Designs, Intelligent and Stupid

By Sean Carroll | June 22, 2007 1:00 am

Stupid DesignPZ Myers links to a great Ted Rall cartoon on Stupid Design. The point being that the world around us isn’t anything close to being efficiently designed. If it is the reflection of the plans of some supernatural architect, many of us could have offered a few useful pointers. As with most such arguments, David Hume was there first:

In a word, Cleanthes, a man who follows your hypothesis is able perhaps to assert, or conjecture, that the universe, sometime, arose from something like design: but beyond that position he cannot ascertain one single circumstance; and is left afterwards to fix every point of his theology by the utmost license of fancy and hypothesis. This world, for aught he knows, is very faulty and imperfect, compared to a superior standard; and was only the first rude essay of some infant deity, who afterwards abandoned it, ashamed of his lame performance: it is the work only of some dependent, inferior deity; and is the object of derision to his superiors: it is the production of old age and dotage in some superannuated deity; and ever since his death, has run on at adventures, from the first impulse and active force which it received from him.

Hume gets extra bonus points for writing before Darwin demonstrated how complex adaptive organisms can arise even without a designer. (But he loses some points for weaseling at the end of the Dialogues.)

Before Darwin, you couldn’t really fault someone for thinking “Gee, my two choices are between imagining that something as complicated as a human being just sort of came together by accident, or that someone designed it. I think I’ll go for Door Number Two.” But once we figured out that there was a Door Number Three — that such complexity could evolve through descent with random modification and natural selection — it boggles the mind how anyone could look at the natural world and conclude that it shows any signs of being intentionally constructed just this way.

One of the prevalent misconceptions about evolution is that, in response to a certain problem, organisms can (over the course of generations) simply “evolve an appropriate solution.” Of course they don’t always do so; sometimes they just die off. But more importantly, the space of possibilities that organisms explore via descent with minor modifications is most definitely not the space of small variations on bodies (or behaviors); it’s the space of small variations on genomes. Even if a certain physiological feature would be useful, we’re not going to be able to evolve it unless flicking a few switches in the genetic code would lead to an intrinsically useful mutation that would move us along that direction.

Years ago, Stephen Jay Gould and Richard Lewontin borrowed the term spandrel from architecture to illustrate an important consequence of the way evolution works. A spandrel is an aspect of some form (whether from Renaissance arches or paedomorphic morphology) that arises as a side effect of some other trait that is useful, even if it doesn’t itself serve a necessary purpose. Those kinds of non-adaptations and accidents and anachronistic features are found all over the place in real organisms. Any intelligent designer with a shred of self-respect would be embarrassed to exhibit such shoddy workmanship.

The classic argument-from-design question is: What good is half an eye? Even when I was twelve years old, I could guess the answer to that one: it’s a lot of good! Imagine just a few photo-sensitive cells evolving on the skin of a sightless organism; that could be immensely useful, offering a decided advantage to its offspring. Continual reinforcement of that tendency could directly lead to better sensitivity and all the other highly-specialized upgrades that our own eyes come with.

On the other hand: What good is half a wheel? Now you’ve got me. The wheel is an excellent answer to a pretty obvious question, if you’re a person sitting there thinking about how to move heavy loads more quickly or efficiently. And it’s not hard to imagine wheels coming in useful on certain organisms. (Tell me that a snake with wheels wouldn’t be pretty efficient, if a bit scary.) But you just can’t get there from here, by ordinary evolutionary means. It’s hard to think of useful transitional forms.

All of which should teach us a lesson when we sit down to try to understand and reproduce the workings of actual organisms. The idea behind Strong Artificial Intelligence is that the brain is basically a computer — a thesis I’m happy to go along with. But reproducing brainlike behavior in actual computers has turned out to be much harder than many people anticipated. In retrospect it’s not hard to see why; the brain might be a computer, but it’s certainly not the same kind of computer that we are used to programming. Its functioning arose naturally, rather than through top-down planning, and this kind of “organic design” leads to very different structures than “synthetic design.” Rather than relatively straightforward sets of algorithms expressed in neurological lines of code divided into tidy subprograms, our minds are subtle machines with virtual processors distributed holographically and interacting nonlocally throughout the brain. As a result, computers still aren’t very good poets, but they’re definitely better at multiplication and division than we are. (Now you tell me which talent might have been more useful out there on the veldt.)

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Science
  • archgoon

    One of the prevalent misconceptions about evolution is that, in response to a certain problem, organisms can (over the course of generations) simply “evolve an appropriate solution.” Of course they don’t always do so; sometimes they just die off

    I was under the impression that usually you assume the changes were already present in the population. If the problem actually threatens the survival of the species, they wouldn’t reproduce for a long enough time to actually get lucky with mutations.

  • Pseudonym

    Me and my cold would like to have a strong word with the Intelligent Designer as to why he/she/it made nasal mucus a throat irritant.

  • Alejandro Rivero

    The standard answer (I think it is mentioned already in Darwin works, or at least implicit) is that the right question is not “What good is half a wheel” but “What bad is half a wheel”. If the mutation is not troublesome, it will survive even if it is not useful, and eventuallly it could evolve into a useful one.

  • Alejandro Rivero

    The eye problem, If I recall correctly, was not only how or why evolved the eye, but also if the design of the eye was “inteligent design” or “stupid design”, in the sense that the position of the sensitive part of the retina (and I do not remember if some of the associated optics) are not optimal from the point of view of a photo machine nor a camera.

  • http://fommil.me.uk Sam

    When I originally started reading this blog, it was firing out high energy physics and cosmology posts on a regular basis. This was of interest to me as I did my PhD in NCG/SUGRA and have since left academia, but would like to keep up to date on general advances in the hep-th area.

    However, now all we seem to get is US politics, with emphasis on the debate on evolution. Is it going to stay this way? Because if it is… I’m offski!

  • Anne

    Wheels are a particular problem – evolution aside, how do you make one work? Unless the whole organism rolls (which tumbleweeds do) how do you make a rotating joint? On a microscopic scale it works – flagella run on essentially proton-driven motors that spin them around an axis – but how could a multicellular organism make bearings? If the wheel assembly is alive, how could it supply blood, food, oxygen to the wheel itself?

    I think the wheel example is not such a good one – we want an example of a big improvement where we can see how it would work, but for which there’s no way to get there from here, so it wasn’t evolved. I can’t think of one like that though…

    As for poetry on the veldt, funny you should mention it – I’m reading Jared Diamond’s “The Third Chimpanzee” in which he discusses pretty much exactly that question – what is the evolutionary advantage of art? where did it come from? He looks at various examples of animal art – bowerbirds and captive elephants for example – and concludes that art as a show to attract mates (think of rock groupies if you like) is reason enough to evolve it; of course, we’re a complex enough species that the drive and talent to create art gets applied in all sorts of social situations whether or not it’s impressing potential mates. Anyway, he certainly explains it better than I do. But poetry serves a fairly clear evolutionary purpose, and we’re much better wired for it than math. Mathematics, that is both mathematics research and mathematics teaching, is a constant struggle to take facts and concepts that are frankly alien and put them in the form our veldt-evolved brains can work with effectively.

  • Biff

    I’m with Sam on this one.

    After I graduated (Physics), I started a PhD in semiconductor physics (III-V opto-electronics mostly). Things didn’t pan out and I left after the first year. I still have a strong interest in science and physics in particular, and this site has always been an excellent place to visit to supplement my addictions to Physics World and New Scientist.

