Evolution is a fascinating topic! It is often defined as a scientific framework that attempts to explain the origin of life and its diversity. Explaining the possible origins of life and the diverse forms extinct (of past) and extant (of present) however, presents a challenging and ambitious aim. Where/What did life come from? How many life forms exist or have existed in time? How did diversity arise? How are life forms related to each other? All difficult and maybe impossible questions to pursue. In addition, is it a useful approach to life or scientific inquiry? To be clear, this opinion piece does not aim to know what useful is. Usefulness or utility can be subjective.

According to Google Dictionary:

useful

adjective

-able to be used for a practical purpose or in several ways

 

According to Cambridge (and Oxford) Dictionary (-ies):

useful

adjective

-effective; helping you to do or achieve something

 

Here, usefulness as a theme is meant to ask if studying and/or exploring evolution can be of some value to humanity (given that humans are those that study this topic), as well as nature itself (the subject of most scientific enquiry).

Suppose…

Let’s only consider earth and its solar system. It is believed to have formed ~4.54 billion years ago [1]. It is thought then that between 1500 and 1000 million years ago, the first multicellular organisms came into existence [1]. Over the next hundreds of millions of years, many more life forms populated the earth with many species dying and many species arising. Today, approximately more than 1.3 million existing (extant) species (depending on one’s definition of ’species’ – see essays [2] and [3]) are said to have been discovered, with an estimated ~8.7 million thought to exist [4]. This is quite a number. Consider then for a moment, how many species of life have you consciously and/or unconsciously encountered?

As early as 600-400 BC, philosophers questioned life and its origins [5, 6]. The history of evolutionary thought  itself can be a subject of great interest [see refs 5 and 6]. It reveals how philosophers and humanity viewed themselves, as well as the attempt to understand our similarities to other life forms. For example, many believed (and some still do) that humans were/are the ‘apex’ of evolution. An entity that overcame all the environmental challenges to become intelligent, strong and beautiful; a superior existence, only inferior to God(s). Latter evolutionary thought however challenged this view, interpreting the human organism as merely another instance in nature; equally as complex as other previously thought ’simple’ organisms like bacteria. An organism like any other that has evolved not necessarily towards an optimum, but one that has adapted (and continues to adapt within its limits). An organism experiencing selection ‘for’ (or at-least  not ‘against’); facilitated by ‘extrinsic’ environmental and ‘intrinsic’ genetic factors. Notwithstanding one’s beliefs and/or opinions of how humans compare to other animals and vice-versa, comparing the differences across organisms in an attempt to understand life has been a long-standing interest. It reflects a human curiosity about our world, ourselves and our place in it. It is also humbling to think that humans (and other animals/plants alike) and bacteria have traits that unite both types of organisms, as well as traits that ‘define’ them.

Past, present, and…

There is also a history; a history of how life came to be. The life forms present today are likely not the same as those present hundred, thousands and millions of years ago. What is that story? There are currently many theories and hypotheses about how life evolved. Many of these hypotheses and theories come from observations of the natural world, experimental testing of possible scenarios and for better or worse, imagination**; thought to be an important ingredient to the formulation of scientific theory and hypothesis [7, 8]. By exploring shapes and forms of nature, as well as looking into the molecules and the chemical reactions present in living organisms, one could extrapolate on likely relationships and the relative timing of when certain organisms and specific traits came to exist. An interesting story of evolution is one thing. Knowing this story, is another. However, is there a use for this knowledge?

It has been argued that theory and modelling of evolutionary events could potentially allow for intervention [9]. For instance, if one ‘understood’ how environmental changes in the past influenced morphological adaptations, genetic changes and/or ecosystem interactions, one could potentially attempt to not only explain or predict certain changes that might be currently occurring, but also offer intervention methods to ‘better’ certain conditions (e.g. introduction of specific crops in certain environments for food and other resources, genetic modification of disease carrying species [rather than human-driven annihilation/extinction], molecule-engineering for drug screening, social and cultural changing of many of our human practices). It can (and should) be argued whether intervention is necessary (see ref. 10), as interventions always come with considerable risks [9, 10]. Nevertheless, it is only by studying evolution, that can we hope to explore ways to best put this knowledge to fruition – at the very least, according to our societal and cultural inclinations. Hopefully, to make the world a ‘better’ place***.

