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I believe I've finally figured out why I dislike "How can X evolve?" questions and what to do about it. I believe the proposal would help with the questions tremendously — at least if anyone reads the wiki.

The current wiki states:

Evolution is the theory, put forth by Charles Darwin in his book On the Origin of Species, that species change over long periods of time. Though it was opposed at first by religious groups, it is generally accepted today in the scientific community as being accurate.

This is for questions that have to do with how certain species and/or traits evolve, why one trait might become dominant, or how certain traits could influence the species as it continues to evolve. It may also include what types of environments would encourage or support the evolution of different traits.

If you have a very speculative life-form design, consider using instead. Also consider .

The proverbial thorn in my side, as demonstrated by a spate of "how can X evolve?" questions over the last three weeks, is this: While humanity has discovered a lot about the fact of evolution, we're still just scratching the surface when it comes to why evolution. Most of the "why" part (which seems to be what people are looking for, i.e., "evolutionary pressures") is reverse-engineered.

Let's consider ears as an example. We can look at the many different kinds of ears today such as a horse's forward-pointing ears and humans side-facing ears, and examine what value and/or purpose they have right now. Once we know that purpose, we can look backward into evolutionary history and identify specific pressures that caused those ears to come to pass. That relationship is important: we understand both the history and the value/purpose/reason today, thus we can identify pressures.

Unfortunately, most (if not all) "how could X evolve?" questions fail to explain why anything exists. We're painted the proverbial picture, told only about what something looks like and then asked to identify pressures that would bring that fanciful aesthetic to pass.

In some cases we can jump to a conclusion. For example, asking "how would a human having four arms rather than just two evolve?" is defensible in that we know very intimately what arms/elbows/hands do, and so we can imagine pressures that would favor the development of four rather than two.

But when something completely fanciful is presented and there's no apparent reason for it (the OP simply wants the "look" of the thing and, for reasons unknown, wants to know what over the course of millions of years would bring that "look" to pass). It is this behavior that I propose we bring to a screeching halt with the following modification to the wiki (in bold):

Evolution is the theory, put forth by Charles Darwin in his book On the Origin of Species, that species change over long periods of time. Though it was opposed at first by religious groups, it is generally accepted today in the scientific community as being accurate.

This is for questions that have to do with how certain species and/or traits evolve, why one trait might become dominant, or how certain traits could influence the species as it continues to evolve. It may also include what types of environments would encourage or support the evolution of different traits.

Questions using this tag that seek to understand what evolutionary pressures, conditions, or environments would bring about or favor the development of a specific trait must identify the purpose, value, or reason the proposed trait exists. Questions seeking evolutionary justification for a trait that is presented merely as an aesthetic (e.g., my creature looks like...) risk being closed for needing more details.

Questions should remain as focused as possible. Users should avoid presenting an entire life-form and asking how that creature in its entirety could evolve as specific traits of that life-form would evolve for very different reasons than others. Ideally, questions using this tag are focusing on individual traits.

If you have a very speculative life-form design, consider using instead. Also consider .

BTW: Yup, I tend to be verbose. It comes from growing up in a family full of lawyers. If you feel there's a more concise way to express this proposed change, I'm all ears (hah...).

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    $\begingroup$ "I tend to be verbose" I know how that feels. intenseminimalism.com/2010/… $\endgroup$ – The Square-Cube Law Dec 18 '20 at 14:18
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    $\begingroup$ the second added paragraph is good the first is largely pointless, the answer to aesthics is always sex so you could mention that it may be closed as a duplicate, but asking poster do tell us what the function of something is will be counter productive. that is often what they are asking. $\endgroup$ – John Dec 18 '20 at 18:02
  • $\begingroup$ @John "that is often what they are asking." I'd give my left eye if I could prove that to be true. I often wonder if what they're asking is "how do I make my creature believable?" not realizing that they don't actually need to. But when it comes to "how would this undefined and apparently useless characteristic evolve?" the answer is quite frankly, "how should we know?" All answers are opinion-based unless told how the OP will judge a best answer - which, of course, would be telling us what the darn thing was for. $\endgroup$ – JBH Dec 19 '20 at 3:17
  • $\begingroup$ I think I'd understand this proposal better if I could see a hypothetical example of a bad evolution question. $\endgroup$ – Andrew Grimm Dec 22 '20 at 8:17
  • $\begingroup$ @AndrewGrimm I consider 99% of the questions tagged evolution to be bad. It would be hard, IMO, to find you a good example. $\endgroup$ – JBH Dec 22 '20 at 17:02
  • $\begingroup$ I think the best method to answer a question of "Could X evolve?" is along the lines of "what evolutionary pressures would plausibly encourage X to become widespread, assuming that some mutation happens to make X occur?". Humanity is not a likely outcome of evolution, and neither are dogs or deer or basically anything else in our times, because any one specific outcome is ludicrously unlikely. The closest we can manage is plausibility; if particular evolutionary pressures could prioritize the desired traits over other solutions, that's probably what the question is looking for. $\endgroup$ – Palarran Dec 27 '20 at 2:38
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Good additions, I think.

