Thoughts about Natural Selection.

in science •  last year

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We have all studied or at least heard about Darwin’s theory of evolution. Now, do people really understand what natural selection actually is? If we ask the majority of the population about evolution, we will probably get answers such as: "It is about the human being coming from the monkey" or "the survival of the strongest", “evolution is when species constantly improve how they adapt to their environment.”

The central idea of the Darwinian theory is that the “changes that allow an organism to better adapt to its environment will help it survive and have more offspring” | Source. Hence, the species that manage to adapt to their environment will survive and those that cannot adapt end up disappearing.

What is natural selection?

It is the process by which organisms change over time as a result of changes in heritable physical or behavioral traits. Source

What does it mean to be adapted?

Adapted is nothing more than the ability of a species in a particular ecosystem to reproduce and ensure the survival of its descendants. In other words, it means to thrive.

Since this theory is constantly being misinterpreted, there might be popular beliefs thar are incorrect. Therefore, today I would like to discuss about:

  • Natural selection as an orderly sequence.
  • The different adaptation of the species.
  • Natural selection as a struggle for survival.

Natural selection as an orderly sequence


Natural selection is not an orderly sequence. Species don't go from version 1.0 to 2.0 as our hardware does.

What is a mutation?

A gene mutation is a permanent alteration in the DNA sequence that makes up a gene, such that the sequence differs from what is found in most people. Mutations range in size; they can affect anywhere from a single DNA building block (base pair) to a large segment of a chromosome that includes multiple genes. | Source

Mutations are alterations to a DNA sequence. If one thinks of the information in DNA as a series of sentences, mutations are errors in spelling the words that make up those sentences. | Source

What happens is that species have new mutations from time to time, and the mutations that end up improving the adaptation to the environment are the ones that will remain alive so to say, and will get more and more common as the beings with this mutation has a natural advantage against those who don't.

A perfect example of this are polar bears. By being white, and living surrounded by snow, polar bears have a much easier job when hunting for preys. This mutation allows them to survive, and thanks to this, it can be say its a successful mutation.

Mutations can be caused by random errors in DNA replication or repair, or by chemical or radiation damage. Most times, mutations are either harmful or neutral, but in rare instances, a mutation might prove beneficial to the organism. If so, it will become more prevalent in the next generation and spread throughout the population. | Source

Thus, those living beings that do not adapt to the context will disappear or they will have to change their environment to one that is more fit for them. An important thing to note is the fact that the context varies with time, a species or individual adapted in the past may not be so in the future, and vice versa.

The different adaptation of the species.


Some people can say that "the human being is the best adapted animal on earth" or "we are at the top of the evolutionary ladder". If we check the definition of adaptation, we will see that it consists in surviving, having descendants and that said descendants survive, in short, maintaining existence is what determine if a species is adapted or not (not ending with the existence of others or having the power to do so). In addition, from this we deduce that all the species that currently exist are also adapted, since either you exist or you don't exist.

What is adaptation

Adaptation, in biology, process by which an animal or plant species becomes fitted to its environment; it is the result of natural selection’s acting upon heritable variation. Even the simpler organisms must be adapted in a great variety of ways: in their structure, physiology, and genetics, in their locomotion or dispersal, in their means of defense and attack, in their reproduction and development, and in other respects. | Source

Having said this, many people could argue about the great achievements of human beings or our high intellectual capacity that would differentiate us from the rest of the other living beings. Now, just as the tiger has used its claws to survive, the human being did it through the intellect. Each species has different qualities that allow them to survive.

It is true that the human being has built complex institutions and rules to achieve this mission, while a microbe simply does so with its resistance and its high reproductive capacity. However, here I like to go to the metaphor of seeing the human being as that student who struggles a lot to pass the tests, while the microbe is the student who just reading the subject on the same day always passes the test. In the end, the result for both is the same, as both end up approving the test.

Natural selection as a struggle for survival.


Finally, we are going to discuss about the myth of seeing selection as a struggle for existence or as the survival of the strongest. Do not forget that those who survive are those who adapt to their environment. If the circumstances favors those who attack, they will survive; but if the circumstances favors those who flee and avoid confrontation, these will be the adapted ones.

The human being and the vast majority of species have been able to survive thanks to their mutual support. The ability to live in societies or herds in collaboration allows a better response to the challenges of the environment.

However, with this I do not mean that violence and competition do not exist, but they can be seen as an adaptive behavior. But we must bear in mind that that fighting is not the most important aspect of natural selection. Both the struggle and mutual support are part of the options that species have, so they can face their environment and the difficulties that this can pose.

Conclusion


Natural selection is the perfect way to let time decide how will life manifest in reality. Yet, the process is incredibly slow, especially compared to our fast pace world of today, where technology from only 5 years ago might seem ancient today.

That's why I think we have reach a state, in which we will transcend the natural selection process, and start to tweak by ourselves the future mutations there will be. Literally, designing our own future, based on our wishes and tastes.

In the next thousand years, if our race is not extinguished by self destruction or an unimaginable catastrophe, and evolution continues on its way, it will cease to exist as we know it.

From the exoskeletons that will increase our strength, as well as an increase in all levels of the 5 senses plus probably new ones. I think our next step is to accelerate the rate of our evolution by technological means.

The end result of this new era is unknown, there is an event called technological singularity, which we will be discussing in another post. That event is as far as we can see. Whatever happens after that event is impossible to know, sort of like an inverted event horizon, where it is not the information that cannot reach us, but instead it is us that cannot reach or understand the implications and the afterwards of something like that happening.




