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The Awkward Side-Effects of Evolution


New Zealand is a black sheep among nations. Having spent the last 60 million years isolated from the rest of the continents — longer than any other major land mass — life has had a long time to do its own thing here. The vast majority of native trees and animals are found nowhere else. They’ve all learned their own tricks for contending with their unique surroundings. In particular, many birds, including the iconic Kiwi, found no reason to bother flying because there was nothing on the ground that would eat them.

An important lesson from a clever plant

One of the more unusual New Zealand plants is the Lancewood. Most of the specimens you’ll encounter look something like a tall broomstick decorated with menacing, saw-like leaves. They are rigid and serrated, and angled downwards towards you or any other potential assailant.

Young lancewood

A young Lancewood

The Lancewood has a very bizarre feature: It completely transforms itself after reaching a certain level of maturity. Its long, toothed leaves give way to more lush, more conventional broad leaves. It actually begins to look like other trees. The plant’s two forms are so unlike each other biologists once thought they were two totally different trees.

Mature lancewood

A mature Lancewood

Biologists couldn’t understand why a plant would evolve to do that. When an organism develops a distinct quirk like that, there tends to be an evolutionary reason for it. In other words, it must help the life form out somehow.

Some scientists guessed that the serrated, downward-pointing leaves served as a defence against large, ground-dwelling plant-eaters while it was still small enough to be vulnerable. But there was a problem with this theory: New Zealand doesn’t have any large, ground-dwelling plant-eaters. The island nation doesn’t have any native land mammals at all, only chicken-sized flightless birds that couldn’t pose a threat to a plant that size.

The Lancewood’s odd behavior remained a mystery for some time.

In 1839, a natural history enthusiast named John Harris was given an unusual bone fragment by a Maori who had found it on a river bank. He was quite taken with the unusual characteristics of the bone — it looked like a large femur, but he knew there were no large native animals on New Zealand’s islands. Eventually it made its way to the paleontology department at the British Museum, where experts puzzled over it for years before concluding that it belonged to a gigantic, now-extinct bird that must have once roamed New Zealand.

Maori tales had long refered to a great mythical bird they called Moa, and this appeared to fit the description. Since then thousands of Moa bones have been uncovered and now there is no doubt that a large flightless bird — up to ten feet tall; not unlike Big Bird in scale — once indeed roamed the isolated island group we now call New Zealand.

It turns out the Moa — actually several different species — all went extinct sometime around 1500AD, primarily due to hunting by the indigenous Maori people.

Moa skeleton

Comparative sizes of a kiwi, an ostrich, and a moa

The Lancewood’s bizarre adolescence suddenly made sense. There was a creature large enough threaten the slender Lancewood, so it evolved a strategy to foil its beaked adversary. The rigid, downward-pointing barbs of the juvenile Lancewood would have made it quite unpleasant for a Moa to stick its face into the boughs to eat it. Presumably, the giant birds would learn to ignore the eye-gouging Lancewood in favor of plants that didn’t fight back.

Once the young Lancewood had grown to a height that was out of reach for the 3-meter Moa, it would be free to become what it always aspired to be: a splay of rich, leafy boughs that would be much more efficient for facilitating the tree’s growth and reproduction.

If this is true, it creates an interesting scenario. This plant continues to enact a defense mechanism against a threat that has not existed for centuries. Each Lancewood spends a patient 15 to 20 years in juvenile form before transforming and hitting its adult growth spurt.

It looks as if its stubborn anti-Moa feature is now only a liability. The Lancewood seems to invest considerable resources keeping itself safe from attack throughout its teenage years; it would likely grow much faster if it was willing to grow full, sun-catching boughs early on. To this day, each individual Lancewood pays the handsome price of a few years’ growth to combat a problem that hasn’t existed since Shakespeare was alive.

It might not have outlived its feathered nemesis had it not been so dedicated to thwarting it. The Lancewood’s obsolete ace-up-the-sleeve had its time, and did its job well, but now it’s just dead weight.

It will probably take hundreds of thousands, or even millions of years, for the Lancewood to adapt to the abrupt disappearance of the Moa — by laying down its arms, so to speak. Incidentally, Lancewoods are not found in great numbers, the way some of its less cautious competitors (namely ferns and beeches) are.

