There are a number of myths in the general understanding of evolution. You might have noticed that sometimes people use the words ‘evolve’ and adapt interchangeably but they are not synonyms. Additionally, sometimes the word evolve is taken to mean ‘improve’ but evolution does not imply improvement. We might also be tempted to believe that evolution means survival of the biggest, strongest or fastest life forms, but this is also untrue.
If you want to get more clear on what adaptation and natural selection actually are, a good way to do so would be to watch this sequence of films.
The first one alone is a good primer in that it is very clear and concise -- it’s also infotaining.
The Making of the Fittest: Natural Selection and Adaptation (Directed by Sarah Holt)
This film is a fascinating look at animal adaptation in a natural setting: a New Mexico desert. On the desert floor with its light-colored sand, dust, dirt and brush, the native desert mouse blends right because it’s fur color mostly matches the terrain. Within the desert, there are also areas where dark lava flowed, cooled and solidified. When the light desert mice are on these dark rocks, they are easy pickings for predators like owls and hawks.
However, the mice that live very close to the dark rocks adapted over very long periods to have dark fur so they blend in and are less likely to get captured and eaten. Initially, dark fur probably resulted from a very rate mutation, but pressure on the mouse population was exerted by predators who captured and killed scores of light mice living near the dark rocks. The ones that adapted over many generations to transition from light to dark fur survived -- the ones that didn’t perished.
Catalysts of Change: Adapting to Changing Weather In Ladakh (Directed by Chintan Gohil)
For humans, climate change could be considered to be natural selection because it is a global phenomenon which is disrupting weather patterns and human industry like agriculture. Ladakh is at high altitude and is experiencing a range of changes to its ecosystems. Such alterations are impacting local people whose livelihoods depend upon agriculture and animal husbandry.
The impact climate change can have on weather is unfortunately, very severe. Droughts can be extended to the point where all forms of life may be endangered. Storms can be of greater magnitude and destructiveness. Local economies that depend upon seasonal harvests and raising animals for meat and milk have been been operating for centuries. Many human lives depend upon their continued success, yet climate change is a problem of such global complexity it presents a number of seemingly unsolvable puzzles for local people. What they, and we all have to do is to survive by adapting. How will the people of Ladakh accomplish this? They can remain where they are and try to become as inventive and flexible as possible. Alternatively, they might have to move if their weather becomes too extreme, like some people living in coastal areas and on islands are considering now.
Flowering Plants: The Right Timing (Directed by Anna Massih)
Plants react to the length of days to ‘decide’ when to flower. How do they do this though? Scientists figured out after decades of research that the presence and amount of a protein called CONSTANS is the catalyst for flowering in plants. When enough of it is produced by being exposed to a longer duration of light, another protein, FT, is produced. This protein travels through the phloem to the tip of a shoot. Once there, another protein, FD, provides confirmation that FT has reached the right place for flowering.
By studying these aspects of plant flowering, scientists might one day be able to turn annual crops into perennial ones, so farmers would only need to plant them once. If that was possible, there could be tremendous savings in fertilizer and energy.
Popped Secret: The Mysterious Origin of Corn (Directed by Neil Dappen and Neil Losin)
Do you know where corn came from? Some scientists believed that the ancestor of corn must have perished. Corn has been used by humans for about 9,000 years. It turns out that it is linked is to a wild plant called teosinte which scientists traced to a part of Mexico. Teosinte can be heated and ‘popped’ and that was one of the reasons it was cultivated. Human interaction with it modified important genes that led to the creation of corn.
File Under Miscellaneous (Directed by Jeff Burnaby)
In natural settings, genetic adaptation only occurs across lifetimes, and many of them. It doesn’t take place within our individuals lives. However, we need to be adaptable in our lives to accept changing conditions from moment to moment. If we don’t adapt our behaviors and mindsets, we may not survive.
This grisly, graphic film depicts an individual who willingly undergoes a physical identify transformation in order to fit into the larger society around him. The process is visceral and hideous, though perhaps metaphorically accurate in terms of what happens psychologically and emotionally to individuals who are defined as outsiders when they attempt to assimilate.
About the author
Jake Richardson has enjoyed the outdoors and nature since he was 6-years-old in the woods of central Illinois and now lives in California not far from the John Muir house.