I’m sitting at the computer, reading blogs, when the dog comes up to me. “Hey, can I ask a question?” she says.
“Sure, go ahead.”
“What’s the deal with evolution?”
“Evolution, huh? Well, I’m not a biologist, you understand, but the basic idea is that every creature we see today originated from simple creatures of the past, through a process of small changes over millions of years. Every individual of a species has slightly different traits, and if those traits happen to make them more likely to survive, then they are more likely to reproduce, and have offspring who will share those traits. Over time, each generation of offspring becomes better adapted to their particular environment, until eventually they’re a separate species. It’s pretty much the central idea of modern biology. Everything we know about nature, we know in an evolutionary context.”
“I know that, silly,” she says. “What I’m asking is why are people talking about it all the time? I mean, you don’t spend all your free time talking about the Standard Model of physics.”
“Oh. Well, it turns out, there are some people who for various reasons don’t believe in evolution. And for political reasons, they have access to a great deal of money and influence, so scientists spend a lot of time having to fight them off.”
“Well, that’s just stupid,” she says, indignantly.
“Most scientists would agree with you.”
“I mean, evolution is obviously true. Just look at me.”
“Look at you?” I ask, apprehensively. I think I know where this is headed.
“Yeah. I mean, I am obviously the result of millions of years of evolution. I’m clearly descended from other dogs, but I’m also superior to them.”
I sigh. I knew that’s where this was going.
“I mean, take that German Shepherd up the block. I’ve got the same kind of fur as that dog, and the same shape of head, so we’re clearly related. But his ears stick up all pointy-like, where mine are cute and floppy. Also, he barks too much. I’m way better than that dog.”
“OK, fine, but I think you’re misunderstanding how evolution works.”
“No I’m not. I’m the best. I’m highly evolved!”
“Look, biological evolution is not a directed process leading to a specific goal. It’s a random process of mutation, selection, and reproduction. Over time, it leads to adaptation, but it’s not a steady progression to better and better organisms. The base process is as likely to produce flaws as it is to make things better. Take your bad paw, for example.” Her right rear paw is just a single pad, with no toes or claws.
“What about it? That’s an adaptation, not a flaw.”
“How is your bad paw an adaptation?”
“It’s a sympathy generator. Whenever you’re neglecting me, I just go ‘owie, owie, owie,’ and hop on three legs for a bit. Then you pet me, and give me treats.”
I shake my head in defeat. “All right, you got me. You are superbly adapted to your environment.” I scratch behind her ears.
“Thank you. I’m the best.”
“You’re still wrong about evolution, though. It’s a process, not a specific path. It’s always going on, and your adaptation really doesn’t mean much unless you pass your genes on to the next generation.”
“What?!?” she says, alarmed. “I am certainly not going to mate with any of those inferior dogs.”
“Also, we had you fixed,” I mutter.
“Nothing. The point is, while you may be the best, unless you reproduce, you’re kind of an evolutionary dead end.”
“Oh.” She looks dejected for a second.
“You’re my favorite evolutionary dead end, though.”
“I guess that’s ok…,” she says. Then she perks up. “Hey, wait! I heard about these guys in Korea. They cloned a dog. You could clone me! Lots of me!”
“Ah… yeah. Well, I’m not a biologist, remember?”
“You know biologists, though, right? You could ask them.”
“I’ll get right on that.” She’s not so good with sarcasm.
“In the meantime, how would you like to go outside?”
“Oooh! That’s where I keep my critters!” She charges off toward the back door, where chasing squirrels will make her forget about cloning. I hope.