Evolution Isn't a One-Way Street

Despite popular views, evolution entails inheriting more than genes. And it isn’t all ruthless competition. Nor is it all random mutations. "Niche Construction" adds a third inheritance mechanism to the complicated mix. 

It is in our nature to fit nature to us. Other species do it too. The underappreciated effects illustrate how evolution entails inheriting more than genes.

1. Evolution’s gene-centric school, once claimed, “Adaptation is always asymmetrical; organisms adapt to their environment, never vice versa.” That’s wrong.

2. Richard Dawkins’ “extended phenotype” view says a “beaver’s dam [is] just as much an expression of beaver genes” as its tail. But that’s not the whole tale.

3. E. O. Wilson’s “gene-culture coevolution” view better incorporates known nongenetically transmitted factors (which can exert selective pressures on genes, and their vehicles/bodies).

4. For example, intelligently created tools have altered our genes for millions of years. Social rules and artificial selection have shaped us for ~ 250,000 years. Even recent practices can change genes, e.g., dairy farming = adult lactose-tolerance genes have spread (varyingly, Swedes = 98 percent, Chinese = 7 percent).

5. Beyond humans, Galapagos finch beaks have adapted for proto-cultural tools (cactus spikes = grub extractors).   

6. Niche Construction (“the neglected process in evolution”) adds a third inheritance process — persisting ecological engineering: inheriting environments modified by ancestors.

7. Niche here means an entire way of life. Derek Bickerton defines three elements: habitat, nourishment, and behaviors, and says, “Changes in behavior trigger changes in genes at least as often” as vice versa. Evolution’s fitting isn’t one-way. It entails complex feedback.

8.  “Hundreds of examples of animal niche construction” are known, each adding “directedness to ... evolutionary process.”

9. Niche construction needs neither culture nor much intelligence: Earthworms overcome “bad structural adaptation” by using it. Originally water-worms, they retain some ancient traits by modifying soil to mimic ancestral aquatic conditions.

10. Darwin said natural selection was “not the exclusive means of modification” in evolution. Ignoring modifications arising from gene-culture coevolution or niche construction is unnaturally selective.

11. Evolution isn’t as gene-centric as commonly believed. It isn’t all ruthless competition. And it’s not all random mutations ("intelligently designed" elements can be involved).

Many creatures are coactive partners in their dance with destiny. But none (likely) have our foresight. We can foresee the logic and limits of our survival vehicles. Let’s not ignore them.



Illustration by Julia Suits, The New Yorker Cartoonist & author of The Extraordinary Catalog of Peculiar Inventions.

How Pete Holmes creates comedic flow: Try micro-visualization

Setting a simple intention and coming prepared can help you — and those around you — win big.

  • Setting an intention doesn't have to be complicated, and it can make a great difference when you're hoping for a specific outcome.
  • When comedian Pete Holmes is preparing to record an episode of his podcast, "You Made it Weird with Pete Holmes," he takes 15 seconds to check in with himself. This way, he's primed with his own material and can help guests feel safe and comfortable to share theirs, as well.
  • Taking time to visualize your goal for whatever you've set out to do can help you, your colleagues, and your projects succeed.
Keep reading Show less

The 5 most intelligent video games and why you should play them

Some games are just for fun, others are for thought provoking statements on life, the universe, and everything.

(Photo from Flickr)
Culture & Religion
  • Video games are often dismissed as fun distractions, but some of them dive into deep issues.
  • Through their interactive play elements, these games approach big issues intelligently and leave you both entertained and enlightened.
  • These five games are certainly not the only games that cover these topics or do so well, but are a great starting point for somebody who wants to play something thought provoking.
Keep reading Show less

Bigotry and hate are more linked to mass shootings than mental illness, experts say

How do we combat the roots of these hateful forces?

Photo credit: Rux Centea on Unsplash
Politics & Current Affairs
  • American Psychological Association sees a dubious and weak link between mental illness and mass shootings.
  • Center for the study of Hate and Extremism has found preliminary evidence that political discourse is tied to hate crimes.
  • Access to guns and violent history is still the number one statistically significant figure that predicts gun violence.
Keep reading Show less