    If it’s going to turn into a campaigning tool against creationism (which is an absolutely bonkers idea, in case you’re worried that I’m a closet nutter), then I’m going to lose interest.

    There are an enormous number of sites out there already that cover this topic well (as evidenced by the fact that many of your blog entries on the subject link to another site), so it’s not as if you’re providing a unique service in this respect.

    Where you are unique is in your presentation of current research. Having several contributors adds hugely to the richness of this blog and the variety of topics covered always makes a visit worthwhile.

    Perhaps recent months have just been an outlier. Here’s for hoping for regression to the mean.

  • http://quantumfieldtheory.org nigel

    The standard answer (I think it is mentioned already in Darwin works, or at least implicit) is that the right question is not “What good is half a wheel” but “What bad is half a wheel”. If the mutation is not troublesome, it will survive even if it is not useful, and eventuallly it could evolve into a useful one. – Alejandro Rivero

    Without going off topic, this is a crucial point: how much junk and clutter can you hoard just in case you might one day find a use for it? Get too much clutter, and you can’t see the wood for the trees, but if you hoard abstract odds and ends long enough, it can eventually pay off in a big way. E.g. ellipses were known (as conic sections) in ancient Greece, as well as Aristarchus of Samos’ solar system, but Kepler in c. 1610 was the first to fit both two together to accurately represent Brahe’s observations of Mars’ orbit. There’s also an allegation that Archimedes’ work The Method used the basic principles of the calculus (Archimedes called it the ‘mechanical method’) to work out the volume of geometric shapes by summing over a lot of thin slices, but it was lost and unavailable when calculus was developed by Newton and Leibniz. Maybe this was for the best because Archimedes just regarded calculus as just a non-rigorous trick, not a really convincing proof: ‘… certain things first became clear to me by a mechanical method, although they had to be proved by geometry afterwards …’ (That kind of prejudice was probably best lost because there are now many things you can prove with calculus that can’t be proved afterward using simple geometry.)

  • KundryVolare

    Let’s not forget the “junk DNA” we continue to be flustered and confused by~or “jumping genes” and punctuated equilibrium. These are validated methods of evolutionary change that ofttimes carry a liability factor; though chaotic, that is the point. The chaos introduces novelty, allowing wider exploitation of niches, thus potentially expanding the lifeform(s). I tend to think the whole storm in a waterglass is moot, for usually paradox is truth and both are probably “right.”

  • http://www.heaven.net God

    Dear Confused Humans,
    I designed a self-designing world.
    God

  • http://www.heaven.net God

    Further,
    You’ve seen the mess you can make with 25% of your brainpower. Only as you become wiser will you be able to access the remaining 75%. Otherwise it is like giving gasoline and a lighter to a 2-year old. Grow up!
    -God (who is angry and vengeful only in your fantasies).

  • http://www.scottaaronson.com/blog Scott Aaronson

    But he loses some points for weaseling at the end of the Dialogues.

    Sean, when Pamphilus (the scribe) decides without explanation that Cleanthes won the debate, despite his arguments having been utterly demolished by Philo, do you really think Hume meant for us to take him seriously? I interpreted the weaseling as sarcasm, similar to what Galileo did in his dialogues.

  • http://www.idthefuture.com Paul A. Nelson

    Hume didn’t weasel. The Dialogues were published posthumously (in 1779; Hume died in 1776). What did he have to lose? Moreover, Hume carefully polished the Dialogues over many years. He wasn’t trying any longer to land an academic post (never succeeding at that during his life, btw) or to impress a wealthy patron. Like many of his contemporaries in the late 18th c., Hume is best understood as a deist, but especially as a skeptic. He wanted to deflate pretensions to religious knowledge grounded in the design argument, but at the same time, insisted — even to Enlightenment atheists such as d’Holbach — that no one could really avoid inferences to design, in some form or another.

    Hence part XII of the . Hume said exactly what he wanted to say, to readers who wouldn’t be able to lay a finger on him in retribution.

  • Jeremy Chapman

    Dear Confused ‘God’
    It certainly is conceited for you to comment on a blog under the name of ‘God’. What next, will you be writing us a bible? Regarding your first comment about god designing a self-designing world, that’s a cop-out. Everytime science comes up with a rational explanation for world, you’re going to argue that god made it that way on purpose? Lame. Regarding your second point, I think that with the ability to use more of our brain’s potential we might be more able to intelligently use that power that your self-designing design already gave us. Like taking gasoline and a lighter out of the hands of a 2 year old and giving it to an adult.

  • lt.milo

    I have to agree with Biff. This argument has effectively ruined many other science related websites and is getting to the point of beating a dead horse.

    I love reading Physics related posts and that is why I come back here every day. If this becomes just another fight against Intelligent Design, then I may as well look at the whole host of identical blogs and websites.

    Maybe this is just a cheap ploy to attract all of the pissed off atheists who love reading these types of posts. Ah I don’t know, but I really hope that this site is not starting a downward spiral.

  • JimV

    I’ll agree with those above who say that good physics is the main reason people look here, but thanks for this post anyway. As usual, your perspective helped clarify my thoughts on this subject, even though it has been covered elsewhere.

  • http://tyrannogenius.blogspot.com Neil B.

    As is sadly usual for those writing about origins and design, Sean didn’t really appreciate the full range of options or the full range of points and counterpoints. (It reminds me of tiresome political arguments that sideline libertarian or centrist-populist alternatives in favor of bipolar establishmentarian retreads.) First, we shouldn’t confuse two very different considerations:

    1. The anthropic fine-tuning of the physical principles themselves, as explored by Barrow, Tipler, Davies, et al.) If the physical constants etc. weren’t very close to what they were, we couldn’t be here. (BTW, there not being anyone to report the converse shouldn’t have kept it from happening – unless you want to be one of those hypocritically indulged “mystics” that physics tolerates when it suits the establishment agenda.)

    2. Whether the way things like life turned out still, even with very cleverly designed initial conditions and principles, shows any need for further “meddling.” (Few appreciate the irony, that for things to turn out as well as they did on their own, enhances the impressiveness of the initial fine-tuning. Hence ID of this #2 sort actually works against the effectiveness of the sort made in #1, but see issues below.)

    Another important point is: it isn’t necessary to imagine that if there is some ground of being/creator etc. it would be as traditional religions imagine “It.” Why think that traditional religions are wrong about It’s existence, but must be right about what it would be like if it did exist? Can you entertain that it’s the other way around: that they are right about there being something like that, but wrong about what It is like? It is not a logical necessity that something “behind” the universe’s existence would be able to make specifics as they are or intervene – maybe “the way things work” is all that can be offered, for what can only be considered proto-existential reasons. In that case, Hume’s complaints, being based on the particulars of the world’s supposed imperfections, are irrelevant. (Hume did not know of the dependence of life on the remarkable degree of fine tuning of the physical constants, so we can only wonder what he would have made of that. However, Hume did rightly attack the idea that physical “laws” are like guards making things do what they do — rather, we generalize the laws we report from what things do, for whatever reason they act as they do. Hence, loose talk about the same “stuff” being ‘subject to different physical laws’ due to who knows what meta-machinations of string dings etc. is very phony.)

