Evolution “too slow” for climate change?


From the University of Arizona, we learn, “Evolution Too Slow to Keep Up With Climate Change”:

Many vertebrate species would have to evolve about 10,000 times faster than they have in the past to adapt to the rapid climate change expected in the next 100 years, a study led by a University of Arizona ecologist has found.

Scientists analyzed how quickly species adapted to different climates in the past, using data from 540 living species from all major groups of terrestrial vertebrates, including amphibians, reptiles, birds and mammals. They then compared their rates of evolution to rates of climate change projected for the end of this century. This is the first study to compare past rates of adaption to future rates of climate change.

The results, published online in the journal Ecology Letters, show that terrestrial vertebrate species appear to evolve too slowly to be able to adapt to the dramatically warmer climate expected by 2100. The researchers suggested that many species may face extinction if they are unable to move or acclimate.

This Mexican tree frog from the Yucatan Peninsula, on the other hand, represents one of many species whose existence is threatened by a warming climate. (Photo: John J. Wiens)

Can’t adapt?

Meanwhile, from Oxford University, we learn, “Birds Outpace Climate Change to Avoid Extinction”:

A new study has shed light on the potential of birds to survive in the face of climate change. In the analysis, based on more than fifty years’ detailed study of a population of great tits near Oxford, UK, a team of scientists were able to make predictions about how the birds could cope with a changing climate in the future. They found that for small, short-lived birds like the great tit, evolution can work fast enough for genetic adaptation to keep pace with a changing environment. However, even for such fast-evolving species, evolution on its own is not enough.

By studying individual birds over multiple years, the team were able to show that individual birds have a built-in flexibility that enables them to adjust their behaviour rapidly in response to short-term changes in the environment. This flexibility — known as phenotypic plasticity — greatly increases the chances that a population can survive in spite of short-term changes, but that possibility depends on how closely they can track the key aspects of their environment, such as the availability of food. As species become longer-lived, and thus slower to reproduce, evolutionary adaptation is far slower and can’t on its own save such species from climate change-induced extinction.

Who to believe? Here’s a thought:

Sorry, Arizona, evolution can’t be too slow for climate change. Or too fast. Or too anything. It is what it is. Like any other history.

In the real world, it is just one of the things that happen to life forms on our planet over time. The others are stasis (= nothing much happens for millions of years, like a movie that is way, way too long) and extinction (congratulations, you’re history now).

To say that evolution is “too slow to keep up with climate change” is like saying “The Roman Empire was too slow in breaking up.”

You think something is too slow, fine. Presumably, you have an opinion about how things would be better otherwise. So do many. But what happens is not subject to mere human wishes. Deriving any kind of successful prediction or law from it all—that is to say, prediction or law that is not accessible to common sense reasoning—is a mighty tricky business.

This episode shows how many of Darwin’s followers meld philosophy (and a sort of religion, in a great many cases) and history. They then turn around and claim that the contradictory mess is “science.”

Evolution isn’t a science; it is history claiming to be science. That is why it generates so much crackpot-ology in the popular media. It isn’t really subject to disconfirming tests, as the myth of “mostly junk” DNA we have been following clearly shows.

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