Grand Unifying Analogy/Quote of Evolution

Jan 8, 2014


Discussion by: Catfish

 

Personally find it difficult to find a spot in my mind for Evolution. Don’t get me wrong, I certainly believe in evolution but it is the randomness (ie. we would not be here if a dinosaur had not sneezed)  of it that I find hard to model in my mind.  I know I find this hard because I belong to a species that has survived with a large brain that loves to find patterns and purposes in the world but knowing that does not help me mentally store evolution as  meaningless, purposeless entity. So I am keen on analogies or thoughts that help me capture the essence of evolution in a way I can mentally file it.

None of them really hit the mark.  Many of them will imply some sense of direction or even purpose which is not there.  I quite like Mark Twain's “Blink giant who rolls a snowball down a hill” (see below) but not perfectly happy because a snowball implies some continuous growth (ie. gets bigger as it rolls) which is not accurate.

Richard Dawkins quotes “Things exists..” quote (see below) is perfect for the result but does not do much on the process.

Am looking for the Grand Unifying Analogy/Quote of Evolution.  

Maybe is not possible and has to be like one of those “Zen Thoughts” books with a collection of separate thoughts to cover different aspects (ie. randomness, sexual selection, kin selection, random mutation, extinction, etc)

Any suggestions would be appreciated.

 

 

Richard Dawkins  – The Blind Watchmaker

“Things exist either because they have recently come into existence or because they have qualities that made them unlikely to be destroyed in the past

 

Mark Twain – "The Secret History of Eddypus"

Evolution is a blind giant who rolls a snowball down a hill. The ball is made of flakes—circumstances. They contribute to the mass without knowing it. They adhere without intention, and without foreseeing what is to result. When they see the result they marvel at the monster ball and wonder how the contriving of it came to be originally thought out and planned. Whereas there was no such planning, there was only a law: the ball once started, all the circumstances that happened to lie in its path would help to build it, in spite of themselves.

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58 comments on “Grand Unifying Analogy/Quote of Evolution

  • 2
    Michael Fisher says:

    “Design can never be an ultimate explanation for anything. It can only be a proximate explanation. A plane or a car is explained by a designer but that’s because the designer himself, the engineer, is explained by natural selection” Richard Dawkins



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  • 4
    Catfish says:

    This is a modified version of the Mark Twain quote (replaced snowball with fire)..

    Life on Earth is a fire that began as a spark and may grow or die without intention or foreseeing what is to result. When we see the result we marvel and wonder how the contriving of it came to be originally thought out and planned. Whereas there was no such planning, there was only a law: the fire once started would be moulded by all the circumstances that happened to lie in its path



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  • 5
    Stuart Coyle says:

    The thing about powerful scientific theories is that they cannot be reduced to a sound bite. If they could they would neither be profound nor deep. Evolution, Quantum Mechanics, Relativity or Newtonian mechanics each require a great deal of thought and study to understand properly.

    There is a reason that it took great minds like those of Einstein, Newton, Darwin and Gallileo to come up with these insights. They are not simple nor reducible to single quotes.



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  • 7
    David R Allen says:

    “Personally find it difficult to find a spot my mind for Evolution. Don’t get me wrong, I certainly believe in evolution but it is the randomness (ie. we would not be here if a dinosaur had not sneezed) of it that I find hard to model in my mind. “

    You are no orphan here. We humans have desperate need for cause and effect. You are seeking some order, some progress, some grand plan. We struggle to accept the accident of our existence. The religious find this impossible to accept. We are an evolution rarity. To maintain a brain the size of ours puts enormous demands of the resources we need to hunt and gather. Most animals get by just on a small brain and instincts. So here we are. A brain capable of asking this question, and programmed by evolution to think that everything has a cause and effect,

    In the universe, stuff just happens.



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  • I think the problem with the word evolution (not that it is wrong) is that people understand the evolve part to mean improve by their standards. For example it is commonly believed that our ultimate descendants will be better in almost every way, better physically, better mentally, live longer etc. But evolution only has one purpose and that is to spread the genes to the next generation and the individuals that are the best at doing that will have their genes represented in the next generation.

    So, in the past, an ability to run fast and throw a spear was needed because we hunted prey or ran away from predators. Those that could run the fastest won the battle and got the girl. Now while Mr Macho is out pumping iron or those guys in jogging pants are doing their bit they may be improving their life expectancy but that is not likely to mean improved numbers of offspring. Likewise there is little pressure to evolve the mind further in order to reproduce.

    What I am saying is that evolution does not have the purpose of making a species better in our terms, it makes the species better in terms of more suited to the environment it must exist in.



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  • Firstly a disclaimer, I am not some would be dictator that wishes to practice eugenics, what follows is purely a thought experiment.

    I have often wondered if we should limit the number of young people having babies. We all know that biology is cruel, it does not care what happens to us after we have children as long as we survive long enough to raise them to independence. Actually given the nature of society and caring for the orphaned kids even this is not entirely necessary.

    For example suppose the average age of the mother when she has her first baby is 25. That means she must survive until that age plus plus probably another twelve or so years. My reasoning is that if all parents died soon after child birth then the race would quickly die out anyway. So after this age of about 37 nature does not care any longer and we start to die off.

    Now suppose we raised the bar and said the average age should be 26. Any illness that presents itself at around age 25 would be quickly eradicated and illnesses that present at 37 would also have an impact (although again I’m sure society would care for those children as they do now). If we keep slowly raising the bar, 27, 28 and so on we will be gradually selecting for longevity.

