You are currently browsing the category archive for the ‘evolution’ category.

I’d like to tell you a story. It’s the story of you. It’s an amazing story, and it begins, believe it or not, with a man named Gregor Mendel who was interested in peas.

Just like you, peas have both a mother and a father. What any pea plant looks like, how it grows, and lots of other details about the pea plant are a mixture of traits from mom and traits from dad. In Mendel’s time, no one really knew how that mixture worked, but they thought it was probably pretty complicated.

Mendel wondered if he could make some sense of the complexity by breaking down the problem into little pieces. Mendel knew that pea plants had some traits that were either this or that: either green or yellow peas, either tall or short stalks, either smooth or wrinkly peas, and so on. He decided to breed pea plants together (make them mom and dads) and keep track of exactly what he’d done, then keep track of the results, and see what he could see.

Let’s use just one of Mendel’s traits, say, color of peas. Mendel bred lots and lots of green pea plants together and always got green offspring. He bred lots and lots of yellow pea plants together and always got yellow offspring. Then he bred a green pea plant together with a yellow pea plant. What do you suppose happened? Did you guess that half the offspring were green and half were yellow? Or that all were a sort of greenish yellow mix? That’s what most people would have guessed. But that’s not what Mendel found.

Mendel found that the pea plants were ALL YELLOW!

You might be thinking, big deal, who cares, what’s the difference? But that’s not what Mendel thought. Mendel thought, that’s strange. Where did the green go? If green can disappear so easily, then why are there green pea plants at all?

So Mendel tried another experiment. He bred these new pea plants, the second generation, together. Remember, all these peas were yellow. You might think Mendel had done this experiment before. After all, he’d bred yellow pea plants with yellow pea plants again and again, and the result was always yellow peas. So why try again?

But Mendel did try it, and the results changed the world. Most of the peas were yellow. But around one in every four was green! Where did the green come from? It must have hidden from the first generation. But where did it hide? How did it hide? How could two yellow pea plants come together to make green?

What Mendel’s discovery showed us was that traits could be carried from generation to generation. The things doing the carrying, things which were completely mysterious to us, we decided to call genes. And the green pea experiment showed us something extraordinary. Genes are lumpy. They don’t get all spread out from generation to generation. Instead they can hide, somehow remaining intact even though we can’t see them, and appear again in later generations.

But what are these strange things called genes that can make pea plants tall or short, green or yellow, smooth or wrinkled, and can make my eyes brown or blue, my earlobes attached or dangly, and many, many other things as well?

Now the story shifts to another scientist, someone named Thomas Hunt Morgan. What’s interesting is that Morgan didn’t believe in genes. He thought the story told by Mendel’s experiments was too simple to explain the complex way that living things develop from mom and dad. But he was about to change his mind.

Morgan was interested in fruit flies. Fruit flies have red eyes, and Morgan was used to seeing red eye after red eye when he studied flies. But one day, Morgan found a fly with white eyes. It happened to be a male, so he crossbred it with a female red eyed fly to see what would happen. Just as in Mendel’s first experiment, Morgan found that all the offspring had red eyes. So just like the green peas, the white eye color in flies must be hiding. Morgan wondered what would happen when he bred this first generation of red-eyed flies together.

At first the results don’t look that surprising. Just as in Mendel’s experiment, Morgan found that most flies in the next generation had red eyes. About one in four had white eyes. But then Morgan looked at the number of male and female flies, and saw something amazing.

About half the flies were male and half were female. That’s what he expected. But of the male flies, about half had white eyes and half had red eyes. Among the female flies, there were NO white eyes. Not one. All the females had red eyes. What could that mean?

Morgan knew that there had recently been some exciting discoveries related to the chromosomes of fruit flies.  Chromosomes are little strands found in the nucleus of every cell in the body – your body, fruit flies’ bodies, and the bodies of all other plants and animals. When cells divide, chromosomes divide, too, but nobody knew what the chromosomes did.

