Adaptations evolve in populations

Organisms evolve adaptations to increase their fitness

There are few ideas in science that explain as much of the natural world as does natural selection, but there are few ideas in science that are more frequently misunderstood.

Often the misunderstandings are deliberate or disingenuous, but I’ve seen quotes like the one above even in undergraduate essays and popular science books.

There are two subtle problems with what is written above.

Firstly, adaptations do not evolve in individual organisms, because evolution isn’t something that happens to individual organisms. Evolution is something that happens to populations over time. A mutation that predisposes pea plants to making flowers that are purple will initially arise in a single, particular plant cell. But only if this plant’s offspring prosper (at the expense of peas with differently coloured flowers) will the population as a whole change over time.

Adaptations like flowers that attract pollinators – and the mutations that underlie them – arise in particular individuals, but they can only become more (or less) common in populations considered as a whole. Individuals mutate, but only populations evolve.

Biologists usually think of evolution as the change in frequency of an allele in a population over time. An allele is one of the various forms a particular gene can take. In the peas studied by Gregor Mendel, flower colour was determined by a single gene, which came in two variants: one variant – one allele – resulted in purple flowers, the other allele resulted in white flowers.

If – perhaps – the purple flowers were more attractive to pollinators like bees than the white, then the purple-flowered peas would tend to be fertilised more often, and would leave more offspring. The next generation of pea plants would then inherit a larger proportion of alleles causing purple flowers, and a reduced proportion of alleles causing white flowers. The purple allele would therefore increase in frequency at the expense of the white, and the population as a whole would become more purple over time.

Pisum sativum (white) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 Rasbak]

White-flowered peas (Pisum sativum) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 Rasbak]

Pisum sativum (purple) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 Rasbak]

Purple-flowered peas (Pisum sativum)  [CC-BY-SA-3.0 Rasbak]

For similar reasons, fitness is not a property of individual pea plants either; it is an average property of purple-flowered peas versus white-flowered peas. Any particular purple-flowered pea plant might get trampled by a cow and produce hardly any pea-pods; any particular white-flowered pea plant might get lucky and find itself in a cosy, well-fertilised spot near a beehive. But on average, the purple-flowered plants will do better and they will bequeath their purple-flower alleles disproportionately to the next generation: that is what we mean by the purple-flowered plants being ‘fitter’.

The second problem with the original statement is actually the smallest word: it’s that seemingly insignificant ‘to’. That ‘to’ is short for ‘in order to’, and there’s the rub. ‘In order to’ implies teleological agency and long-term purpose, which are not properties that you can reasonably attribute to natural selection.

Natural selection is a mindless algorithm, not a purposeful process. In essence natural selection is just this:

  • Organisms vary, and some of that variation is inheritable. Some peas have purple flowers, some have white, and this is (partly) due to purple- and white-flowered peas having different alleles of a particular flower-colour gene.
  • More offspring are produced than can survive and reproduce, so they will compete, and some variants will – on average – have greater success at making offspring than others. Pea plants produce more offspring peas than are ever likely to germinate, grow and get fertilised themselves. Some variants in the offspring may be better at competing for light, nutrients or pollinators: e.g. some flower colours may be more attractive to pollinators than others.
  • Those variants will contribute disproportionately to the next generation, and the frequency of their alleles will increase over time. If the purple-flowered peas are more attractive to pollinators, they will get fertilised more often, and contribute a larger number of seeds into the next generation. These seeds – and the plants that germinate from them – will inherit their parent’s purple-flower alleles, so we will see an increasing proportion of purple flowers as the generations tick over.
  • Rinse, repeat.

The match between the purple flowers and the purple preference of pollinators strikes us as clever and sensible and non-random, and it is all those things. But the process of natural selection that created this apparent design is just the mindless consequence of variation, heredity and differential reproductive success: it has no goals, no aims, no purpose.

Equally, this is a passive process for the pea population: they are subject to evolution by natural selection, but they are not active participants in the process.The peas do not strive supernaturally to make more purple flowers. The peas do not get magically instructed by the bees to make purple flowers. The peas certainly do not know what DNA sequences they would need to invent in order to make their flowers purple: new flower-colour alleles arise by mutation, which is just as mindless as natural selection, and even more heedless of what might be useful.

Populations do not evolve in order to do anything. Populations evolve, period. Purple flowers arise and become more common in pea populations because purple flowers happen to be attractive to bees; peas do not choose to evolve purple flowers in order to attract more pollinators. Mutation just throws up new alleles, and natural selection (and other important processes) make them more or less common over time.

It can become tedious describing this process passively and long-windedly every time: “purple flowers have become more common in the pea population because flower colour is highly heritable, and purple flowers are fertilised more frequently by bees”. If you want to write this more succinctly, you could say “purple flowers have evolved in peas because purple flowers are more attractive to bees” without loosing too much meaning.

Unfortunately, you might well see someone reword this as “peas have evolved purple flowers because bees prefer them”. This isn’t exactly wrong, but the ‘have evolved’ makes it sound very much like the peas are doing something actively, rather than having something done to them passively, and it’s all too easy to interpret this phrasing incorrectly. This puts us on the slippery slope to misconception.

If this is then reworded further to “peas evolved purple flowers to attract bees”, it sounds very much like like peas are active players in the process, and that they have a long term plan of improving their attractiveness to bees. This is almost guaranteed to mislead, unless you have your evolutionary biology filter turned up to maximum.

Do not write:

Some species evolved an adaptation to do some task

Write this instead:

An adaptation that does some task evolved in [a population of] some species

Given human nature (particularly on this subject), some people will still misinterpret your meaning, but at least you’re not implicitly misleading them with your language.

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