HO HO HO! Merry Galapagos Islands!
Snoopy. We all know him. We all.....well, I wouldn’t say LOVE him.....but we all sorta-kinda like him. Just a bit. If you’re like me you liked him more when you were young. But by the time I was in my teens, Snoopy had lost most of his appeal. I didn’t find the daily comic all that funny anymore, and while I still watched the holiday specials, I just wasn’t into them as much. I guess I sort of grew out of Snoopy.
Most of us do. Some people don’t, though. Some people remain infatuated with Snoopy, even into adulthood. And some, well.....they take it to extremes. Their cubicle at work is splattered with Snoopy. They have a Snoopy watch. They have Snoopy shaped sex toys. (you Google it....I’m not doing it...) They are obsessed with Snoopy.
But who cares?
I don’t. I only mention Snoopy because he was a beagle. And you know me, the king of the segue.
See, Snoopy was a beagle. Do you know what else was a beagle? A Cherokee class 10-gun sloop in the Royal Navy. The H.M.S. Beagle. And it was captained by none other than Captain Robert FitzRoy.* And who was he? Well, besides captaining the Beagle, he was a meteorologist who actually made accurate predictions of the weather. In fact, he coined the term ‘forecast’ to describe his predictions. He also founded the Meteorological Office, and served as governor of New Zealand.
And, to prevent a voyage filled with boredom, he invited a pastor named Charles Darwin to accompany him on a five year voyage to survey the world. See, someone of a captains rank couldn’t fraternize with the common sailors on the ship, and his officers weren’t interesting to him, so he chose Darwin.
Darwin wasn’t his first choice, but since he was an ordained minister, had a scientific bent, and had a nose that was ‘trustworthy’, FitzRoy took him along. They got along fine, but as with any people stuck together in cramped quarters for so lone, tensions did rise up occasionally. One of the main sources of contention was the fact that FitzRoy was deeply religious, and Darwin wasn’t. He was a minister because he had to be something, and he passed all his classes.
And that brings us to today’s topic:
Burritos and where they come from.
You know, that’s a joke. I mean, I’m sure you all would like a post on burritos, but I was just joking. Actually, todays post is about Charles Darwins Theory of Evolution.
To be more precise, it’s about what people get wrong about evolution.
First off, let’s get this out of the way right off. Darwin never called it evolution. He used the term ‘descent with modification’. And it wasn’t a brand new idea when he came up with it. In fact, the year Darwin set off on his voyage, a man named....I forget what his name is. (ok smart asses. That’s not his name, so keep the comments to yourself). Anyway, this man published a theory of evolution in an appendix to a volume on naval arboriculture. And it only took up two pages.
So, it wasn’t exactly a new theory. In fact, the reason Darwin published ‘On The Origin Of Species By Means Of Natural Selection’ was because an Australian scientist sent Darwin a paper he was going to present that was nearly identical to Darwins. Chuck, you see, had thought it would be best to delay publishing until after he died so no one could denounce him while he was alive.
But, as a result of the paper he received, he consulted with a couple of friends and it was decided to present a joint paper to the Linnean Society. So, Darwins theory should actually be called ‘The Darwin/Wallace Theory’, but it’s not. While Darwin never claimed it as his own, everyone forgets about Albert Wallace, the Australian who prompted the publication.
Another thing people get wrong is, Darwin never said humans were descended from apes. In fact, he didn’t mention apes in his book until the sixth edition. It was then that he proposed that humans and apes once shared an ancestor. But people decided that he was saying we started out as apes and changed into humans.
What he actually said was, there was a critter that had babies. Two of those babies were mutants. One of the mutants kept mutating and became apes. The other baby kept mutating and became human. (over simplification, but you get the point). In fact, when humans and apes last shared an ancestor, there weren’t any humans or apes. Only a primate that resembled a lemur.
Darwins theory also isn’t about the origin of life. He doesn’t even try to explain how life began. All he does is detail a process for existing life to change into something else over long periods of time. Because, make no mistake about it, evolution does take a long time.**
And it doesn’t happen all at once. It’s very gradual. For example, early human ancestors didn’t walk upright like we do. They were mostly tree dwellers. But as the climate changed, the trees started to thin out. So instead of moving from tree to tree, they found that they would have to occasionally move out of the trees and move across open ground to the next cluster of trees.
But there were nasty beasties in those open, grassy areas. And these beasties liked to eat the tree things. And since the only way the tree things could move on the ground was to use it’s arms like legs, it had a hard time seeing over the tall grass if something was coming. So one smart one stood up and awkwardly moved just with it’s legs. It wasn’t fast, and it wasn’t graceful, but it did allow it to see over the grass if something was coming.
The others would see this, and soon they were all trying to move that way between the trees. But the problem was, they weren’t built for moving that way. Not all of them could do it. And the ones who could, didn’t move fast.