Fruit flies have either seven or eight chromosomes. But while female fruit flies have four pairs of chromosomes (for a total of eight), male fruit flies have only three pairs and a single, unpaired chromosome (for a total of seven). The working theory was that the extra chromosome made a fly female, while the missing chromosome made it male.

Now came Morgan’s amazing insight. If the trait (the gene) for eye color actually lived on that “sex” chromosome, then all his findings would make sense. Think of it this way. In the parents, the mother has two chromosomes that decide sex (let’s call them X chromosomes). The father has just one X chromosome. On the mother’s two X chromosomes lives the gene for red eyes. On the father’s one X chromosome lives the gene for white eyes.

Now think about the first generation. The female offspring get a red-eye gene from mom and a white-eye gene from dad. Since the white eye trait hides, all the female offspring have red eyes. The male offspring only get one X chromosome, and it comes from mom; dad doesn’t give them anything, which is what makes them male. And it gives them red eyes.

In the next generation, red-eye females and red-eye males breed. But the red-eye females are hiding that white-eye trait. All the females get an X from mom (with either the red-eye trait or the white-eye trait) and an X from dad (always with the red-eye trait), so they all have red eyes. But the males only get an X from mom. The result is that half the males have red eyes and half have white eyes.

It all works out, and as Morgan did more and more experiments with his flies he discovered that this simple explanation really did work. And so Morgan, who had been a doubter about the reality of genes, changed his mind. Genes are real, Morgan decided, and they live on chromosomes.

So what are these chromosomes? How are they put together, what are they made of, how do they divide, and most importantly, how do they carry the information that we call genes?

Chromosomes, it turns out, are made up of an amazing molecule called DNA. And DNA is the star of the next part of the story.

I was watching a Richard Dawkins video (The Genius of Charles Darwin) with both my daughters. Dawkins was discussing evidence for evolution and was talking with an eye expert. Thinking I knew what was coming, I stopped the DVD and had my daughters discover their own blind spots by closing one eye, then extending their fingers and staring at the finger opposite the open eye while moving the other finger closer. Eventually the moving finger passes into the blind spot and seems to disappear. I explained that this happens because our retinas are actually backward, yet our brains are able to fill in the missing piece of our visual field.

Then I turned on the DVD again and Dawkins went through the same experiment, explaining that this was very good evidence that the eye evolved.

More than an argument for evolution, what I hope my daughters get from that is that the simplest experiments you can do yourself really can open you up to the deepest and most amazing scientific ideas.

It was a good day.

Richard Feynman’s father taught young Richard the way I’d like to teach my own children; whether I do it nearly as well, I can only hope.

One day . . . my father took me to the forest again and said, “In all this time we have been looking at the forest we have only seen half of what is going on, exactly half.”

I said, “What do you mean?”

He said, “We have been looking at how all these things grow; but for each bit of growth, there must be the same amount of decay–otherwise, the materials would be consumed forever: dead trees would lie there, having used up all the stuff from the air and the ground, and it wouldn’t get back into the ground or the air, so nothing else could grow because there is no material available. There must be for each bit of growth exactly the same amount of decay.”

There then followed many walks in the woods during which we broke up old stumps, saw frizzy bags and funguses growing; he couldn’t show me bacteria, but we saw the softening effects, and so on. [Thus] I saw the forest as a process of the constant turning of materials.

This is a deep idea, a powerful idea. There is wonder in this idea, the idea that the atoms inside me were once in a tree, and that, once they leave me, they might find their way into another tree, or a bit of fungus, or even just a patch of soil. We are connected to the universe in so many different ways.

But there is also danger here. The danger is in being carried away into what Richard Dawkins called “bad poetic science.” When I look at the forest, noticing, as Feynman’s father did, that there is no waste of materials, that everything is used, what I see is not a story of cooperation and sustainability, a ecosystem-wide hand-holding kumbaya session. Instead, I see the unbridled avarice of capitalism left unchecked. Wherever there is a resource, something will exploit it. Wherever there’s a living to be made, however meager, something will eke it out. Interesting, no doubt, but a model for the life we want to live? No thank you.

