Is Evolution Practical?

Jerry Coyne has a review of the new book The Evolving World: Evolution in Everyday Life, by David Mindell, in the current issue of Nature. The ID folks are crowing over this remark:

To some extent these excesses are not Mindell’s fault, for, if truth be told, evolution hasn’t yielded many practical or commercial benefits. Yes, bacteria evolve drug resistance, and yes, we must take countermeasures, but beyond that there is not much to say. Evolution cannot help us predict what new vaccines to manufacture because microbes evolve unpredictably. But hasn’t evolution helped guide animal and plant breeding? Not very much. Most improvement in crop plants and animals occurred long before we knew anything about evolution, and came about by people following the genetic principle of ‘like begets like’. Even now, as its practitioners admit, the field of quantitative genetics has been of little value in helping improve varieties. Future advances will almost certainly come from transgenics, which is not based on evolution at all.

Of course, for some reason they fail to mention Coyne’s next paragraph:

As far as I know, there have been only two genuine commercial applications of evolutionary theory. One is the use of ‘directed evolution’ to produce commercial products (such as enzymes to protect crop plants from herbicides). The other is the clever use of insecticide-free ‘pest refuges’ to stop herbivorous insects evolving resistance to herbicides containing Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) toxins, a strategy derived from principles of population genetics. There will certainly be more of these to come. And evolutionary algorithms are used in designing computer programs, and may have uses in engineering and economics.

I agree with Coyne’s basic premise here. Studying evolution is not something you do in the hopes of achieving great practical or commercial benefits. But then, most scientific research is not undertaken with specific commerical applications in mind.

Howerver, I think Coyne has also overlooked something important. He seems to be considering only instances where evoluitionary theory has led directly to practical benefits. But this overlooks instances were evolution has indirectly led to important progress

The most obvious example is in genetics. As Ernst Mayr has written about at length, prior to Darwin people viewed variation within a species as a distraction from the Platonic essence the species was thought to represent. Consequently, the nature of variation, and the nature of heredity generally, were not viewed as important questions. Darwin changed all that. Testing Darwin’s theories required a solid understanding of heredity, and I would say we are all reaping the benefits of that change in focus.

Of course, the main reason for trying to unravel the course of natural history, just as with human history, is that any marginally curious person has to wonder how we got here. It is hard to imagine that a proper understanding of evolution would not have an effect on how you view the world. Indeed, that is precisely why the subject arouses such passion.


  1. #1 mark
    September 7, 2006

    Evolution has yielded many wonderful things–me, for instance, and penguins, trilliums, and catfish. Of course, evolution produced such things without anyone studying the subject. And evolution just as certainly produced these things without any wingnuts howling out denials that such a process could occur. With respect to the study and practical benefits of evolution, I’d say understanding how things have come to be can only help us in our efforts to conserve species and in being, in general good stewards of the environment.

  2. #2 Noodle
    September 7, 2006

    It’s not so much that evolution itself has produced anything but that, given the fact of evolution, you can then make all kinds of progress in other areas.

    If I don’t want to experiment on humans to find out if screwing with a certain gene will retard the progress of cancer, common descent says that it’s very likely I can find another mammal to experiment on.

    Evolution is foundational knowledge. It’s something you need to have before progressing on to new levels of knowledge that actually yield tangible results.

  3. #3 Tom Stemann
    September 7, 2006

    The evolutionary succession of species in the fossil record has been indispensable to determining the relative ages of strata. The petroleum industry would be lost without an understanding of paleobiology and the origination and extinction of species. The framework for all this was laid down long before Darwin but it is still part of evolution and it most certainly does have an economic impact.

  4. #4 JohnC
    September 7, 2006

    This all seems a little silly to me (and very American), involving a fundamental confusion about the difference between science and technology. Theories don’t have “applications” as such, but viewed historically have a complex two-way relationship to technologies.

    But even more important, isn’t answering the question of life’s, and therefore our, true nature and development an incalculable prize. Isn’t it the very thing the DI folks are fighting so hard to take away.

  5. #5 RPM
    September 7, 2006

    Coyne’s thesis isn’t that evolution does not have practical applications, but that the fruitfulness of a scientific discipline should not be determined based on it’s practical applications. Scientists doing basic science (be it math, physics, chemistry, biology) should not be forced to defend their research based on what technologies it has developed.

  6. #6 PhysioProf
    September 7, 2006

    “Scientists doing basic science (be it math, physics, chemistry, biology) should not be forced to defend their research based on what technologies it has developed.”

    True. But it sure doesn’t hurt to point out the instances in which basic science has provided a foundation for applied advances.

    One good example of how the fact of evolution makes possible extremely valuable lines of research is the use of Drosophila melanogaster as an inexpensive and rapid model system for testing hypotheses about a variety of human neurodegenerative disorders. If man did not share a common ancestor with fruit flies, this research would not be possible.

  7. #7 John Wilkins
    September 7, 2006

    I disagree with Coyne on one thing (well, a few, but they are not germane here). Evolutionary theory actually has direct practical applications in understanding the way to combat diseases over and above the drug-resistance issue. Paul Ewald published an excellent book in 1994 on the way infectious disease evolves, noting that virulence of a pathogen or parasite is directly related to the speed with which it can spread – faster infecting pathogens have no genetic coincidnece with the interests of the host, and so selection for more exploitative pathogens (more “virulent” ones) will occur. How to make a pathogen commensual? Slow the infection rate, so that the interests of the host and pathogen coincide. In the case of HIV infections, for instance, the use of condoms and safe sex practices in general mean there is selection pressure for less virulent strains. And so we have seen in countries that do promote safe sex. This directly follows from an evolutionary perspective.

