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To Be Significant

EB Ver Hoeve's picture

Elizabeth Ver Hoeve
February 16, 2007
To Be Significant

"To be fit," Ernst Mayr proclaims in his book, What Evolution Is, "means to possess certain properties that increase the probability of survival" (118). Those individuals with the most desired characteristics for their specific environment have the best chance at surviving. So if survivability is measured by, "the existence of certain survival-favoring attributes," how does an organism demonstrate its potential (Mayr 118)? The most prominent indication of an organism's survival capability is its ability to reproduce. Reproduction - the transfer of genetic material from parent to offspring - is crucial in the process of evolution. In order for a population to survive, each generation must produce a subsequent number of offspring. This basic survival requirement is unmistakably essential in the case of say, a population of penguins. Their purpose for selecting a mate and making the treacherous journey across miles and miles of ice and snow is to reproduce and create a future generation of penguins. What makes a penguin evolutionarily significant is its ability to reproduce. But can this clear-cut rationale be applicable to all species of organisms? Humans are substantially different from penguins. We have evolved into higher functioning organisms, developed complex societies, and invented medicine and technology that has potentially allowed us to side-step the force of natural selection altogether. Yet, when asked in class whether or not individuals who choose not to reproduce are evolutionarily significant, the majority response indicated that, evolutionarily speaking, such individuals had no purpose. No purpose? How could that be? Could someone actually imply that if a person doesn't pass on his or her genes, that he/she is simply insignificant? After close attention to human lifestyle, observations associated with this issue seem to point us in the opposite direction. In fact, through the examination of overpopulation, policymaking, and the spread of ideas to future generations, it seems clear that "non-reproducers" are not only significant, they are necessary contributors to the process of evolution.
While establishing his argument for natural selection Mayr states, "Every individual, whether animal, plant, or other kind of organism, "fights" every minute of its life for survival" (125). This continuous struggle to be the most fit occurs not only between but also within species. "A population of any species has the potential to produce far more offspring than will survive to produce offspring of their own. With more individuals than the environment can support, competition is inevitable" (Campbell, 16). Understanding a species' capacity to fight against its own kind and acknowledging the fact that there are an astounding 372,603 births per day in the world (World Health Organization, 2005), the risk of overpopulation grows not only more probable but the consequences become more menacing. The most devastating effect of overpopulation would be a society's inability to obtain sufficient resources - namely food. As populations expand to cover every inch of land, the ability to find food would become increasingly difficult. Consider, for example, Rwanda, a country in which individuals under 25 make up 69% of the population and women produce over 400,000 births each year. Under such extreme population growth coupled with a lack of resources, a New York Times commentator recently noted, "Small wonder that life is so cheap and that tribal and ethnic rivalries flare... Reports that more than 100,000 have been slaughtered have prompted macabre but true comments that these lives will be replaced in just three or four months" (New York Times, 5/7/1994). And this seems to be a prevalent trend: An increase in overpopulation combined with a lack of resources leads to fighting and conflict. Overpopulation and the "struggle for survival" can eventually lead to the breakdown of the human species - and that would be pretty evolutionarily significant. So then who is responsible for keeping a check on the looming possibility of overpopulation? Well, it would seem that those individuals who choose not to reproduce contribute significantly to the intended drift of the evolutionary process. Without these non-reproducing individuals, our species might actually overpopulate to the point of extinction, and that would certainly be something of extreme evolutionary significance.
Due to the complex ways in which our species - unlike any other species - governs itself, the ability to reproduce is now only one part of an individual's evolutionary significance. Our civilization functions within such an elaborate political system that our leaders actually have the capacity to directly influence change. While almost all species function within their own set of regulatory norms, human's access to advanced technology and global power enables our leaders to create a much larger influence. Not only do our leaders posses the ability to create worldwide change, they can create this change without being required to reproduce. Regardless of their own reproduction - the perceived requisite for an individual's evolutionary significance - many members of our society including policymakers, doctors, scientists, and