Is nature wasteful? Of resources, not so much, perhaps (though I’d argue that nature is incredibly wasteful of one resource, energy. So much light energy impacts the Earth every day, and life makes use of only an insignificant fraction. But why worry – the Sun will always rise tomorrow.) But in other ways, nature is utterly and irretrievably wasteful. And these are ways that really matter to us.

Nature is wasteful of individual life. How many times, in Disney nature flicks, do we learn that predators bring down the old and weak, thereby keeping the species strong? Nothing could be further from the truth! Predators overwhelmingly take the very youngest, long before they have the opportunity to show whether they’re weak or not. Consider that of 1000 sea turtle eggs laid on a beach, only one will grow into an adult turtle. What happens to the other 999? Down the gullet. 999 lives wasted, the vast majority eaten before they’re more than a few days old. And don’t believe that the one is the strongest. So much of this is chance – did the raccoon find the nest, did the seagull or crab grab me or my sister, did the game fish snap up me or my brother?

The same is true for virtually every species. Far more young are born than could ever reach maturity. If any human society treated its young in this way, I think “wasteful” would be the kindest word we’d give it.

Nature is wasteful of innovation. For the most part, unique solutions to life’s problems are wiped out by natural selection. Natural selection is deeply conservative – until the environment changes. Then, suddenly, the rudimentary lung or the ability to digest lactose that was just a hindrance before is suddenly the key to survival. But how many innovations are wasted because the environment is unfavorable?

Nature is wasteful of its own “mistakes”, and it makes them freely. The HIV virus is in part so dangerous because it is so bad at copying itself. Eacn new generation will be loaded with mutations. Most of these are useless or fatal. But a rare few, totally by chance, make the virus better able to survive – and more deadly to its hosts.

And we should recognize this same danger in our own lives. Our genomes are sturdier than that of HIV. But they aren’t perfect. What’s more, our sexual way of reproduction is a rolling of the dice. With each generation, we take the chance that two recessive genes will come together and be expressed. Rarely, such a combination leads to a better adapted individual. But much more commonly the result is a birth defect that leads to pain, misery, early death. This waste is the direct consequence of life’s history of taking the 1 in a million chance that this next innovation will actually help. The 999,999 times it doesn’t? Well, we’ll just try again.

When we speak of finding solutions in nature, we should be very careful to avoid bad poetic science. Yes, our way of life is unsustainable. But can anyone point to anything we humans have done that goes against the lessons taught by nature? Is there a single creature out there that, given the chance, would have the wisdom to avoid our same mistakes?

Male gorillas and lions kill babies that don’t belong to them, in order to speed females into estrus. Should we, as well? Elephants destroy trees, turning forest into savanna and savanna into grassland. Is this a model for our survival? Nile perch released (yes, by humans, but do the perch care?) into Lake Victoria gobble up the cichlids, thereby destroying biodiversity. Do the perch stop to think what they’re doing? Parasites such as HIV kill their hosts, then die themselves. Sharks, victimized by humans who cut off their fins and leave them to die, in their own behaviors bite off the flippers of sea turtles, leaving the rest of the turtle (too big and too hard to swallow) alone to bleed to death. 

There is much to learn from nature, but much of it is a lesson in what not to do. If we as a society are to survive on this planet, it will not be by reproducing a more “natural” way of life. Instead, it will be through a denial of our inbred and selected “nature,” that drive that tells us to reproduce in large numbers (at least a few will survive), kill our enemies, take what we can get when we can get it and don’t worry about tomorrow.

Nature is a wasteful mess. Only by learning not to behave as nature would urge can we hope to build a better world.

The residents of Earth live out their lives in the warm light of their yellow Sun, totally unaware of the grave danger they face. For these Earthlings routinely pollute their environment with tons  upon tons of a powerful and dangerous waste gas. Slowly, imperceptibly, this gas changes their world, yet the Earthlings plod on, blissfully ignorant of the growing threat.

For a new creature has appeared on this world, crawling on its belly through the muck that lies beneath gently lapping waves. This creature thrives on the Earthlings’ waste gas and, most horribly, fills its belly with the very bodies of those self-same pollutors!

