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21 September 2011

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Okay, as the spouse of an evolutionary scientist, let me make it as quick and easy as I can:

Every population contains variation: that is, every human being is a little different from every other human, every cat is a little different from every other cat, every slime mold is different from every slime mold, and so on.

These differences allow living things to interact with their environments differently: if you are an elephant that is a little bit bigger than the other male elephants, it's more likely that you will be able to fight them off and get access to more female elephants; it's less likely that the lions looking at the elephant herd will take you on. If you're a lion who is a little bit faster than the other lions, it's more likely that you will get to the elephant herd first and get first dibs on the meal, and hey, who knew that the lady lions fancied a bit of a neck ruff?

But these differences also have downsides: if you're bigger or faster, you need to eat more, and in tough times you're likely to starve. Genes can be linked in quirky ways; it turns out that the gene that turns on growing a mane also increases the likelihood of hip dysplasia (that one I just made up, but I have seen weirder links).

Here's the biggie: a difference that gives you an advantage *in a particular environment* makes it more likely that you will have offspring. A difference that gives you a disadvantage *in a particular environment* makes it less likely you will have offspring.

The more offspring you have, the more that particular difference will show up in future populations. Over a LONG time, that difference -- *if it continues to give an advantage* -- will no longer be a "difference", but the dominant trait in the population.

Elephants will all become big -- to a point. Lions will all become fast -- to a point. All the males will have manes -- with different thicknesses.

But variation will still remain in the population (there will be smaller elephants and lions with scruffy manes) because every population is still made up of individuals. And that's a good thing, because environments ALSO change -- temperatures get colder, summers get drier, rivers change their course, volcanos erupt, a new species may show up and start competing with yours, etc. etc.

That's evolutionary science in a nutshell. It's really just that simple. No miracles necessary.

(Although trying to trace the individual variations, and how they interact with each other over time in different environments, is what makes evolutionary science so complex and fascinating. The math can become so tricky that it often does look like handwaving and "then a miracle happened" -- or as my spouse calls them, "Just So stories".)

But the basic idea hasn't changed since Darwin pointed it out a hundred and fifty or so years ago.

Hapax,
I appreciate the very readable definition. That does square with what I had in mind of the basic idea. I'm always left with this question: did they not teach any of this stuff in my high school or was I not paying attention? I'm guessing a lot of it, sadly, was the latter. So thank you for continuing my education at a point when I AM paying attention.

Two thoughts back:
I still don't see why any of that excludes God, so I'll never understand the fight of evolution vs. creation;
and, it's stories like the one linked below that make me question how much modern evolutionary scientists, through no fault of their own, really "know":
http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/observations/2011/04/18/early-human-fossils-from-south-africa-could-upend-long-held-view-of-human-evolution/

So I think it's more the tone of many scientists ("this is so because of that") that puts me off. Although I do love the idea of "Just So Stories." Good stuff, that.

I'm a firm believer in evolution and a firm believer in God. I've never had a problem with holding both in my head. But I fight on the evolution side of the debate, if I have to. I don't think evolution excludes the idea of God, but I do think creationism excludes the idea of evolution.

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