  8. #8 Sandra Porter
    September 7, 2006

    I’m usually more respectful, but the premise that evolution has failed to yield anything practical is simply wrong.

    For example, there is an entire line of biological research called “bioinformatics” (which I both do and write about extensively, by the way) that is completely based on evolution. Many of the hypotheses from this line of research derive from the notion that all life forms evolved from a common ancestor. Therefore, if we can the find the function of a protein in one organism, we can infer the function of a protein in another. And biotechnology companies have used this realization to identify all kinds of useful proteins and produce all kinds of useful drugs.

    Alright, clearly I have my blogging work cut out for me.

  9. #9 Robert O'Brien
    September 8, 2006

    If man did not share a common ancestor with fruit flies, this research would not be possible.

    I don’t see why. You don’t need common descent to analyze the genes and infer analogical functioning.

  10. #10 Fred
    September 8, 2006

    Robert, he means that if we weren’t related in the distant past, the DNA would have no similarities, so you wouldn’t be able to test on animals and expect similar results in humans.

  11. #11 D. P. Mindell
    September 9, 2006

    I should resist finding fault with J. Coyne’s generally positive review of my book (The Evolving World: Evolution in Everyday Life; Harvard U. Press). He does makes some good points; however, I think his premis being discussed here is off the mark. He suggests that explaining the practical applications of evolutionary science as a way to aid in its public acceptance is somehow impure (“mercenary”) and that evolution or any other science’s “true value… is not practical but explanatory.” But for the public at large, I think the opposite is true – that is, the value attributed to any particular aspect of science is often proportional to its practical applications. And the failure of many scientists to see this difference between public and professional viewpoints, and our failure to present the practical evidence of evolution’s integration into daily life, has been part of the problem in gaining support for uncompromised science education in the U.S. Science is a publicly funded enterprise, requiring some justifications that the public will support. Although the ability to explain the kinship of mice and men is vital, the practical uses of evolution can provide the incontrovertible proof of evolution that many people need, and it can also provide a terminal difficulty for evolution’s opponents. For this reason, we should insist on pointing out evolution’s relevance wherever it occurs, even where it is foundational and scientists now take it for granted. For example, Coyne says, “transgenics…is not based on evolution at all”, but just try doing transgenics without basic evolutionary understanding of which genes are homologous in different species and which species and genes are most closely related by common descent.

  12. #12 Randy
    September 9, 2006

    Whether or not there are practical applications of evolution says nothing whatsoever about the validity of evolution as a scientific fact.

    I haven’t seen many practical applications suggested for string theory in Physics. But no one is using that as an argument against the validity of that theory.

  13. #13 David Harmon
    September 12, 2006

    I haven’t seen many practical applications suggested for string theory in Physics. But no one is using that as an argument against the validity of that theory.

    They most certainly are! I’ve seen Scientific American and Discover both, snark about how quantum theory led right to semiconductors, but string theory barely has predictions, let alone applications. Heck, the fact that MOND still gets articles speaks to the growing impatience with string theory!

    In contrast, evolution most certainly does have practical applications, ranging from better control of breeding, through epidemiological predictions, and enormous gains in background knowledge for both medicine and systems theory. Genetic algorithms are already a toolkit item for, not merely AI, but CAD in general.

    (back to string theory for a mini-rant)
    I hear that ST has already provided some interesting advances in math. I suspect ST will basically bequeath a few constraints to whatever we eventually come up with, but I also think the real problem is that we need more data, from new areas.

    Taking experiments into space (i.e., gravity-wave detectors) will help there, but we need more options. How about, say, a detailed electromagnetic and gravitiational mapping of the Jovian subsystem? That ought to have at least some interesting physics wrapped up in it! Or go visit a bunch of asteroids, and see if there’s any interesting “relics” floating out there!

  14. #14 petewsh61
    September 12, 2006

    I fail to see the distinction he makes between evolutionary algorithms and the application of evolutionary theory. Engineers have used evolutionary models to evolve hardware, for instance things like UHF satellite antenna. They start out with “genes” that specify the physical characteristics of the antenna, let the “genes” randomly mutate and test the resulting phenotypes in computer models with performance criteria selecting those variations that should persist in the population of evolved phenotypes.

    How much closer to natural selection does an engineering paradigm have to be to consider it applied evolutionary theory?

    I use this example in my Intro Biology class to talk about applied aspects of evolution, along with bacterial resistance, and certain types of CGI animation (Horses in the Lord of the Rings Part III). Is there a reason I shouldn’t?

    Does it have to be applied to living systems to be considered an application of evolutionary theory? Seems like splitting hairs to me.

  15. #15 AnInGe
    September 13, 2006

    Perhaps the commercial value of evolution is best exemplified by cases where incorrect theories are applied. The perfect example of this is Lysenkoism in the USSR. Applying this variant of Lemarkian evolution to Russian agriculture contributed to the failure of Russian crops, the need of the USSR to import vast amounts of food from capitalists countries, and was a factor in the economic collapse of the USSR. As shown in the previous posts, application of valid evolutionary theory is absolutely germane to the further progress of many commercial fields, including biotechnology and agriculture. Any nation that is ignorant of evolution and its import will be as commercially stymied as they would be if ignorant of the molecular basis of chemistry.

  16. #16 chiz
    September 13, 2006

    There is another side to this. Are there any commercial applications, or commercial consequences, of creationism? The answer here is yes. Many of the scientists trying to stop the genetic engineering industry are creationists. One local scientist (who has actually supervised molecular biology PhD’s, aarrgh) claims that genetic engineering of plants is wrong because plant genomes are irreducibly complex. Creationism potentially will lead to job losses rather than create them.

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