Why Does Natural Selection Take So Long

In an item on The Register about why natural selection takes so long to get results, Dr Stephen Juan, an anthropologist at the University of Sydney makes several statements that seem to me to be at odds with evolutionary theory.

“Most mutations do not help the species survive.”

This is true in one sense, but natural selection doesn’t act on species, all it does is remove individuals from the gene pool that are no longer best adapted for a particular environment. If a mutation in an individual’s DNA mean it is better adapted to a changing environment then it will pass the “new” gene(s) on to its offspring who will then have the trait and the viability in that environment to reproduce and so on.

“A species and an environment exist in balance with each other.”

Do they? Perhaps, but only in the sense that should either one change radically then we will no longer observe a balance. Moreover, several mutations over several generations that allow individuals to cope with a changing environment leads to species diversity.

“Populations simply adapt to their current surroundings and to changes in those surroundings.”

No they don’t. Individuals either survive the new surroundings and pass on their genes to their offspring or they don’t. Usually, only those best adapted to new environmental conditions survive to do so. Populations may display synergetic effects between individuals but this is not the same as a population adapting.

“They do not necessarily become better in any absolute sense over time.”

There is no such thing as “better” or “worse” evolutionarily speaking. An individual either survives and passes on its genes or it does not. If those genes endow the offspring with the ability to survive and pass the genes on again then the genes survive. If they don’t they are lost. Evolution is littered with dead-ends but every single living thing on the planet has ancestors that were capable of reproducing.

21 thoughts on “Why Does Natural Selection Take So Long

  1. I was mostly responding to comments of faith that run contrary to the following:

    There is scientific evidence that indicates that evolution has both, direction, and purpose, (other than simply survival), and that goal is “absolute symmetry”:

    There are other scientists, like James Kay, Eric Schneider, Dorion Sagan (Carl’s son), Scott Sampson, who have found a local piece to this puzzle, but they fail to consider that we also *directly* affect the symmetery of the universe.

    This is just a popularization, and it’s a little warped, but you’ll get the LOCAL idea from this:

    http://www.taipeitimes.com/News/edit/archives/2004/09/30/2003204990

  2. If you have it in your mind that somehow this whole universe was created just for humanity,

    I don’t.

    then consider this. We are but one species out of thousands, if not millions, on a single small planet, orbiting a single star among myriad other stars in a single galaxy within an enormous cluster or galaxies, within an even greater expanse of space peppered with yet more galaxies, and we exist at a point where we can ponder such questions 13,700,000,000 earth years beyond a time before which there was no space or time. If turns out that the universe has been or is littered with other sentient lifeforms, which it possibly may not be, then we are neither unique nor particular special.

    Right, and the Goldilocks Enigma speaks to this and makes predictions about the *preferred region of the universe* where we can expect to find life elsewhere in the universe, which is why Richard Dawkins said that.

    Further to my comment about chimps, I wasn’t trying to imply that they had any greater intelligence or skills, but the genomic analyses show that they have moved further along the evolutionary branch than humans –

    I understand, and have read the recent reports. Regardless, I don’t consider humans nor chimps to be any more special than any other member of the ecobalance that we *contributing members* arose from and *belong to*.

    Whoops, I forgot this link to very relevant information about “The Goldilocks Enigma”

    http://evolutionarydesign.blogspot.com/2007/02/goldilocks-enigma-again.html

  3. If you have it in your mind that somehow this whole universe was created just for humanity, then consider this. We are but one species out of thousands, if not millions, on a single small planet, orbiting a single star among myriad other stars in a single galaxy within an enormous cluster or galaxies, within an even greater expanse of space peppered with yet more galaxies, and we exist at a point where we can ponder such questions 13,700,000,000 earth years beyond a time before which there was no space or time. If turns out that the universe has been or is littered with other sentient lifeforms, which it possibly may not be, then we are neither unique nor particular special.

    Further to my comment about chimps, I wasn’t trying to imply that they had any greater intelligence or skills, but the genomic analyses show that they have moved further along the evolutionary branch than humans – http://www.ns.umich.edu/htdocs/releases/story.php?id=5808

  4. island, I’m not sure why we need to invoke an anthropic prediction.

    You don’t???… Did you read what I wrote, because it sure looks like a good reason to do so, if you ask me. Wait, let me go back and read it again… … … … Nope, it still looks like a good reason, unless you simply dont.want.to.hear.it.

    what makes us so special? new evidence suggests that chimpanzees are more highly evolved than humans and so further down the evolutionary path from our common ancestor than we are.

