On Sundays I like to buy the Observer newspaper, because it has a section made up of extracts from the New York Times. There was an article yesterday on some of the latest findings on Evolution. (No, it wasn’t about the recently-opened Creationist museum, where you can see dinosaurs grazing away happily alongside Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden!)
Though I’ve never had a problem accepting the fact of Evolution, it’s always seemed to me that it has happened far faster than the mechanism of natural selection, random mutations and a bit of jumbling between the parents allowed for. Recently this was confirmed for me when I read about a type of lizard introduced as an experiment to a new environment, where within 6 months their legs lengthened to avoid predators, and then shortened after another 6 months so they could climb trees and avoid them even better.
What’s happening now through the science of evolutionary biology is that the genetic basis for this adaptability is just beginning to be understood. The general finding being made is that animals already have the genes for all sorts of different physical features, and it’s just a matter of them being switched on or off. So adaptation to a new environment can happen very quickly, and new species can therefore arise very quickly.
For example, we have 99% of our genes in common with chimpanzees (speak for yourself, I hear you saying!), but because different genes are switched on or off, we are very different to them. We still have the genes, for example, to be covered in body hair.
In an experiment on chicken embryos, it was found that if one particular gene (also found in other birds) was encouraged to express itself, the chick began developing a wider, taller beak; with another gene, a long, slender beak. So it’s like a lot of it is there already, you don’t need millions of years of random mutations to adapt successfully to an environment.
Where it got spookily interesting was in the case of an ancient fish known as the paddlefish. Investigations revealed genes already present which, if turned on, could lead to the development of fingers, hands and feet, crucial innovations used in emerging from the water to a life on land. Obviously this means that the transition to walking on land can happen more quickly than we might previously have thought. But the really interesting question, which the article didn’t raise, is why should these genes have been there in the first place if there had never been any need for anything remotely like fingers and feet? This is what I find mind-boggling. How does evolution run ahead of itself like this?
What I like about Evolution is that it tells us so much about the life-force, its vitality and creativity, it’s determination to survive and thrive, its sheer variety. And the sense that somewhere there is some sort of direction or purpose to the process, even though it is hard to define. But how the hell does it run ahead of itself like this? It reinforces the idea of some sort of purpose, some sort of blueprint out there in a wider reality that is drawing evolution onwards. And if this is happening on a physical level, why not also on a cultural level with humans?