References

livescience - evolution
ghr.nlm.nih.gov - gene mutation
livescience - mutation
khanaacademy - natural selection
science.howstuffworks - evolution
britannica - adaptation

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1 , 2 , 3 , 4 , 5 , 6

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I'm currently reading a book titled "The Red Queen: Sex and the Evolution of Human Nature" by Matt Ridley. It expands of many of the things you mention here. If you haven't read it, I highly recommend it. If you are interested in evolution, you will really be impressed.

Ann important concept I read somewhere in the book is that we often make the mistake of assuming that we evolve in order to survive. But it's really the other way around. Survival is not a target by itself. It's just that those who better adapt happen to survive.

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I haven't heard of that book, thanks!

The one I have been wanting to get for myself is Richard Dawkins famous book called "The Greatest Show on Earth".

Survival is not a target by itself

That's another way of seeing it. But it certainly looks like survival is the end goal, since only the successful mutations are the ones that remain. So if we don't evolve to survive, why do we evolve?

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I will copy an excerpt from the book to explain this concept :)

"...Only gradually did it dawn on modern biologists that the Weismann logic was profoundly flawed. It seems to treat evolution as some kind of imperative, as if evolving was what species exist to do – as if evolving were a goal imposed on existence.

This is of course nonsense. Evolution is something that happens to organisms. It is a directionless process that sometimes makes an animal’s descendants more complicated, sometimes simpler, and sometimes changes them not at all. We are so steeped in notions of progress and self-improvement that we find it strangely hard to accept this. But nobody has told the coelacanth, a fish that lives off Madagascar and looks exactly like its ancestors of 300 million years ago, that it has broken some law by not evolving. The notion that evolution simply cannot go fast enough, and its corollary that a coelacanth is a failure because it did not become a human being, is easily refuted. As Darwin noticed, mankind has intervened dramatically to speed up evolution, producing hundreds of breeds of dogs, from chihuahuas to St Bernards in an evolutionary eyeblink. That alone is evidence that evolution was not going as fast as it could. Indeed, the coelacanth, far from being a flop, is rather a success. It has stayed the same – a design that persists without innovation, like a Volkswagen Beetle. Evolving is not a goal but a means to solving a problem."

Whether a species evolves or not, the ones that are best adapted to the environment will survive while others will perish. It's not a goal but survivorship bias. If you had two animals and one of them adapted to new situations while the other one did not, one would die (and not reproduce) and the other one would stay alive and reproduce. So only the second animal's descendants would remain, evolved.

My comment might look silly in a science post as I would be using comics as basis.

The concept of mutations either becoming beneficial and move us to the next stage of evolution has been a focal point of the X Men series. From Homo Sapiens to what they termed as Homo Superior. The mutagens can be any number of internal or external in origins but giving people abilities that can be useful in increasing survivability in the coming age.

I had a lot of fun reading your post. Truly thought provoking.

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My comment might look silly

Of course not bud! I like your comment :P.

In the X men series the mutants are clearly the next step in evolution, in simply words, they are superiors, and they should be the ones in charge since they were "blessed" with crazy mutations that everyone would like to have.

The fun thing is, perhaps something similar to the X men mutations could actually become true one day, not thanks to a random mutation, but thanks to genetic engineering.

Your write up is explaining the theory of Darwin clearly and logically.. As you mention we used to know this theory as "We are coming from monkeys" But it is basically just adapting a species to its environment and have some changes physically or mentally.. And this is the way to exist in the earth.. We will see how the adaption will be in the far future with the technology factor..

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The technology factor will change everything for the better I think.

There is probably no limit we can see as of yet, to what we can accomplish with the proper technology.

Couple points:

I think we're already past the point of environmental selection. I think with today's current tech the species would survive something like a giant meteor with enough prep. Really it might come down to whether we remove ourselves.

There is no value judgment based on "winners and losers" of evolution. Either you were or you weren't best adapted to a specific point in time. Something a lot of people who think they are better than others because they are successful should remember...

We might be past environmental selection, however I think that we can actually observe social selection changing what traits are beneficial in our species at a human timescale.

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social selection changing what traits are beneficial

This is an excellent point, I didn't considered this perspective. This mating process could be considered natural selection as well, in my opinion.

Nice little summary of what evolution and "natural selection" is, and common misconceptions about it.

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Very good analysis, I had not seen the human being as a survivor who has adapted to the environment using his intellect.

Google translator

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I had not seen the human being as a survivor who has adapted to the environment using his intellect

I am not sure what you mean with this? Our intellect has help us a lot in adapting our environment to our needs, and even more, to makes us stronger so we can survive in places that are not meant for us.

Do you mean the process of adapting to a certain environment has nothing to do with intelligence? Because if that's the case then I get what you meant, since there are a lot of beings, like insects, that are perfectly adapted and yet, they are not much intelligent to say the least.

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Our intellect has helped us to adapt better, of that there is no doubt, but also to destroy, invade, let pass the healthy coexistence between the human-environment, which has generated dramatic changes, affect other species and balance.
There is also an opinion that being intelligent has helped us to adapt, in a way that can not be anything else that can do it and in short periods of time. but also sometimes it has been harmful to the rest of the environment that surrounds us breaking the balance.

That is why he said that it had never been thought that the human being is a survivor, because he always perceived it as a factor of dramatic changes in the environment.

It is difficult for me to express myself with a translator, I am sorry if I can not give my opinion.
The article you have done on the theory of natural selection is great, easy to understand, I think I went elsewhere :)

Wow. This is educating. I'm interested in learning more about evolution and natural selection. I am really unexposed to scientifical terms, so online articles on evolution are usually too difficult for my comprehension.

As much as I like the idea of tweaking the future in that regard, I feel it will be a controlled and manipulated project by ptb...