Sound like the beginning of some terrible science fiction story? Maybe, but this story really happened in the shallow seas of Earth, around six hundred million years ago.

The “Earthlings” of the story are ancient life-forms called stromatolites. Some stromatolites look a bit like cauliflower, others more like grasping fingers. They are not plants or animals, but layered colonies of a very simple kind of life called cyanobacteria.

Cyanobacteria are microscopic, one-celled creatures (your body is made of between fifty and one hundred trillion cells). When they come together, these tiny beings can form the colonies we call stromatolites. Building layer upon layer, stromatolites range in size from a football to half a football field.

Around three and a half billion years ago, the cyanobacteria perfected an amazing skill: they learned to mix sunlight, seawater, and a gas called carbon dioxide to make food. We call this process photosynthesis, and it is still the key to life on Earth.

Yet in time, photosynthesis spelled doom for the stromatolites. The waste gas from photosynthesis is oxygen. Over hundreds of millions of years, oxygen slowly built up in the oceans and atmosphere. Finally, around six hundred million years ago, oxygen opened the door to the evolution of a new kind of living thing. We call them animals.

Among these first animals were creatures we would recognize as worms. They gathered the oxygen produced by the stromatolites, and used the oxygen to help digest food. Their favorite food, it turned out, was stromatolites. The digestive fires sparked by the abundant food and the copious oxygen gave the worms insatiable appetites. In about 100 million years, these early predators had virtually wiped stromatolites from the face of the Earth.

Those early predators are with us still. In fact, one of them is reading this very passage. Every time you eat a cheese sandwich, you are combining fuel with the waste gas oxygen, just as those early worms (your own distant ancestors) did so many millions of years ago.

The only stromatolites left from this horror story we call evolution live in extremely salty environments where worms, snails, and other predators cannot survive. When we look at a shallow, salty bay (like Shark Bay in Western Australia) and see a “forest” of living stromatolites, in a sense we are looking back in time, catching a glimpse of our planet’s first polluters, organisms that, through their own lack of insight, spelled their own doom — and helped create the world as we know it today.

I love sobering thoughts. Here’s one. Around the year 1900, Charles Darwin’s (and AR Wallace’s) theory of variation and selection was virtually forgotten. What is today hailed (rightly) as the greatest intellectual achievement of 19th century science was all but discarded by the beginning of the 20th century.

Why? Because given the world as it was known then, it couldn’t have worked.

I often encounter natural selection described as a beautiful, simple idea. “How could I have been so stupid not to think of it myself,” is the sentiment described. The fact that no one, not Newton, not Descartes, not Aristotle nor Galileo nor Hypatia nor Euclid, thought of it first indicates that it’s not so simple. The fact that the beautiful, simple idea was later discarded is even better evidence.

These days there’s an evangelical named Ray Comfort who is criticizing evolution with what he thinks is a simple, beautiful argument. He’s right; it is simple and beautiful, but also wrong. It is wrong because the facts of the real world take us somewhere else. It is wrong in the same way the rejection of natural selection by 1900 was wrong. It is wrong because it is ignorant of another simple, beautiful idea. Genes are lumpy.

Comfort’s argument goes like this. “Evolutionists” say that elephants evolved from non-elephant ancestors. But the first elephant (for Comfort the first is always a male) had to find a wife. Isn’t it an odd coincidence that just when the male elephant came along, a female elephant evolved, too? But if not, with what creature did the elephant mate?

If you don’t know anything about genetics, this might be a convincing answer. And in fact it was (in different form) the argument that in part caused the rejection of natural selection the first time around.

To choose another example, suppose a white moth were to appear in a population of black moths. That white moth would have to mate with a black moth. If (as was believed at the time) inheritence is blended, their offspring would be grey. These grey moths in turn would overwhelmingly mate with black moths, resulting in even darker offspring, and so on. In this way, any unique traits would disappear almost as soon as they arose.

Ah, but genes don’t blend in this way. Instead, here’s what might happen. A white moth mates with a black moth. Their offspring are ALL BLACK! White has disappeared, not over several generations, but instantly. But isn’t this a backwards step? Patience, grasshopper.