    Regarding #2: It is fair game in principle to ask and to look into whether the way life turned out looks to be plausible in terms of a given theoretical construct like random mutation + natural selection. Our intellectual-religious-social accidents of history made some unpalatable particular movement dominate alternatives to the standard theory. However, that doesn’t force the universe to comply with some folks’ desire for limited scope of alternatives, or a simple description of what happened. I have some Socratic questions about a subject I have passing familiarity with. There may be good answers, but I haven’t seen enough: I suspect that if we could comprehensively model evolutionary change according to straightforward mutation/selection and simple assumptions about molecules etc, we’d find something different than what we see around us: The beneficial mutations just couldn’t “meet up” together well enough, and the detrimental ones just wouldn’t be filtered out enough. Creatures would be more deformed, variable in features, with ill-defined species boundaries and not nicely displaying the paradigmatic advances (consider that fitness is highly relative…)

    I mean, I can imagine mutations occurring here and there in some reptiles which would eventually drive development of feathers from scales. But how do the carriers of the occasional good mutations – and that must include the related features like hollow bones which go with that for effect – “get together” enough to concentrate that into what can turn into a new, demarcated species with nicely developed features, and not loaded with flaws and grading into similar kinds? (Mutations should be partial in effect, or does a bird emerge from a reptile’s egg, as some extravagant followers of punctuated equilibrium have put it?) Also, mutations are usually presented in terms of ACTG groups changing within a given DNA chain, but how does DNA evolve longitudinally, as strands get longer? Finally, since we can’t (?) really do a full-scale modeling to test the mutation-selection theory, now where are the philosophical purists who say that is a requirement for validity? How much of evolutionary theory is really testable in the hard sense? It just isn’t like physics, get over it.

    Suppose evolution is more difficult that it looks, in terms of how we normally imagine molecular biology? If anthropic fine tuning is already set to be favorable to life, why stop at basic constants? Maybe the most subtle properties of molecules, the tiny higher chance that one complex gene would hook up with just the “right” one/s to advance evolution, are also fine tuned (Barrow and Tipler already came surprisingly close to demonstrating such relationships.) It would be hard to complain, why should the universe “care” about that etc, since we already know it does. It has already given at least a mile, so 100 miles more is no big deal — but would of course increase the pressure to acknowledge there being something relevant about that.

    PS — Cyndi Lauper is 54 today! Have another happy turn of the stew, fungirl… Hey, if you are tired of all this talk about “God” but need something to worship, we nutty Cyndi fans welcome you into adoration of the Goddess… ; – )

  • Mike

    This entry and the comments have helped me to understand a few problems in the current debates about intelligent design:

    1) There may be some disagreements among evolutionists about what evolution means, but for the most part it is one clear theory. Intelligent design or creation, on the other hand, could refer to one of a million ideas (with the common element of a higher power at work). We tend to make the mistake of thinking that the most vocal proponents of intelligent design (those who would have it taught or scientifically accepted) are representative of all people with religious creation beliefs. We then begin to attack all of religious creation belief, even though it is outside the power of our science to win this attack. If we limited our argument to what should be taught or what should be scientifically accepted instead of what should be believed, we would do the debate a service.

    2) It is frustrating to scientists to be subjected to wave after wave of bad science from religionists. It must be equally frustrating to theologians to have wave after wave of bad theology thrown at them in this debate. To say “there can’t be a God because my back hurts” probably won’t get you very far in a theology circle.

    3) Debaters in general tend to not win friends or influence people if smug mockery is their main delivery style. Still, the cartoon is funny.

  • Greg D.

    From the “About” section of this blog:

    Our day (and night) jobs notwithstanding, the blog is about whatever we find interesting — science, to be sure, but also arts, politics, culture, technology, academia, and miscellaneous trivia.

    As is the case in many aspects of life, if you don’t like what you’re getting, go elsewhere. The idea that one would attempt to manipulate the output of this blog’s contents, an essentially free service, is at its core no friendlier than having one’s door knocked on before noon one Saturday morning in order to be preached at.

  • tyler

    Is it ironic or hypocritical to leave a comment on a post that you think is off-topic? Hm. I have to say that I agree that my interest in this blog is directly proportional to the percentage of physics related content….

    However, for those who might be interested, Hume’s notion of the flawed creation of a juvenile deity was spun into one of the most influential (and yet little-read) foundational SF books of all time, Olaf Stapledon’s Star Maker. It’s the book equivalent of the first Velvet Underground album: very few people have read it, but it seems like most of the ones that did became SF authors. It has huge numbers of ideas tossed off in single pages or paragraphs that have since been the conceptual basis of whole books.

    It’s a bit hard to read if you’re not up for very dry – though I think, at times, beautiful – 1930s high-academic writing style; the cliche phrase “turgid prose” is often used to describe it. And it lacks anything like a conventional plot. Man has out of body experience, his consciousness expands through several scales of perception (planetary, stellar, galactic, etc), meets Star Maker, returns to body. That’s pretty much the whole story.

    I think it’s great. Really interesting stuff. There’s a modern, annotated academic edition that I recommend highly.

  • lt.milo

    “As is the case in many aspects of life, if you don’t like what you’re getting, go elsewhere. The idea that one would attempt to manipulate the output of this blog’s contents, an essentially free service, is at its core no friendlier than having one’s door knocked on before noon one Saturday morning in order to be preached at.”

    ————–
    I see what you are saying, but we are not attempting to manipulate the content of the blog, but rather save it: every other blog concerning science is turning towards this topic making this blog no different than the rest.

    Just look at the recent posts, many are geared towards showing Intelligent Design’s flaws, which can really be found everywhere.

    I loved the blog: Angryastronomer, but within the last year, all the content has been directed towards this topic instead of Astronomy. I just hope that Cosmic Variance, being my absolute favorite blog, does not follow the same path as many before it.

    In conclusion, thank you Cosmic Variance for literally years of awesome posts, I can only hope that the blog can stay on course instead of following in the countless other’s downward spiral of beating a dead horse.

  • graviton383

    I have to agree w/ It.milo…let’s have alittle more science. Maybe when JoAnne returns from thin air….

  • http://tyrannogenius.blogspot.com Neil B.

    Mike in # 18:

    2) It is frustrating to scientists to be subjected to wave after wave of bad science from religionists. It must be equally frustrating to theologians to have wave after wave of bad theology thrown at them in this debate. To say “there can’t be a God because my back hurts” probably won’t get you very far in a theology circle.

    Good point, and indeed there is much bad theology and bad philosophy, as I have oft’ exposed. Remember that really, we have a three-ring circus: there is science, theology, and then philosophy in the broadest sense. It isn’t good to say that “theology,” unqualified, just is the philosophy of issues like God and creation, for theology partakes inextricably of religious tradition – which is not the same thing as reasoning as philosophers do. Those of us who practice genuine a priori and independent “philosophical theology” are often left out of the common debates about self-existent versus designed universe/s etc. We feel like the sort of libertarians who are sure they have a clever way to make X work in society, but no one listens to them because all the buzz is from and about traditional liberals and conservatives. (No, I’m not endorsing their often unworkable and elite-biased proposals, but they at least deserve more attention.)

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/sean/ Sean

    When we originally started this blog, it was attracting commenters who were able to understand the mission statement, exhibited an appreciation for the free service being provided, and possessed the ability to skip over the posts they weren’t interested in without commenting.

    However, increasingly we seem to get is complaints that the bloggers are sometimes interested in things that the commenters are not, and that the bloggers should change their behavior accordingly. I don’t think there are any blogs out there for which I am interested in every single post, or even the majority; but the urge to leave a comment loudly protesting my lack of interest is a weird kind of pathology to which I have thankfully never been susceptible.

