Statements such as “organisms evolve in response to a change in an environment,” are quite common. There are two easy misunderstandings possible with such a statement. First of all, the statement must not be understood to mean that individual organisms evolve, as was discussed above. The statement is shorthand for “a population evolves in response to a changing environment.” However, a second misunderstanding may arise by interpreting the statement to mean that the evolution is somehow intentional. A changed environment results in some individuals in the population, those with particular phenotypes, benefiting and, therefore, producing proportionately more offspring than other phenotypes. This results in change in the population if the characters are genetically determined.
It is also important to understand that the variation that natural selection works on is already in a population and does not arise in response to an environmental change. For example, applying antibiotics to a population of bacteria will, over time, select for a population of bacteria that are resistant to antibiotics. The resistance, which is caused by a gene, did not arise by mutation because of the application of the antibiotic. The gene for resistance was already present in the gene pool of the bacteria, likely at a low frequency. The antibiotic, which kills the bacterial cells without the resistance gene, strongly selects for individuals that are resistant, since these would be the only ones that survived and divided. Experiments have demonstrated that mutations for antibiotic resistance do not arise as a result of antibiotic application.
In a larger sense, evolution is also not goal directed. Species do not become “better” over time; they simply track their changing environment with adaptations that maximize their reproduction in a particular environment at a particular time. Evolution has no goal of making faster, bigger, more complex, or even smarter species. This kind of language is common in popular literature. Certain organisms, ourselves included, are described as the “pinnacle” of evolution, or “perfected” by evolution. What characteristics evolve in a species are a function of the variation present and the environment, both of which are constantly changing in a non-directional way. What trait is fit in one environment at one time may well be fatal at some point in the future. This holds equally well for a species of insect as it does the human species.