Tuesday, August 15, 2006


I have tons of essays in the wings. Most are unfinished, and the rest would get me lynched. Even more than this one might.

This is an essay on evolution. Most of my readers are probably up to snuff on the process, but I am continually surprised by the number of otherwise intelligent people who seem to think evolution is "science religion" or flat-out "bunk".

The process of evolution (and I say "process" rather than "theory" because people aren't very bright sometimes) is simple: any group of things that replicate will tend to be dominated by the things that replicate most.

That's all it is, people. If you have a garden, and you don't weed it, then the garden will be dominated by weeds. Why? Because the weeds replicate more than the rest of the plants. They reproduce faster, in greater numbers, and survive better (so they can reproduce again in a week or two).

Normally, when we talk about the process of evolution, we apply it to species. A species adapts over time because some members of the species reproduce more than others, and the genetic characteristics of those members become more and more common until they are the norm.

However, the theory can be applied to literally any group of reproducers. As examples: art, books, creationists, derringers, evangelists, features (in software or elsewhere), glassblowing, honor, ignorance, jackets, killings, labels, mold, nations, and so on and so forth.

"Mutation" can have a role, but probably less than you think. Usually, simply the variations between the members of the group are enough.

Evolution is as much an unarguable part of reality as gravity and stupidity. Things which reproduce better become more common.

Please notice, this has no value judgements, no mysticism, no guesses. This is not a morality, a religion, or a hypothesis. It is simply the way things are.

Reproducing better doesn't make something "better" - a shrew reproduces very well, but it isn't getting a lot of spaceflight done. It is not really "superior" to "older models" such as cockroaches - it is more complex, but complexity has nothing to do with evolution, except if it helps reproducers reproduce.

There is no encouragement to "just take it on faith". Evolution can and should be carefully studied. You learn a lot that way. And you learn that evolution is not a guess, or a hodgepodge. Unlike virtually everything outside of science, scientific theories (including evolution) get stronger the more they are questioned, rather than weaker.

There is no mention of how life started. We can guess: if a molecule hooked together in such a way that it chemically replicated itself, then it becomes a replicator and therefore subject to the process of evolution. The chances of this happening are low, but the timespan is extremely long: a 0.000001% chance becomes a certainty if tried ten quadrillion times.

But that isn't part of the fundamental theory of evolution. It's what I think is most likely, and many-to-most scientists agree with me. But it isn't part of the fundamental theory of evolution.

What is part of the fundamental theory of evolution is:

Creationists using school boards to peddle their poisons
Diseases becoming immune to medicines
Eugenics (both the theory AND the the way the theory is treated)
Indians (and how they live)
Jerks (type and number)
Killers (methods and opportunities)

So on and so forth forever and ever.

There is literally no evidence against evolution. There is some missing evidence for certain very specific applications of evolution - missing not because the application is wrong, but because we can't see back in time. 1 ? 3 ? 5 6 7 8 9 10: the question marks aren't "proof" that the sequence isn't simply consecutive numbers. They're simply missing evidence.

All the evidence - and more comes in every week on every subject - is 100% agreed with the basic tenets of evolution.

Simply put: disbelieving evolution is about as intelligent as disbelieving gravity.

This essay has been brought to you by the letter "argh". The alphabet, by the way, is more proof of the process of evolution. :)


Patrick Dugan said...

I think the role of self-organizing structures as catalyst to radical jumps in reproducability is under-emphasized, whearas raw selection pressures are given too much credit. At least, autopoisis, particularly in terms of games, in worth further study.

Textual Harassment said...

I think the main problem anti-evolutionists have is not being able to imagine anything "orderly" coming about through any process but the human type of intelligence*. I like to think that a species' genome itself is a form of intelligence, what with all the data that get shifted around. Most people can't stop thinking in human terms enough to consider this. You mention some "evolutionary" things that humans have a hand in. I don't think anyone will doubt that people make things and affect trends over time.

They also talk about species coming about "at random" as if there is such a thing. A living thing is a product of the pressure put on it by its environment. There's an argument that putting watch parts in a bag and shaking it will not result in a watch, but that's flawed thinking. The end result is not important; no matter what the odds for getting a platypus are, they exist, so let's study the *process*.

I'd say the problem was a lack of imagination, but believing that some big man in the sky made it all with the power of his will seems to me to be much more a leap of the imagination.

*The human brain is a perfect example of evolution. By shifting data around and reacting to its environment, your mind managed to build itself into something very complex and unique. No one will claim that their mind was simply provided for them fully-formed, and better yet, we can see this process take place in a child over a matter of years. I think this is the best analogy I've ever heard of for evolution.

Patrick Dugan said...

Actually I pitched that "mind creates itself" thing to my dad, who is an otherwise ration guy yet absurdly religious, and he got pissed. Of course, I was throwing the "soul is just a construct" argument, so slightly different ballpark.

Craig Perko said...

Textual: you and I agree. Furthermore, I think that some human-influenced things (such as, say, art) are evolutionary independent of human direction. Their "DNA", as it is, is in the human mind, but the final product and the chance to replicate is not based on a carefully engineered "best replicator".

