A reasonable take on evolution - starting 6,000 years ago

I told my wife, “I think I’ll try and write a very reasonable column about evolution.” She replied, “Are you qualified to do that?” What? Does she think I’m not reasonable, or that I am not highly evolved?

You might be surprised to learn that Jacob, in the Old Testament, was the first recorded geneticist. His story dates back somewhere between 4,000 and 6,000 years. They didn’t have copyright laws then so the exact date is unclear. But in the 30th chapter of Genesis, it explains how Jacob made a deal to work for his father-in-law for a couple of daughters and all the spotted and speckled cattle, sheep and goats.

That didn’t sound like such a good deal to me since I have trouble taking care of one wife and a few bees. Jacob had a secret plan though. He built corrals and controlled the breeding of the animals until the spotted and speckled ones were more numerous and stronger than the others. Do you think his father-in-law was angry when Jacob left town because he took his daughters, or the herd?

Anyway, it’s obvious Jacob knew something about genetics and selective breeding a very long time ago, even though Darwin gets all the credit. Heck, Darwin’s even more popular that Mendel, who is the one who actually figured out the mechanics of inheritance. But Darwin has a better Political Action Committee than Mendel.

Everyone gets all excited about evolution, but hardly anyone agrees about what it is. Almost everyone thinks they have evolved into something better than they used to be, but no one thinks they used to be a monkey. Some people think that evolution makes the idea of God unnecessary. Evolution only works on life that is already created, not to create life. Besides, it never says in Genesis that God was through creating things, only that he took a break after six days. Hardworking people ought to get a vacation every once in awhile. He might have gone to Martha’s Vineyard.

It doesn’t seem a lot different to me whether Jacob chooses which animals get to mate than if nature chooses. Some animals still get to have offspring and some don’t. Of course, in Jacob’s case, Jacob still made the decisions controlling breeding after each generation.

In nature the selecting force changes with each generation. If you put new animals into the environment, you get a new environment. Since it’s the environment that selects survivors, it’s like putting a new person in charge of breeding every generation. So the environment selects the survivors and the survivors select the environment. It’s like a dog chasing its tail.

A physical law usually allows us to either predict or control events. The laws of physics and chemistry are often applicable in some very specific and useful ways. For example, the various gas laws can help us predict explosions and control machinery.

Evolution only predicts in a very general way. And while we can use the concepts for breeding to achieve some control, Kentucky Derby winners still don’t always produce Kentucky Derby contenders. Predicting or controlling the environment, or the individual organisms evolution will create in the future, is futile.

On the other hand, science is based upon reason. It seems reasonable that if I can breed an animal selectively, then the environment might certainly influence breeding as well. However, reason is based on initial assumptions.

And almost everyone thinks their present assumptions are accurate, even though those assumptions are different than the assumptions they held previously, or will hold tomorrow.

So if my wife’s initial assumption that I was a good risk was wrong, then it is obvious I have evolved into the reasonable person I am today. If, however, she was right, then I have always been a highly evolved, reasonable person. What is she thinking? Of course I’m qualified!

Have you ever read a more reasonable column on evolution?

Gary McCallister is professor of biology at Colorado Mesa University.


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