It seems to me that most of the "how did X evolve" questions aren't even really interested in evolutionary science per se. As you say, we're given a fanciful aesthetic and nothing else. Even though "evolution" is tagged, I don't think that's what the querent is actually after, except in the broadest of strokes. Consider the recent timberwolf query.

Whenever we're dealing with any kind of fictional world, but most especially the fantasy types, we really do have to work a little harder in many regards in order to make a good answer. We can't just rely on the science we know from the real world. Sometimes we have to make up a whole (para-)scientific system just in order to make sense of the answer and the question!

I'd argue that the "evolution" tag should be treated as a "soft science" tag. If a querent wants to ask about the evolution of elf ears or dragon wings, that's fine. We can actually extrapolate and confabulate using actual evolutionary science. Everything else should be placed under "creature design" as indicated. I also hold that the Community should feel empowered to retag if a question seems to be improperly tagged. As we already do with the hard science tag.

Suggested edits:

Lastly, I'd also strongly consider editing this sentence out: "Though it was opposed at first by religious groups, it is generally accepted today in the scientific community as being accurate." This, while a (confusing as well as often confused) historical statement, really has nothing to do with understanding what evolution is, what evolution science is, or what this tag is with respect to Worldbuilding.

Separate "Questions seeking..." into its own paragraph.

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  • $\begingroup$ The sentence should also go because it's misleading. Scientists certainly opposed it, and had many good arguments. $\endgroup$ – Mary Dec 25 '20 at 1:34
  • $\begingroup$ @Mary -- and of course not all religious groups opposed it -- then or now. $\endgroup$ – elemtilas Dec 25 '20 at 2:44
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Evolution is not a black box where anything can happen

The problem with this is evolutionary biology isn't nearly as much of a black box as your question seems to suppose it is. We may not know all the ins and outs of evolution, but geneticists, anatomists, and biologists in general have been collecting data for nigh on two centuries now. People have actually made computer models of mollusk shells and skull shapes trying to identify what morphotypes might be "forbidden" due to evolutionary constraints we don't know about. Evolutionary and developmental constraints (basically the study of why something might not evolve in a certain direction) are a very heavily studied area in evolutionary biology.

You've mentioned in past answers on this site that you're an engineer by trade. I'm an evolutionary biologist. As someone who's familiar with the anatomy and evolution of a lot of the systems being discussed, what some people might see as reasonable worldbuilding makes me want to go "evolution does not work that way, good night!". From my perspective, some of the things I see here are akin to if you saw someone trying to make a carbon atom with seven protons. And yes, evolution sometimes "jumps its banks" and does things to circumvent constraints that surprise us all, but the thing is there are rules in evolution.

A good example of this is the recent question on how can a mammal be green and blue. There are almost no mammals today that are vibrantly and naturally green or blue (aside from the faces and genitals of some monkeys), and there are pretty good reasons why we think no mammals today are green or blue. Namely that blue coloration (which is also required for green) mostly forms through refraction of light, and the way mammalian hair grows as a constantly extruded filament growing from a root prevents the complex criss-crossing pattern that you see producing iridescent or blue coloration in bird feathers. To get a blue furred mammal you'd have to completely overhaul how hair grows in mammals, to the point it'd be even debatable you're working with a mammal anymore.

The other thing is a lot of questions here ask "is my design plausible" or "how can I plausibly achieve this" and in some cases...you just can't under normal circumstances. That's a viable answer to the question. It's like how in Star Trek you can't make a "plausible" warp drive, but that doesn't stop people from enjoying your story. Now if you have genetic engineering or magic to change the rules of the game or have "one big lie" to justify biological implausibility for the sake of the story that's also perfectly reasonable (e.g., for the blue mammal example graft bird genes for feather ultrastructure into mammalian skin tissue), but usually the person asking the question will specifically specify no artificial genetic engineering or magic.

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    $\begingroup$ It's good to have an expert addressing the issue! From a WB context, there are two basic question types: (a) Could this happen on Earth? and (b) What kinds of pressures might result in this? I completely respect that evolution as we understand it has practical rules - but I also respect that we're working with a single data point (Earth), which means those rules are, until proven otherwise, are only valid here (however I wouldn't be surprised if they were more universal than fiction writers would hope). So... how can we improve the tag wiki to accommodate these two needs and improve the Q's? $\endgroup$ – JBH Dec 22 '20 at 17:01

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