Wednesday, 8 September 2021

Evolution and purpose

 I've been dismayed over and over again at the way evolution is routinely misrepresented by people who ought to know better.

So I decided to keep a log of instances where I see it.

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10th Sept 2021 from the BBC. This might not be an actual contender. I have not found more details than are available on this page about this year's IG Nobel prizes. But the way it is phrased is just plain wrong. 

"Peace Prize: Ethan Beseris and colleagues, for testing the hypothesis that humans evolved beards to protect themselves from punches to the face." Bushy beards may have spread, pardon the pun, because men who had them survived being punched better than those who didn't. But the beards did not strategically evolve themselves However, humans, of course, are capable of agency, so it might be that some deliberately chose to cultivate their beards as a defence mechanism. Hard to say how humans might have made their beards bushier than they naturally were, though, so it sounds a bit suspect to me. And in any case, why didn't women evolve bushy beards - presumably they got punched in the face just as much.

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First up: the Guardian's science correspondent Natalie Grover. 27th Aug 2021 "Female hummingbirds look like males to avoid attacks, study suggests". No, there is no intention in evolution. Female hummingbirds who look like males turned out to have an evolutionary advantage - more of them survived because they were attacked less.

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No #2: Simon Barnes in Tortoise 26th Aug 2021 "Much as you love to mow the lawn, let the grass grow". He states: "the growing bit – the place at which the cells divide and growth can take place, technically the meristem – is not at the tip, as it is in most plants. It’s near the bottom.

"That may not sound all that exciting, but it’s central to the way life on land operates. It means you can eat grass without killing it. You can munch away at it, but it keeps coming back for more. This strategy evolved as a defence against grazing animals: the plants get eaten but they go on growing."

The key bit is "This strategy evolved as a defence against grazing animals". No, grass does not have strategies; it cannot think its way to a defence. Grass whose meristem was closer to the bottom happened to survive better when munched than that with its meristem near the tip, so bottom meristemmed grass spread and top meristemmed grass didn't. Grass does not have intentions.

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Much as you love to mow the lawn, let the grass grow

Much as you love to mow the lawn, let the grass grow

Much as you love to mow the lawn, let the grass grow


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