The Lancewood carries in its present-day behavior a relic of a bygone era. There are no Moa today, yet each specimen dutifully braces itself for an invasion of giant birds that will never come.

What our defense mechanisms are doing to us

I think the Lancewood’s scenario is similar to our own. It must now contend with the side-effects of its defense mechanism, even though it no longer confers a benefit.

Modern humans also bear the cross of costly behaviors that suit a bygone era better than the current one. Civilization has changed the playing field dramatically for nearly all of us, and so rapidly that evolution hasn’t a hope of keeping up.

A prime example is the abundance of food for those of us in developed countries. For most of history’s people, finding enough food trumped virtually all other concerns. But those of us born and raised in abundant, “first world” societies have never encountered any real danger of starvation. Getting enough calories is no problem for us. The problem now is stopping ourselves from getting too many.

Our bodies are still built from genetic information that assumes an ever-present danger of starvation. I don’t know about you, but my mind tells me to eat more than is really good for me. I have to be aware of this tendency and consciously restrain myself, or I’ll gain a lot more fat than I can use.

It’s actually quite a difficult impulse to deal with. Most Western countries have obesity problems. We find ourselves contending with an ancient urge to overeat whenever it is possible — and it’s almost always possible. Every year there are magazine articles and blog posts about how to get through the decadent Christmas season without putting on ten pounds, as if it just happens to us in spite of our wishes. Now we are defending ourselves from our defense mechanisms!

Handling the overeating defense mechanism alone makes for a lifelong struggle for many people. And it’s by no means the only one that causes us grief. Evolution’s residual side-effects have left us more than a little out of whack. A few more examples of defense mechanisms gone awry:

We get needlessly upset over losing face. Looking silly now and then doesn’t have a lot of long-term effect on our lives, though we often regard embarrassment like it’s a life or death matter. If we happen to make fools of ourselves, we won’t be cast out of the tribe to die in exile — but our ancestors might have been, and so today we remain disproportionately afraid of being judged.

We get needlessly attached to possessions. We have a very visceral attachment to our things, because in the past they represented our ability to survive. Today few material losses are truly pivotal. You can buy another one. Tear up a twenty dollar bill (less than an hour’s work for the average Westerner) in front of others, and listen to the gasps. Just dropping an ice cream cone on the sidewalk almost feels like you’re getting kicked in the heart. Imagine if we could let material things come and go freely, fully aware that we’ll be just fine, without that unpleasant yank on the heartstrings.

We get needlessly worried about controlling outcomes. We fret that we’ll miss the start of the movie, that the Colts will blow the Superbowl, that we won’t get this or that particular job, when at the end of the day we’ll still find ourselves alive and well, still enjoying loads of advantages and luxuries. The suffering caused by these little instances of uncertainty is often minor, but it’s still suffering, and proves to be rather needless when we realize there was never anything crucial at risk. Not getting what we want won’t kill us, but we still seem to ache for things to go a certain way. Imagine if we didn’t so easily let our preferences become burning needs whenever life and limb isn’t at stake.

The human’s unique advantage

But we humans are a clever bunch, and there is a ray of hope. Unlike the Lancewood, human beings are self-aware, which means we can look at our behavior and take steps to alter it if it isn’t really that helpful.

I think this is where we’re at in terms of our evolution. We’re built to do certain things, and now we must consciously do other things — ones that we might not be so good at, or that might not feel so immediately natural to us — but which won’t lead us to disaster like our impulses might if they remain unchecked. Following our instincts without question is exactly how we get into trouble these days. Addiction, self-destruction, violence, greed — nearly all of it born from unexamined, outdated human instincts.

Without this kind of self-observation and self-improvement, we’ll continue to suffer from our own outdated defense mechanisms until one of two things happens:

1) We hang on in our dysfunctional state for the millions of years it will take our biology to evolve beyond our current humanitarian woes, or

2) We go extinct.

Being a plant, the Lancewood can’t make decisions, so it’s bound to do what its genes tell it, whether that spells prosperity or death for its species.

Human beings have a say in what happens to them. The looming threats of overpopulation and climate change promise rapidly changing living conditions in our near future, and I think our troublesome impulses are going to make things even harder for us as time goes on.

