Posted Wednesday, July 22, 2009, at 10:00 AM
Sometimes reading science media makes me hate being a scientist. In response to poor media coverage of the squid strandings in San Diego, I spent all of last week muttering "Humboldt squid are not giant squid! I mean, they're large, but giant squid are a totally different species! No, colossal squid are ALSO a different species!" It makes me feel anal and no fun.
This Wired piece on the 10 Worst Evolutionary Designs also made me want to smash some test tubes. It's a stunningly inane list of animal adaptations that the author thinks are weird, uncontaminated by even the most basic knowledge of evolution. For example, No. 1:
Sea mammal blowhole. Any animal that spends appreciable time in the ocean should be able to extract oxygen from water via gills. Enlarging the lungs and moving a nostril to the back of the head is a poor work-around.
I know this is supposed to be funny, but I find it so sad. It isn't cool enough that a cow-like mammal has evolved into a denizen of the open sea ? It isn't neat that dolphins have evolved amazing echolocation, and that humpback whales use their air-breathing abilities to hunt ? (Not to mention that only cetaceans-whales and dolphins-have blowholes. Other sea mammals, like seals and manatees, just stick their noses in the air.)
Evolution is all about using the tools at hand, and if something works it's good enough. Whales can't evolve gills out of nothing, but they can move their nostril to the back of their head and be successful. Kangaroos can't suddenly evolve a placenta, but being a marsupial works fine.
This is what makes the study of evolution so fascinating. There's a vast array of adaptations that have all evolved from a finite set of tools . Criticizing an adaptation as being "bad" without even a trivial attempt to understand where it came from and why it might be so ignores the most interesting aspects of evolution. And that is far worse than the Wired list's No. 8, having your sluggy sweetie gnaw off your penis . (Ok, maybe not.)