In "The Red Queen", Matt Ridley frequently argues that evolution is a means to an end, without providing much explanation for such a big statement.

Is this a fact in biology? Do species mutate their genes so they can reach an optimum state, like the coelacanth fish that (allegedly) remained unchanged for the last 300 hundred million years?

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    $\begingroup$ The universe does not know neither care. It does not aim. There is no intention in evolving. $\endgroup$ – Remi.b Oct 22 '19 at 0:00
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    $\begingroup$ This is a good question to ponder but the answer is straightforward and is so very old and tiring to expound on. Evolution is not teleological. Case closed. This is discussed and answered everywhere on the internet. I vote to close, as duplicate of this and this and this and so many more. $\endgroup$ – S Pr Oct 22 '19 at 12:40
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    $\begingroup$ Are you sure Matt Ridley argues that evolution is a means to an end? I haven't read "The Red Queen", but in his public lectures it seems to me he argues the opposite? $\endgroup$ – user1136 Oct 22 '19 at 16:05
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    $\begingroup$ Possible duplicate of Why do some bad traits evolve, and good ones don't? $\endgroup$ – WYSIWYG Oct 22 '19 at 16:36
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    $\begingroup$ It's been a decade since I read "The Red Queen" and I don't recall Ridley making any such suggestion. Could you quote some of the material that makes you think this? $\endgroup$ – Charles E. Grant Oct 22 '19 at 16:59

Good question--I think the first point to address is "a means to an end" seems to imply willful action. That is, evolution (according to Ridley) would be a conscious effort by a species to optimize the gene pool for survival of future generations; a rationalization for each species to mutate and diverge.

This is not the case, for a couple of reasons. First, evolution is largely due to environmental factors that exert much more control over the genetic drift of a species than any internal (i.e. willful) factors, such as sexual selection. Additionally, optimal performance is often sacrificed for the sake of reproduction (peacocks, now functionally flightless). All sexual selection happens in the context of the organism's environment--phentoypes can change, but if there's only one food source on your island, it's the limiting factor and will exert strong evolutionary pressure to maintain certain traits.

Second, no evolutionary trait is guaranteed to push the species towards a so-called optima. The influence of sexual selection on populations has left many species (again I lean on peacocks as an example) expending energy on developing traits that do not make them more viable or "optimized" as an organism, but instead make them more desirable mates and thus more likely to reproduce and pass on their genetic material. Peacocks could be much more resilient to predators without all that extra plumage, but they've traded off flight for mating success.

Finally, as an aside, evolution happens on such a large timescale that individual populations would barely be able to change their genetic makeup in the course of a single lifetime. This point is not as robust, but if general societal consensus was driving evolution, there would be extinct species littering the corners of the planet. Ridley seems to have missed the mark a little--nobody is doing anything to cause evolution; evolution happens to you over many years of mutations and environmental pressures.


In a comment I ask you for specific passages that give you this impression (since when I read The Red Queen I came away with the opposite impression). You provided the following quote.

in my 2003 copy published by Harper Perennial, at page 31: "[The coelacanth] has stayed the same - a design that persists without innovation, like a Volkswagen beetle. Evolving is not a goal but a means to solving a problem"

OK, that does make me wince a little. "means to solving a problem" does sound a little anthropomorphic to me. I think he may be trying to address the notion that evolution is some sort of metaphysical process driving towards greater complexity or sophistication. Or to put it another way he's arguing that there is no arrow of "progress" associated with evolution. Organisms that are not equipped to deal with their environment die out. Organisms that are well equipped to deal with their environment may persist with relatively little change for millions of years (at least as long as their environment doesn't change).

  • $\begingroup$ To quote a writer, We are trying to unravel the mighty Infinite using a language which was designed to tell one another where the fresh fruit was. $\endgroup$ – John Oct 29 '19 at 22:29

"Do species mutate their genes so they can reach an optimum state". No, for several reasons.

Species do not mutate their genes. Individuals suffer mutations.

Many species are in an environment that changes as fast as they can evolve, because of geophysical change, or other species including H.Sapiens. In these cases there is no optimal state to reach.

Evolution often means speciation, not genetic drift within one species.

Adaption often occurs by combining traits already in the gene pool, rather than by new mutations, which are rarely beneficial.


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