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Monday, July 13, 2009

Evolution - Get it Right Already!

*swears in various languages so my kids don't repeat*

I was going to not post about evolution. It's something I think everyone should know, on the same scale as knowing their left from right (er- port from starboard for those of the nautical persuassion), and it's a Hot Topic that could start a flame war.
We Are Not Going There.

This is not a discussion about Creationism vs. Evolution or whether you think you are descended from a monkey. This is a quick and dirty overview of the basic Darwinian evolution, the theory of survival of the fittest, and how it fits into science fiction writing.

You may blame a degree in biology and the Tor post of Darwinisim for this post.

What is the Theory of Evolution?
The very root of what Darwin theorized all those many years ago was very simply this: mutations that allow an individual to survive to procreate will be passed, with the genetic advantage, to future generations.

That's it.

Anything that allows a specimen to survive to breed/split/propagate will be passed down tot he next generation.

Where Do We See Evolution?
You're probably most familiar with the selective evolution and breeding of domesticated animals. You know the pure-bred cat or dog you see around? It isn't an individual species, it's still a dog or cat, but it's been selectively bred (read: gone through forced evolution) for generations to breed for a certain phenotype (physical form).

Darwin observed evolution in Galapagos Finches, observing how the beaks changed every few generations to accommodate the kinds of food available in seasons of drought and flood.

A longer beaked finch would die of starvation during some years, leading to the mass breeding of shorter beaked finches in the following generation. But when the weather changed, the shorter beaked finches would die of starvation instead.

So.... Are My Ancestors Monkeys?
Do you look like a monkey?

Is being a monkey in some way genetically favorable for you?

One of the common misconceptions surrounding the Theory of Evolution is that it is in some way infallible proof that humans evolved from some other species and that religion of any kind is some grand scam.

I could argue this in both directions all day long.

If you think Evolution proves you are the direct descendant of an amoeba, more power to you. If you think Evolution only proves that favorable genes get passed to the next generation, hooray for you too. It isn't worth starting a fight over, unless the fight is in a book, preferably fictional.

Than it's good writing :o)

Why Do I Need to Know This to Write?
Because it's cruel to make me twitch?

Seriously, nothing makes me drop a book faster than bad science. And I'm talking the standard FTL tropes.

I've done the rounds with a fantasy writer friend who likes to make up liquid species. Not quite shape shifters, but not quite your standard carbons-based life form either. When I read my friend's work I get a nervous tic whenever he ad-libbing the biology behind the creatures.

If you want to go create a fictional race, that's fine. Go for it. I encourage you to go and be creative. But keep it sensible and remember that any adaptation has to have a root cause.

- Most Generalist species (you, me, squirrels, roaches) have ways to deal with extreme temperatures. Not the same way, but a way.

- Creatures living in various habitats tend to get a coloring that matches: polar bears, green tree snakes, tan jack rabbits. There is a reason for this, it's called not getting eaten because you stand out like a neon sign.

- Eyes vary differently on most animals. Insects see in a different color spectrum. Some mammals don't see in color at all. If you want to have fun create a species that has different eyes than humans. That's an easy switch.

Are We Clear Yet?

I'm just terrified of picking up another book and having some whacked out, logic-bending, creation stare me in the face. It makes me throw books on the wall. I can almost forgive fantasy writers who say it's magic. But if you even dare try it in a sci-fi piece I will personally come after you with the Hammer of Logic and a Red Pen.

I'm just saying....



  1. Hahaha! I think you make a valid point for those who dislike the theory of evolution. If you want to give a scientific flavor to your fantasy critters like weres and witches and whatnot, it behooves you to at least understand the processes that are at work in the theory.

    Me, I don't see what all the hullabaloo is about evolutionary theory. There's plenty of evidence that the theory is a valid definition, and there's NOTHING to say a god wasn't at work behind it, either.

  2. :o) See, I know what I believe for evolution and God, but I don't expect everyone to agree. That's why I'm staying well out of it and tend to skirt the issue of religion when I'm writing futuristic pieces (I don't think it can be done with historicals).

    But it really does make me happier if people remember the basics of evolutionary theory when they create new life forms. There has to be some logic behind the creation. Otherwise I get thrown out of the storyline and sit there mumbling about how that can't possibly be right.

