Highly Evolved

If the title of this post makes you cringe, then you belong to a minority of people who realize why the phrase “highly evolved” is so wrong. Unfortunately, “highly evolved” (as an absolute term) and “more evolved” (as a comparative term) seem  to be used all-too frequently.  They are uttered not only by non-scientists and non-biologists but even by scientists who should know better. Even when they catch themselves after blurting out “highly evolved” in a conversation (or, more embarrassingly, in a lecture), the damage is done. Yet another Freudian (Darwinian?) slip that tells of a fundamentally bad grasp on evolution. And, yes, I know, this topic has been written about by many of my betters, who are vastly more evolved better writers than I, with much better breadth and depth of knowledge of evolution, and a reach to a much wider audience.

Not a sponge. Source: wikimedia commons. Public Domain.

More evolved? Source: Wikimedia commons, public domain.

So why am I writing about it? Well, this is my blog and ranting in it is my prerogative. And despite the Richard Dawkinses and Steven Jay Goulds of this world, the use of this phrase still persists. So it is up to us foot soldiers of the blogging community to do our own modest bit. If I prevent any of my six readers from being tempted to utter this phrase the next time it is (wrongly) deemed appropriate, then I have done my bit.

Why is this “highly evolved” used so much? And why is it wrong?

Consider the sponge, and then consider Albert Einstein. There are certain traits that Einstein had, that a sponge does not. We deem these traits to be of merit. Einstein developed a fundamental theory in physics. He  played the violin. He  ate with a knife and fork, had binocular color vision, opposable thumbs and he cultivated his facial hair in the form of a mustache.

A sponge… well, to be brief, does not have all those qualities we hold in such high merit. It kinda sits there at the bottom of the shallow ocean, flopping about, filter feeding, pooping and apparently not much else. Clearly, there are qualities to Einstein that make him more interesting than the sponge.

Less evolved? Source: Wikimedia Commons

Einstein seems, intuitively, to be more complex than a sponge, and that complexity can be quantified directly, in many ways. Actually, this is a pretty contentious point by itself: can we speak of organism complexity? Can we quantify the complexity of an organism and compare between different species? And what exactly would the complexity metric we choose tell us?

But let us assume, for argument’s sake, that our intuition that Einstein is more complex than a sponge is correct. For example, we can imagine a measure derived from the diversity and number of cells. Obviously there are more cell types in Einstein than in a sponge. Does that mean he is also more evolved? Are humans a more  evolved than sponges? Chimps? After all, did life not start 3.85 billion years ago as simple and over time became more complex? Progressing, as it were from simple unicellular bacteria through more complex sponges all the way to the crowning achievement of humans? Had humans not, in a sort of (alas, Pyrrhic) victory, mastered the Earth and competed with many of earth’s species to the latter’s extinction? Isn’t competition what evolution is all about? And isn’t human victory a direct result of human complexity making humans “more evolved”? So isn’t “complexity” an end product of evolution, the more complex you are the more successful you are, and the more evolved you are?

No, no, no, no, no, and no.

The reason for this series of compounding errors is the mistaken notion that evolution by natural selection is a progression resulting in a production of increasingly complex life.  Evolution is not goal oriented, and there is no teleology involved. The increasing complexity of organisms along time may seem to involve a  progressive process, but there is none. It is a “statistical illusion”.  What do I mean by that? Well, life did start out in less complex forms, that became more complex. But the less complex forms remained as well. Thus the distribution of complexity increased over time, but there is no directionality towards progress: the less complex life remained around as well. But over 3.85B years, complexity has had a chance to manifest itself in life, as natural selection favored some initial complexities, and those extended to become even more complex. Yes, we can trace a direct route from the first multicellular organisms, through sponges, invertebrates, vertebrates. But humans, chimps, sponges and bacteria living on Earth today are the result of exactly the same selective forces that have shaped life since  it crawled out of an underwater volcano, or wherever. Complexity emerged over time, and is still emerging. But complex organisms are being added to the pool of life, rather than replacing the simple organisms. The result is an increase of a distribution of complexity levels, not the moving of an entire curve of complexity rightwards.

Apparent progress due to a to a 'wall' restricting where random change can take things. Adapted from SJ Gould. Reproduced under CC from talkorigins.org

The point I am trying to make is that humans may be more complex than sponges, but we are not “more evolved” nor are we “highly evolved”.  There is no progressive process, and all of life on earth is the result of the same 3.85B years of selective pressures.

For a really good historical overview of teleological, or purpose-driven, thought in evolution, look to talkorigins.org.

Few know that Einstein was teaching evolution at Princeton. Physics was just a cover.

All of this does not mean that Highly Evolved by The Vines is not a kick-ass song. Listening to it is also  a good way to get the rage from hearing “highly evolved” out of your system.  Note the low complexity of the video:

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5 Responses to “Highly Evolved”

  1. Lucas says:

    Welcome to the trenches! Your point really can’t be stressed enough.. That the public at large upholds a twisted and simplified view of evolution might be excusable, but scientists really should know better!

  2. Links to actual instances of scientists saying “highly evolved” etc. would be good. Who are these people?

    Me, perhaps? http://pleion.blogspot.com/2009/01/evolution-does-mean-better-and-more.html

  3. Chris Nedin says:

    Consider the sponge, and then consider Albert Einstein. There are certain traits that Einstein had, that a sponge does not. We deem these traits to be of merit.

    Yeah, but could Einstein push himself through a sieve and the reconstitute himself? I think not!

    And I have it on good authority that Einstein was rubbish at sitting at the bottom of shallow oceans, fliter feeding!

  4. shlomo says:

    Einstein and a sponge share a common ancestor. Now, who has accumulated more changes from that common ancestor? The sponge or the human?

    If evolving means just changing (I think that’s the definition: genetic change over time), well, humans have changed more than sponges ain’t they? (notice how I don’t talk about competition, complexity, or who’s mo’ better– only mere change here.)

  5. Opisthokont says:

    I agree with shlomo: in certain contexts, “highly evolved” is not a bad term. This also holds for terms like “advanced”. Properly speaking, they apply to traits, not organisms, but using the term for organisms as well is not an unreasonable shorthand. Of course, “certain contexts” are usually not those involving the general public; we try to be more careful then!