So it really comes down to how we contend with what Mother Nature tells us to do. I believe if we really look at where our instincts take us, we’ll find we’re often better off disobeying Her. When it comes to survival — let alone quality of life — she doesn’t always know best. Or perhaps she eventually does, but she changes her mind very, very slowly.


Photos by David Cain and peganum

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Maik February 15, 2010 at 9:07 am

Hi David,

very insightful. Did you ever have the chance to listen to Douglas Adams speaking in Germany about the kakapo ( http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ONkf6EZdjEc )? It’s precisely about this effect – the kakapo on New Zealand developed under very peculiar circumstances (no predators), which lead to seemingly stupid, self-destructive behavior after conditions changed. He then compares humanity to the kakapo: We “grew up” (evolutionary) in a very different world too – namely a world that was in practice almost infinitely big. With only a few thousand humans on this planet you simply couldn’t do any significant damage to the environment, so we are reckless and greedy by nature – it worked pretty well for us, for a very long time. However our behavior isn’t set up for sharing this planet with 6 billion other people. Our only chance is to completely change our behavior, which is something only we as humans are capable of (or are we?).

David February 15, 2010 at 11:24 pm

Fantastic video, Maik. I love Douglas Adams, and really enjoyed learning more about the kakapo. The theme he’s talking about is exactly the point I’m trying to get across here. Thanks so much.

Suzanne February 15, 2010 at 9:14 am

Another great read that contained 2 of my favorite topics: why we do what we do and gaining awareness about it in the first place. Within the last year, I’ve become more aware about how much we rely on outdated instincts. I still haven’t figured out whether it’s better to try to identify them as they occur and switch them or just make them work better with modern life.

I also love anything on the topic of evolution. Something about the realization that change is inevitable (even if Mother Nature is slow about changing her mind…love that part!) always inspires me.
.-= Suzanne´s last blog ..TCOY Spotlight ~ Serenity Hacker =-.

David February 15, 2010 at 11:26 pm

Evolution is also one of my favorite topics. It’s such a beautiful, inevitable process, and it leads to fascinating situations. If you haven’t checked out the Douglas Adams video linked about, it’s right up your alley.

Jay Schryer February 15, 2010 at 9:20 am

Very, very cool. Incredibly awesome. I loved learning about the NZ trees, and I love the way you segued into human behavior. Definitely made me think, and I love that!
.-= Jay Schryer´s last blog ..Daydream Believer =-.

David February 15, 2010 at 11:28 pm

The hapless Lancewood suffers with us! No matter what happens to humankind, our misery always has company :)

Lori (Jane Be Nimble) February 15, 2010 at 12:18 pm

Hi David,

As a member of the National Association of Science Writers (NASW) I hereby induct you as an honorary member. ;)
(Well, truth be told, I *am* a current member of the NASW, but have no queen-like abilities.)

David, you know me and probably already know I’d love this post. Thanks for writing it and helping to spread the news about Mother Nature. She’s a wise owl, but it takes her a really long, long time to change the status quo. I still love her anyway.

And, I still love your writing, too. Thanks for letting me bask in your words and also for the lovely photography. Thumbs up!
.-= Lori (Jane Be Nimble)´s last blog ..Panglossian Effulgence =-.

David February 15, 2010 at 11:29 pm

Good to hear from you Lori. Mother Nature is to be revered, but she isn’t our ally. She’s got her own plan, and has a lot more to do than just deal with us.

Avi February 15, 2010 at 11:51 pm

“We get needlessly attached to possessions”
I disagree a little bit! It’s not good to own too much junk but there’s something magical about owning things like books, handwritten letters, stuffed animals, photographs.
Excellent post! Overcoming or channeling our physical animal instincts to be more spiritual, peaceful people is probably a life long challenge for everyone.

David February 16, 2010 at 1:53 pm

Oh I love a good possession, don’t get me wrong. No need to get so attached to them that we suffer when something happens to them though.

Jack Christopher February 16, 2010 at 10:52 am

Good article David. But I have a nitpick. :)

You said “Being a plant, the Lancewood can’t make decisions, so it’s bound to do what its genes tell it, whether that spells prosperity or death for its species.”

That’s a fair point. I know what you mean. But it underestimates plant intelligence. Here’s a good pop article on plant neurobiology: http://legacy.signonsandiego.com/uniontrib/20080619/news_1c19plants.html

I think it’s important to notice how all life is intelligent in it’s own way. Mushrooms (mycelia) are particularly amazing in particular. And humanity, at least as measured by longevity, haven’t been that successful compared to some flora species.

