Research Paper: Jerry Coyne's Why Evolution

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[. . .] Natural selection can be a difficult process to define because it has to explain how each adaptation has evolved from prior adaptations. Moreover, natural selection demonstrates how animals have become better suited for their environments; there is no devolution, because adaptations will only be naturally selected if they improve the reproductive opportunities of animals with those mutations (Coyne, p.120).

One of the things about Natural selection that many people do not understand is that natural selection does not increase the odds of survival for a species, but merely for individuals in that species. This makes sense when one considers human beings. Human beings live in social cultures, where, in many instances, the overall odds of survival of a group could be improved by the selection of certain traits that do not improve an individual's odds of survival. According to Coyne, one never sees the type of adaptations that benefit the group to the detriment of an individual (p.122).

However, I am not certain whether or not I agree with Coyne's conclusion about this. I cannot recall the source material, but two things that I have previously read about evolution suggest to me that there may be adaptations that are negative to the individual, but good for group survival, that survive in modern humans. Both of these adaptations are behavioral adaptations, rather than biological ones, but the evidence supports the idea that there is a genetic component to these behaviors. The first is the so-called altruism gene, and its attendant suggestion that human beings will help others even when there is no reward for so doing. While the process is not fully understood, the desire to help others does not make sense if considered solely from the perspective of individual survival. Instead, in many cases, helping others places a person in a position of vulnerability, which would seem to reduce one's chances to survive, and thus, reduce one's chances to leave offspring. However, the knowledge that people are social animals seems to encourage altruism in modern humans, because of an understanding that increasing the odds for group survival increases the odds for individual survival, or at least for the survival of descendants.

More troubling, to me, is the idea of rape as a behavior based in evolution. The theory I read suggested that rape is a way for males with less desirable characteristics in a mate to reproduce, ensuring the survival of their offspring, so that a "pro-rape" gene exists in at least a portion of all humans. Theoretically, this would benefit society, as a whole, by ensuring greater genetic diversity. However, I see a major flaw in that argument. Even though women have been seen as property for most of known human history, the practice of rape has always provided some degree of risk to the rapist, mainly because of the danger of retribution from a victim's family. It seems very likely that those males genetically predisposed to be rapists would be more likely, not less likely, to experience premature deaths linked to violence than non-rapist males. However, the question is not so much whether the individual organism dies early, but how many offspring the individual organism is likely to have created during his lifetime.

While not specifically addressing rape, Coyne does discuss the relationship between sex and evolution. He makes it clear that it is not survival that drives evolution, but reproduction. In some animal species, being capable of living to sexual maturity and, then, being able to mate and produce multiple offspring are more likely to be represented in the gene pool, regardless of whether the parent lives for any substantial period after reproduction. In other animal species where young are dependent upon parents for extended periods of time, it is important that the parents, or at least one parent, survive until the offspring are self-sufficient. All of these factors help explain sexual selection. Females produce fewer but larger gametes (eggs), while males produce more but smaller gametes (sperm) (Coyne, p.156). This arrangement has led to a scenario where, throughout the animal kingdom, females choose mates while males compete with other males for the right to mate because females have a higher investment in each individual egg than males have in each individual sperm. Therefore, while some traits in males that are preferred by females may seem arbitrary, the reality is that they probably evolved from traits that helped increase the chance of survival.

The evolution of new traits in a single species only reveals part of the story of evolution; evolution has to explain how differentiation gets to the point that, rather than distinct looking members of the same species, the animals are sufficiently different to be considered different species. Speciation is accidental, not to fill voids in ecosystems, as was once believed, and depends, in part, on isolation. The line between species is not distinct, and there have been numerous reclassifications of species in recent time after analysis of genetic similarities and differences. A well-accepted definition of species is an interbreeding natural population that is reproductively isolated from other such groups (Coyne, p.172). However, the reproductive isolation does not mean that they cannot breed with genetically similar species. For example, wolves and coyotes are known to interbreed in the wild, so much so that Eastern coyotes are genetically different from Western coyotes because Eastern coyotes have interbred with wolves. Whether this would have occurred in a natural scenario without the intervention of humans that have driven many animals from their natural communities is unknown, but the fact that two animals can breed and create fertile offspring is not enough to say that they are in the same species, although the ability to interbreed is one hallmark of a species.

Perhaps the most controversial evolutionary claim is that humans are apes, descended from a common ancestor as other living primates, and most closely related to the chimpanzee. However, Coyne makes it clear that this genetic link between man and ape is not, itself controversial. Instead, the link is well-established by scientific fact. Not only does genetic evidence support the relationship between humans and other primates, but the fossil record clearly establishes the evolution of the modern human from its ancestors.

The link between humans and the great apes seems clear to a casual observer; I recall a visit to a zoo where a mother chimpanzee was occupied in an activity and her baby kept coming to her for attention. She would look over it to ensure it was okay, and then resume her activity. The baby then grabbed its blanket and went to the top of its play structure, where it began to dangle itself in front of its harried mother. The movements were so human that they could have been observed at a playground, rather than at the zoo. However, what so many people seem to find insulting is the idea that humans evolved from monkeys. On the contrary, evolution has not claimed that humans evolved from monkeys. Instead, it examines the notion that humans and apes, particularly chimpanzees, had a common ancestor. Humans and chimpanzees diverged sometime around seven million years ago, some place in Africa (Coyne, p.207). The ancestors that eventually became humans developed both bipedal walking, rather than walking on all fours or moving by brachiation or by quadripedal locomotion. These differences were significant. While humans may be more genetically similar to chimpanzees than chimpanzees are to some of the other great apes, the differences between the two species are significant. I once read a book that characterized humans as the third chimpanzee, but I think that characterization minimizes the differences between humans and chimpanzees. Humans have a different number of genes than chimpanzees, significantly different anatomy, differences in physiology, differences in behavior, and difference brain structures from chimpanzees and other primates (Coyne, p.211). Therefore, even while evolution points out the common ancestry, evolution does not reduce humans to the same status as other animals, which seems to be the main concern of those who oppose evolution as an idea. Even more interesting is recent evidence that early humans may have interbred with other branches of hominids that did not survive, most notably Neanderthal. Neanderthals were once considered an ancestor of modern humans, then considered a co-developing species that did not survive, and now recognized as a co-developing species that interbred with humans.

One thing that people must consider when examining evolution and the seemingly obvious physical differences is the idea of race as a means of determining species in humans. The idea of race has significant cultural implications that make any scientific inquiry into genetic differentiation between races a difficult ethical conundrum. When one considers that African-Americans have been systemically treated as sub-human, the ethics surrounding this issue become even clearer. However, what the science seems to suggest is that there is far more in-group diversity in… [END OF PREVIEW]

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Jerry Coyne's Why Evolution.  (2013, November 5).  Retrieved May 25, 2019, from https://www.essaytown.com/subjects/paper/jerry-coyne-evolution/3840772

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"Jerry Coyne's Why Evolution."  5 November 2013.  Web.  25 May 2019. <https://www.essaytown.com/subjects/paper/jerry-coyne-evolution/3840772>.

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"Jerry Coyne's Why Evolution."  Essaytown.com.  November 5, 2013.  Accessed May 25, 2019.
https://www.essaytown.com/subjects/paper/jerry-coyne-evolution/3840772.