    Seriously, folks: leave. This is what you sound like. It’s just no fun to have a blog if a substantial fraction of the comments are whining.

    (Anyone who actually read the post should be able to see that it’s about science, not about religion or politics. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.)

  • http://countiblis.blogspot.com Count Iblis

    Should we consider things that we have designed as being designed? What I mean is that we are subject to the laws of physics as well and we were not designed in the first place. The things we have invented are a result of a form of evolution as well. A gas cloud consisting of hydrogen and helium can give rise to cars and computers all by itself if you wait long enough…

  • Torbjörn Larsson, OM

    Even if a certain physiological feature would be useful, we’re not going to be able to evolve it unless flicking a few switches in the genetic code would lead to an intrinsically useful mutation that would move us along that direction.

    This is probably true, but it is believed that phenotypic variations can help the process along in a few cases.

    Some mentioned mechanisms are:
    Phenotypic accommodation, “…the immediate adaptive adjustment of the phenotype to the production of a novel trait or trait combinations.” The Baldwin effect, “…the idea that phenotypic accommodations to variable or extreme conditions can affect the direction of genetic evolution…”. Genetic assimilation, “…a process by which a phenotypic character, which initially is produced only in response to some environmental influence, becomes, through a process of selection, taken over by the genotype…”. Canalization, “…an evolved reduction in developmental flexibility that renders the development of an adaptive phenotype resistant to environmental and genetic (e.g., mutational) perturbations…”. ( http://scienceblogs.com/pharyngula/2006/08/symmetry_breaking_and_genetic.php )

    The key case that is mentioned in the link is symmetry breaking. Equal frequencies of handedness (for example coiling in snail shells) can be selected to a preferred antisymmetry for some contingent reason, which later becomes fixated to a tight genetic control by genetic assimilation.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/sean/ Sean

    Scott (12): Hume might not have been serious about his weaseling, I haven’t tried to delve into it all that closely. But why weasel at all? Halfway through the book the reader is pretty embarassed that they ever took the argument from design seriously.

    Amara: Much better to email quickly if a comment doesn’t appear, so that we can save it before it disappears forever.

  • Dave

    Some thoughts of mine, which expand on what Alejandro (#3) and others have said. Some of this is my own speculation, so feel free to help improve my understanding if you have something to add.

    The way I understand evolution, for individual members of the species I tend to think more, “Survival of the Able” rather than “of the fittest.” Individuals with advantages will still perish, and individuals with disadvantages may still thrive. (I also think community/altruistic behaviour makes more sense with this subtle word change, but that might just be me.) When looking at a group, however, the one-liner becomes “Dominance of the Fittest,” as long-term odds play out over the course of generations to produce a sort of equilibrium of different traits.

    For my own mental model, this helps explain diversity in species. I find the word ‘fittest’ throws up a mental block for most people, and makes us try to find some sort of elite upper-end to a fitness scale – and makes us want to compare species as ‘fit’ vs ‘unfit’ as though they were engaged in a hockey match.

    A new mutation doesn’t have to spread through an entire population right away – it may even be recessive, so that the original carrier would show no signs that it carried some new possibility. For recessive traits, as long as the individual is able to survive and reproduce, the offspring of the individual have a chance of being carriers for this new possibility, too. After a few generations, two carriers may come together and produce offspring with the new trait. If the new trait is detrimental, then most individuals with the trait will either perish or be unable to reproduce, limiting the trait to the offspring of two carriers of the recessive trait. If the trait is wildly successful, individuals with the trait will, over time, become the majority. If a trait provides only a minor advantage or disadvantage, the trait will neither die out nor rise to dominance.

    This also lets me imagine multiple combinations of mutations and other traits coming together, which may work together (perhaps in unexpected ways) to create something new – the two “half-a-wheel” parts may eventually come together to form a “whole,” and we may even be able to jump over a less-than-optimal middle stage if the right pieces come together at the right time. If all the pieces exist, then it’s just a waiting game until all the odds come together in some generation. Once it’s happened once, the combined trait can spread the same way as an individual mutation might, and may eventually come to be a dominant species trait. If the odds fall favourably multiple times in the same generation, then the spreading of the combo trait may be even faster than the propagation of the original components.

  • Low Math, Meekly Interacting

    Some minor quibbles were addressed above. Also, let’s not forget genetic drift. Sometimes innocuous, or even “useful” mutations get lost in the statistical cuisinart that is reproduction. Just because you can fill in all those Punnett sqares doesn’t mean nature will, nor will it respect with great fidelity the comforting probabilities of unnuanced Darwinian crosses.

    I’m can’t object to “our minds are subtle machines with virtual processors distributed holographically and interacting nonlocally throughout the brain” until I can figure quite what that means. I’m guessing, despite appearances, that this isn’t a reference to quantum minds or so-called holonomic models, which aren’t at all uncontroversial.

  • http://www.amara.com/ Amara

    Dear Sean: In fact I did email Mark quickly. Then I went to sleep. Then I went to work, and at the day, I decided to give the issue a final try. Third time’s a charm!

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/sean/ Sean

    Excellent, I’m happy to blame Mark.

  • Adam

    Great post as usual,

    As an anthropologist and an amateur theologian, I find the entire evolution/intelligent design debate tiresome.

    The essential problem is that even if the universe was intelligently designed, unintelligently or otherwise, there would never be a way that science could accept such an assertion because it cannot be tested. The reality is that to test whether our universe was designed is to compare it to another universe that we already knew wasn’t designed! Good luck on that!

    The notion of faith and belief in the transcendant has always been a description of an essentially human reality experienced in the hearts and minds of human beings. It is refelctive of the natural order, but is not necessarily dependent on empirical evidence.

    What hardcore intelligent design advocates need to determine for themselves is if their faith would be as strong if they could witness for themselves that intelligent design was not true. If one returned to the dawn of time and witnessed the universe come into being, an God was not empirically evident, if there were not six days of creation, would one cease to believe in God? Should our belief in God be so fragile? What would happen if instead of looking at the universe and placing our ideas of God on it, we allowed the universe to shape the way we understand God?

    I think a much more interesting question to ask is: In what way has the communication of science failed in remaining relevant to people of faith? Why do some scientists continue to delight in the arrogant notion that science could somehow disprove the existance of God?

    Empiricism cannot disprove the existance of God anymore than it can disprove the existance of love or beauty. These are the realm of subjective experience and as diverse as there are human minds.

    Science and religion both need to be honest and humble about their limits and what they essentially can and cannot address.

  • http://evolutionarydesign.blogspot.com/ island

    Count Iblis asked:
    A gas cloud consisting of hydrogen and helium can give rise to cars and computers all by itself if you wait long enough…

    It can? Are you talking about a static gas cloud?… or a dynamic, expanding, cooling, gas cloud, which requires a structure principle that can’t be derived by any natural model that doesn’t include an anthropic constraint that requires that cars and computers will only arise… now…?

    Design is typically associated with the intent and forethought that pre-exists behind the design, but any imbalance will exhibit this characteristic as a dominating tendency to reconcille the inequity, e.g., “Necessity is the mother of invention”.

    The fourth option is an imbalance that requires far from equilibrium dissipative structures, like us.

    Some scientists adhere to this notion at a local level, Jame Kay, Eric Schneider, Dorion Sagan, and Scott Sampson.

  • Charly

    I agree with Sean.

    “I didn’t like your post, write something I like” is starting to become a trend on the comments made by a couple of visitors.

    Seriously, grow up and stop whining.