  3. Creationist here. But one who isn't really all that interested in the evolution argument beyond firmly stating my ancestors were dogs, if they had to be an animal. Explains why humans and dogs have worked and lived together for ages, yanno. ;)

    But as a fantasy writer, I tend to agree with your points. At least, you need to assert certain rules as you write.

    Taking an example from real life - I think we can see a certain evolution depending on where people live. This is based on two things -

    A. Breeding based on attraction or deliberate selection.

    1. If in a culture people with blue eyes are seen as evil, you can bet they won't be getting married and passing their genes down to the next generation.

    2. If in a culture, tall and fair people are favored as ideal mates, you can bet they WILL be passing their genes down to the next generation.

    B. Those who can survive conditions are more likely to pass their genes to the next generation.

    1. People who inherit the 'slow metabolism' are more likely to survive and pass their genes to the next generation in places where the harvest is generally scarce, life is hard, etc...

    This doesn't mean I believe that mutations occur based on the weather or world conditions. It just means mutations survive because of their ability to survive the weather or world condition. Or how they are seen.

    A good example would be the Easter Island peoples (the short ears vs the long ears - the tall people who got beat out by the short people, etc).

  4. Megs- that's exactly how it works though. A genetic mutation that produces a favorable adaptation means that gene is more likely to be passed to successive generation.

    If it keeps you alive long enough to breed, the kids get it. And hopefully it helps them too.

    With humans, culture can play a large part in that selection of favorable genes. What I might look for in a mate isn't what my neighbor might look for. Ideals of beauty and virility will be different in different cultures.

    It keeps us from all looking the same :o)

  5. Well - yes.

    If the evolutionist argument was simply based on looking at the species around us and saying they are the end-result survivors based on which genes were passed down and which genetic lines survived, then that I can agree with.

    Polar bears survived because of their ability to eat anything, ability to swim or live on land, and their ability to co-breed with other types of bears (polar bears interbreeding with grizzlies, at least according to some studies), ability to live in the coldest environs, ability to blend in with the surroundings to aid their hunt. Etc...

    I guess what I'm thinking is that when I look at my garden as it changes per year - I don't see daisies turning into ragweed. What happens is the ragweed was already in the soil and survived because the weather and conditions (me not weeding regularly) were ideal for it to take over everything.

    The reason why creationists get so absolute in their argument against evolution is because we get crazy people trying to tell us that the daisies turned into ragweed. :]

  6. No, daisies don't turn into ragweed... they have similarities though. They're both plants. They use similar metabolic processes to survive. But they aren't the same.

    Ragweed can out-compete daisies though, but that's not the same thing as a daisy evolving into a a weed. :o)

  7. AMEN.

    I teach world lit in a very Southern area, and when I even mention evolution (I teach it in context with eugenics during the Holocaust), all the kids cover their ears and say their preachers told 'em Darwin said they came from monkeys.

    Then I bang my head on the wall.

  8. Beth- Oh my word! I'd cry! Poor you!

    And angry me. That's not what Darwin said. And humans vs monkeys is not the basics in theory of evolution.

    You'd think there'd be enough farming in the south that people would get the point of evolution. The crops we've domesticated aren't like wild crops. We breed them for disease resistance, yield, color, size... it's all forced evolution. You'd think people could correlate the two concepts.

    But it's as bad as pointing out that grafting is just a form of genetic engineering when you talk to a food purist who doesn't want gen-en corn. They cover their ears and scream (okay- that was a bad pun).

  9. *claps*

    Everything--magic included--must have rules and consistency and logic. I think that sometimes, in the mad rush of words, writers forget this.

  10. Liana, what an excellent post about the true meaning of evolution. I don't think that I've ever heard better, and the comments complimented it wonderfully.

    The one thing that I would like to add is to please not judge all of the South by one instance of ignorance. Not everyone in the South refuses to open their eyes and ears. In my sixty plus years, living all over the USA, I have encountered more close minds outside of the South than in it.

    Beth, have you pointed out to the children that it was the logical conclusion of the erroneous interpretation of evolution which lead to eugenics and the evil of the holocaust? That if they don't understand what it really says, that history will repeat itself?

    Meg, I loved your comment about crazies, daisies and ragweed. Very astute. My grandfather once said, "Who's to say how long one of God's ages is? A little presumptious, don't you think?" *G*

    I have a theroy about writing SF. If we are going to write BS, we have a duty to make it really good, plausible BS. :-)