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by Dave Person


February 02, 2005

The topic of evolution has been in the news recently. There was even comment concerning it on Sitnews. Unfortunately, the topic is usually treated in a very sloppy and inaccurate fashion. Several key concepts need to be clarified before anyone can intelligently discuss evolution or the theories associated with it. First, evolution is a fact. It is as much a fact as gravity, or the earth revolving around the sun. Evolution occurs all around us every day. Bacteria or viruses mutating to new drug resistant strains causing us to need new vaccines each year, insects becoming pesticide resistant, breeding of domestic animals, and hybridizing of plants are all examples of evolution. Evolution is simply the observation that plants and animals change over time. At a more basic level, it is the observation that gene frequencies within populations of species change from one generation to the next. Evolution is the great unifying fact in all biology.

No biological or life scientists debate the existence of evolution. It would be like debating the existence of the sun or moon. Scientists, however, debate how it occurs. Two major theories compete as explanations, natural selection and neutral evolution. Natural selection is what Charles Darwin's great work "Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection" is all about. Darwin didn't invent evolution, the phenomenon is as ancient as life, but in 1859 he described a plausible mechanism by which it occurs. Alfred Russell Wallace, a scientist working independently of Darwin published a similar theory of natural selection at the same time. Basically natural selection is "survival of the fittest". Individuals in a population that are better adapted to their environment tend to survive and reproduce more successfully than less well suited individuals and pass on their qualities to the next generation. All dogs evolved from wolves, we were just the agents of that evolution! That we were able to eventually breed Pekinese dogs from wolf-like ancestors attests to the overwhelming (and non random) power of natural selection. The theory of neutral evolution argues that the main force driving evolution is change in gene frequencies due to mutations and the shuffling of populations by forces independent of natural selection. Both theories coincide nicely because genetic mutations create the raw material on which natural selection can act. The scientific debates generally focus on whether a neutral process or selection, is the most powerful engine driving evolution.

Evolution is not a theory, it is a fact. Natural selection and neutral evolution are theories explaining how it works. They are not beliefs or religions because they spawn hypotheses and reliable predictions that are testable with real data. They have held up very well after many years of scientific scrutiny. Finally, evolution is not a theory of the origin of life but it is absolutely a fact of life for all species, including humans.

Dave Person
Ketchikan, AK - USA



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