Wednesday, 10 June 2009

What do you do when your Theory is too good?

For so long now, we've been patiently explaining how evolution works, to all those who want to listen. It does not produce Hopeful Monsters, with an X-Men-like change in one generation. None of us are going to get Healing Factors or the ability to shoot lasers out of our eyes. It's a slow process, taking generations, and hundreds of thousands of years. This is why the argument by Literal Creationists that no dog has ever produced a cat is so silly. It is nothing but a straw man, for no biologist has ever argued anything remotely like that. Given the right environmental factors, over many, many generations, and a hundred thousand years, the remote descendants of dogs might appear to look more like cats than they do today- but that's a big if. And granted, fast reproducing species like bacteria and viruses do show evolution in our lifetime, with a high rate of Darwins (the units of evolutionary speed), so that we can easily trace how the HIV virus evolved in different environments into different "species", or types. (The environment in that case would be various populations of us, depending on our sexual activities.) But bacterial and viral selection has never been as sexy, if you'll pardon the pun.

Now, in the span of a few generations- twenty-six to be exact- and in eight years, guppies show selection towards various fecundity (birth) levels, depending on their environments. When put into two streams where there were no guppies, the stream that had predators produced guppies that had many offspring (since some of them would be eaten), and the stream without predators produced fewer offspring. (For those that say that no new species if formed, all that is required there is for isolation change producing a slight tweak in reproductive structures, or time of breeding, or proteins on the egg, etc.)

This study dramatically shows how it is environment which drives evolutionary change, and the formation of new populations and species. A stable environment is unlikely to produce major changes or many species; a quickly changing environment, like that the dynamic equilibrium of the coral reefs, produces the greatest diversity of any ecosystem. But who knew that evolution could actually happen so quickly.

The question isn't why organisms evolve so slowly. It is more, how is it that they evolve so quickly, with so little encouragement? And granted, this does nothing to help the macrofauna in the 6th Mass Extinction Event we are causing. But does it provide some hope for the more quickly breeding microfauna?

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