X-Men Evolution…is not actual evolution

duty_calls Every so often you come across something that strikes you as so arrogantly pigheaded and fundamentally wrong that you feel the urge to try and correct it, no matter the obvious folly of the attempt. Yes, that’s right, someone is wrong on the internet and by jove if I’m not going to do something about it.

The wrong person in question is the author of an article entitled X-Men and the Theory of Evolution, which attempts to discredit the theory of evolution by pointing to the X-Men franchise and asking us to explain why, if the theory of evolution is true, we don’t see mutants like Wolverine running around. Yes, it really is that stupid and that’s what makes it fun. Now I am not going to repeat what the article says, you can click the link above if you want to check it out for yourself, instead I am just going to stick up the response I posted in the comments section of the article and, if I get a reply, I will post that as well. Here we go.

1) What you think is evolution, is not evolution

I feel I should start by asking if you really believe that evolution as depicted in the X-Men franchise is an accurate reflection of the theory of evolution and how evolutionary processes act in reality? I ask because your entire post seems to be based on the unbelievably faulty assumption that, just because it happens in the X-Men, we should be seeing people with superpowers and “monkey/man mutants” running around all over the place. Nothing in evolutionary theory makes this claim and, before you accuse me of trying to change what the theory says as you have many others, it never has done.

Individuals do not evolve, populations do. When a trait emerges that conveys an advantage then that individual is more likely, though not guaranteed, to survive long enough to reproduce and pass that trait on to the next generation. Over time this beneficial trait will become dominant in the population as more offspring are produced by those with the trait than those without the trait. At this point the population has evolved to become better suited to the environment in which it lives.

Biological evolution is, and has been since the discovery of genetics, defined as “a change in the allele frequency of genes in a population over time”. As I am sure you know, alleles can be thought of as versions of genes, so, to use an overly simplistic example, you might have a gene that controls eye colour that has an allele for brown eyes, one for green eyes, and another for blue. If the number of people in the population with blue eyes changes significantly over time this would reflect a change in the allele frequency of that gene in the population, and thus a small evolutionary change will have occurred.

2) Why on earth should we evolve to be immortal?

You are right that survival is an important issue in evolution, but it is survival of the species that matters, not survival of the individual. As long as an individual survives long enough to pass on their genes to the next generation then they have done their job from an evolutionary perspective. Indeed, there are many species of insect where, after mating, the male of the species is killed by the female. This fits perfectly with evolutionary theory, as while the individual male may have died, his body is eaten by the female to provide nutrients to her newly fertilized eggs. His death has given his children a head start in life, thus furthering the survival of the species.

But what if immortality did somehow evolve? Would that be a good thing? Well no, because very quickly we would end up with an over population problem. If no one died then the new generation would have to share space with the previous one…and the previous one to that…and the previous one to that. The only option would be to stop reproducing or things would get very crowded. Luckily, there is nothing about evolutionary theory that says we should expect immortality to evolve. As long as you survive long enough to pass on your genes then, as far as evolution is concerned, you no longer matter. There is no benefit, evolutionary speaking, for the previous generations to hang around indefinitely.

3) Evolution doesn’t work in leaps

Evolution is a slow gradual process that takes place over multiple generations. No where in evolutionary theory does it say that we should expect to see “monkey/man mutants” suddenly pop up. What we see is small variations in the population that make some better suited to survive and reproduce than others. Those with these small advantages are then more likely to produce more offspring with these traits. Over time the population evolves to become better suited to the environment in which it lives. Over many many generations this can add up to very large amounts of change. However, at no point is the child creature a different species to the parent creature. Indeed if the differences were as great as you imply then who would the “monkey/man mutant” breed with in order to produce offspring?

Whether you realise it or not you, and I, are both mutants. We both have hundreds of mutations that neither of our parents had. Some of those mutations may prove beneficial, such as better resistance to heart disease, some may be harmful, like sickle cell anaemia, but most will have little or no affect at all. But regardless we are still the same species as our parents and our children, with their hundreds of new mutations, will be the same species as us. And once again, if those mutations make it more likely that we will leave offspring then it will be more likely that they will be passed onto the next generation and will propagate through the population. It is only when we compare the current generation with something a thousand odd generations removed do we really see how these mutations have added up and changed the species as a whole.

