Because I am a werido this is something that I think about from time to time, and I actually wrote about this topic on another blog post. Albeit that was more about feathers but still along the same lines.
So my question is this: What is the greatest evolutionary advancement that nature has created?
This may seem odd but I think it is very interesting. I will start with saying that at this point in time if you do not believe in evolution then I cannot help you in any way, but I do have some ocean front property in Arizona to sell you, its actually a great deal, but its going fast! Anyways, as far as what qualifies as an evolutionary advancement, it has to be something that completely changes the game. This new advancement gives such an advantage to the newly evolved animal that it all of a sudden becomes the apex predator or at the very least changes that animals place in the ecosystem dramatically.
Here is the list I came up with mostly in chronological order.
First on the list and I think foremost is the eye. Believe it or not animals have not always had eyes and around 542 million years ago during the Cambrian Explosion is when most scientist think the first primitive examples of the eye burst onto the scene. Again per my definition above can you imagine how much of an advantage this would have been for animals of this time. They were mostly marine creatures but I think the saying, in the land of the blind the one eyed man is King, certainly applies. I am not sure what other sensory organs these creatures had but I would say that the eye was a major jump in biological technology. Imagine being only to smell your prey, so you were always a step behind and finding a meal would have been a real struggle. Then all of a sudden you could actually see your prey, but more importantly you could see the bigger animal that was getting closer to you expecting to have a nice meal itself. So to an extent this may be more important than finding a meal, the fact of not becoming a meal. Which if this creature with an eye can stay alive longer, then there is are greater odds that this creature will reproduce and pass on its genes to its offspring. Then its children would have the same advantage that their father or mother did and would again survive to breed. You can see how quickly a creature with an advance would be able to pass on its genes and in theory its cellular advantage. This is why I think the eye is very important and extremely high on the list of evolutionary advancements throughout our history.
So again I think first on my list is the eye, but let’s fast forward a few million years and talk about something else, and that is lungs or the ability to breathe air. From the get here on Earth life first began in the oceans. It took quite a while for the first “fish” type animals to crawl out of the ocean and onto land. Approximately around 428 million years ago the first creature ventured out of the water and onto the land. Now that may seem like no big thing, but most creatures had evolved to live in water, so how would it breathe? Somewhere along the way it developed the first lungs which gave it the ability to survive on land. This, again, is a very big advantage for a number of different reasons. So think about this creature with lungs being chased by a water predator and it sees the shore line in sight. It barely makes it to the shore and jumps on shore and escapes becoming a meal. Not only that but there are not threats on the shore as this creature is basically the first large creature to be there. So in basically an instant it went from a meal, to more or less the apex predator on land. This would have been a massive evolutionary advantage. Also think about a species that gives birth on land vs the water. If it was one of the first to do this it would ensure that more of its young would survive and again they would be able to pass on their genes to their young so the species would live on. If you are interested in this idea more in depth I recommend reading Your Inner Fish, it is really a great read. For some reason I never did a review of it, o well.
Another interesting point to talk about is that if this advancement never takes place the argument of advanced technology and most importantly us, humans, would not exist. Had these creatures never stepped out of the water it would have been extremely difficult if not impossible to create any sort of advanced technology under water. So to an extent I think this advancement could very well be more critical than any other on the list. Because if this does not happen, then perhaps dolphins are the smartest most advanced species on the planet. That is not a bad thing, but when was the last time a dolphin figured out the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle or the General Theory of Relativity. As smart as they are, they are still a long way from what we have accomplished.
So let’s keep moving up the time line and see what else evolution has in store for the planet.
After the first animals walked out of the water there was a somewhat explosion of animals on land. It did not take long for them to leave land behind and take to the air. My next evolutionary advancement is flight. Archaeopteryx is by most considered the first bird and was thought to have lived around 140 million years ago. So it took about 280 million years for the first land animals to take flight. What I find pretty bizarre is that this feature, flight, has taken place 4 times with 4 different species across time. According to Wikipedia insects, birds, mammals, and Pterosaurs all developed flight without a common ancestor. That is pretty interesting and amazing. I will say I think there is a caveat in there though. I think most people believe that a few species of dinosaurs evolved into birds which makes me wonder about why they listed Pterosaurs as a separate species. Based on this I would assume that Pterosaurs are not considered dinosaurs but a separate species, but at the end of the day they also evolved the ability to fly again without a common ancestor.
