At ease, cadets.

Well, Viper Pilot is busy working on something big (to which you’ll all be indoctrinated soon enough), but I’m taking a break from the project to catch up on some comments from my last post.

Fred asked:

Are there any examples of evolution being observed that are not slight morphological changes?

Off the top of my head, I can point to one example that everyone ought to be able to relate to: the Persian cat.  It’s a purr-fect (har har) example of natural selection in action. That being said, it doesn’t explain the whole of the concept as natural selection is only part of the equation – but it certainly gets us looking in the right direction.

The above article and images are from the September 1908 edition of Country Life in America (if that title doesn’t sound like a ho-down in your pants, there’s something wrong with you).

PersianCompare those Persian cats with the monstrosity over to your right: the modern Persian cat. In only one-hundred years of meddling by humans, choosing which cats to breed with others, in order to promote certain traits (in nature, how useful traits are at keeping an individual alive until breeding age determines what traits are promoted) has resulted in a very noticeable change to the physical form of the animal.

(Off the record, I consider anyone who breeds pure strains of these poor creatures a total bowl of dick. In their quest for an aesthetic form, breeders have created a line of cats that can’t clean themselves, suffer a build-up of eye-goo that needs to be cleaned daily by their owner, and are plagued by severe respiratory problems due to the unnatural shape of their nostrils and sinuses. Persian fancier? Prepare for a fistful of Viper Pilot.)

Hang on, VP, dude said ‘other than slight morpholigcal changes‘.  Fair enough – the cat was an example of what can be done in a mere century or so.

Staying with the natural breeding theme, inspect the contents of your refrigerator’s crisper. Most of the vegetables in there bear no more than a passing resemblance to what our ancestors were eating a few thousand years ago.  Carrots have been bred to that familiar bright orange (I presume for Industrial Revolution-era marketing purposes). Wild bananas are full of seeds! Heck, a lot of vegetables and fruits are supposed to be full of seeds!  But, through plant breeding techniques, we’ve removed the fruit’s role as a method of propagating the species. We’re changing the function of the fruit, ergo it’s more than a morphological change.

The evolutionary process is, necessarily, a slower process the longer the life-cycle is of the organism in question.  A species that only has five generations in a century (say, us) isn’t going to generate as many mutations as something that has five generations in a day (say, a virus).  At this point I should menntion that the all-mighty Smarty Pants chimed in with a comment on my last post, directing us to look at for more info on evolutionary theory – following a link from that page takes you to an FAQ about observed speciation, and wouldn’t you know it, it’s both dreadfully boring and all about plants and insects (who have short life-cycles).

Continuing where we left off, this means that our observations of evolution in larger creatures is based on observation of the living animals and what we find in the fossil record.  Or, if you’re Darwin, you’ve got a keen eye and you pick up on variations between living, but separate populations.

Darwin found during his visit to the Galapapos islands that the islands had very little reptilian and mammalian life. The overwhelming population of the islands was avians and insects. This intrigued him, because if all the creatures of the world had been placed by the hand of the creator, why were the population figures so skewed here?  Surely if it was that life had been placed, the distribution ought to be the same here as on the rest of the planet.  He reasoned that the existing life on the islands was there because it had migrated there from South America.  In fact, there were mockingbirds on the Galapagos islands that were similar to the mockingbirds of South America, but with slight changes. Even more curiously, the mockingbirds were different on the various islands of the chain. Each island’s mockingbird species had evolved to suit the particular environment of the island they were on!

“Hey, let’s get back to this evolution in action thing, coach.” Fine, I admit it’s been something of a meandering (yet full of infotainment!) ride to this point, but I promise now that I’ll answer quite directly Fred’s question about observing evolution in action.

In late 2002, the world was hit by the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) epidemic. The SARS virus caused a severe and potentially fatal pneumonia. The disease quickly spread from China to Hong Kong, Vietnam and Canada.  By early 2003 teams of scientists around the globe collaborated to complete the full genetic sequencing of the genome of the virus that causes SARS. With that data, they were able to determine the evolutionary origins of the virus and identify it as a new coronavirus. As coronavirii were known entities, valuable time was saved and work was able to be commenced immediately on developing tests for the presence of the virus and on a vaccine.

It doesn’t stop there. Evolutionary theory is being used to fight cancer, beat AIDS, and keep up in the arms race against every bug, disease and pest that evolves immunity to the drugs and pesticides we use to control them. There are more, but I’m tired and out of practice writing an article this long.

On that note, I’m going to wrap things up in spectacular fashion atop a much bigger soapbox than that rickety old crate that hosted the Persian-fancier tirade.

I don’t give a rat’s ass what thoughts you harbour within your head. That’s your headspace, and no-one has a right to impede, penetrate or direct what goes on in there. But if you truly care about your fellow human beings, you must insist that evolution be taught alone in science class, because evolutionary theory is saving lives right now, every day. To deny any future doctor, biologist or scientist the knowledge of a tool that uses observations of the world to heal and help humanity is beyond immoral. To put any one religion’s creation myth in the same space as evolution is retarding human advancement every day.

Ooh, a dinosaur with feathers. Surely that’s far more frightening than my creationism in schools rant.

After all that, I find that Wired Magazine has an article with 12 elegant examples of evolution (although I’d call it 11 examples, since the one about the moray eel’s second set of jaws doesn’t really seem to present any evidence of evolution in action, despite being TOTALLY AWESOME!) with way more pretty pictures than the ones I’ve stolen for this article.

Well, that there was some heavy shit. I promise less length and a bit more frivolity next time, class. Now go hit those flight sim pods!

Five Star Friday