David February 16, 2010 at 1:59 pm

Ah yes, the idea of intelligence in plants is fascinating and I’ve read a bit about it.

To keep things concise I have to avoid exploding into a multi-paragraph tangent of experimental science in order to back up each statement to the letter. The point is still clear, I think. This is a blog, remember, not a science journal :)

Lisis February 16, 2010 at 1:56 pm

I love it, David. I don’t currently have the time for one of my way-too-long comments (which is probably for the best). This is just a quickie to let you know I read it and thought it was fantastic! :)

And thanks, Maik, for the Doug Adams link… it was great!
.-= Lisis´s last blog ..One Skill Undermines Your Quest for Happiness =-.

David February 16, 2010 at 2:02 pm

Thanks Lisis.

Douglas Adams is so great.

Walter February 16, 2010 at 7:23 pm

Being part of nature, we are subject to evolution, and our primal instincts are the ones that governs our actions. Our difference though is our capacity to defy our own nature. If we act of this world, then we belong to this world. If we act outside of our instincts, then we shall go beyond our animal form. Unfortunately, most of us act like animals, despite our so-called intelligence. :-)

David February 17, 2010 at 3:52 pm

Hi Walter. Great thoughts, I agree. It is interesting how we have the capability to act against our nature. Our nature, though, is not necessarily what we’re supposed to be, but what we already have been — and what we’ve become good at.

We’re always going to be animals, but we can cultivate our more advanced qualities and grow out of our more base ones.
.-= David´s last blog ..The Awkward Side-Effects of Evolution =-.

Drew Tkac February 16, 2010 at 9:24 pm

This topic evokes many poignant questions. Should we challenge what our evolution has done to us? Should we use our logical ability, the scientific method, and even our statistical prowess, to change vestigial genetic human characteristics that got us here? Will we be happier? And lastly, can we even change?

I reflect upon the story of the scorpion and the frog. This story is about a scorpion asking a frog to carry him across a river. The frog is afraid of being stung, but the scorpion reassures him that if it stung the frog, the frog would sink and the scorpion would drown as well. The frog then agrees; nevertheless, in mid-river, the scorpion stings him, dooming the two of them. When asked why, the scorpion explains, “I’m a scorpion; it’s my nature.” The personification in this mythical story says that we cannot change our basic drives.

A great quote from the movie The Matrix references the woman in the red dress is, “To deny our own impulses is to deny the very thing that makes us human.”

So what about our drives? Carl Jung proposed a Collective Unconscious in each of our psyches that organizes our personal experiences in similar ways. This theory was the impetus to Joseph Campbell’s exploration of myths around the world, and his recognition of a common thread, or a common story that these myths tell. Our drives are basically the same but manifesting in ways that appear unique to each of us.

I think the best we can do is continue to layer improvements, or additions, upon our collective selves. Subtracting is more difficult, because each of our genes hold the history of our species, our parent species and on back to the start. Intelligent design believers are on your own here.

Your description of getting fat is a wonderful example that on the surface seems erroneous but upon a bit more examination is an indicator of a very current and useful evolutionary trait. That is the effect of dopamine on our behavior. We are pleasure seekers. From sex, drugs, music, eating, sports, thoughtful insight and physical exertion and a huge list of other activities to numerous to mention, all create a dopamine stimulus in the brain. Those of use that choose constructive ones are considered productive. Those that choose destructive ones are considered losers. This dopamine stimulus is responsible for us as a species still being here. Why would we have sex if it was not pleasurable?

Eating causes pleasure, and the current food industry knows this. According to Michael Pollen, salt, sugar and fat combine to make food extremely pleasurable. This combined with a high calorie density makes for some very addicted, very “happy” and very fat people.

Years ago drugs were not as potent as they are today. In Pollen’s book “The Botany of Desire” he states that we have developed marijuana to contain massive levels of THC. Levels that would not have occurred if marijuana were left to it own devices (aka nature). We have made marijuana illegal but fast food is marketed with gusto.