Sure, they CAN be directed consciously to be the best possible replicators, but the bulk of the genetic pool is created by products which are not thought of in that manner. :)

Duncan said...

Evolution, as you have very narrowly described it, I can agree with. In fact, it is undeniable. Anything that reproduces is subject to evolutionary processes (which is a broad set, anyhow).

The problem that I commonly have is that people (in general) attribute a lot more to evolution than you define. For instance, there is only very limited evidence that one species has (or can) evolved from another. Evolution, as you describe it, does not cover the diversity of life on the planet or how it achieved that diversity without leaving a trace of failed attempts. This is what is commonly misconceived as evolution - it is used as a catch-all for biological change without evidence of its application.

In limited cases, evolution applies (and is in fact useful). In uncontrolled cases, it is largely unproven, undisputed, and dangerous (in that it leads to complacent thinking and moral-relativism).

Craig Perko said...

No, in fact, you are incorrect. On all counts.

Speciation has been observed, especially among bacteria and virii. It has been caused under laboratory conditions.

It is undoubtedly dangerous in uncontrolled situations. Diseases such as AIDS and bird flu attest to the danger. They also attest to the fact that it exists, both in and outside the laboratory.

You cannot negate a fact because you don't appreciate it. The world does not work that way.

Duncan said...

Single-celled organisms is significantly different than complex multi-cellular organisms. Single cell mutations happen all the time. In multi-cellular situations they are commonly called cancer. Occasionally they are benign. Rarely are they improvements. Never have they been shown to create new anything closer related than species in the classification system (that I am aware of).

So where do we get all the other, much more significant diversity. Or even multi-celluar from single-celled?

There are large gaps to fill. Just because you see a pattern in the available data does not mean there is one. That's called speculation.

Craig Perko said...

Species drift happens - unless reintroduced artificially, there will be statistically insignificant numbers of natural blond humans being born after 2050. By dropping the geographic barriers blonds have enjoyed for hundreds of thousands of years, the "recessive traits" that make hair blond cannot compete against the more dominant brown, red, and black hair traits. First blonds drifted into existence, and now they're drifting out of existence.

If two groups of a single species are separated, they begin to diverge. You can see this in humans, clearly. If you think the different races of human are a result of god, then look at dogs. A million sub-species, all of which can be confidently tracked through hundreds or thousands of generations of breeding.

This is called a "sub-species". Humans are still one species because they were not separated enough, for long enough, to genetically diverge beyond the capability to cross-mate.

But if separated long enough, under different conditions a species will become a sub-species and then diverge entirely. An obvious example: horses and donkeys. This is generally called "reinforcement".

In full lab conditions, we have bred fully distinct species of fruit fly. It's not a particularly complex animal, but it is certainly multicellular.

The different species of monkey and ape can be clearly traced back to shared ancestors, but each group split off to inhabit a different ecology. Over time, they became fully distinct species of ape or monkey, specialized to their new home and usually not interbreedable with other species.

You've already retreated halfway from your assertion that speciation doesn't exist: you admitted it exists for single-celled organisms.

This is just more of the same. Will you retreat again, claim I'm wrong, or simply clam up?

Yes, I'm a fucking asshole. But the facts are available to anyone who bothers to do any reading or ask any scientist who has. The fact that many people haven't done so, yet continue to talk as if they were experts... There's two fucking assholes in this conversation.

Anonymous said...

Craig, I love you. And not in a hetero-life-mate kind of way. I have this persistent daydream where I show up at some boneheaded Florida or Kansas PTA meeting (I dont have a kid, and I left Orlando for NYC, but that's the great thing about dreams, eh?) and weave a masterful, eloquent, elegant argument for evolution that ecumenical and non-elitist, and thereby convinve the crowd that evolution is a cornerstone of modern science and must be taught in our school. My argument would hopefully sound a lot like yours, but probably not because I have pretty bad social anxiety. Are you going to write a book some time? Not a book about evolution, neccesarily, but a book about game design? Think "The Interactive Book" for 2007. You've certainly got the fucking discipline to write it.

Hey! my post evolved!

Craig Perko said...

You're not a successful blogger until you draw in the weird comments, I suppose.

Patrick Dugan said...

That was me. Lol, shit man, I'm just kidding, I have trouble enough just being friends with you. That guy's right that you should write a book on game design sometime.

I think Duncan's dispute can be leveled by including the self-organizing systems perspective. For instance, cancer is such a self-organizing pattern, but a relatively crude one. Its been suggested that reproductive "fitness" and autopoises have co-supportive relationship, so for instance a few gene mutations can lead to a radically more complex chain of protien production that produces a significant new quality in the organism and THEN leads to short-term reproductions that increase the odds of long term reproductions.

Hence the whone Genome Project turni ng out to not be the "Tome of Humanity" but just a pointer to a million times more difficult problems.

Duncan said...

But if separated long enough, under different conditions a species will become a sub-species and then diverge entirely. An obvious example: horses and donkeys. This is generally called "reinforcement".

