Evolution: Tree or Grass?

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Written by Iloe Ariss

Charles Darwin defined evolution for humans and animals in On the Origin of Species (1859). His theory is called “natural selection”, which means that it is nature’s choice who lives and dies, therefore species evolved or didn’t. As nature is not generally considered animate (which is a gargantuan error and one that might prove fatal) one might ask, “How does nature select?” Darwin obtained the answer by studying birds on the Galapagos Islands. He found that different islands contained different types of plants that could be harvested with different tools, the islands also had varying types of predators some of which were easier to avoid if the bird had certain features. Evolution usually began with a random birth defect that ended up being useful and then more and more of the species would have the “defect” and benefit from it. Because the birds on the separate islands needed different things they had to adapt to that lifestyle and gain the necessary tools to ensure survival. For example, birds with sharp hooked beaks could dig in the ground more easily for grubs and because their main predators were monkeys they could peck them sharply to avoid being eaten. As the birds mated through generations these aspects became more defined, but it wasn’t only the genes that defined them, it was the environment. If all the grubs on the island were eradicated the birds would have to find another food source, and those who could not adapt would perish; but those who found a new food source, like berries from shrubs, would become better equipped for eating those berries and evolve.

Darwin was also known for making diagrams called “Trees of Life”, which were symbolic of hierarchy within the animal kingdom and showed evolutionary relationships between species, the most closely related were found on the same branch.  So why is this so important? Most children learn about this in grade 11 biology, but the focus is less on analyzing Darwin’s theory, as on understanding it and using it in certain contexts. One obvious distinction between wild animals and humans is that we live inside manufactured buildings whereas animals live outside, in forests or other habitats. One might consider their home their habitat, but it really isn’t comparable. Humans who live inside have control of the temperature of their house and like a cell membrane, control of who can enter and exit (usually). They can have heat in the winter and cool in the summer, ultimately controlling their environment. Wait a minute, isn’t Darwin’s whole theory that factors from the environment cause us to evolve? So, by living in a self-controlled environment have we stopped evolving?  Is this harmful? Not only to ourselves but the planet? By protecting ourselves from the environment are we effectively destroying ourselves, and our potential to evolve? Are we going backwards or devolving in our air- conditioned homes and high-rise buildings?

I would have to respond ‘yes’ to the above questions, our reign over the environment, and our environments can only be destructive and prevent our evolution. In preventing our evolution we also deny Darwin’s theory of natural selection. On a “Tree of Life” we would be on a far branch disconnected from the rest of nature in our sovereign spaces. Do we belong on the “Tree of Life” at all? Darwin used it for categorization, not for locked position in a hierarchy, but maybe we exceed any category that fits within the structure of a tree. Perhaps as we squeeze into unhappy hierarchical structures as “progress” we are ignoring our rhizomatic tendencies of chaotic thought and development. We may have misunderstood Darwin, in our seek for sharp borders of categories and our massive agricultural blocks that end up being destroyed by a single pest instead of having mixed crops with grasses that actually strengthen them. How we think is the first clue that we don’t belong in such a category. We are the only mammal that can reason. Our thought process isn’t a process or an assembly line, or a tree, it’s a random expansion of tangled roots that intersect at unknown and incalculable points. As French philosopher Gilles Deleuze says “On a de l’herbe dans la tête et pas un arbre.”

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