    On a separate note, if I remember correctly, it was Richard Dawkings who made extensive remarks on the usefulness of “half-traits”, giving special emphasis on the half-eye analogy. Perhaps the comment on “what bad is half a wheel” is right on the money – useless traits might be carried over until they develop into useful ones.

  • Ian B Gibson

    In what way has the communication of science failed in remaining relevant to people of faith?

    By only addressing the real world.

    Why do some scientists continue to delight in the arrogant notion that science could somehow disprove the existance [sic] of God?

    I don’t know. Who are these scientists of which you speak?

  • George

    So you content the wheel is irreducibly complex? Is this because you cannot image the use of only the parts of a wheel? Have you joined the Behe camp? For example, the spokes might provide excellent barbeque skewers with only slight modification. The rim would do a fine job of holding a skirt bottom out properly. The axle assembly would be a fine lint remover with only the addition of inverse masking tape….

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/sean/ Sean

    No, I did not contend that wheels are irreducibly complex. Just that it would be harder to evolve them than to evolve legs. From which I make the prediction that organisms evolved by natural selection are more likely to have legs than to have wheels. And I’m right!

    Just like Ed Witten can predict gravity, I can predict the existence of legs.

  • aquariid

    On Hume prefiguring Darwin- Not long ago I was reading Washington Irving’s “History of New York” and suffered a moment of cognitive dissonance. He’s recounting various creation stories and theories and mockingly refers to Darwin’s suggestion that humans descended from monkeys. Wait a second! Wasn’t this published in 1809? I double checked the date. Then I vaguely recalled something about Charles Darwin’s father, or grandfather being a naturalist. Irving must of meant the elder. I will not entertain temporal anomalies.

    On efficiency of design- I was helping a building contractor and he told me to quit wasting my time trying to use scraps and just get the G. Damn job done. He was right. The little I would have saved would not make up for the time expended. God works in mysterious ways, by design, of course.

  • http://tyrannogenius.blogspot.com Neil B.

    Adam #32:

    The essential problem is that even if the universe was intelligently designed, unintelligently or otherwise, there would never be a way that science could accept such an assertion because it cannot be tested. The reality is that to test whether our universe was designed is to compare it to another universe that we already knew wasn’t designed! Good luck on that!

    Your comment is thought-provoking, but not highly convincing to me. Why are you so sure that a question like that must be answered by comparing a designed universe to one which isn’t? Why do so many think the world is lawful (obviously!) , or “fundamentally simple”, or parsimonious, or mathematically “beautiful,” etc., without other universes to compare to, lacking those properties? Even if we did need to, or maybe the reason we don’t is: Why must the comparison be to a “real universe” instead of a conceptual model? (And, “Don’t even get me started” on issue of modal realism: what does “real” universe versus model universe really mean – but I actually like to talk, or perhaps annoy is a better term, about it….) We can indeed do such investigations, and we find just the sort of impressive anthropic fine tuning issues that you consider untestable. That isn’t a direct proof, but should we need directness to justify a preference? Still, I appreciate that we don’t really know, as you expound, and I wish some skeptics were so humble.

  • Paul Valletta

    SPANNER IN WORKS.

    If artificial intelligence has any creedence with evolution, then if I dismantle my PC componants, place them all randomly into a cardboard box and leave it for about say 5 million years, I would expect it would evolve into some kind of “self-aware” machine?

    Any form of artificial intelligent designed devise, that can “self-repair” using basic random-modification process, should by all acounts, be able to deviate from it’s rigid mathematical formalisms to achieve specific intentional “glitch” improvements!

    This is my “strong_arm” mechanical logic, against evolution spandrels?

    Obvious the first step to mechanical re-assemble, is to create a devise that can hold some sort of Spanner for self-repair to begin!

  • http://evolutionarydesign.blogspot.com/ island

    From which I make the prediction that organisms evolved by natural selection are more likely to have legs than to have wheels.

    That’s what happens when you put an engineer on a fixed budget… ;)

  • http://www.heavenonearth.com God

    Dear Jeremy,

    I made the universe once. It is your prophets and your scientists that keep changing the explanation.

    Maybe one day you will understand that being more intelligent does not make you more ethical. Humanity’s (and its successors) intelligence will increase as your ability to make and stick with difficult ethical choices increases. If you don’t blow yourselves up or smother yourself to death, you have a great future in this self-designing universe.

    But this universe is rather merciless with fools.

    -God

    PS: My writing here does not make Mark, Sean, John, JoAnne, Daniel etc. into Prophets.

  • http://musecumulus.blogspot.com musecumulus

    I wrote a post on my (slightly pathetic) blog about Hume and intelligent design awhile back…it’s good to know other people out there read this stuff too. I know hardly anything about philosophy but read Dialouges Concerning Natural Religion in an intro level class last semester and really enjoyed it (my favorite part is the argument that the world might as well be a giant vegetable…), and, in general, learning about the philosophy of that period has forced me to do a lot of thinking about what it means to do science. Looking back on the post I wrote, I guess I went a little over the top on the ranting about the awesomeness of science part, but oh well.

  • Cynthia

    Alan Walker, Professor of Biological Anthropology, Penn State University, sums up stupid design quite well. “External testes, and that’s called intelligent design!” “To have the gonads, the stuff that carries the genetic message from one generation to the next in a little bag between our legs is intelligent design?”

  • http://fommil.me.uk Sam

    It is probably a bad idea to reply at this point, as we are fast approaching the Godwin Constant… but I was the first person to bring up the lack of physics posts in this blog so I feel obliged to state that I’m not whinging, I’m just asking a question about the direction of this blog…

    I agree that this blog has never been solely about physics and the off-topic posts have in the past been entertaining, but the reason why I subscribed to this blog is because I wanted to keep up to date on HEP. I learnt GR from Sean’s notes and that made it a no-brainer to subscribe. Now, I’m not saying the random postings should go away, but these days it seems the physics posts are few and far between and the random posts no longer interest me as they are mostly about US politics.

    All I want to know is: should I expect more US politics in the coming months? (And yes, the evolutionary debate is US Politics). Given the build up to your presidential elections etc, I’m guessing physics is not going to be on the agenda much (unless it’s physics funding policies). That’s fine… I’ll just come back when you have a new president who hopefully isn’t as mad as a box of frogs.

    In the meantime, is anybody aware of any other regular, high quality HEP/cosmology blogs? Preferably EU/CERN based.

  • http://www.mpe.mpg.de/~erwin/ Peter Erwin

    Neil B. at # 17:

    Most, if not all, of your objections to evolution are the result of your limited knowledge about biology and how evolution works, not of any problems with evolution itself.

    I mean, I can imagine mutations occurring here and there in some reptiles which would eventually drive development of feathers from scales. But how do the carriers of the occasional good mutations – and that must include the related features like hollow bones which go with that for effect – “get together” enough to concentrate that into what can turn into a new, demarcated species with nicely developed features, and not loaded with flaws and grading into similar kinds?

    But “grading into similar kinds” is precisely how evolution works. New species emerge gradually and (almost) imperceptibly via very small changes. Daniel Dennett’s book Darwin’s Dangerous Idea has a very good discussion of this point, including how new species can generally only be identified after they’ve diverged from the parent species.

    As for the evolution of birds, it’s not a case of “you need feathers *and* wings *and* hollow bones all at once,” as you seem to think. If you want a more realistic scenario: some dinosaur scales become feathers *first* (and we have fossils of feathered dinosaurs which are clearly not fliers), probably because feathers insulate better than scales. Actual flight characteristics (like hollow bones) emerge later among those feathered dinosaurs that began to take up an arboreal existence (perhaps jumping from limb to limb to begin with).

