Out of my awesome photo haul of geek/science shirts from this year’s NECSS, there was one that I didn’t include. The premise always bothered me.
So much so that, a few years ago, I had a conversation with someone about it. Or wrote a blog. About an imaginary conversation. That began when no one threw the “wolf” version at me.
Dude, you’re a dumb-ass. I’ve got the perfect meme for you.
Ha, yeah, that’s funny, man. Wait, what am I, the wolf? Are you the wolf? I mean, I woulda thought you’d go the “humans are the pinnacle of evolution” route, with our big brains and upright stance and Twitter and s--t. But wolves are cool, too.
I mean really, so is everything. When you think about it, each individual organism out there in the world is the “product of 4 billion years of successful evolution.” (Well, more like 3.8 billion years, but what’s 5% between friends?) Innumerable generations through unfathomable ages striving, struggling, eating, f-----g; all so that bumblebee can buzz by, or the wolf can chow on that rabbit, or you and I can have this conversation. Everything alive today is the culmination of an incomprehensibly extensive, geologic-scale lineage.
But yeah, human beings are clearly the most successful species on Earth. Right? Well, how do you define “success?” Is it sheer complexity? We got that down (#awesome).
Okay, so what? Remember what Stephen Jay Gould pointed out in his book Full House about the “Drunkard’s Walk” (which is also the title of a Leonard Mlodinow book about statistical randomness). Imagine you get hammered and stumble two steps out the door of the bar. You’re soused, so you don’t know where you’re going; you’re equally as likely to take a step forward as you are backward. You can’t go too far back or you’ll hit the wall of the bar. That’s like the lower limit on complexity.
So you stagger around and eventually, just by chance, you’ll end up way over at the next building, the upper limit of complexity. Is that an achievement, you f-----g lush? Or was it just that enough time elapsed that you were able to cover all the possibilities?
No, a-----e, I’m not saying that evolution is random. Individual mutations are random, but the ones that best adapt an organism to their particular environment are the ones that get selected for. “Particular” being the important word there. To oversimplify, woolly coats won’t help at the Equator and wings do you no good underground. So is any one trait “better” than another? Depends on where you are.
Sometimes complexity even hurts you. Snakes ditched their limbs because they likely hindered burrowing and cavefish traded their eyes for other weapons (unrelated to the Stonecutters’ machinations). And what if the other guy is ramping up the fitness as quickly as you are? Gazelles get faster, so lions get faster, so gazelles get nimbler, etc., etc. That doesn’t sound like progress or success. That sounds a lot like running in place.
All right, forget about success, how about DOMINANCE! We are EVERYWHERE! And there’s a lot of us! Seven billion big animals running around. We’ve filled ecologic niches from the rain forest to the tundra, but bacteria and even simpler forms of life have found ways to withstand the pressures at the bottom of the ocean and the scalding conditions in thermal springs. They’ve obviously got us beat on pure numbers, but our big bodies don’t compare to their overall biomass, either. Bacteria globally outweigh us by somewhere around 5,000 times.
But we win because we are FINISHED! At the peak of our evolution, no more changes! WRONG! In addition to simple genetic drift, studies suggest that skin and eye colors are still changing, as are our tolerances for lactose and wheat. In fact, human evolution may be happening faster than ever.
Biologists actually have a very precise definition of success, and it has to do with a quantifiable value of fitness. The upshot is that to be truly successful, an organism has to pass on its genes to future generations, and spread them as far as possible. So in that case, I can think of at least one 4 billion year end-product that’s not successful. Cause as long as you keep chucking stupid internet memes at people, you’re never getting laid.
The Critical Angle is a recurring feature that uses critical thinking and skepticism to analyze pop culture phenomena. Skepticism is an approach to evaluating claims that emphasizes evidence and applies the tools of science. Rather than repeating the same old assertions, we put them to the test.