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Just Who Was / Is Successful in the Biological Evolution of Life?

I recently asked my students to tell me who they considered to be the most successful, or a very successful, species in the animal kingdom.

Overwhelmingly they all agreed that it was man. They felt that the human species was the epitome of successful evolution (or creation for that matter). I asked them to think of a species that they would consider being unsuccessful. There was no hesitation, "dinosaurs were totally unsuccessful.” I asked them why they thought that of the dinosaurs and why they thought that of man. Of course they came up with all of the most predictable reasons.

The dinosaurs no longer exist; they were wiped out because they could not adjust to a changing environment.

Some said that man had evolved with the opposable thumb and that gave us an edge especially in defending against preys; or finding food; or adapting tools, etc.

Some said that man could change with, or possibly even change their environment.

Some said that our stable, upright position gave us an edge in dealing with our physical environment; or becoming collaborative in living; or some even felt that it allowed us an advantage when we needed to be predatory.

Others made reference to our brain, coming up with a variety of what they considered to be unique characteristics or capabilities. Some said our ability to integrate thoughts; or our ability to be emotional; or our capability of memory; or our fine control of voluntary movements. Many just lumped a brain function of abstract activity as being what has made us successful. Dinosaurs had very small, almost pea sized brains. All in all, they made some very good cases as to why they all thought that man was the ultimate goal and thus the most successful animal in the kingdom.

There were a couple of comments about roaches and their radiation protection. Also some comments about the shark and it’s tolerance of ammonia. There was also mention of the alligator. But by far, man was successful and the dinosaur was unsuccessful.

I then, step by step, proceeded to point out that each of their reasons for choosing the way they did might be found in various other animal species. I pointed out that owing to fast developing technology, we are becoming more and more capable of analyzing other animals and their behaviors and their structures and finding more and more similarities and performance capabilities that seem to be much like many of these traits that we have considered to be exclusively humanistic.

At this point I detoured in our class discussion. We talked about time frames. We focused on the purely scientific approach to dating and the current thinking as to era, or ages and time frames.

I referred to the typical high school biology approach to time framing the Earth and life within a 24 hour clock. We saw that this would put the dinosaurs existing around 245 million years ago to about 65 million years ago, meaning that they existed for about 160-180 million years. Man as we know it comes onto the scene, about, a few hundred thousand years ago. This equates, roughly to the dinosaurs living for minutes (perhaps 10 – 15), on the 24 hour clock representing the existence of the planet. While man has occupied but a few seconds of that same 24 hour clock. In another perspective, I wanted them to see that while the dinosaurs were extinct and man wasn’t, the dinosaurs existed for about 160 – 180 million years while man can only claim around a couple to a few hundred thousand years of existence.

I wanted them to see that although man’s brain might be capable of more intricate and sophisticated activities, in our inimitable fashion we might think us into oblivion. We are entering into some serious times, in terms of controlling life (mastering the genome); technologically effecting or changing our physical environment; extending our influences into the vast outer as well as the vast inner spaces. We, in our infinite wisdom, seem to forge ahead egoistically, without maintaining a balance between discovery and consequences and doing all of this without yet due consideration to the need for rethinking laws, ethics, and the changing societal needs.

Between constant advances in medicine and science (due to capabilities that are generally considered to be exclusively humanistic), we most probably will be lengthening life spans. However, are we maintaining a similar pace in rethinking our ethics, our laws, our societal co-existence among ourselves as well as between ourselves and our environment?

I wanted these bright students who will go on to be wonderful clinicians, to just sit back and think not only about selecting the right antibiotic, etc., but also just how successful can we say our species is.

Therefore, perhaps as clinicians and being scientifically oriented, we have to "think outside of the box” or "color outside of the lines.” Perhaps we can use our expertise not only to help a patient, but also to contribute along side of those who are professionally concerned with our changing environment; with improving / increasing our understanding of and our living with our ability to chemically alter life. Perhaps we can "step outside of our lab coats and our prescription pads” to see what we can contribute to expanding public awareness. Perhaps we have to be more alert to and concerned with what we have and will have with regard to influencing both our lives as well as our environment.

To the student who asked me if any of this discussion will be on the PANCE exam, I replied, "perhaps we have to be more concerned with these changes in our lives, and not just selecting the right antibiotic to prescribe, so that there will be someone answering PANCE questions generations from now.”

It seems as if to be equally as successful as the dinosaurs we have a long way to go in stretching a hundred thousand years of existence into a few hundred million years of existence.

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