    (Mutations should be partial in effect, or does a bird emerge from a reptile’s egg, as some extravagant followers of punctuated equilibrium have put it?) Also, mutations are usually presented in terms of ACTG groups changing within a given DNA chain, but how does DNA evolve longitudinally, as strands get longer?

    You’re confusing punctuated equilibrium with the “hopeful monsters” idea. Punctuated equilibrium argues for periods of very rapid change (but still incremental and taking place over tens of thousands of years) separated by periods of near-stasis.

    “Mutations” encompass a whole set of changes in DNA, on all scales, not just the “point mutations” you refer to. Sections of DNA can be accidentally duplicated, deleted, or shuffled into different sections of the genome. Entire chromosomes can be duplicated. There are plant species which have emerged as a result of the entire genome being accidentally duplicated (“polyploidy”). See the Wikipedia article on mutations.

    Finally, since we can’t (?) really do a full-scale modeling to test the mutation-selection theory, now where are the philosophical purists who say that is a requirement for validity? How much of evolutionary theory is really testable in the hard sense? It just isn’t like physics, get over it.

    (Sigh.) Lots of it is testable. Lots of it has been tested, both in computers and in laboratories. There’s a group at Michigan State University that does both (see this
    article
    , for example, or this article about research at Yale) Now, it is true that evolutionary biology isn’t like physics in some respects. Neither are geology, astronomy, cosmology, and a whole host of other sciences.

  • Michael B

    “The point being that the world around us isn’t anything close to being efficiently designed.”

    “Those kinds of non-adaptations and accidents and anachronistic features are found all over the place in real organisms. Any intelligent designer with a shred of self-respect would be embarrassed to exhibit such shoddy workmanship.”

    I am the last person in the world to try to advocate for intelligent design, but as a biologist I take issue with the two statements above that Sean writes. Sure, there are lots of examples in biology of silly, vestigial remnants (appendix, uvula) or hyper-evovled traits (ridiculous mating rituals, obscene plumage) that seem to hardly be “intelligent,” if we imagine the divine designer to be human-like in his appreciation of efficient design.

    But when you focus the lens a bit and take a slightly closer look at biology, on the level of a cell and a fertilized egg, it is impossible to really think about what is happening and not be completely in awe of the complexity and beauty of how life sustains itself. Research comes out every week that shows that our puny human imaginations are no match for the inventiveness of nature and the robust program that is genetics and life. I happen to study development, and a research interest in my lab happens to be how cells in an organism know where they are and develop appropriately, and then maintain that identity throughout life. This fundamental attribute of life, the rentention of the morphology of an entire organism, is rarely messed up except in rare congenital conditions, yet it isn’t something we think much about in our daily life. But isn’t it remarkable to think that if you injure your pinky, the tissue that grows back knows that it’s part of your pinky, and not your thumb or your little toe. How do individual cells figure this out? We’re only just beginning to understand it, but I think it’s an amazing feat of ingenuity to have such a robust system.

    Sean, I would say that occassionally when I learn about certain facts in biology, like the inevitability of neurodegeneration in the elderly, I think to myself: why does that have to be? That seems sloppy. But then when I stop to consider everything else that I accept as fact in biology, the fact that genomes can stay 99% constant over hundreds of thousands of years, that every multicellular organism in the world can arise froma single cell which knows exactly how to become a copy of it’s parents, I think that an intelligent designer would be proud. The “accidents” and “anachronistic features” are tiny, tiny blips in the huge universe of ingenious, remarkable solutions that the cell has figured out over millions of years. I believe strongly in evolution, but my faith in the beauty of life and G-d is preserved when I work in science.

    -Michael

  • http://evolutionarydesign.blogspot.com/ island

    WOW!… a biologist who isn’t trying to downplay the significance of evidence simply because they believe that creationists will abuse it. On the surface at least, it is as impressive as it is refreshing to find somebody that isn’t in auto-denial mode before the gate even opens.

    Michael B., to ask a dumb question, are you familiar with the work of Dr. Lynn Margulis?

  • http://evolutionarydesign.blogspot.com/ island

    …but my faith in the beauty of life and G-d is preserved when I work in science.

    oops… nevermind.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/mark/ Mark

    Sam – none of us has any idea about the direction of the blog. It isn’t something we plan out. Each of us posts independently when we feel like it about whatever we feel like.

    So, you can try using tags, the RSS feed, or any of the other things we’ve advised, but that’s the best we can do.

  • http://tyrannogenius.blogspot.com Neil B.

    Peter -

    Thanks for at least getting started on approaching my questions. Sure, I don’t know a lot about the subject, and was serving as gadfly man-in-the-street stimulator. Your answers are somewhat helpful, but you still didn’t really give me an adequate scoop on the issue of “how do the carriers of the important genes find each other”, versus all sorts of odds and ends of similar things happening and making more of a mess meanwhile. In brass tacks: a mutation helpful to feather formation happens in a reptile somewhere, then maybe another one far away thousands (?) of years later, etc – meanwhile, that reptile breeds and perhaps passes around the helpful gene. But somehow it seems to me that the creatures which are getting that way need to “get together” in some sense, to really make a distinct new group, more convincing than just some birds on an island that undergo minor changes. What principles of attraction would co-evolve, and how, to encourage that? A feathery reptile is more turned on by another feathery reptile? Seriously – who has done work on that particular issue?

    When I said graded into each other, I meant more the speciated demarcations at a given time rather than change over time (i.e., why isn’t life more messily graded from one type to another at any given time, like color shades.) But since you mention gradation in time, the punctuated equilibrium idea puts more pressure on the need for all the right factors to literally come together within a relatively short time. Yes, I have heard of the changing of whole genes etc, which to me is part of the higher-lever anthropic fine-tuning of atoms and chemistry principles. Well, does that explain the “longitudinal evolution” of DNA that I asked about?

    As for simulation, yes, it has been done in a general sense, but is that the same as simulating all the actual atoms and their properties to see how likely various molecules are likely to get together etc. or what “synchronicities” may or may not be involved? It doesn’t explain the origin of life from the molecular soup either, which is a good indicator to me of what can be called high-level anthropic tuning. PS – I suspect that because biology is “softer” than physics, that ironically makes practitioners defensive in reaction. Are they then less willing to admit that things in their field are unsettled, the way that astronomers freely admit that dark matter and dark energy are weird and ill understood?

    Michael B. appreciates the marvel of how all this works very well, and I encourage him to explore anthropic concepts further. (Complaints about why Someone would hand-craft this or that particular are silly straw-God diversions anyway. Just about all of us posting here believe in the conventional history of the universe and life, and its apparently independent activity. Some of us are just looking for better answers about why it works the way it does, which is not the same issue.)

  • http://countiblis.blogspot.com Count Iblis

    #33 Island,

    I was considering the fourth option you mentioned. The gas cloud out of which our solar system formed gave rise to cars and computers all by itself…

  • http://countiblis.blogspot.com Count Iblis
  • http://evolutionarydesign.blogspot.com/ island

    Hi, Count Iblis,

    I was considering the fourth option you mentioned. The gas cloud out of which our solar system formed gave rise to cars and computers all by itself…

    I think that you would have to ignore the continuity of solar, galactic, and intergalactic habitable zones in order to conclude that there can be that kind of independence.