I think this is where our ability to control ourselves comes in. Making it illegal does not help and the wrong thing is made illegal anyway. I think the answer is to change what we use to give ourselves pleasure, a sort of re-channeling, exercise rather that eating, sex rather than drugs, with balance and moderation we can do right for ourselves and not just be a plant.

David February 17, 2010 at 3:59 pm

Well put Drew!

I think you are on to something when you say we can more easily add improvements than subtract anything. Our impulses are always going to be there, at least as long as any of us individuals are alive, so it’s a matter of using them to do ourselves good instead of harm. Luckily we have more say in our actions than scorpions do!

Char (PSI Tutor:Mentor) February 17, 2010 at 9:44 pm

Maybe the defense is not just for the Moa. Many think the Appendix is useless, some like me do not~ might be that we do not know all there is yet about either (not implying that you were :-) .

This article http://evolution.berkeley.edu/evolibrary/news/060901_mussels was interesting I thought as one example where evolution does not take hundreds, thousands or millions of years.

I don’t think I understand what you mean when you suggest that perhaps Mother Nature doesn’t know best~ it’s not a statement I agree with at face value.

Obesity is a complex biopsychosocial state of being, for many who are not obese and overeat/shop etc~ it’s for survival, but not of the starvation kind. Besides, not all of us overeat, so how to support a theory that evolution programs us to eat for fear of starvation?

David February 18, 2010 at 2:58 pm

Hi Char. You keep me on my toes.

Of course we don’t know all there is to know. Like any other ‘knowledge,’ the Moa theory is a best guess. I believe I qualified it with an “if this is true…” prefix.

The point still stands though: evolution leaves us with some seriously loose ends, and we’re all here at the bottom working with what it’s done.

Mother Nature means different things to different people too. To me the phrase is a metaphor for the way the cookie crumbles in nature, not an intelligent figure. Mother Nature doesn’t “know” anything; it’s just a way of saying we are not designed to fit perfectly with our environments, like we might sometimes imagine. I know others may see it differently.

Char (PSI Tutor:Mentor) February 18, 2010 at 9:18 pm

Yes~ I did note your prefix to the statement ~:-) I just like to really know where the other person is coming from in a conversation; otherwise I don’t feel I’m being real with whom I’m conversing with. Nor understand where the other is coming from.

As for Mother, I agree, not an intelligent figure. For me something phenomenal. I guess I’m saying that I feel I am designed to fit perfectly with my environment, however, if I choose to live in a polluted city remiss of natural surroundings, accessing sugar, vapid entertainment and participating in conversations where people don’t really listen to each other, not to be surprised that I am not happy, healthy and content with my life and community.

I’m reading the issues of obesity, attachment, worry etc as more a cognitive than biological origin for us misfits.
.-= Char (PSI Tutor:Mentor)´s last blog ..10 Steps to Finish 3 Assignments on Time! =-.

David February 19, 2010 at 2:46 pm

You’ve really given me something to think about Char. I tend to peg our biology for all the quirks that make us self-destructive on a collective scale, but there culture and other surroundings do have a massive impact. Overeating, for example, is not problematic in every culture. I suppose it’s more likely some horrific combination of nature and nurture, than just one or the other.

I agree that problems with attachment and worry are cognitive in origin, but is our biology not the origin of our cognitive capabilities (and limits?) Why would we be so susceptible to these thinking pitfalls if that vulnerability wasn’t once a strength?

Drew Tkac February 19, 2010 at 3:28 pm

Hi Char,

Sorry to chime in here, but….well…. I will anyway.

With regard to your statement, “As for Mother, I agree, not an intelligent figure. For me something phenomenal. I guess I’m saying that I feel I am designed to fit perfectly with my environment….”

This seems a bit contradictory to me. If you were “designed” to fit perfectly, then who was responsible for that design if mother is not an intelligent figure, since we are part of mother? My earth centric spirituality is showing here.

I don’t think any creature was designed if you subscribe to the theory of evolution. We are here because we had survived in our previous environment (all past tense). Whether we continue to survive is based on our ability to adapt to the current environment.

However, as far as we know, we have never before existed in an environment that man can control, to the extent that we can today. Global pollution, and massive marketing of unhealthy “eatable food like substances” to name a few. These are environmental factors that man alone can control and also must adapt to.

For example, future generations of humans may average 250lbs, and have the body frame and heart strength to support that size, and sustain life on salt, sugar and fat. Right now they don’t. Those that would not survive could not eat a steady diet of Big Mac’s and would die before procreation. Only Big Mac eaters would survive.

