No, pandas aren’t evolutionary failures, shut up

Giant pandas are awesome. They are the cuddliest snuggle-muffin cutie pie animal there is, but they’re also massive bears that could kill you as easily as scratch their nose. Who doesn’t like giant pandas? No wonder they’re the symbol of the WWF and synonymous with conservation efforts. Who wouldn’t want to protect them?

Exhibit A.

Well, lots of people, apparently. You may have heard one of those too-cool-to-care dudebros who think he’s cleverer than he is – you know, one of those people who calls football “kick-bladder”, because in Medieval times it used to be played with an inflated pig’s bladder actually, didn’t you know?, and that somehow invalidates any reason anyone might like football now – you may have heard someone like that trying to sound really cool and edgy by saying that actually we should let pandas just die out. Because they’re evolutionary failures. Did you know they’re actually carnivores? They should eat meat but they just eat bamboo and so their guts can’t process the food they eat! What idiots! And they can only have one baby, like, once every two years! Laaaame. They don’t even want to reproduce so why should we make them? Great big slow stupid bears that don’t even know how to have sex. Go home evolution, you’re drunk! You fucked up when you made pandas!

Except this is all bollocks. Well, sort of. Giant pandas are carnivores that now eat a predominantly plant-based diet (I’ve somehow made them sound as if they’re just doing Deliciously Ella for a month or two, you know, just to detox a bit) – and they do reproduce very slowly – but this doesn’t make them ‘failures’, or an evolutionary ‘mistake’. There’s no such thing as an evolutionary mistake. Giant pandas are, in fact, brilliantly well adapted to a particular ecological niche – just like every organism. Because that’s how evolution works.

It’s worth remembering animals don’t choose to become adapted to particular lifestyles or habitats. Pandas didn’t one day decide to start eating bamboo instead of deer. Organisms become adapted to a certain diet or habitat through the long, impersonal process of evolution, where if there’s a vacant niche, it will be filled. What that means is that every organism fulfils a slightly different function in an ecosystem, or is exploiting a different food resource. The reason there can be so many thousands of species of little ratty things, for example (and there are literally thousands. Sweet dreams!), is that they’re all slightly different – reproducing at different rates, eating slightly different food, living in slightly different habitats, and so on.

So the reason pandas, presumably, evolved to eat bamboo is because there was a buttload of bamboo going spare in south China, and nature didn’t want it to go to waste. More than that, in fact – it needs eating, or there’d be too much bamboo and too little anything else. There weren’t any other really big animals in that area eating bamboo at the rate pandas do – so pandas fill a vacant niche. Similarly, they reproduce slowly because they have to; if they reproduced more quickly, there’d be too many pandas and not enough bamboo to feed them all.

800px-Chengdu-pandas-d10

Pictured: evolutionary perfection.

But the bigger problem with the “pandas are evolutionary failures!” misconception is that it’s based on a really major, and potentially dangerous, misunderstanding of how evolution works. So, to clarify: evolution doesn’t work on individuals. Species, not individuals, are the results of evolution. This might sound odd, but it’s an important point – bear with me for a minute. (It’s a panda bear. Get it? Bear with m- sorry.)

As you might know, evolution happens thanks to genetic mutations. The mutations that happen to be useful – because they allow an organism to gather food more efficiently, for example – eventually lead to new species arising. But evolution doesn’t work like X-Men. There’s never suddenly a particular, individual animal that can do something amazingly different from its parents.

X-Men-Sentinels-Main

Not pictured: evolution.

Yes, individuals do possess mutations, but small mutations. Evolution works slowly, over a long period of time and through many, many different individual organisms reproducing and passing on the same sorts of useful mutations, which eventually add up to a big change. Enough of the offspring of lots of different animals will have the same sorts of traits, become genetically distinct, and then that’s a species. A new species evolving is the result of lots and lots of similar changes happening to thousands, millions of individuals over (at the very least) thousands of years. (Yes alright, bacteria evolve more quickly, but I only care about things you can actually see with your eyes. Little germy things? Boring. Stars you need a special telescope to see even though they’re supposedly massive? Yawnsville. If I can’t look at it with the equipment I’ve already got inside my face-holes, I can’t be arsed with it.)

So, there need to be lots of individuals being pressured to do particular thing for evolution to happen at all. By ‘pressured’ I mean there’s an environmental reason it would be useful to do something – climate change or forests appearing or an unexploited food resource or something. To put it another way, there was never a cat that gave birth to a freak with really long legs that could run at 65 miles per hour, and that’s how cheetahs were invented. Instead, there was an evolutionary advantage to being able to run really quickly, because there were lots of tasty gazelles that could also run quickly, and so the cats that could run the most quickly passed on their genes until there were lots of cats that could run quickly. This is that ‘survival of the fittest’ thing.

The point is, though, only the fittest survive. There aren’t any animals that aren’t good at existing, because they, er, wouldn’t exist. The traits those individuals have don’t get passed on, ‘accumulated’ and turned into the defining characteristics of a species. If there is a species, it must be good at doing something in a particular ecological role, or it wouldn’t exist. For a species to exist, there must be enough of them to breed and pass on their genes – and for them to be able to do this, they must be able to survive.

What this means is that there is no such thing as an evolutionary ‘mistake’ or ‘experiment’. To get to the point where there is a viable species, something must be working. If an organism weren’t perfectly suited to whatever it is that it does, it wouldn’t exist as a species, because not enough of its ancestors would have been able to pass on their genes. If giant pandas weren’t good at surviving, there would be no such thing as a giant panda. They are perfectly adapted to what they do, or they wouldn’t have reached the point where they exist as a species.

220px-Edwards'_Dodo

Pictured: evolutionary perfection.

The problem with pandas is not that they’ve ‘evolved wrong’, but that they’ve evolved to adapt to a really specific situation, and they can’t cope with rapid environmental change. For example, when everything is going peachy, reproducing slowly is a good idea so that you don’t starve to death, but if the population is already low, there’s not much pandas can do about it to get it back to a sustainable level.

Things like this are the case for lots of organisms. To pick an obvious example, dodos couldn’t fly because they had no reason to – until humans showed up and killed them all, and expecting a species to evolve the power of flight in just 30-odd years is a pretty big ask tbf. But again, this doesn’t mean dodos were ‘failures’; they managed just fine until humans deliberately killed them all. That’s not really the dodo’s fault.

In other words, extinctions never ‘just happen’ because animals aren’t evolved ‘properly’. Something always causes extinction. The very idea of an ‘evolutionary failure’ is, at best, a massive misunderstanding of how evolution works. At worst, it’s a way to justify the fact we’re doing precisely fuck all to stop extinctions that are entirely humans’ fault. Instead of blaming ourselves, we blame evolution, as if it’s made the wrong ‘choice’.

By half-jokingly saying we should let pandas die out, that annoying guy who thinks he’s funnier than he really is, is trying to deny his own complicity in the mass extinction the world is currently undergoing. The knowledge that an actual mass extinction, like what killed the dinosaurs, is happening, and that it’s our comfortable late-capitalist, globalised lifestyles that are directly causing it, is too much to take in. Making a joke that suggests that actually, it’s the animals’ fault they’re dying, not mine, is simply a way to assuage your own guilt. There is, I suppose, a debate that could be had about whether we should intervene and try to save giant pandas from extinction – yes, it’s our fault it’s happening, but why does that matter? But that’s an argument for another day. My point for now is – don’t blame evolution for your own species’ mistakes.

And don’t call it ‘kick-bladder’, or ‘foot-sport’ or ‘sport-ball’. You sound like a twat.

 

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