    Again rest assured I realise how revolting this all sounds if it were put in practice but as a thought experiment I am curious if it would work of if I’ve overlooked something.



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  • 10
    Catfish says:

    In reply to #8 by naskew:

    I think the problem with the word evolution (not that it is wrong) is that people understand the evolve part to mean improve by their standards. For example it is commonly believed that our ultimate descendants will be better in almost every way, better physically, better mentally, live longer etc….

    I agree. Evolved is normally used in the context of a planned/designed achievement (eg. “Australia a highly evolved industrial democracy etc, etc.”) So when I think of evolution ye olde brain does a dictionary check finds planned achievement and then starts trying to link biological evolution with a planned achievement/design like the latest Subaru sports car. Just been googling for an alternative to Evolution. How about Transmogrification? 🙂



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  • 11
    mmurray says:

    Maybe it’s worth thinking about the full title of Darwin’s book: “On the origin of species. By means of natural selection”. Likewise OP should really say

    Personally find it difficult to find a spot in my mind for Evolution by natural selection.

    If you do that you are going to think about artificial selection then it’s just a jump to recognise that there is always selection which Darwin called natural selection.

    Michael



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  • 12
    DocWebster says:

    Life has no awareness of your lack of imagination, nor, I should think, a duty to to present itself in a convenient format for your edification.



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  • 13
    Catfish says:

    In reply to #12 by DocWebster:

    Life has no awareness of your lack of imagination, nor, I should think, a duty to to present itself in a convenient format for your edification.

    Thanks Doc but I do kind of like the “Life on Eath is Fire Started from a spark ..” analogy (see below)
    At first I thought it was no good because it did not convey the idea of separate species but we all (plants, animals, etc) share DNA anyway and it conveys a nice sense of oneness with the biosphere don’t you think? Also thought it was edifying to discuss the issue that the term “Evolution” is generally used to describe a process of improvement which Biological Evolution is not .

    Life on Earth is a fire that began as a spark and may grow or die without intention or foreseeing what is to result. When we see the result we marvel and wonder how the contriving of it came to be originally thought out and planned. Whereas there was no such planning, there was only a law: the fire once started would be moulded by all the circumstances that happened to lie in its path



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  • 14
    Zeuglodon says:

    In reply to #10 by Catfish:

    In reply to #8 by naskew:

    I think the problem with the word evolution (not that it is wrong) is that people understand the evolve part to mean improve by their standards. For example it is commonly believed that our ultimate descendants will be better in almost every way, better physically, better…

    Most people really use the word like that? It actually sounds weird and even cringe-worthy to me when people use the word “evolved” in any way other than in the biological sense, like saying that a person “evolved” or a technology in history “evolved”. Then again, I’ve read many books on the subject of evolution by natural selection, so it’s probably just personal habit of mind, but it still surprises me to notice that this is more common that I had thought.



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  • 16
    SaganTheCat says:

    In reply to #5 by Stuart Coyle:

    The thing about powerful scientific theories is that they cannot be reduced to a sound bite. If they could they would neither be profound nor deep. Evolution, Quantum Mechanics, Relativity or Newtonian mechanics each require a great deal of thought and study to understand properly.

    agreed

    I would say if you need to train your brain, don’t rely on a memorable quote but look from a different angle. people obsess about evolution as though the be all and end all is animals changing from one thing to another. remove that from your mind and replace it with one concept: deep time

    change goes on all the time, populations, fashions, weather, temperature, geology. the changes in forms that happen over millions of years are simply a consequence of there being no force in nature stopping things from changing. no organisms can reproduce perfectly, everything is slightly different. even identical twins with identical genomes have slightly different environments acting on them. your own genome undergoes constant mutation at some level. if it happens to a gamate, it is passed on.

    sit and watch a river for a day. it won’t change much in that time but you will see forces acting on the banks constantly and you must know it will change its form unless an effort is put in place to stop it changing.

    the other thing to consider is “blooming” organisms don’t gradually change from one thing to another as though they were programmed. a population may arise with a particular mutation. if this mutation gives those carrying it an advantage over their cousins, their populaiton will “bloom”, radiating out taking over the environment from its non-mutated relatives. it might be a small change but those without it go extinct while the fossil record shows a jump from one organism to another. the jump isn’t real, it’s just due to the fact fossils are an extreme rarity, just a few fragments of a tiny percentage make it. chances of catching all those mutations going on are effectivley nil.

    Sorry for the lack of a nice easy quote but I say, sit, think, read and read more. let the gaps in your knowledge fill over time until you invent your own analogy that explains it all to you (if not any one else)



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  • 17
    Seraphor says:

    Bare with me while I make two points that seemingly contradict one another.

    1. in reply to naskew “But evolution only has one purpose and that is to spread the genes to the next generation…”

    This “purpose” may be something that is muddying the waters in terms of understanding or “getting” evolution, preventing people from de-personifying it. Evolution does not have a purpose, it’s goal is not to spread genes to the next generation. Evolution is an emergent phenomenon, a process a kin to something like the water cycle, a sum total effect of several smaller causes, and is itself a product of genes attempting to replicate themselves.

    To expand on the water cycle analogy further (although it doesn’t fully work as there’s no selection process in there at all) A. Water evaporates (organisms are born) B. Water travels through the air as vapour/cloud and is taken by air currents to different places (organisms struggle to survive and mate) C. Water condenses into rain/snow/dew and falls back to the earth (Organisms produce offspring) D. Water evaporates again (offspring are born)

    Is I said this doesn’t really work as an analogy to Evolution but it does provide some perspective in de-personifying the process.
    You don’t treat the water cycle as an agent, picking up and delivering water to other places, it is simply an emergent process brought about by evaporation, air pressure and condensation. Water molecules are to genes. Clouds/rivers/puddles are to organisms. The Water cycle is to Evolution.

