By Liz Belilovskaya
Marlene Zuk is a professor in the department of ecology, evolution and behavior at the University of Minnesota, the author of Sex on Six Legs, and last year’s Paleofantasy: What Evolution Really Tells Us About Sex, Diet and How We Live recently reviewed in the 2013 spring issue of Brain World Magazine.
Brain World Magazine: Why did you embark on the very long endeavor to write “Paleofantasy,” which is about evolution and how we misperceive it?
Marlene Zuk: I suppose a lot of it came out of the long-standing frustration dealing with people who misunderstand it. At some level [evolution] is complicated, but, on another level, it really isn’t. And yet it seems like there is so much around us about how we can and can’t learn things from our ancestors, or from our evolutionary history that’s just misplaced. So scholars need to set the record straight and say, “No wait, here, this is how it really works!”
BWM: Do you feel there are a lot of scholars trying to do this, or is there a certain amount of intellectual boxing-in?
MZ: I think there are a lot of scholars trying to do this but I think it’s not always easy. The material is complicated; I relied a lot on my colleagues and people who were doing some of the research. I was actually just telling someone that more than anything else I’ve written, I really had to tear myself away from continuing to do the research because new and exciting things are happening everyday–where you look at a journal and you say, “Ooh, I should really include that article,” but then again, the same thing will happen tomorrow, and the next day, and the day after that. So at some point you have to say, “I’m done.” I had to stop so that my editor could work; but I think that there are a lot of people trying to convey this.
BWM: Your background is in biology, evolution and also behavior. In the last 3,000 years, people have assumed that evolution’s stopped, but you showed that in smaller organisms, evolution can occur in as many as a few generations back. As a behaviorist, how do you explain it?
MZ: It has been a really big thing in behaviorism. OK, people are alright with the fossils, and we can see that a horse’s bone changed over time because we have the different fossils from different periods to prove it. But behavior is so flexible to begin with that it’s not fossilized in any way. So how can you talk about behavior evolving the way you talk about traits like leg length evolving? When you get down to it – this has been a question that people who study animal behavior have been asking for as long as people studied animals. Behavior IS a trait like all the other traits. It really isn’t any different than leg length because like leg length, it results from genes and input from the environment.
All traits, all the time, are always the result of input from the genes and input from the environment, so people will grow shorter if they don’t eat enough, but their leg length will also be determined by the genes and environmental input; there will always be an interaction there. Behavior is the same way! It may be more difficult to see and figure out – which component came from the environment and which component was the input from the genes – but it’s actually liberating to realize that it’s not any different. People ask, “How does behavior evolve?” and they ask that while throwing a stick for their dog that a few thousand years ago was an animal that would tear your arm off if you were in the same room with it. So, you’re going to tell me that behavior doesn’t evolve? Of course it does! We made it evolve, at least in our pets!
BWM: Your argument is really compelling but still, half of the American population does not believe in evolution!
MZ: Believing in evolution is somewhat of a strange way to put it! I mean whether you believe in the germ theory or not, you’re still going to get sick with the flu; your belief is immaterial to the germ theory belief.
And then there is the whole argument about how scientists use the word “theory” differently from the rest of the general public. To me, this is almost all part of a great lack of understanding of and an appreciation for science, and for how much it explains about the world. To scientists, the evidence is overwhelming…Evolution and natural selection is just as well-supported as any other scientific theory we have. I think that people are stumped by the idea that, for however long, it’s not just fashions that are going to be different; our core would be different because evolution is constantly happening. I think it really is hard to think about it.