4) Evolution IS undirected, Humans were not the goal of evolution

It makes no sense to talk about goals with regards to evolutionary processes. Evolution is an unguided process, as which mutations occur in a given population is ultimately completely random. Which of those mutations are most likely survive and be passed on is governed by natural selection, but there is nothing that guarantees that a given mutation will occur, no matter how useful it might be. Humans are not the goal of evolution, nor are we the “greatest feat of nature”. We may be the smartest species on the planet, but we are far from the strongest, the fastest, the longest lived, the most numerous etc etc. We can survive in a very limited number of environments and as individuals are vulnerable to the vast majority of other life on the planet.

Evolution did not direct itself towards producing humans, any more than it directed itself to producing elephants, sparrows, goldfish, or squirrels. Humans are no more evolved than any other species on the planet, we are just differently evolved in a way that favours intelligences, just as other species have evolved in ways that favour other traits, like speed, strength, or survival in extreme conditions. Even though natural selection does favour those traits that make an individual more likely to survive to reproduce, as previously stated which traits emerge are essentially random, as is the environment in which the creature finds itself. For example, if the Dinosaurs hadn’t died out 65 million years ago then it is very unlikely that humans would be here today, as mammals would not have become the dominate form of life on the planet.

And I don’t understand what you mean by “how did scientists figure out that it only succeeded once”? Evolution only produced humans once, if that is what you mean, but it has “succeeded”, if that term even applies, with every species that can successfully reproduce. As to how scientists can work out the path it took to get to us, even though the process is random, allow me to offer an analogy. Imagine you are walking in a snow covered field and you randomly change direction every minute or so. Now it may be incredibly difficult to work out exactly where in the field you will end up, but if you look back you will be able to get a very clear picture of where you have been from your footsteps. The same applies with evolution. We may not be able to predict where it will go next, due to the random nature of mutations and environmental changes, but we can look at genetics and fossils and get a pretty good picture of the route it took to get here.

5) There is no such thing as the cyclical law of nature

It is true that many things in nature do occur in cycles, but not everything does. Some things occur in a linear fashion, such as the arrow of time for example. There is nothing in nature that says a process must be cyclical in order to be valid. Evolution is a process of continuous change in response to random mutations and environmental changes. There is no good reason why these processes should happen in a cyclical fashion. However, all of this is academic because evolution is a biological process that affects life, which, to quote your own words, is a process where “everything comes to be, lives and dies – and the cycle faithfully begins again and again”.

6) Do you know what the Dunning-Kruger Effect is?

I ask because your article is an almost textbook example of it in action.

UPDATE 24/03/2015 – So in case you were wondering my comment never got accepted by the Biblicism Institute website. I emailed them in February asking why and they came back with the following response:

Policy: Comments for the “Evolution” article must advance the dialogue otherwise it’s not posted, esp. if it’s repeating other points made by other commenters. For other articles it’s the same policy. Also, comments with derogatory remarks are not even considered. Thank you.

So there you go, apparently my comments don’t advance the dialogue, probably because numerous other people had already pointed out the many, many errors in the article, and had been dismissed. Also I guess technically my last throw away point was a bit insulting, so I doubt I will ever get the kind of answer I was hoping for. Ah well.

UPDATE 26/04/2016 – There has been some recent activity on the blog post that this post is a response to, and I have again attempted to add my own thoughts to the discussion. However, I am not holding out much hope that they will actually get posted, so here is what I put in response to this comment:

The term random is being used here to describe events that happen without a defined reason, aim or according to a specific pattern. The exact causes of these events do of course adhere to the laws of physics, no one is claiming otherwise. The fact that we may be able to trace back a specific mutation in a specific gamete cell to a specific proton coming from a specific star, all in accord with well understood laws of physics, does not mean that the mutation itself was not random. Or, to put it another way, it does not mean that the specific mutation happened for a defined reason, to produce a specific aim, or in accordance with a specific pattern.

Given this definition of randomness, that is not in any way scientifically illiterate, natural selection is a completely plausible solution to the question of how species change over time. I would also like to point out that if God is guiding the evolutionary process that would not invalidate the findings of science. Science can’t see that God was the one responsible for causing a given mutation to happen, but what it can see is that certain mutations are more favourable for survival and reproduction than others, and therefore more likely to get passed on to the next generation. So even if God is ultimately responsible for which mutations happened, that still means the process of mutation and selection is responsible for the diversity of species on the planet. It is not a question of All God or No God.

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