Adventures in Ethics and Science

The Free-Ride offspring try to explain what it means for an organism to be adapted to its environment, and why it matters:

Dr. Free-Ride: OK, so you’ve been learning in school about?

Younger offspring: Different adaptations.

Dr. Free-Ride: Can you explain what an adaptation is?

Younger offspring: Well, I forgot.


Dr. Free-Ride: You don’t need to use the exact words from your science book.

Younger offspring: I know, but I still forgot the meaning.

Elder offspring: An adaptation is a change made to ensure success and survival in animals.

Younger offspring: I want to say it somewhat like my science book. That doesn’t sound anything like my science book.

Dr. Free-Ride: I think your sibling wanted something a little shorter and more pithy. And more third grade. As happens. Hey, and can I correct you ever so slightly? Animals are not the only organisms that adapt.

Younger offspring: Plants. Humans!

Dr. Free-Ride: Also fungi.

Elder offspring: All right, living things.

Dr. Free-Ride: In school, you were learning about how specific organisms are adapted to their environments?

Younger offspring: Yeah. Squirrels and skunks are adapted to live in the forrest. A squirrel has sharp claws so it can climb trees. And a skunk has its musk.

Dr. Free-Ride: Its musk, which is used to …

Younger offspring: Protect itself!

Dr. Free-Ride: By …

Younger offspring: Smelling bad to scare a creature that’s after it.

Dr. Free-Ride: Maybe the creature that was after the skunk would smell the spray and think, “Any creature that smells that bad must be bad to eat!”

Younger offspring: Yeah.

Dr. Free-Ride: [Elder offspring], do you have any favorite examples of how an organism is adapted to its environment?

Elder offspring: Not really. They’re all good.

Dr. Free-Ride: So, what happens to organisms that aren’t well adapted to their environment?

Younger offspring: I don’t know.

Elder offspring: Like the dodo, they die out.

Younger offspring: Oh yeah, they get extinct.

Dr. Free-Ride: They “get” extinct, that’s true.

Elder offspring: The dodo was a slow, small bird that couldn’t fly or swim.

Dr. Free-Ride: It was fine until people showed up and said, “What a tasty piece of fowl.” So, with the dodo, what happened? The dodo was doing fine for a while, and then something about its environment changed.

Younger offspring: I think they were making it dirtier.

Elder offspring: No, it was over-hunting. Dodos just couldn’t adapt quickly enough.

Dr. Free-Ride: So it was basically a brand new predator that they didn’t have a good way to escape. How about the dinosaurs? What happened with the dinosaurs?

Younger offspring: Well, they got extinct. I don’t know how.

Elder offspring: A meteor. Knocked lots of dust into the air, made it cold, blocked out the sun.

Younger offspring: I think it was a volcano.

Dr. Free-Ride: I suppose a volcano could have done the job as well with enough ash. So, with the dinosaurs, the issue wasn’t just another predator dropped into their environment. The issue was that features of the environment like the temperature changed a lot pretty quickly. If you’re really well adapted to a particular environment and then something about that environment changes, you might be out of luck.

Younger offspring: Unlike us.

Dr. Free-Ride: Mmm. Sometimes this comforts me, because I hardly ever feel like I’m the best adapted creature in my environment. If the environment changes, there’s a chance it will change in a direction that I fit better.

Elder offspring: Humans are up there with fleas, worms, and other parasites.

Younger offspring: What?

Elder offspring: Well, to other animals we are.

Dr. Free-Ride: But maybe some of us less so than others.

Younger offspring: Yeah, we don’t eat animals.

Elder offspring: Do you know how much harm we caused? The dodo. The passenger pigeon.

Dr. Free-Ride: Hey, yes, as a species humans have put a lot of pressure on environments and driven a bunch of organisms to extinction. But without a time machine, I think maybe we should focus on what we can do now for the organisms that are not yet extinct. Looking forward, possibly we can be smarter. Possibly we can value the other organisms in the other niches and not just use ‘em all up or change conditions in ways they can’t adapt to.

Younger offspring: In the future, there might be new animals. If we don’t pollute, they could drink nice water from the rivers, and not fall over and die.

Dr. Free-Ride: You know, there’s always the possibility that some animals will emerge that are well adapted to yucky water. Maybe some organisms will adapt to the mess that humans have left. Then, if we clean things up too much, those organisms might go extinct.

Elder offspring: I hope the organisms there are now can adapt to warmer temperatures, because things aren’t going to get much cooler in the next 50 years.

Younger offspring: But new organisms will evolve. I think.

Dr. Free-Ride: Yup. Evolution is still happening. Even now, as you eat your dinner.

Comments

  1. #1 becca
    October 16, 2009

    “Sometimes this comforts me, because I hardly ever feel like I’m the best adapted creature in my environment. If the environment changes, there’s a chance it will change in a direction that I fit better.”
    Never thought of it that way. Comforting indeed!

  2. #2 katydid13
    October 19, 2009

    If you ever get to Caddie Woodlawn in the Spogs literary adventures, there is a good section on passenger pigeons that helps illustrate how they became extinct. Of course you also need to be prepared to discuss stereotypes about Native Americans and the whole stealing of their land thing.

  3. #3 Leah
    October 31, 2009

    I’m so glad your kids are learning about adaptation in school! I’ve been teaching it a lot too recently, and I think it’s a difficult concept for kids to get. I notice even your kids have trouble with the “why” of adaptation. Do you try to correct the idea that things are adapted for a specific purpose? My issue in teaching is that kids think animals or plants adapt to deal with a specific issue, when in reality (I think) plants and animals happen to flourish in the environment that they’re adapted for, but those adaptations arise haphazardly and not intentionally. The adaptations just become widespread because they’re useful. Yes? And how to explain that in a more concise and accessible way?

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