at hunting or fighting did not depend on luck, it depended on your genes. And knowing the hypergamous nature of women and the aggressive tendencies of men I’d say reproduction was not a question of luck.

    “natural selection (which is a misnomer, since it doesn’t actually involve any “selection” at all)”
    Creatures with different abilities and characteristics have different chances of survival. This is a self-evident premise we named “natural selection”. Of course there is no intellect or force or specific mechanism behind it but it “works” nonetheless because it’s inherent to all ecosystems.

  3. It’s what historians say. Like many things in science this might also change but currently it’s considered “the truth”. (I linked the wikipedia article, see references there.) But let’s assume it was not 2.5M, only 1M years. What does that change? Not much. It’s still unimaginable compared to our written history of a few thousand years.

    I’m suggesting the alternate possibility that human history is not much longer than our written history. In that case, rather than 1M years, we have roughly 6K-10K years of human history. That would shed a whole new light on the speed at which evolution acts, and how firmly ingrained certain genetic traits actually are. Perhaps humans are more malleable than scientists presently believe.

  4. Deansdale says:

    “rather than 1M years, we have roughly 6K-10K years of human history”
    Well, that’s what some christians say but I’m with science on this issue. They found man-made stone tools at excavations which were 2.5M years old so that’s why they say the stone age lasted that long.
    I think the time “we spent as apes” should also be considered when talking about our innate instincts but I already sense you’ll completely disagree with that :)

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  6. Jabberwocky says:

    “Material without life can’t “evolve” itself to live.”

    If you say evolution is just change, which I understand, than chemicals can randomly combine (ie. change) in a primordial soup that have the properties to grow and propagate, much like a virus or some other super basic life form. Therefore life can evolve from non-living stuff even if its a one in a google shot of happening. In the realm of deep time, those types of odds can happen. If you don’t rely on God or faith, its the only logical answer.

    And fittest does not mean best, it means most fit for the environment. If you have superior genes to everyone else, so everyone else gangs up on you to take you out, you didn’t succesfully fit into your environment. You drew too much attention to yourself. In evolutionary terms, sometimes less is more and sometimes simpler is better. There are far more insects that humans. Who is evolutionarily superior? It depends on which standards you are judging by.

  7. Deansdale says:

    First of all, a very “educational” and funny article on the creation of life by Fred Reed.

    chemicals can randomly combine in a primordial soup that have the properties to grow and propagate
    The chances for random chemicals to create a living being is so infinitesimally small it’s beyond imagination. And that is true even if you take life itself (as the mysterious force it is) out of the picture – what I try to say is that even if the chemicals would combine properly they would probably only form a dead being. No wonder that nobody ever reproduced this supposed “random creation of life” in an experiment.
    But let’s assume that chemicals combined and somehow came to life. I still wouldn’t call that “evolution” because it does not fit the “framework” at all. Random chemicals do not reproduce and have no “generations” and of course have no DNA so the definition of evolution (above in the original post) obviously doesn’t apply to them. Evolution is a type of change; the changing of characteristics of beings between generations. In this sense it requires beings to begin with.
    I know the scientific explanation of how life came to be is what you described and it’s fine with me, but that is not what evolution is. These are two entirely separate theories which are usually glued together. Chemicals combined into living beings and then they started evolving.

    everyone else gangs up on you to take you out
    I answered this earlier: quite improbable that a tribe or family would kill its best hunter/soldier. It doesn’t happen nowadays either.
    On a side note, however, marxism/socialism seem to have a similar effect; stupid people have more children than the bright ones. I reckon it’s the direct consequence of “helping the poor” because the poor statistically means less intelligent. And the only way to help them is to transfer wealth to them from the richer, ie. smarter people. If we humans as a race would want to continue to evolve we should promote more children for the rich and less for the poor. Of course this will blow the minds of leftists to pieces :)

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