Now the all-black moths mate. Occasionally, two black moths  that each have a white parentwill mate. In this cross, one out of four of their offspring will be white! The white trait, hidden in the first generation of offspring, reappears in the second.

If you’ve taken a biology class, you probably recognize this. It’s a common piece of pedagogery, and reveals the pea plant experiments of Gregor Mendel, a contemporary of Darwin whose work was forgotten in his lifetime. Big deal, right?

The big deal (so often missed in introductory material on this subject) is that this discovery, that genes are discrete (I prefer the word “lumpy”), gave natural selection the tool it needed to work! The result is the world you see around you. Because unique traits could survive as discrete lumps of genetic material, even hiding in generations, all manner of variability could eventually appear, spread, and fluorish.

So what does all this have to do with Comfort and his elephants? The point is that Comfort would be right – if inheritance blended. But it doesn’t. Genes are lumpy. An elephant ancestor needn’t be an elephant to carry elephant traits. It can carry genes for elephant-like traits, and those genes can hide within the genome. When those genes come together in the right individual, the traits (completely accidentally) can make that individual more likely to survive, and so the traits are passed on. Eventually, the traits become common in the population, and you have elephants.

The point is not so much that Comfort and the 1900-era biologists were wrong. Being wrong is part of learning. The point is that scientists, by working out sometimes simple, beautiful relationships, such as Gregor Mendel and his peas, can reveal not just a deep truth, but can show us just how and why it is true. This knowledge, gained through long, hard, arduous work, is now available to everybody. You can know things that Aristotle never could have imagined, not because you’re smarter, but because you are alive, here and now, in a world positively brimming with simple, beautiful, and true ideas.

Now that’s a sobering thought.

This has been gnawing on me ever since the Templeton Lecture at COSI. Today I was reminded of it again by a brilliant piece on YouTube by Feynman.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zeCHiUe1et0

And then I read again the essay by Gould on Non-Overlapping Magisteria.

 I adore Stephen Jay Gould. He and I share many things (besides a first name) – a passion for baseball and It’s a Wonderful Life, a love of quirky history, and a commitment to the idea that evolution isn’t just true, but marvelously pointless, that the real message of evolution isn’t survival of the fittest, but rather unrepeatable contingency. Gould taught me evolutionary biology, afternoons in the school library reading his marvelous essays. Certainly he taught me far more than my creationist 10th grade biology teacher ever did. When Gould died, it affected me, just as Carl Sagan’s early death affected me. (I remember the day Feynman died, because my quantum mechanics professor talked about it in class, talked about how Feynman had touched his life and career, but I didn’t really know of Feynman at the time. Now I look back and realize that death was the greatest loss of these three great losses.)

Gould’s NOMA essay, and the longer work Rock of Ages on the same topic, both hurt me. When I read them, I felt like Gould was not being honest, either with himself or with the world at large, and I didn’t understand why. It was like discovering that a long-trusted friend was actually stealing money, or was a Baltimore Ravens fan.

The idea of NOMA sounds so PC, so reasonably middle ground on its face. But when you dig into it, as you might a pretty, fluffy dessert, you discover there’s nothing there. NOMA suggests that both science and religion respect one another’s boundaries, that they deal with separate realms and that therefore one has nothing to say about the other.

Balderdash.

Science cannot be bound. Science must be free to investigate all things. Perhaps there are some things that science can never know. But we won’t know that until we investigate! Starting out with a blanket prohibition is out of bounds. And for NOMA to have any meaning, it must create these prohibitions.

For instance, in the essay Gould quotes the pope as saying that science can’t speak to the ensoulment of humans. Why? What does “ensoulment” mean? If it means any change, any change at all, then it becomes the object of scientific exploration. Is there any evidence for humans having a soul? Some would point to a moral sense. Fine. A moral sense is a physical manifestation. We can investigate it. We can determine if any rudimentary moral sense exists in animals. We can find out if a moral sense, via reciprocal altruism, might have had survival value to early humans and pre-humans. We can investigate what’s going on in the brain when we think about morality.

