Tuesday, January 8, 2008

The first mammal to wear pants

I mentioned today one of the problems with discussing evolution is that although scientists tend to use evolution in a very specific sense (a change in gene frequencies from generation to generation as we'll see shortly) the public and press tend to wrap three concepts together:
  • Evolution as change, in the true biological sense.
  • Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection as a mechanism explaining how and why that change occurs.
  • Abiogenesis, the theory explaining the first appearance of life on earth
Well, just to make it worse, people sometimes include a fourth concept - evolution as improvement. I always thought that was what Todd McFarlane and Pearl Jam had in mind when they did the video for 'Do the Evolution' - or at least an ironic comment on this concept. Comments at the Sony Music website would suggest a less noble motive.

Evolution may lead to absolute improvement - cheetah probably run faster than their ancestors - without leading to any relative improvement - cheetah don't catch any extra food because their prey is running faster too. Hey, there's the red queen again. Evolution has very little to say about human society and its improvement, or otherwise, despite the fact that at various times people have proposed a 'science' called social darwinism. You should probably be aware of some of the history in this field and the social philosophy of eugenics that it led to. If you haven't thought about this much then the Wikipedia articles I have linked to are a great starting place and are impressively neutral for such an emotional subject. I won't be talking about this in class but as a biologist it is likely that one day you will meet someone who thinks that because you believe in evolution you believe in some form of eugenics (or maybe I just meet all the crazy people).

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