Before you can master anything, you need a firm grasp of the basics. When it comes to creating monsters, this means understanding evolution. Over billions of years, evolution has led to the formation of all the different types of life on earth, making it the classic monster manufacturing method.
So what is evolution?
Evolution is a change in the genetic make-up of a population over generations.
By population we mean all the members of a particular type of organism i.e. a plant, animal, mushroom, creature of darkness etc living in the same place.
These individuals, just like all other living things, are made of teeny-tiny building blocks called cells. There are different kinds of cells, with different structures and functions.
These cells know what kind of cells to be and how to function because they carry inside them a set of instructions called DNA. Similar to any set of instructions you might read, DNA has letters, A, T, G and C. The letters of instructions we read are arranged into words. The letters of DNA are arranged into genes. Genes code for characteristics in an organism i.e. flower colour, height, blood type etc. Variations in the code can create different versions of the same gene i.e. one version of the flower colour gene might code for white flowers while another codes for purple flowers. The different variations of a gene are called alleles. When we talk about the genetic make-up of a population changing, we are talking about individuals with different alleles becoming more or less common in that population i.e. more plants with purple flowers and less plants with white flowers or vice versa.
This might be different to how you have thought about evolution in the past but as evil scientists this is the general definition that we use. Evolution can happen in a number of different ways but for now we are going to focus on Natural Selection because it is the only method that will consistently make monsters which are better suited for their conditions.
Ingredients for Natural Selection:
- A population.
- This population needs to show variation in a trait.
- This trait must be passed down from parents to their babies .
- A selection pressure which means some versions of the trait are more useful than others.
To demonstrate this, we’re going to use an example from the depths of the Valley of Fire!
In this example:
- We have a population of rock pocket mice.
- These mice vary in their coat colours.
- This trait is passed on so that mice babies have similar coats to their parents.
- Coat colour is important because the mice need to be able to hide from predators that want to find and eat them.
About 1000 years ago, mice with pale coats were common in this population. The light coloured coats camouflaged brilliantly against the grass and dirt, hiding these mice from predators. #NinjaMice.
However, at this time there was also LAVA just casually flowing through the valley! [Side note: lava may seem like the perfect way to set the mood in your lair but the insurance bills are the real nightmare]. When the lava cooled, it formed large areas of dark rock. Pale coated mice were suddenly in trouble. Their coats didn’t camouflage well against the dark rock, making them easy pickings for hungry predators. Being eaten makes it really difficult to find a mate and have babies. As a consequence, there were less pale coated mice in the next generation.
Meanwhile, dark coloured mice camouflaged perfectly against the dark rocks. Without being eaten by predators, they were free to find a mate and make babies, many of which would be dark like their parents. Over time, as dark mice continued to have babies and pale mice died before becoming parents, the dark coats became more common in the population.
The difference in coat colour was caused by different versions of a gene i.e. one allele for dark coats and one allele for light coats. Therefore, as dark coats became more common, the genetic-makeup of the population had changed and evolution had occurred!
The mice weren’t actively choosing to move to a habitat where they were better camouflaged. Instead, mice with better camouflage became more common in the habitat overtime because predators ate those that were easy to see. As handy as it might have been for pale mice to make their coats darker, the population changed because fewer pale mice survived long enough to have pale babies, not because the old ones turned to the darkside.
Individuals don’t evolve, populations do.
You might have heard people talk about “Survival of the fittest”, when they talk about evolution. From our example, we can see that this doesn’t mean the strongest or most athletic mouse. “Fittest” means the best fit or most suitable for the conditions. Pale mice were a good fit for hiding among the grass but not a good fit for hiding against the dark rock.
So, how is any of this of useful to us and our dream of creating a monster army? Well, people have been using the processes of selection, to mould organisms into doing their bidding, for a long time. We call this Artificial Selection.
Ingredients for Artificial Selection:
- A population.
- This population needs to show variation in a trait.
- This trait must be passed down from parents to their babies.
- A selection pressure which means individuals with certain versions of this trait have more babies.
You can see that the ingredients for Natural Selection and Artificial Selection are essentially identical. The only difference is that you control the selection pressure. You decide who succeeds and who fails. Who rises to a glorious victory and who is crushed in a pitiful defeat! Can you feel the POWER?!
Simply pick the traits you like (giant fangs, razor sharp claws, ear piercing screech of death?). You let individuals with those traits have the most babies, so that your desired traits become more common in the population (i.e. pick the individuals with the biggest fangs, sharpest claws, worst singing…). Repeat for many generations and you will have yourself a vicious monster!
Now I know what you’re thinking, “Doesn’t evolution take like 1000s of years?! I can’t wait that long. I want to be universally feared NOW!” First of all, calm down. You’re early career agents of evil, not toddlers… although they can be terrifying. Secondly, there are some things that we can do to speed up the process… buuuuuuttt you’re going to have to wait until the next lecture to hear about them.
Until then, ponder what terrifying traits you’d desire when shaping your monster. Don’t forget to test your new found knowledge with the quiz (see below). Your answers will contribute to your final grade and allow you to lord your superior knowledge over your fellow classmates.
You can learn more about the devilish details of selection with these links:
- More examples of Natural and Artificial Selection here.
- A video about Rock Pocket Mice and Natural Selection!
- Natural Selection video by the fabulous Amoeba Sisters
Lecture 1 Quiz!
Question 1. Which of these is NOT an ingredient of Natural Selection?
A) A population which shows variation in a trait.
B) A selection pressure.
C) A trait that is passed on the parents to their babies.
D) Chocolate sauce.
Question 2. Individuals evolve?
Question 3. Survival of the fittest is?
A) When organisms that are better looking are more likely to survive and have babies.
B) When organisms that are better adapted for their environment are more likely to survive and have babies.
C) When organisms that are strong are more likely to survive and have babies.
Question 4. Evolution is?
A) When chimpanzees lost their hair, stood upright and became humans.
B) When the genetic make-up of a population changes over generations.
C) When caterpillars change into beautiful butterflies.
D) When weeds and grass colonize bare soil, followed by bushes/shrubs and finally trees.
Question 5. Which of these organisms has been shaped by Artificial Selection?
P) All of the above and more
Question 6. In a population of werewolves, some wolves have long hair and some have short hair. This trait is passed on from werewolf parents to their cubs. Werewolves with shorter hair cope better with warmer temperatures than those with long hair. As climate change causes the temperature in their habitat to increase what do we expect to happen?
A) There will be an increase in the number of werewolves with short hair.
B) There will be an increase in the number of werewolves with long hair.
C) The population will evolve.
D) A and C