    1. (that should be 2) In reply to people saying Evolution is not a process aimed at improvement.

    Yes, somewhat true, however I would argue that Evolution is always improving it’s products, but it is the definition of “better” that is fluid and not always intuitive.
    The net result (populations) of evolution will always result in organisms that are better suited to their environment one way or another. It only appears to occasionally work “in reverse” when the additional benefits are unnecessary and superfluous for the environment the organisms are in. For example, while it may be argued that as we become more reliant on technology and medicine, and can live to a ripe old age of 100 and have dozens of children despite otherwise deadly illnesses or deficiencies that would see us dead in the wild in a matter of months, we are in fact still improving, just in a different context that we happen to disregard or disagree with. We no longer need to be able to fend off those diseases, we no longer need to be rid of crippling genetic mutations, as they don’t hinder our ability to reproduce anymore. These are unnecessary “improvements” and without them our gene pool is able to expand further and reach more, or at least other possibilities.



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  • 18
    Timothy McNamara says:

    It does seem somewhat regressive to hunt for a simple quote condensing that which has complexity beyond our comprehension.

    I’ll try, and It’s less flippant than it might seem at first… A four word sentence summarising biological history…

    “Go and get f***ed”.



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  • I certainly believe in evolution but it is the randomness (ie. we would not be here if a dinosaur had not sneezed) of it that I find hard to model in my mind.

    I suspect that part of your problem in accommodating evolution in your mind may be that you are giving too much weight to randomness.

    Can you explain further what you mean by “we would not be here if a dinosaur had not sneezed”? After all, we most probably would still be here if a dinosaur had not sneezed. A meteor impact apparently caused the death of dinosaurs and we subsequently evolved from a small mammal. What part did a dinosaur sneeze play in that?



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  • 20
    Seraphor says:

    In reply to #19 by bw99:

    I certainly believe in evolution but it is the randomness (ie. we would not be here if a dinosaur had not sneezed) of it that I find hard to model in my mind.

    I suspect that part of your problem in accommodating evolution in your mind may be that you are giving too much weight to randomness.

    Can…

    I think I know what he means, and I think the problem is retrospection, looking at the process in hindsight from the effect it’s caused.

    Rather than looking at the results of evolution and being baffled by how astronomically unlikely the results were, simply see the inevitable destination that was reached.

    A simple thought experiment should help. Rather than jumping right to the start and thinking how that could have possibly produced humans and in turn yourself, take it step by step. Simply retract the projected chain of causes to a more immediate past. Given how many sperm and eggs could have combined, only one specific sperm and one specific egg combined to make you. Over the course of your parents lives any instance of copulation, and any specific sperm, could have resulted in fertilization, and produced any number of different children that weren’t you. Then project it further. How many chances did your parents have to copulate? How many of those chances could have been drastically altered by another chance event interrupting their affair and preventing it? An unfortunately timed phone call, or being discovered by your grandparents (if you were the product of a teen fling) could have erased you from existence. Further again, what if your grandparents never met each other and your father or mother was never born, again, that would make all previous circumstances completely null and void. Further again, everything above was entirely dependent on your great, great, great grandmother ovulating at precisely the right time. And again, if a tree had collapsed along a certain path in 1547 then your great, great, great, great, great, great grandfather would have had to go another way and wouldn’t have met his wife. And if a dinosaur had not sneezed, then the small mammal it was about to eat might not have been alerted to it’s presence, run away, and been free to mate and sow the seeds of mammal and eventually human evolution.

    Despite this, you are not some miracle of randomness, you are simply one solution of many, many, many, many and simply the one that happened to come about. You are an accident, we are all an accident of circumstance.



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  • 21
    Mr Greene says:

    Personally I tend to find military development during wartime to be the closest analogy.

    If you look at any aspect of war and how it was affected by combat the it quickly becomes clear.
    eg; Panzers from the pre-war secret trials in Soviet territory to the Maus, particularly if you follow the development of the Pz.III into the StuG.
    Aircraft in WW1 developed beyond recognition. etc. etc.



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  • 23
    Kim Probable says:

    In reply to #22 by crookedshoes:

    Evolution is NOT random. NOT RANDOM. NOT RANDOM…….etc……

    I was thinking about this statement last night and wondered how genetic drift factored into it.



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  • 24
    godzillatemple says:

    Unfortunately, while analogies may be useful in understanding the general concepts underlying evolution, I don’t think they are much use when it comes to actually accepting the truth of evolution (or finding a spot in your mind for evolution, as you say). And this is the case with most fields of science that attempt to explain things that are not, and cannot, be perceived directly and which may even appear to contradict our everyday experiences.

    Relativity is truly weird, especially when you talk about curved space/time. Sure, comparing space/time to a rubber sheet and massive objects to a bowling ball rolling along that sheet may help me understand the general idea that somebody is talking about, but at the end of the day it doesn’t really help me to understand what space/time really is or accept that it can be somehow how distorted by massive objects. That will only come by learning a lot of complex mathematics and performing (or at least studying) tons of experiments.

    Quantum mechanics is even worse. It has been said that nobody truly understands it, and yet its principals have been borne out by experimentation and physicists can make accurate predictions based on the various laws that have been discovered regarding it.