The point isn’t that science will find the answers; the point is that science can, will, and must look for these answers. Prohibiting such a search violates NOMA right off the bat. But any such prohibition is out of bounds, not just this one. The beginning of life, the “cause” of the Big Bang, and the eventual fate of the universe are all examples of fields that religion might be tempted to claim. Religion can’t have them. Science must be free to roam.

What we’re left with, then, is a religion with nothing left to do. If by definition it can’t affect the natural world, then what’s left? Of what possible consequence could it be to the actual world?

Suppose someone says they’ve received a message from God. That message must have been received by something in the body, a single neuron, perhaps. Science can investigate that neuron, find out what exactly happened at the moment the message was received. Was it electromagnetic? A gravity wave? A neutrino pulse? What? If it was nothing, then it couldn’t have affected the neuron, because the neuron is a physical object in the universe, and the thoughts it engenders are real, physical things. If it was something, then scientists could (in theory, at least) investigate the source of the signal. Perhaps they’d trace it to an ancient planet circling a faraway star in Pisces. Or maybe not. The point is, they could investigate the claim, and that makes it a scientific question.

The only way NOMA works is if religion completely folds, surrenders all territory with absolutely no resistance, admits to no affect whatever on the natural world.

And if that happens, we have to be courageous and ask the next question. What good is it?

 

At a recent discussion of faith and evolution, I was all prepared to ask my favorite question. Then something I never expected happened. One of the panelists, Dr. Francisco Ayala, answered the question I was about to ask, and it was a good answer.

Here’s the question. Gorillas (Dr. Ayala used baboons, but I prefer gorillas because they have something of a reputation these days of being gentle giants) are infanticidal. When a male gorilla takes over a troop, the first thing he does is go around to all the nursing mothers, rip the babies from their mothers’ arms, and kill them. This is a sensible thing for the male to do from a natural selection standpoint. It sends the mothers into estrus so that he may mate with them and produce his own offspring, and of course it eliminates potential competitors who are not carrying his genes. So if you decide that “evolution is how God did it,” aren’t you giving God some pretty nasty attributes?

The reason I ask this question is perhaps a devious one.

Eugenie Scott, also on the panel, has an opposite view from mine. She stated that many times in her classes, when students learned what evolution was, they were pleasantly surprised. They’d always been told, Scott reported, that evolution meant you couldn’t believe in God. They were relieved that all evolution meant was that animals change over time.

I hold a different view. I’ve encountered many people who have no problem reconciling faith and evolution. That seems to be the popular, consensus-building, politically correct thing to do. Before last night I would have said it is misguided. I still think it is unnecessary, but Dr. Ayala’s statement made me see that, with careful (VERY careful) thought, it is possible to do so, if you really feel the need. But you have to do it just so.

Most people aren’t nearly as careful as Dr. Ayala. For most I’ve encountered, the reconciliation of faith and evolution comes from a misunderstanding of evolution. And so I feel it is important to point out just how cruel, arbitrary, and wasteful evolution is. Is the creator of this mess really the diety you want to worship? Look the natural world straight in the eye, realize that it not only has no need for a creator, but in fact shows absolutely no sign, not the slightest whiff of evidence of such a creator.  Instead, it looks at every step exactly like a universe without a plan.

The alternative, I think, is dangerous. It leads to magical thinking. It leads to the idea that Mother Earth will provide. It leads to the thought that the universe would never be designed so poorly that we could be wiped out by an asteroid, or a giant volcano. It leads to the crazy idea that parents should be allowed to deny their children medical care because of religious belief. It leads to the idea that there’s some plan. But what if the only plan is the one we make ourselves?

OK, so what was Dr. Ayala’s answer. He brought up the example of babboons committing infanticide. He asked, “How could God condone such behavior?” His answer was that babboons and all other animals are not moral agents. Humans are moral agents. God gave us that, and made us different from all other animals.

It’s an interesting argument, but I don’t buy it. In some societies it is considered just fine to kill baby girls. Many cultures have practiced genocide against their neighbors. We humans have done some thoroughly nasty things.

