Can you really get in the way of evolution?

A few years ago, I was talking with a friend of mine about stranding of cetaceans. It’s been a long time since I stop to research on this subject, which has interested me a lot when I started to study biology, and so I’m not aware of the further developments and the latest favoured hypothesis about this phenomenon. I remember, however, having read that the amount of worms found in many of the stranded dolphins and whales was higher than normal for those particular species. Regardless of whether this parasitic infection was cause or consequence of organic changes leading to stranding, one of the assumptions at the time was that the large amount of worms in some way would interfere with animals’ orientation, which ends up stranding. I said that to my friend, and her answer is the reason I’m writing this post. She said “but if we rescue and save these stranded dolphins, won’t we be preserving animals genetically susceptible to worms, which will thus propagate their bad genes? I mean, by saving these animals, are not we getting in the way of evolution, since these animals would necessarily die?”

Get in the way of evolution, or get in the way of natural selection, this is an interesting concept, and I think it should be examined in greater detail. First, we have to properly consider what an evolutionary process is: evolution is changes of allele frequencies in a gene pool. In a nutshell, evolution is change. And, as such, evolution is not a mandatory process (yes, you read it right: evolution may not happen. Just imagine a population with a constant gene pool composition). A population can change a lot or do not change at all over a certain period. What characterizes evolution is the vicissitude of the living world, these complexes and incredibly changes, sometimes unpredictable.

"Whales on beach, Farewell Split, South Island, New Zealand" by Original uploader was Chagai at en.wikipedia - Transferred from en.wikipedia; transfer was stated to be made by User:Tursiops.. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Whales_on_beach,_Farewell_Split,_South_Island,_New_Zealand.JPG#mediaviewer/File:Whales_on_beach,_Farewell_Split,_South_Island,_New_Zealand.JPG

Whales on beach, Farewell Split, South Island, New Zealand. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

That being said, in my opinion, nothing can get in the way of evolutionary process. What happens, whatever it is, is part of the evolutionary process. If changes occur, that’s evolution. If changes occur in another way, that’s evolution. If changes are supposed to occur in a certain way but, suddenly, someone modify its direction, that’s evolution as well. Let me illustrate my thought with a hypothetical example: imagine a given animal, the variety X, of a given animal species. Imagine that this variety X has lost the ability to synthesize a certain protein and therefore it presents a considerable disadvantage competing with its peers. It is expected that variety X disappears and its genes are no longer propagated. In short, variety X has a lower fitness and is expected to be eliminated by selection. However, imagine that suddenly this variety X becomes symbiotic with a given microorganism Z, which synthesizes the protein that is lacking in variety X. Because of this relationship, which may have begun for an entirely different reason, variety X, previously doomed to failure, will now prosper, aided by its partner, the microorganism Z. To which extent can we say that microorganism Z “got in the way” of evolutionary process, since, because of it, variety X will no longer disappear and will continue to propagate its genes? What does it mean, if anything, “get in the way of evolution”? Organisms compete, cooperate, annihilate each other, fight, cheat, help, enslave, unite… all this is evolution. The evolutionary process is an endless Ballet, an unexpected theatre of endless possibilities.

In my opinion, this fortuitous relationship between variety X and microorganism Z is, precisely, evolution. It is part of the evolutionary process. And If because of this relationship a given variety W disappear (supposing that this variety would not disappear if X had previously succumbed) this is, as well, evolution. In this way of seeing things we must face up human being and his buildings, despite the ugliness of concrete and asphalt, as natural phenomena and structures (this is a very recurrent discussion among the various fields of knowledge, and we can get back to it in a future note…), since the human being is just an animal, originated by natural evolutionary phenomena. Thus, both a bee hive and a human city are natural structures, having been built by organisms evolutionarily shaped (despite the ugliness of the latter).

Evolution, in its changes, led to the emergence of human being. And that human being developed language, civilization, agriculture, cities, garbage and the capitalist mode of production. That human being went on to unstoppably consume almost the entire resources of the planet, clogging up the sea with plastic and atmosphere with carbon dioxide, destroying indiscriminately forests and coral reefs on behalf of GDP increase, extinguishing animals and plants from pole to pole. This is evolution. Unfortunately. And if that same human being, in a thermonuclear war that almost occurred in the 80’s — and that may well occur in the next few years — destroys the entire planet, with all its forms of life, well, that’s still evolution. In this scenario, evolution has created an element that ended up destroying life itself on Earth. Therefore, there is no way to “get in the way” of evolution.

Returning to the case of the stranded dolphins, trying to interfere in the environment and try to reduce, for however small amount, the impact caused by human being should not be seen as “getting in the way of evolution”. Human being clogged the sea with ships, pollutants and fisheries that capture every last tiny sardines. We should not expect that marine species solve all their problems with resourcefulness, pride and gallantry. Saving these stranded dolphins, even though they are most susceptible to worms, will not disturb the evolutionary process. And here we have two possibilities: either we let several species, from polar bear to salmon, disappear, or we work to save those most affected species, and seek to modify the extremely destructive way of life of modern man.

It angers me particularly, moreover, to see that the biased purism employed in the thought “let nature alone, do not disturb the evolutionary process” only exists when we try to save a particular population or species, it simply doesn’t exist when it comes to change natural environments for resources exploitation. No one who defends this conception seems to have in mind that human being has reached and surpassed a population of seven billion people, with their garbage, their torture (disguised as “concentrated animal feeding operation”), their pollutants and their increasing demands. I think trying to minimize the detrimental effects of humanity on planet Earth not only doesn’t get in the way of evolution but also it is a moral option. An option that I choose voluntarily.

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