    When I first started visiting this site, I was like you. I had no belief that “god did it”, but I had a real hard time accepting that what little I knew about evolutionary theories could really explain the amazing (and amazingly specialized) diversity of life on Earth. The problem, however, was not with the theories but with my lack of understanding.

    To understand evolution, all you really need to know (and I hope I’m getting this right) is that (a) small, random changes are occurring all the time within all biological organisms due to such things as random cosmic ray bombardment, (b) the environment in which most organisms live is constantly changing as well (either due to a change in the environment itself or because the organisms have moved to a different environment), and (c) these two factors frequently combine so that some members of any given species find themselves better suited to the current environment (and thereby survive to pass on their genes to future generations) while other members of that species find themselves less suited (and thereby do not survive to pass on their genes to future generations). Add to that a time span of billions of years for small changes to accumulate, et voila!

    The best analogy I have read to help me accept the truth of the theory evolution is the one described in Dawkin’s “Climbing Mount Improbable.” It doesn’t lend itself to a pithy quote, unfortunately. But the general analogy compares the evolution of, say, mammals from their ancient fish-like ancestors to a sheer-faced cliff hundreds (thousands?) of feet high. To somebody standing at the base of the cliff, the very thought of leaping to the top in a single bound is impossible to consider, just like it may be impossible to imagine a fish turning into a mouse. But, the analogy continues, what if you could look at the other side of the cliff and see a gradual slope extending for tens (or even hundreds) of miles in the distance, leading from sea level all the way to the cliff’s edge? If you started a journey from the very beginning of the slope, the incline would be so gradual that at no point in your journey would you ever even notice you were rising. You could travel for days, weeks, months and still appear to be traveling on perfectly level ground. And yet, at the end of your journey you would eventually find yourself thousands of feet in the air despite never having made any perceptible leaps whatsoever.

    Replace “hundreds of miles” in the cliff analogy with “billions of years” in the theory of evolution, and the analogy is complete. The analogy only works, however, if you fully understand the processes involved with evolution in the first place.



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  • 25
    YesUCan says:

    In reply to #24 by godzillatemple:

    Thank you for good explanation. But don’t you think human evolution is a little fast? 3 million years only? If we take especially homosapiens, does it not look like an abrupt change, a leap in evolution for a complex species?



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  • 26
    godzillatemple says:

    In reply to #25 by YesUCan:

    Thank you for good explanation. But don’t you think human evolution is a little fast? 3 million years only? If we take especially homosapiens, does it not look like an abrupt change, a leap in evolution for a complex species?

    Sorry, “only” 3 million years for what? If you’re talking about the evolution of humans from the next lowest identifiable rung in the evolutionary ladder, that doesn’t seem particularly fast.



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  • In reply to #26 by godzillatemple:

    Sorry, “only” 3 million years for what? If you’re talking about the evolution of humans from the next lowest identifiable rung in the evolutionary ladder, that doesn’t seem particularly fast.

    Please don’t propagate the false idea that there is a “ladder” and that some species are “lower.” The “Tree of Life” is a metaphor, and all the species alive today are the result of three and a half billion years of the process without regard to “advancement.” I know the “ladder” idea has been around for a long time, but it now presents more misunderstanding than helpful matter.



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  • 28
    godzillatemple says:

    In reply to #27 by Quine:

    Please don’t propagate the false idea that there is a “ladder” and that some species are “lower.” The “Tree of Life” is a metaphor, and all the species alive today are the result of three and a half billion years of the process without regard to “advancement.” I know the “ladder” idea has been around for a long time, but it now presents more misunderstanding than helpful matter.

    Just speaking metaphorically, sorry to ruffle your feathers. If you read my long post earlier, I hope you can see I wasn’t trying to claim that evolution results in objectively “better” species in any way, just species that are better suited to their current environment.

    Next time, if it helps, I’ll refer to mile markers along a road instead of rungs on a ladder to indicate the progression of a species over time. But then, I’m sure somebody will object that “progression” implies “progress” and that “progress” implies improvement…



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  • 29
    YesUCan says:

    In reply to #26 by godzillatemple:

    In reply to #25 by YesUCan:

    Thank you for good explanation. But don’t you think human evolution is a little fast? 3 million years only? If we take especially homosapiens, does it not look like an abrupt change, a leap in evolution for a complex species?

    Sorry, “only” 3 million years for what? If you’re talking about the evolution of humans from the next lowest identifiable rung in the evolutionary ladder, that doesn’t seem particularly fast.

    If we look at horse evolution (e.g. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Horseevolution.png) we see a gradual change in about 50 million years. I would expect such a long period from human evolution. When we examine evolutionary changes in human ancestry, we see fast and remarkable physical transformation. In the last 1 million years ape turns to human. Prety fast…



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  • 30
    godzillatemple says:

    In reply to #29 by YesUCan:

    If we look at horse evolution (e.g. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Horseevolution.png) we see a gradual change in about 50 million years. I would expect such a long period from human evolution. When we examine evolutionary changes in human ancestry, we see fast and remarkable physical transformation. In the last 1 million years ape turns to human. Pretty fast…

    Still not sure where you’re going with this, sorry.

    A few comments, however:

    1. Humans are still considered to be a species of ape, so it doesn’t really mean anything to claim we have changed from apes to humans in the last 1 million years.

    2. The horse evolution image shows an arbitrary beginning point of 50 million years ago for a particular ancestor. At the same time, you have apparently picked some arbitrary ancestor of humanity of 3 million years ago as your starting point for human evolution. What are you basing this on?

