I’m no biologist, but we need to talk a little bit about evolution and how it works. It’s not as bad or ridiculous as some people make it out to be. And it may actually fit better with the scriptures than you previously thought.
Don’t Knock It Before You Learn About It
Back in the day when I didn’t accept evolution, I definitely didn’t understand it either. I thought it was evil and should be avoided. But once I made an effort to figure out what it was all about, I started to kind of like it, and, well… I started a blog about it.
I’d guess it’s pretty much the same for others. Most people who reject evolution probably don’t really understand how it works. But once you kind of understand how evolution happens, it makes WAY more sense. It stops being the evil monster it once was, and becomes a good old friend you would want to hang out with and go exploring with.
It’s All About Families
“[I]n evolution, surviving descendants are the only currency that matters.”- Carl Safina
The Church, as you know, is really big on Family History. We have Sunday school classes about it at church, and apps about it on our phones. You can probably trace your ancestry back a couple hundred years, and maybe even much further. Families are central to God’s eternal plan for His children, and much of the gospel is focused on the family as we labor to strengthen the bonds between us that can last forever. The gospel is all about families.
Much like the gospel, evolution is all about families too. It’s about how families of living things multiplied, spread, and diversified throughout the history of the world. It’s about common ancestors, family trees with tons of branches, and inherited traits. Evolution tells us that all organisms on our glorious, green planet are descended from a common ancestor, and have reached their various levels of complexity and diversity through small changes accumulating over a very long time. Darwin called it descent with modification.
In fact, it’s not wrong to permanently think of evolution in terms of descent. Instead of saying we evolved from ape-like animals, say we descended from ape-like animals. We’re just a branch on their family tree among many other branches. We kind of look like apes because we are descended from someone who looked like an ape. Just like you look kind of like your great-great grandparents because you are descended from them.
Many people ask, “If we evolved from chimps, then why are there still chimps?” First of all, we didn’t evolve from chimps, but from ancestral apes that were not chimps. And second, that’s like asking, “If some Americans came from British people, why are there still British people?”, or “If I descended from my great-grandparents, then why do I still have 2nd cousins?” Chimpanzees are still around because they are our cousins! We share a common ancestor that looked kind of like us both. Some of this ancestor’s descendants went on to become chimps, and others went on to become humans. We didn’t evolve or descend from chimps, just like you didn’t descend from your cousin. Now don’t you see why that’s a silly question to ask?
Truthfully, all of our features as humans can be traced back to ancestors in the fossil record; from our mammalian hair, to our four limbs, to our toothy jaws, to our backbones, to the very nature of the tiny cells that make up our bodies. We, and all organisms around us, are products of billions of years of slow descent with modifications. We’re all one big happy family!
Living Things Only Reproduce “After [Their] Kind”
A common scriptural weapon used to battle evolutionary claims is the idea expressed in the creation account that each living thing only multiplies and produces seed “after [its] kind” (Genesis 1:11-12,21,24-25). In reality, these scriptures actually support evolution, because evolution NEVER claimed nor will claim that any species or “kind” gave birth to a different species or kind. Ever.
An organism will always be the same species as its parents, and will always be the same species as its children. It’s always been that way. One species never can give birth to another species. That’s not how biology works. That’s not how evolution works.
Imagine you got amazingly good at filling in your family tree and you traced your ancestry back 10,000 generations. That ancestor would be an archaic Homo sapien. Perhaps a bit different, but still the same species as you. If you went back 75,000 generations, your ancestor would be a Homo erectus. A different species, but not too different looking, and still your ancestor. 15,000,000 generations back and your ancestor would be a monkey-like, rodent-resembling creature that lived in trees and had a tail (Plesiadapis). Definitely a different species, but still your ancestor! The farther back you go, the less like you your ancestors appear to be; yet each of these individuals looked like its parents and its kids, and was the very same species as they were. There was never one generation where they changed species; but rather, each generation underwent very gradual, imperceptible modifications over millions of years. Small changes over a long period of time can add up to dramatic changes in comparison, and that’s exactly what happened to your ancestors and to the ancestors of every organism alive today.
“[B]y small and simple things are great things brought to pass.” (Alma 37:6)
Now, how do these small changes occur? How does evolution happen?… It happens by natural selection.
Every living thing on earth has DNA. When things reproduce, they share some of their DNA with their offspring. When this happens, little mutations in the DNA can occur (think descent with modification). If these mutations are favorable for survival, the offspring will be more likely to survive than those who don’t have the mutation. And if they’re more likely to survive, they’re more likely to pass on those mutations to their own offspring. And in that way, these little modifications persist and can even become dominant in populations. Nature selects (think natural selection) for those favorable-for-survival modifications or traits to continue, while at the same time selecting for those traits unfavorable for survival to cease and eventually die out.
Whew… Now I know that was some pretty science-packed lingo back there, so let’s consider some families of multicolored rabbits in a snowy area. Some rabbits are born with white fur, and others are born with dark fur. Those cute little bunnies with white fur are hard to see among the white snow, and so they aren’t eaten as often as the small, adorable bunnies with dark fur, who stand out against the snow. Nature selects (think natural selection again) for the white-fur bunnies to survive and for the dark bunnies to die out. The white bunnies live to have families of their own, and pass on their white fur traits to their inheriting kiddos. The dark-furred bunnies all became food for other animals, and thus did not get the chance to have their own dark bunnies. And so, over time, this population of once-diversely-colored rabbits shifts or evolves to a population of predominantly white rabbits.
