|The divine comedy|
- Not to be confused with political devolution, which is not necessarily the same. Nor with those odd chaps from Ohio.
De-evolution or devolution is a idea that a species is actually evolving "backward". Biblical literalists often favor the concept: they like to view Adam and Eve as perfect beings who were created, and hold that the subsequent human race has "devolved" from that perfection. De-evolution is sometimes formalized by the assertion that all (or most) mutations destroy information, rather than
create develop information.
Cynics and misanthropes also use the term "devolution" to refer to the perceived increasing dominance of the stupid.
Applicability to evolution
The term "devolution" is a misnomer in terms of biological evolution and natural selection, as they do not have a definitive path in any direction so there can't really be backward evolution. Although biological evolution is guided by natural selection, the selection process is not goal-oriented but rather favors adaptation to the current local environment, which itself is subject to change and evolution. In this sense, evolution can be an unguided process. As a result, the concept is usually a plea to emotional attachment that humans may have for their own perceived superiority. In the cold, reasoned light of science, however, such a notion doesn't hold, and unguided evolution — neither forward nor backward — is the dominant theory.
If changes to a species were specifically controlled in a way that each change was reversed in order, it might be accurate to call the act "devolution",[note 1] but this would require a perfect history of the organism's genetic makeup by each generation and a flawless means to control the changes. This would make for excellent research into genetics… were that knowledge not already necessary for such exotic manipulations. Even so, this is no more "un-evolving" something than flattening Play-Doh into a pancake and rolling it back into a ball is "un-pancaking".
The concept of devolution is similar to that of 'dysgenics', in which eugenicists bemoaned the decline of humanity as the rabble were supposedly outbreeding the better stock.
Are we not men?
God made man
|—Devo, "Jocko Homo"[note 2]|
The term was popularized by the band Devo (the name itself is a reference to de-evolution) in their song Jocko Homo. The singer repeatedly asks "Are we not men?" to which the others reply "We are Devo!"
The term "jocko homo" originated in an anti-evolutionist tract from the 1920s by Bertram Henry Shadduck entitled Jocko-Homo Heavenbound which refers to a "man ape" or "ape man" called Jocko homo.
Consider a cave-living fish that loses its power of sight because it is not needed in dark conditions where sight is useless anyway. Believers in de-evolution would cite this as a prime example of an ability that is lost, possibly forever, and devolution from the perfection of creation in action. However, considering the reality of evolution guided only by external environmental pressures, this interpretation makes little sense and the adaptation of sight being lost can be thought of more generally: looking at what survival advantages such an adaptation may allow. Sight is no longer necessary to this example fish, so the evolutionary process has no reason to preserve it — fish born without sight would be at no specific disadvantage compared to their sighted counterparts. In fact, the blind fish now has a better chance of survival and reproduction compared to its sighted colleagues, which waste energy on a very unnecessary function (in this environment) that exposes them to potential infection and injury. The blind fish has become better adapted to its present surroundings — it has not "devolved".
Similarly, those citing humanity's alleged loss of agility, sight, or overall fitness when compared to ancestors don't take into account the increased mental capabilities (shown by inflation of IQ over time, for instance) as time goes on, which allows for increases in technology and medicine that prolong life and survivability better than standard physical capabilities would. In fact, there is a bias held by many people that humanity will continue to "evolve" into a more intelligent being — but there is no biological reason for this to be so. If less intelligent people were favored by natural (or sexual) selection, or if they were more liable to reproduce for some reason, then humanity would move in the direction of having less intelligence.
In creationist circles, "de-evolution" is the strange concept that all "microevolution" is the corruption of the perfect creation, after the sin of Adam brought about mankind's fall from grace. Presumably, "perfect" Adam and Eve weren't lactose-tolerant, those populations who are now free of wisdom teeth or can breath easily at higher altitudes are poor corrupted creatures.
De-evolution in science fiction
The concept of de-evolution occasionally shows up in science fiction. It usually happens when the heroes (usually humans) land on a distant planet. The planet is filled with sophisticated technology (often in the form of ruins), but the species who built this technology no longer has the intelligence to replicate it. The conclusion that the heroes reach is that the species which built the technology has "devolved" into a more stupid form.[note 3]
This shows a strong anthropocentrically biased view of evolution. While it is possible that an intelligent species could, over the course of evolutionary time, become less intelligent, it would presumably be because (like the sightless cave fish) the energy they spent on building brains could be better spent on, say, improving their jaw strength, or resisting nuclear radiation, or what have you. This is not "de-evolution" — it is "evolution in a direction away from human ideals".
Sometimes, a show takes it to a more literal (and stupid) level, such as one episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation in which the crew experiences "devolution" that literally turns them into successively more primitive creatures in their species' evolutionary past (into more primitive primates, in Picard's case). The film Idiocracy, a satire of how "lower-class" culture is venerated in society, has also been interpreted by way too many people as a cautionary tale of why we shouldn't let certain people breed. In the '80s cartoon Dinosaucers, protagonized by intelligent dinosaurs, the good guys had the ability of devolving at will into their dinosaur ancestors, albeit conserving their intelligence—though when used once against the bad guys they ended having the intellect of actual dinosaurs instead.
Cyril M. Kornbluth's short story The Marching Morons, about a future society divided between an intelligent elite and a massive number of idiots, was more explicit about the metaphor, albeit with the twist that the too-clever-by-half con artist from the present day, who we're initially led to believe has a brilliant solution to the problems of overpopulation and human stupidity, is ultimately depicted as being just as stupid as the future morons.
The Morlocks and the Eloi in H.G. Wells' The Time Machine can be seen as examples of devolution.
Helena P. Blavatsky, the founder of Theosophy, rejected the idea that humanity had evolved from apes, claiming the opposite was the case — apes had devolved from early humans due to "putting themselves on the animal level". Later figures such as Julius Evola followed her view, calling it "involution".
- But to be pedantic about it, the established word for the opposite of "evolution" in other uses of the word, such as in mathematics, is "involution". This makes sense in the light of etymology, for the Latin preposition e means "out (of/from)", and in means "in(to)", while de means "down from".
- This verse is a response and reference to the 1926 anti-evolution song by Uncle Dave Macon called "The Bible's True."
“”God made the world
And ev'rything in itIt’s bound to be that way!
He made man perfect
And the monkey wasn't in it!
What you say, what you say
- This is then used as a springboard to talk about the human race through the miracle of analogies.
- Will Hoyt, Adaption - Example of Evolution or Not? learnthebible.org.
- The End Is Near!! trinitystudiospicsblog.com, 3 May 2020.
- John Morris, in Daniel Biddle, Debunking Evolution: What Every Christian Student Should Know, p. 186.
- The Bible Is True by Uncle Dave Macon (circa 1925).
- Bertram Henry Shadduck biography, bhshadduck.tripod.com.
- B. H. Shadduck, Jocko Homo Heavenbound, bhshadduck.tripod.com.
- Kornbluth, C. M. The Marching Morons.
- Science & Religion: A New Introduction, Alister E. McGrath, 2009, p. 140
- Blavatsky, HP (1888), The First Message to WQ Judge, General Secretary of the American Section of the Theosophical Society, pp. 185–187.
- The Metaphysics of Sex, 1983, pp. 9-10.