    3. Different species certainly can and do evolve at different rates. This could have to do with the stability of their environments, whether (and how far) members of the species migrate, their interaction with other species (competition, availability of food/resources, etc.), and many other factors I would imagine. Sharks and crocodiles, for example, haven’t evolved much at all in hundreds of millions of years. Some modern species of lizards, on the other hand, have evolved noticeably in a few short decades after being relocated to a different habitat (see Lizards Undergo Rapid Evolution After Introduction To A New Home, for example).



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  • In reply to #28 by godzillatemple:

    Just speaking metaphorically, sorry to ruffle your feathers.

    Not very ruffled. I was confident you were not doing it intentionally or because you did not know better, it is just that we all slip into these obsolete references, from time to time, and need reminding (I know I do). Talking one-to-one it does not matter so much, but I feel it is important to interrupt in places, like these threads, where third parties are watching or reading who don’t necessarily know better. Please continue the good narrative you started here. 🙂



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  • 32
    YesUCan says:

    In reply to #30 by godzillatemple:

    1. Consider all differences (walking straight, no fur, intellect, etc.). There is much change. Apes and humans are different like hyenas and dogs are different.
    2. You can begin with Homo Habilis (2.4 million years). You may look at elephants, whales etc. Timeline streches to 30-50 million years.
    3. In that article we don’t see how substantial is the physical change, there are no before-after pictures.

    The point is you wrote a good explanation for evolution. However, as for human evolution the “slope” to the cliff is not so long as expected..



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  • 33
    godzillatemple says:

    In reply to #32 by YesUCan:

    1. Consider all differences (walking straight, no fur, intellect, etc.). There is much change. Apes and humans are different like hyenas and dogs are different.
    2. You can begin with Homo Habilis (2.4 million years). You may look at elephants, whales etc. Timeline streches to 30-50 million years.
    3. In that article we don’t see how substantial is the physical change, there are no before-after pictures.

    The point is you wrote a good explanation for evolution. However, as for human evolution the “slope” to the cliff is not so long as expected.

    Again, humans are apes. Just a different species of ape. Just like hyenas and dogs are both species of canines (bad example, actually, since modern gorillas and chimpanzees are probably much more closely related to humans than dogs are to hyenas). Regardless, you seem to be making a judgment call as to what differences are “substantial”. To my mind, changing from having 4 toes to only having a single hoof is much more dramatic than gaining the ability to walk more erect.

    As I said earlier, different species can and do evolve at different rates. The fact that it took horses 50 million years to evolve from some arbitrary point in the past to their current appearance has nothing to do with how long it “should” have taken human to evolve from some other completely arbitrary point in the past.

    3 million years seems like an awfully long time to me, and provides quite a lot of “slope”. Instead of asking why humans evolved “so much” in three million years (if this is even the case), why not ask why other species apparently evolved “so little” in the same amount of time? As I mentioned, however, it’s pointless to even compare the evolutionary rates of different species.



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  • 34
    YesUCan says:

    In reply to #33 by godzillatemple:

    “…Instead of asking why humans evolved “so much” in three million years (if this is even the case), why not ask why other species apparently evolved “so little” in the same amount of time?..”

    Yes you just reversed the point, but this is what I mean, thanks!



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  • 35
    Kim Probable says:

    In reply to #33 by godzillatemple:

    Just like hyenas and dogs are both species of canines

    Hyenas are actually in the suborder feliformia (which includes cats), while canines are in caniformia. They’re more closely related to mongooses than they are dogs, though they have a canine appearance.



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  • In reply to #10 by Catfish:
    “So when I think of evolution ye olde brain does a dictionary check finds planned achievement and then starts trying to link biological evolution with a planned achievement/design like the latest Subaru sports car. Just been googling for an alternative to Evolution.”

    My old (1952 and beginning to show its age) Chambers dictionary has, “the act of unrolling or unfolding: gradual working out or development: a series of things unfolded: the doctrine according to which higher forms of life have gradually arisen out of lower.”

    The last definition would be considered speciesist nowadays; who are we to claim the highest spot with our inadequately restrained destructive activities? the bacteria are more successful by numbers and (IIRC) by biomass.



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  • 38
    Catfish says:

    In reply to #37 by kenm:

    The last definition would be considered speciesist nowadays; who are we to claim the highest spot with our inadequately restrained
    destructive activities? the bacteria are more successful by numbers and (IIRC) by biomass.

    I agree, anything other than a completely even-handed view of our place in the biosphere is very damaging to running a civilized planet (pardon the contradiction between being even-handed and running the planet but you know what I mean)



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  • 39
    canadian_right says:

    Evolution by Natural selection is a very simple concept, but the time involved is much vaster than a human life that it can be difficult to understand just how time is required.

    First off, evolution is NOT random. Mutations in the genome are random, but natural selection is not random.Natural selection brutally weeds out mutations that are not advantageous by killing the organism.

    Back to the time involved:
    if the earth was a year old, the first cells showed up Feb 25th, cells with nuclei July 17, insects dec 1, dinosaurs dec 13, monkeys dec 28, first human like creature on dec 31 around 5:18, and the first modern human at dec 31, 11:48.



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  • 40
    Timothy McNamara says:

    I’d offer another tilt on conceptualising evolution. A sentient being of the highest intellect on it’s planet is naturally going to run into a lonely place regarding answers. Some humans might be distressed by a type of loneliness, an inability to compare one’s interpretations with any other species.

