The word ‘evolution’ has multiple meanings: a generic meaning of change over time with an implication of a direction to an end goal and the actual Theory of Evolution. Recently Dr. Pepper posted an ad of Facebook that has kicked up the ire of the religinuts.
Dr. Pepper is using the word in the former sense, that there is an end goal of consuming Dr. Pepper evolving from an earlier step of not drinking Dr. Pepper, OK, fine. But of course they use a variant of the familiar graphic that is in fact misleading.
Since the wingnuts don’t actually know what evolution is (except something they hate) they only complain about anything that might popularize the completely accepted Theory of Evolution (as if denial alone is actually disputing facts). They, of course, don’t note the misuse of the graphic relative to the meaning of word, evolution.
The scientific community knows that there is no pre-defined endpoint of the biological process of evolution. Intelligence, at the level of homo sapiens, is not inevitable. We haven’t had a 4.7 billion year journey from some earliest state to an end destination that merely flatters us, to think of ourselves as “perfection”. Evolution could just as easily produce intelligent squid or some hybrid walking plant.
Evolution is merely adaptation of an existing organism to its environment. That adaptation will take some path ultimately leading to an optimized organism, for that environment, the Climbing Mt. Improbable that Richard Dawkins so elegantly wrote. IOW, for the technical among you evolution is a gradient descent (not always, but often) in a multi-dimensional space.
Now if you’ve ever done optimization you know that most of the incremental techniques can get “stuck” in a sub-optimal metastable state, that is, any incremental change will produce a less good solution and therefore change halts. But this is often just a valley that may be adjacent to an even deeper valley (or hill with a plain separating it and higher hills nearby, whichever metaphor works for you, if you prefer to think of optimization climbing or descending). Of course environment itself is not stable and therefore this landscape can change, often stranding highly optimized organisms but then giving other less optimized organism (or mutations) a chance to seek the new optimal. And that process continues which is why most species that have ever lived are now extinct.
So there is nothing about biological evolution that leads to a particular outcome, i.e. bipedal, vocal, intelligent beings. It can happen but it’s almost completely an accident and, of course, that freaks the believers of “special creation”, the arrogant idea that homo sapiens is meant to rule this planet and destroy it if they choose. Stephen Gould often talked about the idea of “replaying the tape” and pondering whether the outcome, millions or billions of years later, would be the same. Or when we find life elsewhere what will its path be?
Undoubtedly the ad creators for Dr. Pepper just thought they had a cute graphic that would sell more product but they’ve managed to irritate some of their potential market and simultaneously be scientifically inaccurate. No surprise since most of what is said about Theory of Evolution is wrong and uniformed.
It’s too bad such an elegant and comprehensive idea, the central organizing principle of life, is so often misused. And the religinuts get all incensed yet again, maybe not as bad a hate films triggering violence, but nonetheless adding to one more step of descending into our valley of ignorance.