Once again, religion has an answer. The Fall from Grace, the need for salvation. Just as with Dr. Ayala, yes, you can make the argument, but why? Why go to all the trouble and effort, to in the end get to a place where all you can say is that you believe in something for which there is (and can be) absolutely no evidence?

Science can’t disprove the existence of God. I’ll say it again. Science can’t disprove the existence of God. God could very well exist, and science could never touch her. If she can take any form you want, have any set of attributes you choose, then there’s nothing science can do to show she isn’t there. But what good is that?

The fact that I have to ask, I guess, shows that I just don’t get it.

Here’s my problem. I don’t have many skills. I’m not particularly good at math, I’m certainly not athletic, and I’m hopeless trying to fix anything. The one thing I can do is remember. In particular, I remember exactly what it was like to be eight years old. (In fact, I rather suspect that I’m still eight and that this is all just a dream from which I’ll wake up any moment now. OK, not yet.)

When I was eight, I was saved. I grew up in a family of southern baptists. One day in church, I got up and went to the altar to get saved. It felt good. But even then, deep inside, I knew. There was part of me, that deep spark inside that is the same spark I still have now, that said, “Come on! You know better than this. You know this is isn’t the way the world works. You know there’s nothing there.”

I fought it off for a while. I tried to convince myself, but deep inside I still knew. I remember so vividly the feeling, knowing that I didn’t really believe. Finally I gave up, let myself be myself.

So here’s the thing. I could go through all the arguments, I suppose. I could convince myself that, despite all the evidence that the universe is an unplanned mess, there really is a well-hidden designer running the cogs. But I still wouldn’t really believe it. And isn’t that what belief means?

It happened again.

Every time a new fossil is described, a new science discovery makes it into the mainstream media, headline writers do their best to convince us that everything that came before is wrong, and this discovery, this find, changes science forever.

Today’s Dispatch carries the headline “Newest Fossil Shakes the Tree.” The article that follows is actually a pretty decent account of how Ardipithecus ramidus fits into the story of human evolution. “Ardi” does contain some surprises, but those surprises fit well into the story that has been developing now for some time.

The headline is almost clever, because it could refer to two different trees. First is the tree of evolution, showing how we have changed over time. Ardi doesn’t so much shake this tree as add another very interesting branch. But second is the “tree” that Ardi herself (and others like her, of course) actually lived in part-time. That’s an interesting finding, and it does push us in a particular direction.

The difficulty so many people have with evolution is summed up well by the famous line, “If humans evolved from apes, why are there still apes?” While it might draw a chuckle, the line displays more a profound misunderstanding of evolution than it does a profound thought. And Ardi brings the difficulty to light.

Our closest living ape relatives are chimpanzees, bonobos, and gorillas. All are more or less ground-living apes that walk on their knuckles. So did we evolve from ground-living apes that walk on our knuckles? With no other models, we might have thought so. But evolution doesn’t work that way. Chimps, bonobos, and gorillas are evolving, too. Six million years ago, when the human and chimp line split, the last common ancestor was not human, but neither was it chimpanzee.

Instead, Ardi indicates that this common ancestor probably was a smallish, tree-living creature with flexible wrists and ankles. It may have even been leaning toward some bipedality. Later, this creature’s descendents went in at least two directions. One direction was toward knuckle-walking, ground-living apes that became chimps and bonobos. The other was toward smaller, more upright walkers that became (in time) us.

The other interesting thing Ardi seems to show is that knuckle-walking, seen in both chimpanzee species as well as in gorillas, must have evolved separately at least twice. We and chimps are more closely related to each other than either is to gorillas. To me, this is one of the most amazing findings of science. We and chimps are close cousins, and gorillas are the outlyers of the group. To a gorilla, we and chimps are basically the same, just as to us horses and zebras are the same sort of creature.

Anyway, the point is that gorillas moved toward ground living and knuckle walking before our ancestor split with chimps, and that ancestor was apparently not a knuckle walker. So knuckle walking and all that comes with it – including larger size and distance covered – must have evolved separately in those chimp-like descendents.

