Why Understand Evolution?

Americans are behind citizens in other developed countries in their understanding and acceptance of evolution.  (For evidence, see this recent article in Science.  If you can’t access it, google the title for more.)  Fortunately, some wonderful authors have written popular books that aim to present the theory of evolution to the non-evolutionary biologist.  Some recent (and highly readable) examples include What Evolution IsWhy Evolution is True, and The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution.   But although these books do a terrific job of presenting the the evidence for evolution and the mechanisms behind it, none of them really address a more fundamental question: Why?  Why should Joe the Plumber or any other non-biologist care about the facts of evolution?  Below I list just three (of many) reasons why each of us should understand evolution.

A Genetic Algorithm

[1] Modern medical research would stop.  Most modern medical research uses molecular biology to sequence DNA from sick patients.  The hope is that DNA from sick individuals will shed light on the genetics and biology of disease.  This is true for research on cancer, AIDS, malaria, and a host of other human illnesses.  But the very act of sequencing and comparing DNA from patients and their families is an exercise in evolution: the assumption is that, if the disease is genetic, sick individuals will have inherited the disease-causing mutation from a recent or distant ancestor.  This assumption is based on the evolutionary concept of common ancestry, which I discussed briefly before.  In fact, we couldn’t even sequence DNA from unrelated individuals if evolution and common ancestry were not true.

[2] Effective treatment of some diseases would end–and get worse.  A common problem in the treatment of viral and bacterial pathogens is drug resistance: after a while, the medicines we take no longer work and the infections return.  The reason for this resistance is an evolutionary one.  The bacteria and viruses within us evolve by natural selection in response to the drugs we take.  Those pathogens that are killed by the initial treatments die, leaving the more resistant survivors to reproduce.  As more susceptible pathogens die, more and more resistant ones continue to live and reproduce, until nearly all of the pathogens in us are resistant to the drug.  The previous failure to recognize the true evolutionary cause of drug resistance has lead to the evolution of hard to eradicate strains of drug-resistant bacteria, tuberculosis, and malaria.

[3] Evolutionary concepts are useful in fields other than evolutionary biology.  Evolutionary concepts are integral to some fields, but can also help others in unexpected ways.  One place where evolution is integral is medicine, since humans and their diseases are the product of evolution.  This integration has led to the field of evolutionary medicine.  But what about computing?  In fact, evolutionary concepts have contributed significantly to computational methods in many fields.  Ever heard of a genetic algorithm?  These are algorithms that model the process of natural selection to efficiently solve problems in which there are many potential solutions.  Genetic algorithms are commonly used to solve problems in engineering, economics and, of course, biology.

Three simple reasons to bone up on your evolution.


5 thoughts on “Why Understand Evolution?

  1. development of transmittable mutation in microbes is extremely rapid precisely becoz the intervals between their generations are so extremely short. these are instances in which evolution is made obvious in chronological terms anyone can see and understand. but –like the rock man said– you see what you want to see

  2. Don’t forget forensics. Law would not be where it is today without evolutionary theory. (DNA profiling would have never come about without genetics, and a good portion of the development of genetics is for evolution.)

  3. Pingback: Michele Bachmann on Evolution: Don’t Vote For Her | darwinbookcats

  4. Pingback: Michele Bachmann on Evolution: I’m an IDiot | darwinbookcats

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