    Planets with “cars”, and “computers” are expected to arise numerously within a very restricted “layer” or “zone” of the observed universe, for the very same evolutionary reasons, so your logic doesn’t follow that I can see.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Habitable_zone

    http://www.daviddarling.info/images/galactic_habitable_zone.jpg

    So there should be a lot of similarly developed dissipative structures, like us.

  • Michael B

    To island, #49 -

    I think your dismissive comment simply because you read a short statement of some kind of faith on my part is quite haughty – my spirituality does not exclude science, or even really influence it. My point is that when people counter creationists by pooh-poohing the complexity of life and showing “stupid” things, it really misses the point. Evolution can explain every observation that I’m aware of in biology, there’s no question there. But that doesn’t rob life of it’s mystery and complexity. Whatever role anyone may imagine for a divine being in any of this, I think life is something to marvel at. That’s really all I wanted to say.

  • http://evolutionarydesign.blogspot.com/ island

    Hi Michael,

    I think that you’re right, but I commonly run into two problems with biologists and physicists who also believe in a god:

    1) They are often under extreme peer pressure to conform to the groupthink of their field, so with just as much extremity, they stick strictly to the consensus of the “cutting-edge”… they don’t even dare be conservative. This obviously can’t be you.

    2) Or they find god in the logic that they recognize through science, and so they will essentially deny, or be “unimpressed” by implications that might run contrary to this.

    I guess it’s just a matter of how abstract that old testiment god is, in the latter case, eh?… ;)

  • Jason D

    I think that just because everything CAN be explianed by evolution doesn’t really necessarily mean that it DOES explain all that we see in life. We could say that life was created by alien lifeforms that are using Earth as a test case. They had many lifeforms that didn’t work in the past, and many that did work well. And that is why there is a fossil record. Just because I say it and I can twist it to explain everything, doesn’t make it true.

    “Pluralitas non est ponenda sine neccesitate” the simplest explaination is usually the most correct, or Occams Razor seems appropriate to me here. Evolution just creates far to many questions, far to few answers, and in many many cases is just science trying to prove itself.

    Questions like the ones being studied right now by Michael
    B, or questions like what evolved first, the eye or the optic nerve, or my stomach, or it’s ability to utilize the enzymes, and acids to digest food. Or even something as relatively simple as actin-myosin interactions with Ca+, ATP, Acetylcholine & ase and H20 to contract and relax muscles. Or neuro chemistry if you really want to blow your mind…

    There are so many amazing features to life that although they may seem simple when you look from the outside, the complexity of it all when you really know even the most basic physiology is truly truly amazing. Mother
    Nature couldn’t have gotten it right SO MANY TIMES without there being at least some species that just make you scratch you head and say “what in the world is THAT?” I mean can you imagine the evolution of a BAT? I mean how would a species with elongated fingers, that haven’t yet formed a membrane in between them to enable flight survive? Can you see it flopping around waiting to become a treat to whatever creature should want it? Then to suppose that it was successful enough to pass on it’s genetics with another crazy long fingered weasle is absurd. Yet evolution supposes many of these transitions.

    Science is in conflict with itself with evolution. It breaks the law of entropy for one. It uses itself to test itself. It seeks to prove rather than disprove. It bases theory upon other theories upon yet more theories, and the whole foundation is a house of cards. The most basic questions, from the beginning haven’t been answered at all. Science still can’t answer how molecules can by chance combine to amino acids, have enough of them be left handed AA’s (necessary to all life), and then have all the left handed AA’s combine to form a membrane (science HAS been able to replicate this part) and then to have it form simple cell structures, and then have the cell spontaneously begin cytolosis, then have it metabolize from it’s environment, then have it reproduce something. Yet this had to happen over and over and over again, at the same time just to get a few cells. This is the foundation of evolution, the base of it all and it just didn’t happen.

    So if you’re one of the many that has come to the conclusion that evolution is a farse, then what is true? Michael B admits faith in a creator. If there was a creator, wouldn’t he contact us? And if he did, would he lie to us?

  • Low Math, Meekly Interacting

    Dr. Carroll,

    I have my faults, like the hubris it may require to disagree with one of your intellect on occasion, but I deepy appreciate the hard work you put into science outreach, and the generally outstanding quality of the information you disseminate. My carreer is as a bio. researcher (just gave a talk in Seattle this month…I love it), and it’s really quite gratifying to see physicists show an interest in the field, as well as to see them taking the time to defend it from magical thinking.

    But, reading some of the comments above, I have to wonder if it’s any use. The refractory nature of some minds never ceases to astonish, and discourage, no matter how many times I encounter the phenomenon. Oh well. Thanks for trying, anyway.

  • http://evolutionarydesign.blogspot.com/ island

    I have to wonder if it’s any use.

    I don’t know about Sean, but no, it is absolutely no use whatsoever, except to validate this fact, as well as the ideologically motivated delusions of either side of the debate. Course, that’s not what you wanted to hear, and it’s easy to deny that science isn’t being forsaken by both sides of the debate, but I constantly prove otherwise.

    The extremely sad fact of the matter is that people, in general, are ideolgically warped, and they do not change.

    If there is one truth in this universe that requires both sides to set aside their ideological belief systems in order to recognize, then it might as well not even exist!

    You can write that in stone.

    Like ole’ Sam Clemens wisely noted…

    The rule is perfect. Both sides know that in matters of opinion, (like the interpretation of evidence), the other is insane.

    He was as correct about that as a person can be.

    Okay, I return you’s to fantaslyland…

  • Low Math, Meekly Interacting

    “…it’s easy to deny that science isn’t being forsaken by both sides of the debate, but I constantly prove otherwise.

    The extremely sad fact of the matter is that people, in general, are ideolgically warped, and they do not change.”

    Except for you, I suppose I’m meant to understand. No “matter of opinion” there, of course. Gotcha.

  • http://evolutionarydesign.blogspot.com/ island

    Except for you, I suppose I’m meant to understand.

    No, I have a very strong opinion… that isn’t distorted by unscientific prejudice.

    “Gotcha”

  • http://www.mpe.mpg.de/~erwin/ Peter Erwin

    Neil B. (#51):
    Your answers are somewhat helpful, but you still didn’t really give me an adequate scoop on the issue of “how do the carriers of the important genes find each other”, versus all sorts of odds and ends of similar things happening and making more of a mess meanwhile. In brass tacks: a mutation helpful to feather formation happens in a reptile somewhere, then maybe another one far away thousands (?) of years later, etc – meanwhile, that reptile breeds and perhaps passes around the helpful gene. But somehow it seems to me that the creatures which are getting that way need to “get together” in some sense, to really make a distinct new group, more convincing than just some birds on an island that undergo minor changes. What principles of attraction would co-evolve, and how, to encourage that? A feathery reptile is more turned on by another feathery reptile? Seriously – who has done work on that particular issue?

    You’re misunderstanding how evolution works. All it takes is one beneficial mutation in one creature. If the mutation really is beneficial, then that creature will tend to have more offspring than its fellows, and those offspring will have more offspring of their own than their contemporaries, etc., until — hundreds or thousands of generations later, probably — the last organisms without that mutation die out and all living members of that species are descendants of that initial mutant. At which point, it’s a generic feature of that species. (How fast this happens — how fast the mutant version of the gene “spreads” through the population — depends on how beneficial it is. If it just gives you a slight advantage, then it’s a slow process; if it helps you survive a widespread disease or poison, then it will spread faster.)