Also, natural selection happens when nature separates or isolates groups of animals from each other, like when continents are ripped apart by plate tectonics, or when animals get stranded on islands and have to start fresh, away from their mainland homies. While separated, these populations can’t mix with each other, and so each will evolve in their own way, independently. And when mass extinctions naturally wipe out entire families, that leaves ecological niches wide open for others to fill, which then allows nature to select for the traits that best fill those roles (see The Four Beasts post for more about ecological niches).
That’s natural selection. And it can and does happen for any trait that increases the chance for survival. It’s not so much “survival of the fittest” as it is “survival of the good enough for the circumstances.” Given sufficient time, small and simple changes can cause great and big changes to come to pass.
Don’t worry! We’ll talk a lot more about natural selection on this blog, because when it comes to reconciling evolution with the scriptures, it’s kind of a big deal.
Is There Any Evidence For Evolution?
Oh yeah. There’s a ton! The natural world is literally full of evidence that evolution did and does occur.
Scientists can see the evolutionary and familial splits happening among living animals today. Instead of just one species of killer whale, there are several groups that look relatively the same, but eat different things, live different lifestyles, and never reproduce with each other. The same goes for giraffes, where there are something like 9 different groups or subspecies of giraffe that never mix. These animals have essentially already split from their common ancestors and are taking their own evolutionary paths. If we could live long enough to see the eventual outcomes of these family lineages, we would probably see dramatic changes across them.
There’s even proof of evolution in you! For example, think of people who can move or wiggle their ears. They can only do so because they’ve retained an ancestral trait from an old mammalian ancestor who could move its ears around with ease. Lots of our furry friends can still move their ears, but most “normal” humans can’t any more. I’ve always wanted to be able to do this, but alas, nature selected my ancestors for whatever reason to not pass it on to me.
Also, our hands are just like the hands of our tetrapod cousins. Yes, every tetrapod, or land vertebrate animal has (or had, in the case of the extinct ones) the same bones in its arms and hands- five fingers, radius, ulna, and humerus. And that includes us! Even whales have the same bones in their flippers. And why do we all share these characteristics? You guessed it: because we’re all descended from the same tetrapod animal, who had the same bone structure. Pretty darn cool.
There is SO MUCH MORE evidence for evolution out there, so go out and look for it and be amazed.
Evolution isn’t evil, folks. It all about families. Descent. Modifications. Inherited traits. Nature doing its thing and selecting. Kinds only give birth to their own kind, and this has never changed, since the beginning of life on earth. Evolution still happens today and will continue to happen as living things continue to thrive and reproduce.
We are ALL in this together- the bacteria, plants, animals, fungi, you name it. We are all one family. And God loves us all, and He put us here. The fact that we got here in our different bodies through evolution does not change that all-important fact.
Sources and Notes:
- Since I’m not a trained expert on how evolution works, and because I’m very much a visual learner, I’ve compiled a list of short videos that you can watch to learn a little more about it. I used these as sources for some of the information in this post. Watching them all together will take about 50 minutes. It’s not a ton, but it’s a good place to start if you’re looking to deepen your understanding of evolution.
- (2:07) It’s Okay To Be Smart. “What Is Evolution, Anyway? – 12 Days of Evolution #1.” YouTube, 14 Dec 2015
- (1:45) It’s Okay To Be Smart. “Why Are There Still Monkeys? – 12 Days of Evolution #10.” YouTube, 23 Dec 2015
- (5:24) BBC Earth. “Explaining The Tree of Life | #Attenborough90 | BBC.” YouTube, 5 Jun 2016
- (4:06) It’s Okay To Be Smart. “There Was No First Human.” YouTube, 24 Mar 2014 [If you’re gonna watch any of these videos, watch this one! It does a great job of explaining what evolution looks like along single lineages.]
- (9:32) SciShow. “Common Misconceptions About Evolution.” YouTube, 8 Feb 2017
- (11:43) CrashCourse. “Evolution: It’s a Thing – Crash Course Biology #20.” YouTube, 11 Jun 2012
- (9:18) Stated Clearly. “What is Natural Selection?” YouTube, 14 May 2013.
- (3:54) Vox. “Proof of evolution that you can find on your body.” YouTube, 17 Mar 2016
- (2:38) Tyler Stoddard. “President Monson Ear Wiggle.” YouTube, 1 Dec 2013
- For the entire general conference talk by President Monson, see “Examples of Righteousness”, April 2008: https://www.lds.org/general-conference/2008/04/examples-of-righteousness?lang=eng
- For more cool stuff about how evolution works, check out these interactive evolutionary trees of life:
- Why People Reject Evolution pie chart found here: https://www.godofevolution.com/why-people-reject-evolution/
- Carl Safina quote about surviving descendants being the currency of evolution was taken from Carl’s book, Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel, p. 148.
- Image of cartoon human family tree found here: https://www.lds.org/church/news/whats-coming-from-familysearch-in-2018?lang=eng
- Image of Charles Darwin’s sketch of the tree of life found here: https://www.age-of-the-sage.org/evolution/human_evolution_theory.htm
- Phylogenetic tree of some of the branches of life found here: http://www.talkorigins.org/faqs/comdesc/phylo.html
- For more on island evolution, see the Common Descent Podcast, “Episode 4, Island Evolution.” You can listen to it on YouTube (uploaded on 25 Feb 2018), here: https://youtu.be/y1tk2ph7wSI
- The image of the different, divergent killer groups was found here: https://georgiastrait.org/work/species-at-risk/orca-protection/killer-whales-pacific-northwest/
- For more about the different subspecies of giraffe, see: https://giraffeconservation.org/giraffe-species/
- The image comparing the hand and arm bones of various tetrapods was found here: http://ircamera.as.arizona.edu/NatSci102/NatSci/lectures/intelligence.htm