By Roland Watson
I've been talking about evolutionary processes, about the development of variations in a species, which lead the species to evolve into a completely new form.
No going back?
One other outcome of this process is that once a species has evolved, it cannot revert to its prior form. For example, we will never return to the form of our simian ancestors. However, as through wrongful development we may follow a path where our current order degrades, where it declines in sophistication and refinement. As an example of this, there is the dumbing down in modern society that has resulted from media and corporate manipulation.
On the other hand, it is possible that certain of our characteristics, but only our behavioral characteristics, can de-evolve temporarily. When a human embryo is growing, it produces a number of features that are subsequently discarded - broken down and absorbed - prior to birth. This includes two different types of primitive kidneys, and a fine coat of hair. It also produces the appendix, a vestigial organ that survives birth, but is never used.
These features are examples of "recapitulation," the repetition in the embryo of the genetically encoded attributes of our ancestor species. The genes are still there, and they are activated, but their effects are then reversed by the programming of other more recently evolved genes.
As I said earlier, though, there is also evidence of the recapitulation of some of the genetically encoded behavioral traits of our predecessor species. When pushed to the limit, as from harsh personal circumstances, or again, through the manipulation and brainwashing of our social institutions, we "go animal." We behave as if we are trapped in a corner - we are!, and strike out with ferocity and a complete lack of restraint.
Evolution from behavior, take 2
To return to my earlier point that evolution involves behavioral characteristics as well as physical, if behavioral changes become entrenched such that they never revert - except in the extreme and one would hope increasingly rare situations in which we de-evolve, they can be considered to be evolutionary. Therefore, one can say that the different behavioral attributes of a species may evolve, including its social behavior.
Also, I want to make another argument that is associated with this as well, and which science has not disproved. Rather, it supports it. It is now recognized that many behavioral traits have genetic links, but, if this is the case, how were they encoded? If behavior cannot affect the genes, then how can the reverse occur? Is it the case that genetic mutations have chance behavioral effects as well as physical ones, and some of the former have been selected just as occurs with the latter?
Well, that is one possible explanation, but it is worth noting that it represents a one-way only process. There is no feedback loop involved, and as we have seen, and will continue to see throughout the balance of the website, most if not all universal systems involve such feedback loops.
So, and to close out this point, evolution is the process of seeking a new form. Therefore, to accomplish it a species must transcend or otherwise escape from its present form. But, evolution is not changes in a species as a whole; rather, it is changes to the specific characteristics that comprise its overall form. Furthermore, a species' form includes not only its physical attributes, but its behavioral patterns as well.
Even more, it is not the case that all aspects of a species have to change for evolution to take place. This only requires change sufficient to establish a distinct new form. Again, the quantity, and quality, of such change is unknown. This can only be determined using the after-the-fact test.
In addition, the actual rate of change for different characteristics varies, reflecting their relative importance to the underlying evolutionary process, really, to the specific nature of the competition to which the life form is exposed.
(As an aside, this tends to support the idea of neutral evolution.)
Given environmental conditions and changes, which establish the competitive environment, and a need for evolution to take place, there would appear to be an underlying critical path by which it can occur. Some characteristics will be directly on this path - those which enhance the individual's competitiveness, in those traits where having an advantage is most important. Other, related characteristics will be nearby. And, the balance of the species' characteristics will be of much less significance.
For instance, for many sexual species the genes involved in the male reproductive function have been shown to have evolved at a much greater rate than the genes for other characteristics.
This is also a manifestation of female power, since through the freedom they have - in such species - to choose a mate, they play the dominant role in establishing this competitive environment.
Again, though, and this time to argue against neutral evolution, perhaps other characteristics are not completely insignificant, if we accept the idea that every form of life is an interconnected whole.
Human evolution will also occur through changes to various aspects of the human form, both physical and behavioral. Furthermore, some of our characteristics will evolve more quickly than others. In addition, our society is one manifestation of our behavior. Therefore, as we evolve, it should evolve. Because of this, one can say - to extend an earlier point - that human society evolves.
Indeed, it is even possible to speak of the evolution of the planet, and the universe. In a sense, they are evolving as well, because they are following a behavioral or life cycle. Of course, they do not have genes, at least as we and other normally recognized forms of life do, and also, with the planet, it is unlikely to beget another planet. However, this is another aspect of ecology. If the ecology evolves, and in this case we would have to consider it to be the entire universe, all parts of it may evolve, and likely do so as well.
The next characteristic of evolution to consider is whether it occurs continuously and gradually, or in fits and starts. The traditional perspective is that only the first process occurs. In this view, a new variation develops by either of the first two mechanisms that I described - germ-line mutations or gene inheritance. Furthermore, this variation enhances the competitiveness of the organisms involved in their present environment - it confers advantages to such individuals; or, it enables them to migrate to a new ecological niche in this environment; or even to a completely new environment.
Moreover, via a feedback mechanism the variations may surface in the actual process of the migration. Indeed, one perspective is that life creates its own niches. It is not a one-way search. There is even a radical idea that cells are somehow able to choose which genes to mutate.
The latter two evolutionary channels - migrating to a new niche in the current environment or to a completely new environment, are known as "directional selection." And, the fact that their existence would encourage life to inhabit every possible niche, in every possible environment, again raises the question of whether diversity is an evolutionary goal in and of itself. Are such adaptations merely a way to ensure survival, or is the maximization of the diversity of life the actual objective? Is the development of differences a means or an end?
Gradual changes to species characteristics, and additional increases in diversity, also result from "sexual selection" - which falls under the third and fourth mechanisms that I described - behavioral choices and population effects. This is where the preferences of mates for particular features in their partners - including behaviors - encourage these changes. For example, for people, these behaviors include intelligence, which is developed as well as inherited, and also creativity, charm and wit.
In addition, sexual selection furthers what has already been stated as a distinct evolutionary goal. Survival starts with the individual. Once this is ensured, it progresses to survival of the species, via survival of one's young. Sexual selection is the critical decision that individuals make not only to choose with whom to have sex, but more importantly to ensure the best prospects for their offspring. Then, given survival of self, and family, one's focus is reoriented towards the pursuit of happiness - including, in some species, the happiness that is provided by one's family.
Finally, it also seems likely that, stabilizing selection notwithstanding, any critical new characteristic can arise even in a single individual. In this type of circumstance, the characteristic is so strong, so successful, that this individual serves as its primordial seed. The characteristic is gradually, over many generations, spread to everyone else.
So, as an intermediate summary, we have as evolutionary goals: survival of self; survival of one's young, and hence of the species; the enjoyment of life; and, prospectively, the quest for maximum diversity. Indeed, viewed in reverse, the first three form components, even necessary aspects, of the fourth.
In the next article, I will consider the possibility that evolution is not a gradual process.
© Roland Watson 2015