You claim this as fact, where you should put this as speculation. And at that, it is poor scientific process. It would be hard, or near impossible to prove this, as donkeys and horses have been distinct species for more than 6,000 years. Well beyond recorded history or observed divergence. Scientific process asks for falsifiable statements, and not the proof of truth through evidence. It is easy to show circumstantial evidence and statistical trends to "prove" something by asking an un-falsifiable question. This is dangerous ground to tread on, and the main reason that I balk at pure evolution theory.

Will you retreat again, claim I'm wrong, or simply clam up?

Actually, I smiled and laughed. I suppose might have walked away, once upon a time. But, really, I have nothing against evolution.

My position on evolution, as clearly as I can state it (at least for now) is this: Evolution is an incomplete theory which, when coupled with proper scientific process and due diligence, is a useful tool to analyse emergent systems. Improperly used, it becomes a dangerous technology, in that it is often undisputed and unscientific. The dangers are that many things can be attributed to evolution without thought to initial cause or end result.

Evolution is, at its heart, a technology as pure as language, school, bureaucracy, or statistics. As such it requires certain constraints to maintain balance. Given free reign, many (if not all) technologies are dangerous.

For instance, there is research that shows how the complex eye could have evolved. It is a logical, and complete process. The eye is often used as a "proof" of creation, or at least guided evolution. The issue I have with this evolutionary demonstration is not the steps, or the process, for they are quite logical. It is the missing parts. The ecology that led to the changes. The intermediary steps (there are 7 or 8 major steps shown) that would determine that one mutation was better than the others. The missing evidence of mutation as an evolutionary process (for if not mutation, and random mutation at that, then how?).

Evolution becomes a tool to evaluate how something got from point A to B (in a limited sense), but not why, or where it is going. It is often attributed these factors, and that is my objection.

PS - I enjoy a good discussion, and love to argue. This is making my day, and I'm glad to be able to do this. I'm not the best debater, but I hope to improve, both through practice and through absorbing new data. I will admit that I need to read more on evolution (and a great many other things). I'm sure that I will, eventually. Anyway, thank you for the chance to discuss, and do it in a civilized manner. :-)

Craig Perko said...

You are correct about some things: evolution does not tell you where things are going, nor does it make any kind of value judgement.

But evidence is evidence, man! We don't say that "gravity" isn't tenable because we can't create anything with notable gravity. We don't say "galaxies" are imaginary because we can't create one! All the evidence we see clearly points to these things.

A generation is a long time. To go from a subspecies to an independent species takes longer than we have for anything more complex than a fruit fly. Fortunately, this happens naturally and leaves clear genetic footprints.

"Speculation" is what scientists do to start. Then we move on to falsifiable hypothesis based on the speculation. For example, "if sub-species drift eventually causes a species split, then we should see genetic similarities on this level between creatures with the same ancestors." Similarly, we can say "... then we should see the remains of 'link species' halfway through the speciation."

Well, we asked those things. And, when we went looking, we found them. Every "hole" - every "missing link" - is just a point where our ability to mine the past or see at the atomic level has failed. Every year, every month we find some new trace of evidence in those places the hypothesis told us to look.

We see failed versions, we see speciation in every epoch of the earth, we see clear genetic trails through similar species.

Hell, there's about ten billion elements of proof of species drift. Everything you eat is a result of directed species drift. Species drift literally all the time, in every direction that the ecology allows.

Yet most species that aren't directly interbred by man have only a few subspecies and a hell of a lot of non-species cousins. Why aren't there eighty subspecies of gorilla? Why aren't there fifty subspecies of oak (there are, in fact, closer to fifty species of oak)? Why aren't there nine hundred subspecies of rabbit? Sure, there's subspecies of these things, but usually less than a dozen. Compare that to dogs.

But all of these things have other, nearby species: rabbits have every other small furry mostly-herbivorous mammel. There's a gazillion different monkeys and apes. There's a dozen different species of deer-like things, each of which has several sub-species.

The logical explanation for this is that some ancestor species (which may also be a still-living species) drifted into subspecies. Then what? That's all the further it went? The deer start showing restraint?

No, they continue to drift! Species drift never ends.

So we end up with deer that look like giraffes, right? Because species drift lets them, just like we see some dogs the size of a motorbike, some dogs the size of a pint glass, and some dogs shaped like balloons.

But we don't see deer shaped like giraffes, or deer shaped like horses. Why?

Because they became a new species when they drifted long enough.

The only alternative theory anyone is fronting is that a giant invisible man puts up giant invisible fences to keep species from drifting too far. Which is a crap theory, because look at dogs.

You could say that species aren't as adaptable as all that, and can't adapt as far as to turn into giraffe-like creatures. You would be wrong. Look at dogs. Look at flowers.

Moreover, this "speciation" is supported by evolution in other, nonorganic fields. But that's another post, because it needs to be explained in depth in order to keep people from claiming stupid things.

Craig Perko said...

Oh, and I think you're the only person who's ever called me "civilized" after I called everyone involved a "fucking asshole". Ha!

I'm actually not enjoying this much, because I've argued this before. That's why I'm using strong terms now: when I'm nice, it ends in them simply not aknowledging fact and wandering off in their wishy-washy delusion.

I thought I'd try a bit more... aggression. See how that works.