The most amazing part of all this, of course, is not so much the facts themselves, but the fact that we humans, descendants of a tree-dwelling ape that lived some six million years ago, have awoken to this world, learned of the passage of time, and discovered that we can discover.

The powerful play goes on, and we may contribute a verse.

How’s that for a headline?

Elephant seals demonstrate that there are no demonstrations. The natural world is not where we find meaning.

So what good is it?

You are a product of this universe. You, with the power to think, to reason, to decide for yourself. Male elephant seals have no choice. They must follow their instincts. They must fight and die, or else perish alone. But nature flubbed up when it created us.

We can juke the game. We can find joy in other things – creating art, singing songs, falling in love, climbing a tree, reading a poem to a child.

And we can find joy in something else. We can find rapture in learning about this exquisite mess of a universe. We can learn about the cruel reality of elephant seal life – and we can call it what it is, wasteful and stupid.

But we can learn, too, of the intricacies of cell division. We can discover the mathematical precision of the periodic table, a bouncing tennis ball, a leaf floating to the ground. We can contemplate time and space, the past and the future, and wonder from where might it all have come.

We can marvel at the stars, (Jim reckoned the moon could a laid them; well, that looked kind of reasonable, so I didn’t say nothing against it) and realize it was from there that we came, the elements of our bodies formed in the chaos of stellar death. We can wonder what it would be like to travel to those stars, how we might get there, whom we might meet.

We can look back at our own history and stare wide-eyed at the incredible set of unpredictable contingencies that made us who and what we are. We are incredible, an unrepeatable, fragile accident. We are one of the things the universe can make.

The universe is wonderful, and it is pointless. But the universe made us. And we make the point.

That’s what good it is.

From something as totally meaningless, yet deeply and personally painful, as a lost football game to something full of real misery, wanton cruelty, and utter waste.

Elephant seals.

Male elephant seals are repugnant. There’s simply no other way to put it. They’re grotesquely fat, dirty, and often covered in blood and scars. Male elephant seals are polygamous. They gather as many females as they possibly can, mate with them, and fight off any other male who comes anywhere near. They have vicious teeth and use them to inflict horrible wounds on each other. The males are so eager to fight off any other male who might come near that they often crush to death the pups, the very creatures they’re trying to create with their profligate mating.

elephant seals

According to Bryan Sykes in Adam’s Curse, only 4% of the elephant seal males have 80% of the sex, and the majority of elephant seal males have no sex at all. Meaning they don’t reproduce at all. Meaning they are an evolutionary dead end.

Sykes makes the point that this is evolution at its most wasteful and inefficient. Huge amounts of food go into building these enormous male elephant seal bodies, most of which will never accomplish their one goal, reproduction. They fight each other for every possible mate, even killing their own offspring in the process. Why? Because that’s what their fathers did, and the biggest, meanest, most jealous elephant seals were the ones that passed on their genes. What difference does it make if I crush a few pups? I’ve made lots, and better to kill three or four of my own than allow even one to carry his genes. I can make more, once I’ve gotten rid of him.

We sometimes hear about the efficiency of nature, or, more poetically, Nature’s Way. Don’t believe it! Evolution has no plan. Nature is horribly inefficient, profligately wasteful. There is no gentle hand guiding all of creation, there is no all-knowing life force. There is only cause and effect, ruthless and unfeeling when it needs to be, yet also able to create a flower or a butterfly, if such things serve. Stare evolution straight in the eye and see it for what it is.

Now, once you’ve done that, don’t go and blow your brains out. Read my next post instead.

My first book, called The Turtle and the Universe, was published by Prometheus Books in July 2008. You can read about it by clicking on the link above.
My second book, Atoms and Eve, is available as an e-book at Barnes and Noble. Click the link above. You can download the free nook e-reader by clicking the link below.
December 2019
M T W T F S S
« Aug    
 1
2345678
9101112131415
16171819202122
23242526272829
3031  
A blog by Stephen Whitt

Enter your email address to follow this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 89 other followers