After all, life on earth started as anaerobic bacteria (without oxygen) , that past life could not survive in oxygen, now we can’t live without it. My how times have changed.

If mother nature is not an intelligent figure and we are the result of mother nature

Char (PSI Tutor:Mentor) February 19, 2010 at 4:27 pm

Hi Drew~ of course, chime in, this is a blog! Conversation is go!!!

Yes, I thought of writing design as “design” but I felt that David wasn’t using the word in that context.

Yes I believe that the earth is something more than a planet I live on; I do not want to externalise my unity with earth tho~ when I use the word Mother it is like when I use the word God~ a label to expresses only a few aspects of a whole that is beyond words to fully express.

“However, as far as we know, we have never before existed in an environment that man can control, to the extent that we can today.”
I disagree~ tho perhaps have misinterpreted. Ancient Egypt is the first example to come to mind~ during Ramses reign an active choice was made not to use a water-powered machine instead of the shadoof (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shadoof) because it would be too effective at increasing irrigation and disrupt the natural rhythms of the land. People submitted/harmonised to nature as a choice (well, or be thrown to the crocs, still a choice tho :-)

I think it more likely that Big Macs will aid the species in its demise; given the resources that go into making one, it just doesn’t seem a sustainable option to me.

Sunny February 20, 2010 at 9:59 am

I just wanted to let you know that your comment on my blog absolutely made my day! I’ve read as many articles of yours as I could, and absolutely love your site and work! I’ve been using your “Secret to Connecting with People” a lot lately too, because I’m incredibly shy and realized through your post that a lot of connecting, is listening too, it’s really helped me out! Thanks again!!
.-= Sunny´s last blog ..Homework Assignment 2-ish =-.

David February 20, 2010 at 3:40 pm

It made my day to hear I made your day. Enjoy the day!

yoshhash February 22, 2010 at 10:02 am

This is definitely in my top ten favourite articles. Inspiration is so valuable, wisdom immeasurable- I can’t believe you just give it away like this. I look forward to all your posts.

David February 22, 2010 at 6:48 pm

Hey thanks yoshhash!

Adam - Tropical Nomad June 23, 2013 at 3:52 am

Well written David. I would tell my 18 year old self

*Choose who you hang around with more carefully
*Stop smoking
*Don’t drink so much
*Do Yoga
*Go travel. Screw college. It was 3 years to get a degree I haven’t used once and I hated most of the course. Move to Spain and travel Europe!
*Everything is connected. Karma is bitch… Behave!

Char (PSI Tutor:Mentor) February 19, 2010 at 4:29 pm

I like the way you get me thinking David ~:-)

Yes, methinks ~ a blend of the two is the general consensus in the world of psychology. Bowlby first wrote about attachment as a survival mechanism~ cute faces or cries from bub stimulate caregivers to care.
However, not all caregivers respond in a timely and or consistent manner. For many, this is a choice they make, whether they choose to be conscious of that or not.

It is theorised to lead to at least four general attachment styles; secure, anxious- preoccupied, dismissive-avoidant and fearful-avoidant.

The child, it is thought, uses this first attachment relationship as a template for childhood, tween and adult relationships.
But, one can (I and others believe) change their attachment style. Most of us can learn to recognise that “I” am making choices in how I respond based on past experiences.
Some cannot, it appears anyway; low functioning autistic, anti-social personality disorder; this may be due more to biology. However, as human, I feel, we are all sentient beings.

Personally~ yes, as a human I have a predisposition to seek attachment relationships for my survival. Also as a human able to make choices; that I do. I choose not to seek a mate to complete me; not to substitute food for friendships/relationships that disappoint; not to see myself only as others reflect back to me; not worry (much :-) when I feel is out of control.

I am able to keep on changing form if I consciously choose to. I can choose to be satisfied/content, regardless if my body is screaming out for food, water, sex or attachment. For the record, Breatharianism is a state of being I believe possible. I believe that one day it can be explained scientifically (presuming our species survives).

So no, I do not believe that biology is the origin of my cognitive limits.
.-= Char (PSI Tutor:Mentor)´s last blog ..10 Steps to Finish 3 Assignments on Time! =-.

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