Evolution isn’t an abstract theory discussed by politicians and biologists, but a mechanism for solving everyday problems, according to College of Life Sciences honored alumnus David Mindell.
Mindell, who earned a Ph.D. from BYU and now serves as dean of Science and Research Collections at the California Academy of Science, spoke of various applications for evolutionary theory in fields generally not thought to be related to biology, in addition to suggesting that evolution theory itself is not far from becoming widely accepted as fact.
Mindell pointed out that two other unpopular scientific theories — heliocentrism and germ theory, both of which are now considered unquestionable scientific fact — required more than 300 years to gain widespread public acceptance. Evolution, which was first introduced in 1740, is still only 288 years old. That means evolution still has some time to wait before society entirely embraces the theory as fact, Mindell said, and it may take even longer in evolution’s case because of the difficulty of the subject matter.
“This is a more difficult subject than heliocentrism or germ theory because it is very much central to our identity,” Mindell said.
Nonetheless, Mindell predicted an end to public resistance to evolution in the near future.
Mindell spoke of the various everyday applications for evolution theory, telling of early uses such as husbandry as well as modern-day applications such as producing vaccines and using phylogeny, or mapping out the degree to which two specimens are related, to identify protected species and enforce the regulations intended to defend those species.
Phylogeny can also be used to solve crimes, according to Mindell, who cited a court case in which he evaluated the degree of relatedness between two strands of HIV to determine whether or not the defendant was guilty of breaking into an apartment and injecting a woman with HIV.
Evolution theory is also used when scientists need to position a satellite in space or when individuals play chess, Mindell said.
“We emulate the process of evolution to solve real-world problems,” he said. “This is just a common sense way of solving multiple problems.”
Mindell concluded by illustrating several attempts to map out the descendancy of all of Earth’s species on a tree of life and said that, although modern discoveries such as exchange of genetic material between species via viruses and the merging of species through endosymbiosis have complicated such efforts, the tree of life metaphor as it relates to evolution is still valid today.