I.6 Biological evolution is characterized by the formation of useful properties

Usefulness is the most obvious difference between living and nonliving systems and is thus a specific product of biological evolution. Organisms have these properties jointly with systems formed by the targeted activities of human beings. The properties of artificial systems created by humans are usually subservient to a particular target, a certain purpose. For example, the construction of a knife, its shape and material are dependent on its purpose – cutting, slicing or stabbing. It corresponds both to the properties of the human hand that will hold it and also to the properties of the material that it will slice or cut. Similarly, the individual organs of living organisms have a structure, shape and material that are dependent on the function that they perform. They are generally very well adapted to this function and to the conditions under which the organisms are found. Usefulness is not generally encountered in nonliving nature, and the properties of nonliving systems frequently reflect the causes and mechanisms of their formation but not any purpose or target.

Biological evolution differs from other types of evolution, which are commonly encountered in nature and in society, in that it leads to the formation of useful (adaptive) properties. For example, during the formerly mentioned evolution of languages, individual languages also develop, diverge, affect one another and thus accumulate changes that occur over time. Very simply stated, it is the function of a language to mediate communication between individuals in society. However, the evolution of a language does not lead to an improvement in its function and frequently to the contrary, leads to a worsening of this function; however, mostly the changes occurring do not substantially affect this aspect. It could be objected that a nation whose members communicate using a better language is, at least in the area of mutual exchange of information, at an advantage compared to a nation with a worse language. As a consequence of such a communication advantage, such a nation could, in time, conquer its competitors in the particular region. However, actual human history clearly demonstrates that, in the past, the results of such national conflicts were generally determined by completely different factors than the perfection of a language.

Usefulness in living nature has always been a great mystery for scientists and philosophers and, basically up to the formation of more modern evolutionary theory, there was no natural explanation for it. Living organisms were considered to have been created by the gods, which explained the existence of usefulness and complexity, but placed humans before new, equally complex questions relating to the origin, nature of the existence and intentions of the gods.

Was this information useful for you?
The classical Darwinian theory of evolution can explain the evolution of adaptive traits only in asexual organisms. The frozen plasticity theory is much more general: It can also explain the origin and evolution of adaptive traits in both asexual and sexual organisms Read more
Draft translation from: Evoluční biologie, 2. vydání (Evolutionary biology, 2nd edition), J. Flegr, Academia Prague 2009. The translation was not done by biologist, therefore any suggestion concerning proper scientific terminology and language usage are highly welcomed. You can send your comments to flegratcesnet [dot] cz. Thank you.