‘We argue that adaptation of nature by humans to global changes such as climate change, habitat loss and fragmentation, and nutrient deposition will require a sophisticated understanding of evolutionary theory and genome biology because evolution is a key, and inevitable, response of organisms to changes in their environment.’ [9]

Sooooo…can it be useful? Yes or No?

If one had to pick, perhaps both. While many arguments can be made for the utility of studying evolution, the immediate practical use of it is not so straightforward to envision; when compared to sciences such as Medicine, Engineering, Technology or Chemistry, where applicability is perhaps, much more readily argued for. Nonetheless, understanding evolution can help in explaining other natural phenomena that could then be useful in an indirect manner. For example, appreciating the constraints on ecosystems and how these changes over time could help in predicting ways to attempt and preserve natural habitats that have been previously damaged by artificial human endeavours. Many different organisms also show abilities of interest to human health (e.g. ‘cancer resistance’ and enhanced longevity in the naked mole rat [11], regeneration [12]). Evolution is a framework that could aid in the understanding (or at best having an operating model) of ‘why’ biological events happen. Which could in turn provide useful insights in other applications not immediate to the study of evolution itself.

Definitions

*Remarkable

adjective

-worthy of attention;

similar: extraordinary, exceptional, amazing, astonishing, astounding

 

**Imagination

noun

-the faculty or action of forming new ideas, or images or concepts of external objects not present to the senses;

similar: creativity, vision, inspiration

Disclaimer

***

Hoping for a ‘better’ world can be considered a naive and maybe vain thought. Who am I to know what better means? Better for me and better for you might differ considerably, and prioritising one over the other could lead to an undermining of a culture, belief, people, life on earth and a future altogether. Thus, the hope here was to state that despite how challenging and sensitive world issues are, perhaps there exists a time and place where things can be better for all of us (yes, I said ALL…please insert hippie dance here :-)…). And this hope is for a future where that can be realised. {insert second hippie dance here}

 

References

  1. Erwin, D H (2015). Early metazoan life: divergence, environment and ecology. (Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society London B Biological Science) doi: 10.1098/rstb.2015.0036.
  2. <https://www.theguardian.com/science/punctuated-equilibrium/2010/oct/20/3>
  3. <https://www.sciencenews.org/article/defining-species-fuzzy-art>
  4. Mora C, Tittensor D P, Adl S, Simpson A G B, and Worm, B (2011). How many species are there on earth and in the ocean? (PLOS Biology) doi.org/10.1371/journal.pbio.1001127.
  5. Wikipedia contributors. (2019, December 18). History of evolutionary thought. In WikipediaThe Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 10:59, January 20, 2020, from https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=History_of_evolutionary_thought&oldid=931320059.
  6. A HISTORY OF EVOLUTIONARY THOUGHT: UMCP Berkeley (2000). ucmp.berkeley.edu › history › evothoughtUCMP: A History of Evolutionary Thought – UCMP Berkeley.
  7. Weick K E (1995). What theory is not, theorizing is. (Administrative Science Quarterly) 40: 385-390.
  8. Sutton R I and Staw B M (1995). What theory is not. (Administrative Science Quarterly) 40: 371-384.
  9. Hellmann J J and Pfrender, M E (2011). Future human intervention in ecosystems and the critical role for evolutionary biology. (Conservation Biologyhttps://doi.org/10.1111/j.1523-1739.2011.01786.x.
  10. Gamborg C, Palmer C and Sandoe P (2012). Ethics of wildlife management and conservation: What should we try to protect? (Nature Education Knowledge) 3(10):8
  11. Buffenstein R (2008). Negligible senescence in the longest living rodent, the naked mole-rat: insights from a successfully aging species. (Journal of Comparative Physiology B) 178, 439-445.
  12. Tiozzo S and Copley R R (2015). Reconsidering regeneration in metazoans: an evo-devo approach. (Frontiers in Ecology and Evolutionhttps://doi.org/10.3389/fevo.2015.00067.

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