    I could list a lot of examples overlooked by some, which dispute this “lone recipient” conundrum. Some dismiss the experience of other species. Some find doubt in the timescale of progression, that “an ape to a man in a million years” seems improbable. Study the amazing similarities in empathy, behaviour and the ability to interact we share with other apes. I find that differences are strongly exaggerated to the human mind. Just look at human propensity for racism and religious segregation. I struggle to comprehend our species’ inability to feel part of the apes. You can imagine how I feel about the fact that some humans kill each other over skin tone or which book their grandparents read.

    On to a more positive example, the comparison of Corvids and humans offers a real treat. Looking for behaviour common to two species that could not seem more different at first is oftentimes breathtaking. I recall watching amateur footage of a crow “snowboarding”. Of its own accord, for leisure, using a lid from a jar, the bird repeated the same task, for mere enjoyment. I loved watching her fly back to the peak of the snowy roof, lid in beak, to “go again!”. The snowboarding human and the crow have a common ancestor no more recent than 350 million years. And after such a period, two beings are doing the same thing for fun, on one planet.

    It is due to the awe, conjured by truly contemplating such facts, that I side with scientists who predict, or at least put forth the idea, that evolution could have very similar outcomes on other planets (“Class M” planets, for all the trekkies). Ages of galaxies being so disparate it offers infinite complexity, but in our neighbourhood of the universe, I find something probable. What we are discussing is very likely being discussed elsewhere on ours, and throughout the Milky Way’s other 3 arms. Life happens.



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  • 41
    steve_hopker says:

    Quite rightly many have pointed out that there is a good reason why it is hard to accept that evolution is random: it’s not.

    Dawkins has certainly written well on this – e.g. Climbing Mount Impossible. But if you can digest Darwin’s nineteenth century English – which is (I think) not too difficult, The Origin of Species is well worth a read. One line Darwin takes is to refer to Malthus’s views on population limits. Darwin suggests that, in any given place, life usually reproduces in over abundance. Think of how many fish eggs or dandelion seeds there are, or how many chicks a moderately able pair of birds might raise in just one season. Darwin argues that this will mean that, if events do not change, there will be high levels of competition for food, nesting space, or for escape from predators (who like their prey usually breed up to the highest numbers possible at that time, with an abundance of owl chicks, etc).

    So with each breeding individual producing far more than just one offspring the success of that offspring, ie its survival, is nearly always on a knife edge. That means that the even the slightest differences might make all the difference – that extra day of drought tolerance might mean one plant flowers when another doesn’t etc.

    Similarly, when there are changes – say a shift to a drier climate, or the arrival of a new species, or being blown to a new and different places (eg from South America to the Galapagos) this can accentuate the gains or losses from changes in genes.

    I think Darwin actually begins with artificial selection – pointing out that deliberate selection by humans upon random genetic mutations in pigeons (his example) has produced huge changes over very short periods when compared to geological time. Now consider major changes in nature. Quite often new species, even whole groups have arisen fairly quickly after such a change, then stabilised. This happened for example after the dinosaurs’s relatively sudden extinction (perhaps after a massive meteorite), which was followed by a rapid succession of new and of giant mammals – arguably ‘filling the gaps’ left by the giant reptiles. Maybe man – and other newer mammals – became more successful over successive ice ages, whose rapid changes maybe favoured species able to adapt (eg creatures who could put on and but also take off clothes, light fire, make tools to hunt the giant mammoths, fend off fierce predators.

    I think in some cases there is evidence of parts of the genome becoming more prone to mutations during rapid evolution, but others might well more know on this.

    So there are many reasons to think of evolution as the result of natures’ version of human (artificial) selection: that is, natural selection. Food shortage, drought, etc, is in essence no more random than the horse breeder.



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  • 42
    Nunbeliever says:

    Well, you might have to face the possibility that some aspects of reality are hard to intuitively grasp. Quantum physics is one of those aspects that I struggle with. I know that I struggled with the idea of biological evolution many years back. But, I guess the more I read about evolution the idea slowly became more natural to me. Back in the 50s Einsteins theories of relativity were widely considered almost impossible to understand. Today, all undergraduates in physics consider these as basic as Newtonian physics. I think future generations will have a similar understanding of quantum physics. I think computers is a good analogy. I grew up with computers and they feel almost like a natural extension to my body. Still, I know that many older people regard them as mystical beasts that you pretty much have to pray to in order for them to work.



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  • 43
    Nunbeliever says:

    In reply to #6 by rzzz:

    Evolution = changes in gene frequency over time. That’s it.

    Well, not really. Genes also have to change in order for evolution to happen.



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  • 44
    steve_hopker says:

    In reply to #41 by steve_hopker:

    Dawkins has certainly written well on this – e.g. Climbing Mount Impossible.

    Oops… that should have been ‘Climbing Mount Improbable’



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  • 45
    Catfish says:

    In reply to #41 by steve_hopker:

    Quite rightly many have pointed out that there is a good reason why it is hard to accept that evolution is random: it’s not…
    think of evolution as the result of natures’ version of human (artificial) selection

    Thanks Steve, The word I used was “randomness” (defined as Having no specific pattern, purpose, or objective). I know evolution is not driven by random events but it is purposeless and largely patternless. Of course we can find patterns retrospectively but that is more to do with our human need to find patterns than any actual patterns. I don’t think human (artificial) selection is such a good analogy to biological evolution because one is planned and the other is not. It is a good example of how separate species are created but not of the underlying arbitrary triggers Eg. Dinosaur sneezed which allows a small mammal to escape capture and then go on to have many descendants including homo sapiens (This example is taken from Richard Dawkins)



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  • 46
    OHooligan says:

    In reply to #5 by Stuart Coyle:

    They (powerful scientific theories) are not simple nor reducible to single quotes.