teachers have varying degrees of power to manipulate the lifestyles of individuals and to influence the direction and rate in which a society is allowed to grow. Let's focus on China. When faced with a serious threat of overpopulation, the Chinese government - composed of individuals who themselves may or may not have been reproducing - was forced to create the one-child policy. This policy, implemented by humans to restrict other humans, has the potential to greatly impact evolution: If the point of evolution is to reproduce and pass on genes to the subsequent generation, putting restrictions on the number of children each family can have significantly decreases the margin for random mating, sexual selection, genetic drift, and gene flow. China's One Child Policy is also directly putting new pressure on the apparent gender-based birth rate disparity. Sadly, China's traditionally male-based culture and medical advances with tools such as the ultrasound have led to an increase of female baby abortions (Boston Herald, 2007). While one could say this gender disparity will just lead to a further reduction of the population, the point is that these policymakers are shaping the way in which our society functions. Although a person does not contribute to the process of evolution through reproduction, his/her ideas and policies can have massive effects on the process of evolution.
Recognizing that humans' creation of a civilization governed by laws, specialized in advanced medicine, and highly industrialized in technology has separated us from any other species, how is it possible to then argue that the same natural forces of evolution at play in a population of penguins remain equally strong in the human race? Due to our superior mental capabilities, humans have become subject to a new force in evolution, inapplicable for all other species in the world. This incredibly powerful force represents a figment of our creation. Along with randomness, natural selection, and sexual selection, the new force driving the evolution of the human race is the evolution of the idea. This force is powerful - equally as powerful as any other force. Except this force does not distinguish between reproducers and non-reproducers of society because both groups have an equal chance of affecting it. Consider Albert Einstein (1879 - 1955). He never reproduced, so was he evolutionarily significant? Well, through the evolution of one of his ideas, an entire population was destroyed- so yes, he was evolutionarily significant. Einstein envisioned the concept of nuclear fission, which led to the Manhattan Project, and through the evolution of that idea, an atomic bomb was created by the United States Government. Einstein's idea did not merely inspire the creation of a bomb, it led to development of a bomb which ultimately obliterated an estimated 140,000 Japanese citizens during the war (Wikipedia). Unlike tidal waves or hurricanes that have happened throughout time as a natural part of the evolutionary process, creation of an idea that leads to catastrophic consequences can not be considered a force of nature. Creation of such a powerful idea means that even though Einstein chose never to reproduce, he was evolutionarily significant since through a single idea, he contributed to the altered life that the Japanese must face daily.
Evolution is a process with no goal or intended result. It is a narrative story that is always changing. We, as a species, are greatly influenced by the culture we are apart of (Grobstein). Therefore, as we interact, react, and change within our environment, it should be understood that anyone who is impacting our culture, whether it be priests, teachers, or policy makers, are impacting the process of evolution (Grobstein). Significance is a term that is denoted as neither good nor bad- just important. All people, regardless of their decision to reproduce, are important to evolution.


JOHN R. BERMINGHAM President Colorado Population Coalition Denver, May 7, 1994,

Associated Press, January 23, 2007

What Evolution Is
Ernst Mayr, Published by Basic Books, 2001

Biology, Seventh Edition
Campbell, Reece,



Paul Grobstein's picture

The relative insignificance of reproduction in human evolution

"All people, regardless of their decision to reproduce, are important to evolution". Thanks, on behalf of myself and other current non-reproducers, but, even more importantly, on behalf of those of us who would like to see a better understanding of evolution among people in general. There is a tendency (which Mayer, as you point out, doesn't do much to offset) to believe that evolution implies that "What makes a penguin [or anything else] evolutionarily significant is its ability to reproduce". While this may (or may not) be entirely true for organisms that do not interact significantly with one another, it is clearly not true with the development of social communities and even less true in the context of the development of human culture, as you outline clearly. It would be nice to come up with some examples of the importance of the "idea" a little more positive than the bomb, but you've made the point. And it is not only that everyone can contribute to ideas regardless of whether the reproduce biologically or not but also that ideas in turn influence peoples' relative ability to reproduce. Culture is a product of and influence on biological evolution.