    Sure they are, and the moon is just as obviously made of Green cheese, but chimps aren’t ***specialized*** (not special), at making matter/antimatter particle pairs, which enables the asymmetrical thermodynamic process that causes the universe to evolve, whrereas, we… do… So we can argue the physics until nobody here knows enough about it to judge its validity, or you can just admit that the prediction *necessarily* and **self-evidentally** falls from any true strong anthropic cosmological principle, so you don’t *KNOW* a damned thing for certain, until we have a proven ToE… or MAYBE a valid proven theory of quantum gravity.

    “god” forbid that the universe be Darwinian… that would just kill neodarwinians!

  5. island, I’m not sure why we need to invoke an anthropic prediction. what makes us so special? new evidence suggests that chimpanzees are more highly evolved than humans and so further down the evolutionary path from our common ancestor than we are.

  6. There is an inherent prediction to any true anthropic cosmological principle, which notes that the anthropic constraint on the forces necessitates a reciprocal connection between the human evolutionary process and the evolution of the universe, meaning that there is a mechanism that enables the universe to “leap/bang” to higher orders of the same basic structure.

    In this case, absolute symmetry is the unattainable “goal” of evoltion.

    This matter is not settled without a true theory of everything, so don’t pretend that it is.

  7. I guess I’ve got lost off with what the point of the original comment was. I guess there are thousands of people, those with sickle cell anemia, thalasemia, cystic fibrosis, and other genetic disorders, who most certainly feel evolution has dealt them a cruel blow. And, yes cats really do have a cruel streak, even if they don’t fully understand it, I’m convinced…well, maybe not.

  8. Agreed.

    I’m just saying that if people think that the outcome of evolution is cruel, then it is. That is all that is required to define it as cruel. Now, that may not mean much (then again it may mean quite alot), but it doesn’t mean nothing (sorry for the double-negative).

    I assume that you and all others reading this forum have human minds, and last time I checked so did I ;) Therefore, within the context of this forum, I don’t think it all out of place to say that evolution is cruel. I don’t intend to argue with evolution itself that it is cruel, and I don’t mean to say that evolution intends to be cruel, or intends to be anything. I merely say (to the human population) that evolution causes suffering (as do many things). Now, some may disagree with me on that, but they must then show that evolution does not cause suffering. It is not enough to simply say that evolution didn’t mean to, because that’s not what I’m asserting.

    As to the cat analogy, I too have a cat, and often I think she is cruel to me. However, though I do believe she has emotions of some sort, I do not believe that she understand others emotions enough to have a concept of cruelty (though I would call her behaviour cruel). I think she can be sad, happy, distressed, scared, playful, expectant, in pain, and many more – but I don’t think she would know when others feel these emotions. That’s why when she tries to eat my foot, saying “Ouch” doesn’t really do much – she doesn’t know that she’s hurting me. However, if I turn it around and make her feel something (a firm thump on the nose, a squirt of water, etc), she responds.

  9. Touche! Although, I’m not arguing that the word cruel cannot be used in all of the contexts the dictionary cites and in the context of evolution, it remains true that it does not endow an inanimate object or a process with a concept of cruelty. Only we can do that. Although that said, I do sometimes wonder whether our cat also has an idea of what cruelty is when he toys with a half-dead mouse on the doorstep.

  10. “My other definitions” are actually from a dictionary website – and therefore not actually mine. If you disagree with the dictionary take it up with them, not me.

    Now, are you a theistic evolutionist or a naturalistic evolutionist? I’ll assume naturalistic. I think a theistic evolutionist would have grounds for thinking that evolution might have an “intent” in the sense of an intended purpose, and if you ever argue theistic evolutionists I don’ think you should deny them that point of view. However, if you are a naturalist, I’m not sure I understand what anthropic intent is anyway – wouldn’t it just be whatever intent a person has been evolved and conditioned to have? In that sense, is it really the person’s own intent anymore, or isn’t it merely an extenstion of the “intent” of evolution? In which case, according to your definition, I’m not sure if there is really such a thing as a cruel person either, or for that matter a cruel anything.

