While serving in the Peace Corps in rural South Africa, I loved to visit different schools to talk about science. One of my favorite activities was playing the “Why” game. I’d encourage the kids to ask “Why” about anything at all and we’d use scientific thinking to formulate hypotheses.
It would take a while to coax even one “Why” out of the kids as they were totally unfamiliar with any kind of meaningful dialog with a teacher. When I invited them to ask “Why” questions, the only responses I got were dazed and confused expressions. Students were seldom encouraged to ask any questions, and if they did the only answer they were likely to get was “because it is” or “god made it that way.” But clearly those answers are not really satisfying because as soon as just one kid bravely took the chance to venture a question, the floodgates of pent-up curiosity unfailingly broke loose and a deluge of “Why” questions came pouring out from the entire class.
Tellingly, one of very first questions was inevitably “Why am I black while you are white?”
Now that might seem like a tricky question but it isn’t really hard at all. In everything to do with life, be it human or animal or plant or microbial, the answer to pretty much any question is “evolution.” Even if that isn’t a complete answer, it’s the perfect foundation upon which to discuss further nuances.
Why are you reading this article right now? Evolution! Granted, we could just as legitimately answer “chemistry” or “physics” and start from there. But when it comes to the traits and behaviors of living things that most kids are naturally most interested in, “evolution” is always the sensible starting point.
To get things started I would often hold up a hard-boiled egg that I typically carried around for a snack. Why do you suppose eggs are egg-shaped? This question would be met with confused looks, so I’d oil the hinges of their flood gates with squirts of evidence. Do you think it means anything that eggs of birds become increasingly oval as the land they live on becomes steeper? Within minutes we’d find ourselves testing the evolutionary importance of egg shape by rolling my lunch down a slanted desk-top and speculating on how rolling behavior can help or hinder the survival of those birds.
You don’t need to join the Peace Corps or teach school to play the “Why” game. You can play it with family and friends or even all by yourself. Think of any characteristic of living things, make it as simple or hard as you can, and start by asking why it is so. The answer of course is “evolution,” but now the real fun begins. Now you can think about “Why” that particular trait or behavior might have been an evolutionary advantage or hindrance.
To help you play the evolution game, here are some rules that are not always obvious:
1. Every trait of living things – physical, mental, behavioral, social, temperamental – all arise through evolution. Practically anything at all is fair game.
2. It is OK to personify evolution to help us talk about it. Personification makes it much easier to understand and relate how evolution works. It just needs to be understood without necessarily saying that personification is only a communication technique and that evolution does not really have motivation or intent.
3. Not all traits are necessarily helpful. Some are simply the result of innocuous mutations that don’t particularly help but they don’t hinder enough to get selected out. However the best starting hypothesis is to assume evolutionary significance. And just because we cannot imagine the significance of a trait, that doesn’t mean it has none.
4. Most traits have many advantages and disadvantages. In the grand dice-roll of evolution, the advantages of a trait must only collectively outweigh the disadvantages. In the case of egg-shapes, rolling down hills is just one of the many ways this simple trait affects the survival of that species. There are lots of right answers.
5. Evolution does not “care” about individuals. There is a rampant misconception that evolution favors the survival of individuals. This is largely a misapplication of the concept of “survival of the fittest.” This misapplication causes some to claim that examples of evolved traits that cause harm to individuals disprove evolution. Nothing could be more wrong. Evolution only cares about the species. It will happily kill individuals off, even within a species, if it helps the population to survive. Certain spider females eat their mate after fertilization. This helps the species to survive. The male is most useful as food after his job is done. Evolution holds individual lives in no particular regard.
6. Evolution does not guarantee the “best” traits. It merely makes it more likely that those random traits that happen to be good enough in a given circumstance are passed along. Our spine isn’t a good design let alone the best design. An intelligent designer would have come up with something much better. But it is good enough.
7. Evolution is not “going” anywhere. It is not “leading to” any sort of perfect human for example and mankind is not the “pinnacle” of evolution. All of evolution did not happen in order to create us.
8. Just because evolution is not going anywhere does not mean it is not going anywhere. Evolution is like a driverless car. There is no driver and it knows not where it is going. But it is definitely going somewhere nonetheless, following forces that direct it along a logical, non-random route defined by its characteristics, obstacles, terrain, and the physics of motion.
9. Evolution is not guaranteed to find a way for a species to survive change, especially rapid change. Most in fact do not survive change. Evolution certainly has not found ways for the vast majority of species on the planet to survive dramatic changes, the worst of which may be the holocaust of humanity.
10. Certain unimportant traits might have little role in survival right now, but they might either save or kill your species when the environment changes.
11. A good trait isn’t always good. Change the environment slightly and that trait that helped you survive yesterday may cause your extinction tomorrow. Belief is one of those. Just because it evolved yesterday does not mean it is not bad for us today.
12. Bad traits can be good. If a trait isn’t bad enough to kill you before reproducing, it’s good. Sickle-cell Anemia is not a desirable genetic trait right now. But it may be the only trait that grants immunity to the zombie apocalypse virus that is right around the corner of random mutation. The more biodiversity a gene pool can support, even “bad” genes, the more likely that species will survive over the long haul. Wiping out a “bad” gene today could doom us tomorrow.
Those are just a few of the things to consider when you think about how traits and behaviors might have evolved. So enjoy the “Evolution Did It” game! It’s infinitely more fun and stimulating than the “God Did It” game.