    Not precisely, no. That’s what mathematics is for (e.g. E equals M C squared) But I think each valid one can probably be reduced to a simple, easily remembered analogy that sums up the central concept in a few pithy words. Just can’t seem to think of any at the moment.

    OK, had a quick think…

    “Vary, Multiply, Compete, Repeat” or similar might work for Darwin’s Theory. “Everything pulls everything else” might do for gravity. Pragmatic rule of thumb: What goes up must come down. (Except when it doesn’t). Lies, Damn Lies, and Statistics. Anything that can go wrong, will. Particles wave particularly well. You can’t know it all (Heisenberg). Your 185,000,000th grandpappy was a fish (Dawkins).

    Yeah, I think there are probably lots of these, better than the ones I just pulled from the ether. Anybody got more?

    I’d add that the mark of a powerful scientific theory IS it’s essential simplicity, that it explains a whole lot of superficially diverse phenomena with a simple set of rules, or formulae in mathematical terms, a language foreign to too many people.



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  • 47
    OHooligan says:

    In reply to #39 by canadian_right:

    Back to the time involved: if the earth was a year old….

    I’ve seen that analogy often, but somehow it doesn’t work for me.

    One that does, is to represent one year by one millimeter. Now we have a meter stick = 1000 years, and I can measure my own age, and the ages of my children and parents on a school ruler, 300 mm long, goes back beyond the known scope of my family tree, but historical events are easily marked out. Two meters to the Roman Empire and the start of christianity, another five or so takes us back past the pyramids and stonehenge. A kilometer is a million years, and an hour’s drive takes me to the twilight of the dinosaur era. An airliner – on this scale – covers nearly a billion years in an hours flying, and the width of a continent is about right for the entire age of the earth and all that’s ever lived on it. A couple of long-haul flights to the far side of the globe and we’re back to the Big Bang, or nearly so. Those who live in a coastal state of the USA could travel the age of the earth without leaving their own country, and could do it cross-country by car, so they can see every century (10 cm) flashing past.

    That a single scale can map the entire age of the universe onto the surface of the earth, while still being large enough to show individual years, I find very satisfying. And the YECs think the universe is only 6 meters long (at this scale). That underscores for me the failure to grasp the concept of Deep Time.

    I hope this helps some of you



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  • 48
    Dave Ucannottaknow says:

    “Richard Dawkins quotes “Things exists..” quote (see below) is perfect for the result but does not do much on the process.”
    If you had read the rest of whatever Dawkin’s work which that came from, you would most definitely not have come up with this for a “process”: “Don’t get me wrong, I certainly believe in evolution but it is the randomness (ie. we would not be here if a dinosaur had not sneezed) of it that I find hard to model in my mind.” Nonono, it isn’t a random process, it’s natural selection. Survivors of changing and stressful conditions pass on their winning genes, and that’s why we have theirs. Adaptive changes such as upright walking, larger brains, and eyesight did not happen in one generation, and they show no sort of watch-like design. The eye took about a billion years to evolve as adaptations were added over time to what began as simple photo-sensitive cells, and there are multiple features of the human eye which could not have been designed by anybody with intelligence. Although the blind spots caused by neural wiring and blood vessels in front of the human photorecptor cells did not lead to the death of those creatures which first had such compound eyes (a condition shared by all vertebrates), this was likely because it didn’t suffer from more advanced competitors while it existed. Later adaptations helped mitigate the impact of this mistake, and now those without these adaptations are gone. Anyway, this hardly looks like the product of any competent designer! Well, maybe God really wanted the squid to inherit the earth – it has sensible eyes, with photoreceptors unobscured by it’s neural wiring, which is located behind them as a competent designer may have opted for.



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  • 49
    steve_hopker says:

    In reply to #45 by Catfish:

    In reply to #41 by stevehopker:_

    The word I used was “randomness” (defined as Having no specific pattern, purpose, or objective). I know evolution is not driven by random events but it is purposeless and largely patternless. Of course we can find patterns retrospectively but that is more to do with our human need to find patterns than any actual patterns. I don’t think human (artificial) selection is such a good analogy to biological evolution because one is planned and the other is not.

    I see your point more clearly now, but I would disagree that actual patterns do not exist apart from human thought (if that is what you mean). Humans may get the patterns wrong, and almost certainly incomplete, but a rejection of any objective patterns would be to reject the validity of science, (not to mention art).

    You are right to question an exact analogy between natural and artificial selection, but I interpreted Darwin as suggesting not a similar intention in both natural and artificial breeding, but rather as to how over successive generations changes can result from systemic selection. These of course differ in the means of selection ie one by artifice, the other by nature.



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  • 50
    David Lindsay says:

    Crookedshoes has made a major point, evolution is not random because every mutant will have either a better chance to outperform the ancestor or a greater chance of heading to extinction. Either way the odds for the mutant’s success of surviving in a particular environment will have been influenced by the nature of the mutation.
    Of-course the environment too will be altered by a mutation which succeeds and persists.
    Evolution is the combined result of positively interacting mutations.



