Friday, August 29, 2014
Inquirer Daily News

The Scientists Strike Back

What evolution has done for human well-being.

The Scientists Strike Back

 I got several wonderful responses to the question, two posts down, about why the chimp genome is 11.5% “higher” than ours, and whether evolution has done anything to enhance human well-being.  Yesterday I heard from a prominent Philadelphia area developmental biologist who was reluctant to let me use his name because, as he puts it, “too many people are e-mailing their ministers’ remarks and praying for my soul.”

His answer was downright inspirational: 

 “1. Size doesn't matter much. The potato has 48 chromosomes, we have 46. Salamanders have enormous genomes, far bigger than ours, as do lungfish. There's a lot of gene duplication and non-coding DNA.”

“2. The evolutionary biologists do not use DNA as genetic determinists. Rather, they can look at common descent by seeing which non-coding DNA sequences are held in common. For instance, if cows and deer share sequences 10, 12, 8, and 11 (but not sequences 4, 5, and 6; and whales and hippos share sequences 10, 12, 4, 5, and 6 (but not 8 and 11), then it is very reasonable to assume that whales and hippos came from a common ancestor (that had 4,5,and 6), cows and sheep came from a common ancestor that had 8 and 11, and that all four groups had a common ancestor who had sequences 10 and 12...."

Okay, that was a bit technical but this really gets to the heart of the matter:

“As to the use of evolution for human well-being: for some people it's a life-sustaining idea that all the life on earth is related to one another. We are never strangers from nature. I like having family in nature. I feel sorry for those philosophers who say "man is alone." I find it amazing that I am related bodily to every other living thing on earth.”

Wow. What can I say but bless you …I mean, amen… I mean, thank you.  

About this blog
Faye Flam - writer
In pursuit of her stories, writer Faye Flam has weathered storms in Greenland, gotten frost nip at the South Pole, and floated weightless aboard NASA’s zero-g plane. She has a degree in geophysics from the California Institute of Technology and started her writing career with the Economist. She later took on the particle physics and cosmology beat at Science Magazine before coming to the Inquirer in 1995. Her previous science column, “Carnal Knowledge,” ran from 2005 to 2008. Her new column and blog, Planet of the Apes, explores the topic of evolution and runs here and in the Inquirer’s health section each Monday. Email Faye at Reach Planet of the at

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