Until one day, two of the ones that could had a baby that was a little mutant. It had an ass that stuck out a bit. When it stood on it’s legs, the protruding ass gave it better balance. It wasn’t as wobbly on it’s legs. It could move faster as a result. And hoo-boy did that ability get him or her laid a lot. This allowed the ass-gene to slowly spread throughout the population. And somewhere along the line another baby was born with mutated feet. There was a strange curve to the bottom of the foot. It was.....arched.
Well, that arch gave better support and balance. This mutant could move even faster than the assed critters. And, as time crept on, through lots and lots of sex, asses and arches became standard. Now keep in mind that this didn’t take one or two generations. It took fifty or sixty. From the time our ancestors first dropped out of the trees to awkwardly amble on all fours to the next batch of trees until they could run from one clump to the next was somewhere in the realm of thirty to forty thousand years. And that’s just walking.
Now, you’ll notice I used the term ‘mutant’ a few times. Well, that’s what evolution is. It’s a mutation from the norm. Imagine a child born today with an arm growing out it’s chest. Out first reaction would be to remove it surgically. But, what if we left it where it was and it developed into a fully functional third arm? Do you think that person might have an advantage over someone with two arms and hands?
Sure, the child would be a mutant. But there’s no denying we all haven’t wished for a third hand at some point. And if it was an otherwise normal person, someone would mate with them. And they would spread the third arm gene, and in a hundred thousand years, all humans would have three arms. We would not be Homo sapiens, though. Humans would have evolved into a new species.
You may think that because it’s called the ‘theory of evolution’ that it’s just a theory and not proven. Well, here’s the key to the small closet. Go lock yourself in it and don’t ever come back out. In science the word theory doesn’t mean the same thing it does everywhere else. In science a theory is accepted as factual. Like the theory of gravity. Or the theory of thermal dynamics.
Some people will say that because we can’t see evolution happening, it can’t be real. The fact of the matter is, we can see it. We know it happens because we have proof. Take for example the coccyx. What is the coccyx? It’s our tailbone. The end of our spine. The reason it’s called the tailbone is because it used to be a tail. Remember our lemur-like ancestor? It had a tail. Over hundreds of millions of years we lost the need to a tail. So we stopped growing one. We still have the ability, though. People are sometimes born with a vestigial tail that gets removed.
Since we don’t have the need for a tail, the genes that control the growing of one were turned off. And how were they turned off? Offspring born with smaller tails became more attractive so they mated more. So tails shrank until eventually, they were gone. Tails aren’t the only thing we don’t need anymore. The appendix is another part of us we don’t need anymore. So it’s turned off. It does absolutely nothing. But it used to serve a purpose. Some think it may at one time served like a gizzard in our ancestors. Or produced an agent that helped in digestion of some lone extinct food.***
But probably the main thing people get wrong about evolution is the fact that they say there are no transitional species. But in fact, there are. Several, in fact. But the one most commonly known is the Archaeopteryx. It’s the transitional fossil between dinosaurs and birds. It has traits of both dinosaurs and birds, but it isn’t quite either one. It’s a perfect example of one species evolving into another.
Science has hundreds of transitional examples. People just choose to ignore them, or they don’t recognize them for what they are.
I’ve touched on transitional evolution in posts about trilobites before, but I’ll summarize for you. It has to do with eyes. People ask how could an eye evolve. Half an eye is worthless. Well, people think that a totally sightless creature gave birth to one that had fully formed eyes. They say it’s impossible. And they’re right. But, a blind trilobite once gave birth to a baby whose exoskeleton had a defect. Instead of the normal shell, a rod of calcite formed that went from the outside to the inside. And it just so happened to touch a portion of the brain. And the brain was able to sense the subtle difference between total darkness and just slightly brighter darkness.
This formerly blind bug now had a very slight advantage in feeding and avoiding predators. So it passed the calcite mutation on. And one rod became two, which became four, then eight, sixteen, thirty two and so on. Eventually, trilobites had thousands of calcite rods clumped together into two groups on either side of it’s head. It had eyes. Instead of being able to see the difference between dark and slightly less dark, it could now see shapes. It could see where it was going. It could see where to run to avoid becoming food.
And other organisms evolved eyes in much the same way. The first sight wasn’t sight like we have. It was the ability to differentiate total darkness from not quite total darkness. And as eyes evolved, they let in more light. Soon we could see blurry shapes move. Then the shapes started getting clearer. Soon we could see clearly. And in color. Because the red berries are poisonous, but the blue ones are yummy.
Anyway, I’ve rambled on long enough. Time for me to wrap it up. Hopefully I’ve wasted my time and didn’t tell you anything you didn’t already know. If that is the case, that means our education system works. If you did learn something, great. Learn everyday and you’ll be happier.
Maybe next week I’ll learn you about burritos.
* FitzRoy is actually the correct way to spell the name. What can you say? The English are strange.
** A long time is a relative term. In the scope of the Earths lifespan, a million years is a blink of the eye.
*** Some scientists think the appendix actually does serve a purpose, we just haven’t figured out what it is yet. But if that’s the case, it is most likely a redundant purpose, or a non-essential one as the appendix can be removed with zero effect on a person. Except for the fact that they won’t die when it bursts and releases all it’s toxin into the system.