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  • 51
    Red Dog says:

    This is a bit off topic but It’s something I’ve been wondering for a while, was thinking of posting a discussion topic and the title here seems close enough. As I’ve been reading various biology books the last year one thing that occurred to me is that it all seems a bit ad hoc. In some cases I read about researchers focus on the relation between availability of food and pecking style of birds, game theory analysis of the exchanges in mutual grooming, an arms race over plumage to attract mates, etc. What seems to me is that there really are perhaps more basic factors and a Grand Unified Theory of biology might define some more general theory and then all the individual theories could be mapped back to the Bio-GUT. E.g., something like:

    Biology is essentially a trade off between X different dimensions: reproduction, food, sex, shelter,…??? All the various specific models we have can eventually be mapped to a more general theory about organisms much the way diverse chemical reactions can be explained ultimately by the behavior of atoms and molecules.

    Does this make any sense? Is it too ambitious? Has anyone ever proposed something like this?



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  • 52
    David Lindsay says:

    We all know evolution, as described by Darwin, relates to survival of the fittest. However, has anyone defined the fittest organism?
    I believe the fittest organism is the one that most efficiently utilises its energy sources, the one which maintains the lowest entropy.
    A grand unified theory of biology could therefore be defined as “Biology is the complex result of individual organisms, tribes of particular organisms and populations of interacting organisms competing for and exploiting energy sources so as to maintain or lower entropy.”



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  • 53
    Catfish says:

    In reply to #51 by Red Dog:

    Biology is essentially a trade off between X different dimensions: reproduction, food, sex, shelter, etc.

    Very nice line. It conveys how chaotic it is without just making it sound completely meaningless.
    It is actually even more chaotic than your statement implies when you consider the view Dawkins discussed in his Extended Phenotype book about interactions between phenotypes (ie. Plants evolved Flowers to use Bees as part of their reproduction strategy, etc.). My chemistry is not good enough to understand if your analogy to chemicals and atoms has any legs or not.
    There was a time when dragon fly type insects were up to 1 meter in size (source: “Life In The Underbrush” by David Attenbroug) and the theory is that this was possible because oxygen levels where much higher at that time. So there could be a set of equations that define general characteristics (eg. how big) organisms can get in a certain type of environment. Maybe they already exist I am not sure. But hard to imagine a setup of rules/equations that would define what type of organisms would evolve but 100 years after powered flight we have a International Space Station so it maybe just be more work to be done. Not impractical either. I noticed the Chinese have genetically engineered some pigs to glow in the dark so there might be good commercial applications to understand/predict how a new phenotype will interact with a given environment. Would have been handy to know before they introduced Cane Toads to Queensland, Australia, for example.



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  • In reply to #51 by Red Dog:

    there really are perhaps more basic factors and a Grand Unified Theory of biology might define some more general theory and then all the individual theories could be mapped back to the Bio-GUT.

    I think it just depends on your appetite for complexity, ie what level of abstraction you want to look at things from.

    On a very fine-grained level, a Grand Unified Theory of Biology would be no more than the laws of physics. The theory would say that there is nothing special about life – it’s just atoms after all – and atoms behaving as they do all over the universe.

    On a slightly higher level of abstraction you could talk in terms of things like the trade-off between building strong bones and using the energy for something else like making babies. There’s a section in one of Dawkins’ books (can’t remember which one I’m afraid) where he says (paraphrasing), wouldn’t it be great if we could build a computer simulation that was so sophisticated that it modelled all the laws of physics, including things like how faster legs can be traded off against better eyes against more offspring etc. And then he concludes by saying that if you want that simulation, you don’t need a computer, you can just look around you.

    I know I’m not saying anything that you don’t know already. I guess I’m just saying that the Unified Theory is out there already – it depends what level of abstraction you want to look at it, but it’s all just physics.

    Nice quote from Peter Atkins that sort of summarizes this: “A great deal of the universe does not need any explanation. Elephants, for instance. Once molecules have learnt to compete and to create other molecules in their own image, elephants, and things resembling elephants, will in due course be found roaming around the countryside.”



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  • In reply to #5 by Stuart Coyle:

    The thing about powerful scientific theories is that they cannot be reduced to a sound bite. If they could they would neither be profound nor deep. Evolution, Quantum Mechanics, Relativity or Newtonian mechanics each require a great deal of thought and study to understand properly.

    I think that they can: E=MC^2 is a perfect sound bite. that is different from “understand[ing] properly.

    There is a reaso…



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  • In reply to #2 by Michael Fisher:

    “Design can never be an ultimate explanation for anything. It can only be a proximate explanation. A plane or a car is explained by a designer but that’s because the designer himself, the engineer, is explained by natural selection” Richard Dawkins

    I find a flaw in RD’s logic:
    1. He believes evolution b/c of the evidence.
    2. for argument, let us stipulate his repeated proposition (God Delusion) that if we were created, we would need a highly complex designer, which would itself need to have been evolved, and therefore evolution is not disproved.

    But, If we were designed, then there is no evidence for evolution at all–it is evidence for design, misinterpreted. So what is the belief of the evolution of the designer based on–it seems to me it is only a belief, because it seems to make sense.

    A second thought: He accepts that there might be many universes, perhaps with different physics. If so, could not an evolved designer have come from one of them…even one with time messed up…? Or, have survived our last universe through the big bang? we have no evidence for any of this, either way.

    Just wondering.



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  • 57
    Evie123 says:

    “Without the ever-escalating arms races between predators and prey, parasites and hosts, without Darwin’s ‘war of nature’, without his ‘famine and death’ there would be no nervous systems capable of seeing anything at all, let alone of appreciating and understanding it.”
    -Richard Dawkins

    This, to me, illuminates the question “why?” in a very reduced manner, however I still think it very accurately describes the rudimentary “reasons” to evolve…. and reads as a bit romanticized towards the end but nevertheless a great statement.



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