    So it’s more like: some dinosaur had a mutation that made its scales slightly featherlike and better at keeping it warm, so it could survive cold weather better, lived longer, and had more offspring. Eventually, its descendants ended up dominating the population. At some point, there was another mutation which happened to make the scales slightly better insulators (a little longer? a little more feathery?), and eventually its descendants dominated the population. And so on, for millions of years.

    (And of course there were bad mutations, which made things worse, but their carriers tended to die out.)

    I believe the mathematical basics of this process were worked out in the first few decades of the 20th Century, as part of what’s called “population genetics.” And it’s been observed, in detail, in experimental studies of bacterial evolution. (As well as things like the spread of pesticide or antibiotic resistant in historical times, of course.)

  • http://www.mpe.mpg.de/~erwin/ Peter Erwin

    Neil B. (#51):

    When I said graded into each other, I meant more the speciated demarcations at a given time rather than change over time (i.e., why isn’t life more messily graded from one type to another at any given time, like color shades.)

    Have you heard of ring species?

    People who study individual organisms recognize that there are gradients within populations of a single “species”; these are sometimes called “subspecies” and sometimes just “populations.” And careful study also shows that what to the casual eye might seem a single species turns out to be two or more closely related species — see the discussion of scrub jays, for example.

    Once two species become unable to breed with each other (“reproductively isolated”), they will tend to drift apart. New mutations will appear in one species, but be unable to spread to the other, because the two groups of organisms are no longer one big breeding population.

    Yes, I have heard of the changing of whole genes etc, which to me is part of the higher-lever anthropic fine-tuning of atoms and chemistry principles. Well, does that explain the “longitudinal evolution” of DNA that I asked about?

    Sure, if by “longitudinal evolution” you meant DNA growing (or shrinking) in length. Go read the Wikipedia “Mutations” article, and you’ll see that some of the mutations end up duplicating stretches of DNA (or deleting stretches).

    PS – I suspect that because biology is “softer” than physics, that ironically makes practitioners defensive in reaction. Are they then less willing to admit that things in their field are unsettled, the way that astronomers freely admit that dark matter and dark energy are weird and ill understood?

    My impression is that biologists are happy to admit that things on the cutting edge are weird and ill understood (e.g., What’s going on with “junk DNA” — is it really all non-functional? How did the first eukaryotic cells arise and become differentiated from bacteria? Are there limits to how fast or slow evolution can work in practice? etc.). But just as astronomers don’t feel there’s anything “unsettled” about whether the Earth goes around the Sun or vice-versa, or whether there really was a Big Bang of some sort, biologists don’t feel there’s anything unsettled about the basic fact of evolution.

  • Low Math, Meekly Interacting

    One of the frustrating realities of biology, which seems to plague the study of all complex systems, is that elegant and/or accurate mathematical models, the very stuff physics is most famous for, are of essentially no help for understanding anything remotely close to the complete system. Maybe some of us are defensive about a lack of math, or have physics envy, but unfortuately the skillset of a Fields Medalist would probably be largely wasted on problems like accurately parsing promotor regulatory sequences, or the above-mentioned putative functions of “junk” DNA. It’s all really kind of a big and rather chaotic mess, and I don’t think equations will make life much easier. Not until, at least, we’ve got monster computers that could, say, adequately model the intra- and inter-molecular interactions of a large number of molecules that are themselves enormously complex. Even then, we’ve probably already got the first principles from chemistry and classical physics, and if anything you’ve got to mercilessly simplify those or else even the most biochemically trivial of modeling tasks bring supercomputers to their knees. Same goes for population dynamics and realistic ecosystem modeling. Same goes for mind. It’s just too damn expansive for math.

    This is not to say the physicist’s skillset couldn’t and doesn’t contribute enormously to many problems in biology and biochemistry. Protein folding, the fundamentals of enzymology, the inner workings of molecular motors and ion channels, ever more realistic models of nucleotide interactions, the means to organize and efficiently access the staggering amount of sequence data now available, many basic aspects of electrophysiology, new and better imaging technologies, the list goes on and on. Actually, folks like me have been utterly dependent on folks with the physics skillset just to do the experments we already do (I sure as Hell couldn’t design a flow cytometer, and would probably find even constructing a simple inverted microscope a career-busting challenge). Envious sometimes? Maybe. Defensive about it? Not really. Deeply grateful is more like it. There’s plenty of work to go around, and division of labor according to facility has always worked before. I do my job, and it makes me happy. What more could I really ask for?

  • http://tyrannogenius.blogspot.com Neil B.

    Peter, your answers go a long way. However, the result of the processes you are talking about seem like they’d look more like traditional gradualist evolutionary perspectives than the punctuated reality that is supposedly found in the fossil record. I still don’t appreciate why there isn’t more extra junk and sloppiness that should leave it’s mark (visibly) and more intermediary states than we see – your little examples aside – but it isn’t necessarily the case that the best answer can be summarized the way most physical principles can be. Indeed, do we have a right to expect that nature has to be really comprehensible in all manifestations and levels of order? What if it isn’t?

  • Nick K.

    As far as I remember computer theory, the “kind” of the computer can only influence the efficiency of performing a task, so stating this as a reason for the lack of success is avoiding the issue. If the brain is a state machine then writing software that imitates it in every way is possible. Period. One inevitable follows from the other. It is just a question of defining that which we wish to imitate, which, of course, is in the case of intelligence, is the hard part. The point being that it is the arguments against the brain being a state machine, that most often remind me of arguments for intelligent design.

  • assman

    “When I said graded into each other, I meant more the speciated demarcations at a given time rather than change over time (i.e., why isn’t life more messily graded from one type to another at any given time, like color shades.) But since you mention gradation in time, the punctuated equilibrium idea puts more pressure on the need for all the right factors to literally come together within a relatively short time. Yes, I have heard of the changing of whole genes etc, which to me is part of the higher-lever anthropic fine-tuning of atoms and chemistry principles. Well, does that explain the “longitudinal evolution” of DNA that I asked about?”

    A lot of the “coming together” just happens through sexual reproduction. Also I think a lot of times we tend to have the wrong picture of evolution. We tend to have a mental picture of discrete mutations causing new things like feathers or eyes. But a lot of evolution is not about creating new things, its about taking old things and making very simple changes like increasing/decreasing size, changing number, rearranging things by making some developmental process happen earlier/later, faster/slower. An incredible amount of variation can just be accomplished by using these type of changes which doesn’t necessarily involve the creation of whole new genes but just very small tweaks to already existing genes which cause the genes to express themselves more strongly/weakly, duplicate gene sequences or alter timing.

    In fact I would bet that most of our genes probably come from very early ancestors and all evolution has done is tweak this genes very very slightly to lengthen something here, shorten something there, increasing the number of something etc in order to create us.

    This isn’t really that different that human technologies. For instance the latest Intel microprocessor is basically the same technology as the 8086. All intel has done is reduce size, lower voltages, enlarge buses, duplicate various functional blocks. There are some genuinely new ideas but a lot of the design is just small variations on old ideas.

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Cosmic Variance

Random samplings from a universe of ideas.

About Sean Carroll

Sean Carroll is a Senior Research Associate in the Department of Physics at the California Institute of Technology. His research interests include theoretical aspects of cosmology, field theory, and gravitation. His most recent book is The Particle at the End of the Universe, about the Large Hadron Collider and the search for the Higgs boson. Here are some of his favorite blog posts, home page, and email: carroll [at] cosmicvariance.com .

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