Evolution has no goal

Have you seen “The One with Ross’s Library Book?” It’s an episode of Friends where Ross finds out that people in his university are going to the library and doing naughty adult things in front of his thesis. So he stakes it out, and when a hot blonde comes along he cynically questions her reasons for being there: “I suppose you’re here to read up on Merriam’s views on evolution?”

Evolution has no goal: not even Judo.

To his surprise, she actually is there for a book and not for some nookie, and replies with “Actually I find Merriam’s views too progressionist.” Ross agrees and then they also get it on in front of Ross’s poor thesis.

As well as being pretty funny, it’s also accurate. John C. Merriam was a palaeontologist who believed the purpose (so to speak) of evolution was to increase the efficiency and/or complexity of organisms. This is what “progressionist” means in this context; making “progress” in that organisms show improvements over the generations they follow.

Although Progressionism hasn’t been completely killed off, it has long since fallen out of favour. You can sometimes see hints of it in papers and books, but it’s hard to say whether these represent statements of position or whether they’re just layman’s-terms shorthand. It kind-of happens in short-runs, such as with human intelligence, but for the idea to be accepted you’d have to see consistent, long-term one-directional changes in an organism, for which there’s no conclusive evidence.

Despite lacking decisive evidence to back it up, this idea crops up all over the place. A common one, for instance, is to say that since we’ve created safe society in which everyone is more likely to survive and reproduce, we’ve stopped evolving. This is an example of progressionism, because it assumes that, in order to evolve, the “best” (aka the “fittest”) need to pass their genes on while the weak must fail to. In a society where the “weak” have just as much chance of reproducing as the “strong” (or perhaps more; many competent people put career ahead of family), this weeding out process cannot happen. Hence, “progress” has been halted.

However, that’s incorrect, because the “fittest” in “survival of the fittest” just means “most likely to reproduce in a given environment.” So that career minded go-getter who put money ahead of family until her 40s and then found she couldn’t have kids due to various complications is less well fitted to her environment, evolutionarily-speaking, than someone who lives on benefits, does nothing but pops out six kids (neither of which can be quiet in public).

From the progressionist point of view, Mrs Career is the fittest. But if she doesn’t have kids, her genes won’t reach the next generation. If less intelligent people were more likely to reproduce in a given environment, it means that intelligence is a hindrance, an evolutionary disability. The direction of evolution isn’t guided by anthropocentric values, so be careful about projecting them onto it.

OK, now you have some geeky things to say next time you’re watching Friends!

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