  11. Your other definitions are simply figurative examples that anthromorphose the weather and war in the same sense that the phrase cruel evolution would. Cruelty is a characteristic of our emotions. The outcomes of evolution are neither cruel nor kind. Evolution has no emotions it does not have a purpose nor any aims. It is simply a convenient description of the process we know to occur over millions of years as individual organisms that survive and reproduce pass on mutated genes to their offspring that endow subsequent generations with a better chance of surviving their environment and doing the same.

    Yes, evolution can have unpleasant outcomes from a human point of view. The evolution of mammals on our branch of the tree has left us with a propensity to backache and appendicitis, but that does not make evolution cruel. Conversely, without evolution, we would not have the consciousness nor the inclination to enjoy a good debate about whether or not evolution is cruel.

  12. I am not saying that evolution has a cruel intent, merely that it often has cruel outcomes.

    From onelook.com:

    Quick definitions (cruel)

    adjective: lacking or showing kindness or compassion or mercy
    adjective: (of weapons or instruments) causing suffering and pain (Example: “Cruel weapons of war”)
    adjective: used of circumstances (especially weather) that cause suffering (Example: “Northern winters can be cruel”)
    adjective: (of persons or their actions) able or disposed to inflict pain or suffering (Example: “Cruel tortures”)

    …so the use of the word cruel can denote either intentional infliction of pain (such as from a person), or suffering caused by neutral, non-anthropic sources (weapons, weather, etc…). I am using it in the latter sense.

  13. I thought I had backed it up. And, now you’ve laid your cards on the table and anthropomorphized something that has no anthropic properties – evolution. Describing evolution as “cruel” or applying any other emotion or intent on it is like saying trees are wanton because they sway in the breeze. Obviously, we can, with our “human minds” apply such terms at will. We can talk of a cruel sea, a casual place, a melancholy sunset, whatever we like, really. But, these are just words applied to things that have no words of their own, have no feelings, no aims, not emotions, as I said in the original post.

    Just because some people suggest that evolution somehow has aims and an intent, does not mean that it does. How can a process of random genomic mutation that results in an improved ability of organisms to reproduce and consequential changes in the shape, structure or behaviour of said organisms have such emotions. Evolution has no mind. It is not a being. It is a process. It cannot be endowed with the human quality of cruelty.

  14. Why should I let you turn it around? You are the scientist. You made a statement. Back it up.

    In my human mind, also in the human minds of many others, evolution is cruel. As you yourself state, this is the only context in which cruelty has a valid meaning, but that does not mean that evolution is not cruel.

  15. Jennifer, let me turn it around. Please prove to us that evolution *is* cruel. First, you will have to define the word cruel outside an anthropocentric context against a backdrop of 3 billion years of natural history and a universe that is 13.7 billion years old. Cruelty is a fabrication of the human mind. Do spiders consider themselves cruel to devour a fly or a lion to take a gazelle, what about the female preying mantis that traps its mate, or the microscopic parasites that cause malaria? Do they have any concept of what it is to be cruel. That’s why I’d say evolution is not cruel.

  16. Sciencebase – why do you say that evolution is not cruel? How can you prove this?

  17. Science and evolution are not synonymous Andrew. Science is a human endeavour, an effort to explain the nature of reality based on observations and testable theories derived from said observations. Evolution is such a theory. Science is not a religion. There is a world of difference between “believing” in something like a deity and making observations that allow one to create a testable theory of reality.

  18. Science, to the casual observer, should have something interesting or exciting, or should be full of philosophical meaning which is particularly and profoundly applicable to other aspects of ordinary life. In other words, most people wish that science were more interesting or exciting, or that scientists choose more intersting or exciting subjects, telling some philosophical tips to ordinary people. Science should not be ‘rendered’, by those scientists of course, as dull as lacking aims, emotions, intentions or designs, because science is another religious holding after God. If science is neither cruel or kind, then how could these people feel any safety ‘believing in’ science?
    Science literacy shouldn’t attract people by something other than science. Science literacy shouldn’t be done like doing missionary works.

  19. Evolution is neither cruel nor kind. It has no aims, emotions, intentions, nor designs. Evolution is just a description of how sophisticated chemical entities known as genes undergo a hugely complex series of chemical reactions that result in the duplication of the starting materials (the genes). These chemical reactions have been taking place on Earth for billions of years and at this point in time have resulted in a massive localised entropy deficit at the expense of solar and geothermal energy.

  20. Evolution theory is very nice story, it is very general and have also great, huge, philosophic meaning. As for me, in biological terms it is very cruel thing…

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