Research published in the online edition of Nature last Wednesday (Feb. 9th) has found evidence for the “devolution” of marine worms. That is to say that the worms descended from a more complex ancestor. It was once thought that these two species, Xenoturbellida and Acoelomorpha, were an evolutionary link between simple creatures like jellyfish and the rest of the animal kingdom, but this work suggests otherwise. The joint University College London and Université de Montréal team compared hundreds of genes and concluded:
The results show that the two groups constitute a newly classified phylum (a major division of life), which the authors name the ‘Xenacoelomorpha’. The xenacoelomorph phylum joins the three known phyla of deuterostomes: vertebrates (including humans), echinoderms (e.g. starfish) and hemichordates (acorn worms).
HT: Science Daily
This is a major discovery because it opens a gap in our evolutionary understanding and provides evidence for an unexpected decrease in complexity. David Ringland of the Boston Examiner asks the question, “Could humans be moving in the same direction?”
Ringland argues that the ever-increasing interconnectedness of society and our dependence on technology could foretell such a “devolution.”
Society – not man – is seemingly the victor in this evolutionary scenario. While individual self-sufficiency declines, it further suggests the devolution of modern man over his more self-reliant ancestors.
While this is certainly an interesting premise, Ringland’s article fails to acknowledge that societal dependence has always been part of a primate existence and technological developments such as the control of fire by Homo erectus are thought to have spurred the development of modern humans. It’s also important to note that the “backward evolution” of these marine worms is likely still an indication of an organism being naturally selected by its environment. One could point to the loss of eyes in cave-dwelling species as another example where organisms lose complexity in their adaptation.
Could humans be headed toward a loss of evolutionary complexity? Maybe, though the rarity of this type of process is likely an indicator. Either way we’ll still be working toward the same goal as any organism–better adaptation to our environment.