EVOLUTION SHOULD NOT BE EQUATED WITH ‘PROGRESS’
In an exercise of tracing the family trees of species, we need to remember certain things. Firstly, there are multiple branches possible at each and every stage of this process. So it is not as if one species is eliminated to give rise to a new one. A new species has emerged. But that does not necessarily mean, like the beetle example we have been thinking about, that the old species will disappear. It will all depend on the environment. Also, it is not as if the newly generated species are in any way ‘better’ than the older one. It is just that natural selection and genetic drift have together led to the formation of a population that cannot reproduce with the original one. So, for example, it is not true that human beings have evolved from chimpanzees. Rather, both human beings and chimpanzees have a common ancestor a long time ago. That common ancestor is likely to have been neither human or chimpanzee. Also, the first step of separation from that ancestor is unlikely to have resulted in modern chimpanzees and human beings. Instead, the two resultant species have probably evolved in their own separate ways to give rise to the current forms.
In fact, there is no real ‘progress’ in the idea of evolution. Evolution is simply the generation of diversity and the shaping of the diversity by environmental selection. The only progressive trend in evolution seems to be that more and more complex body designs have emerged over time. However, again, it is not as if the older designs are inefficient! So many of the older and simpler designs still survive. In fact, one of the simplest life forms – bacteria – inhabit the most inhospitable habitats like hot springs, deep-sea thermal vents and the ice in Antarctica. In other words, human beings are not the pinnacle of evolution, but simply yet another species in the teeming spectrum of evolving life.
The same tools for tracing evolutionary relationships – excavating, time-dating and studying fossils, as well as determining DNA sequences – have been used for studying human evolution. There is a great diversity of human forms and features across the planet. So much so that, for a long time, people used to talk about human ‘races’. Skin colour used to be the commonest way of identifying these socalled races. Some were called yellow, some black, white or brown. A major question debated for a long time was, have these apparent groups evolved differently? Over recent years, the evidence has become very clear. The answer is that there is no biological basis to the notion of human races. All humans are a single species.
Evolution — Ladder versus Tree
Not only that, regardless of where we have lived for the past few thousand years, we all come from Africa. The earliest members of the human species, Homo sapiens, can be traced there. Our genetic footprints can be traced back to our African roots. A couple of hundred thousand years ago, some of our ancestors left Africa while others stayed on. While the residents spread across Africa, the migrants slowly spread across the planet – from Africa to West Asia, then to Central Asia, Eurasia, South Asia, East Asia. They travelled down the islands of Indonesia and the Philippines to Australia, and they crossed the Bering land bridge to the Americas. They did not go in a single line, so they were not traveling for the sake of travelling, obviously. They went forwards and backwards, with groups sometimes separating from each other, sometimes coming back to mix with each other, even moving in and out of Africa. Like all other species on the planet, they had come into being as an accident of evolution, and were trying to live their lives the best they could.
Q U E S T I O N S
- Why are human beings who look so different from each other in terms of size, colour and looks said to belong to the same species?
- In evolutionary terms, can we say which among bacteria, spiders, fish and chimpanzees have a ‘better’ body design? Why or why not?