Many people who agree that evolution is a fact nevertheless are unconcerned with the creation/evolution debate. At most these people will express some qualms about the violation of the separation of church and state when creationists try to teach their religious beliefs masquerading as science in schools, but that’s about it. For them evolution is one of those “science things” that may be interesting to read about, but that is far removed from their everyday reality and does not affect them.
Nothing could be further from the truth. First and foremost, evolution is the framework that allows us to understand how populations of living things propagate and change through time and space. Because of this, evolution has made possible the development of procedures and strategies in dozens of areas of human endeavor that involve dealing with biological entities ranging from DNA fingerprinting to fighting cancer. There are even scientific journals devoted to research into the application of evolutions such as one named (quite fittingly), Evolutionary Applications. However, in the interest of providing tangible examples, in today’s post we will go over some of the applications of evolutionary theory.
Most people have taken an antibiotic during their life. The availability of antibiotics to control or prevent infections by bacteria is something we take for granted. However, bacteria are constantly evolving resistance to antibiotics, and new strains of multidrug-resistant bacteria are compromising our effectiveness to fight infections. This is a fact that can affect your health, as many people have died from infections with antibiotic-resistant bacteria. But is not only bacteria. Fungi are evolving resistance to antifungals, and viruses are evolving resistance to antivirals. Evolution explains why this is happening, and in the design and application of new antimicrobials, scientists have to take into account the principles of evolution to both reduce and keep up with the development of resistance by microorganisms. Beyond health, evolution also has benefited agriculture because many pests, including microorganisms, weeds, and insects, are evolving resistance to pesticides. To maintain the capacity of our farmers to peoduce enough crops to meet our food needs, scientists use the principles of evolution to manage the application of pesticides and develop new ones. In the medicines that you take and the food that you eat, you have benefited from evolution.
Even before the theory of evolution was enunciated by Darwin, human beings knew how evolution worked! They knew that they could apply selection strategies to produce farm animals, dogs, plants, or other organisms that bore traits they desired. This directed breeding is nothing more than the application of evolutionary mechanisms (descent with modification) in a directed fashion (artificial selection), and today with the tools of modern genetics this process can be made faster and more effective. If you own or eat animals and plants that have been generated by directed breeding, you have benefited from evolution.
Within the field of evolution there is an important subfield called phylogenetics which studies the evolutionary relationships among biological entities. This discipline, which establishes how these entities are related to one another, has been applied to a breathtaking variety of biological problems and used to answer important real-world questions ranging from the culpability of individuals accused of a crime to the importance of diversity for ecosystems. From designing vaccines and tracking epidemics to determining ancestry among individuals, it is very likely that in one way or another phylogenetics has affected your life.
The Nobel Prize winning chemical engineer, Frances Arnold, has pioneered the application of the mechanisms of evolution to obtain enzymes with novel activities. Enzymes are proteins that make possible (catalyze) chemical reactions. The vast majority of chemical reactions that take place in living things are the result of enzymes. Enzymes are also used in industrial processes, and many industries would benefit from having enzymes with new or more stable activities. To generate these new enzymes, Dr. Arnold generated a population of enzymes with random changes that she had introduced into their structures, and then selected those enzymes that had an activity close to that which she desired. After many rounds of this evolutionary process, she was able to not only obtain enzymes with new activities, but also to obtain enzymes with types activities never seen in nature! Such is the power of evolution. This directed evolution strategy is now generating new enzymes that are being used in industrial processes to produce materials that you are may be using including detergents, oils, and fragrances.
In the field of computer science, the mechanisms of evolution have been adapted into the so-called “genetic algorithms”. These are programs that use an evolutionary strategy to solve problems. The programs are fed a set of random attempts to solve a problem, most of which will not work, but some will work better than others. The program then chooses those attempts that worked the best, and these attempts are copied into a second generation of attempts to solve the problem but introducing random modifications into them (analogous to mutations). This cycle of choosing the best attempts at solving the problem and copying then into the next generation with random modifications is repeated hundreds to thousands of times until a solution to the problem emerges. Genetic algorithms have proven very successful at generating solutions to complex problems in fields ranging from aerospace, electric, and materials engineering, to military planning, law enforcement, medicine, and routing and scheduling. If you are enjoying the benefits of some advance in technology directly or indirectly, it is likely that along the way a genetic algorithm has been used to solve problems that made it possible.
The above list (that is by no means exhaustive) shows that the theory of evolution is not something abstract that is only of interest to academics. The applications of evolution has improved the life of human beings (including creationists) by generating thousands of useful products, technologies, and insights for the solution of critical issues that affect our lives.
Evolution image from Pixabay by Manoel M. Pereira Valido Filho Mvalido is free for commercial use.