For some reason I am not as fascinated with the idea of insects developed flight, for some reason it seems like they have always been able to fly, in my opinion. Even if insects had not always been able to fly, when it comes to the others on the list they are much more primitive in terms of mammals and birds. So for this I will also leave Pterosaurs out and just talk about mammals and birds as these are the two that still survive today. These are both complex organisms, much more so than insects, yet they have no common ancestor and still somehow they both developed flight. All modern birds probably evolved from Archaeopteryx or one of its ancestors. While modern day bats, which are mammals, evolved from something else entirely. The advantages of begin able to fly are numerous, from the ability to escape predators as well as begin able to raise its young off the forest floor where again most of the predators live. Not only that but these early birds had the ability to swoop down and grab a meal and be on their way. No violent confrontation that would risk injury.
So we have covered the eye, lungs, and flight, but the greatest still has yet to come.
Before I get to what I think is the greatest evolutionary advancement I wanted to talk about this one because I think it is fascinating, and that is blooming flowers. Believe it or not blooming flowers have only been around since about 130 million years ago. I found this fascinating and for some reason thought that beautiful exotic flowers have more or less always existed ever since there were plants. But just like animals plants have specific evolutionary traits that help them reproduce as well. I think the blooming flower is no exception. If you are a bee looking for someplace to land and collect pollen where are you going to land, on a plant that has nothing colorful or this other plant that has brightly colored blossoms all over it. I would say probably the latter. So again I would say that would help this flower reproduce, and again the blooming flowers would help this species survive.
On the surface this may not look like much, but fast forward a few million years and currently there is a somewhat shortage of bee. Actually it has become an epidemic to the point where scientist are trying to figure out what is going on and why so many bees have been dying. But from an agriculture perspective this is a huge problem. We have neglected and or forgot that these tiny creatures help us produce crops. If all the bees were to die, we would be in some big trouble. Other insects and birds could step up to fill this void but I do not think they could totally replace these little workers.
So now for the final and the best evolutionary advancement of all time, OF ALL TIME! I will let the suspense build….. wait for it…I think it is hands down, intelligence. This may be an aspect of evolution that gets overlooked, but in my opinion, and I think most would agree with me, it is the most important evolutionary advancement in history. I really don’t think I need to explain the reasons as I think they are self-explanatory. Let’s say about 4 million years ago, somewhere around then, the first human ancestors were alive. From there the growth of our brain increased in size sometimes doubling in a very short time period. This rapid growth of brain did something that no other creature on the planet could combat. It did not give us bigger claws, sharper teeth, or even make us larger, it made us smarter. So much so that our early ancestors were able to work together to raise young, hunt, even help the sick, and eventually cultivate the earth. This early culture was something that no other animal could combat and nearly overnight, in evolutionary terms, we went from a possible meal for a large predator to the apex predator not only in the local ecosystem, but on the planet. No other species has truly ever been able to make that claim.
With all this being said what’s next? What is the next evolutionary advancement? There is a large portion of my logic that thinks that we may continue to get smarter, in my opinion, the next real jump will not be biological but technological. We will use our intelligence to continue to become more and more technologically advanced. Perhaps that is always the goal of any and every biological evolution. The biological creatures reach a an apex and then what they create becomes the next step in evolution, which should or could be their technology.
If that is the case then I honestly have no idea what to expect down the road. On another note I have read that there is a 95% chance that by the year 10,000 humans will be extinct according to Frank Drake. What is not stated in this link is if we will truly go extinct or simply evolve into another new species. As in my opinion I do not think these are mutually exclusive.
So who knows, but I am certainly glad of the evolutionary advancements along the way and it is certainly nice that humans seem to have taken advantage of all them.