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Thursday, January 02, 2014

Evolving thoughts

I don't believe in evolution.

I had to come out and say it. My name is Laura and I don't believe in evolution.

No, don't worry, I haven't been captured and brainwashed by some cult. I just don't see how it works. Regular readers will be aware that I'm an evangelical atheist; I believe what I can see, what can be proved, what can be understood. Where something (such as quantum physics) is beyond my understanding, my "faith" - for want of a better word - is directed towards scientists, for whom peer reviews and scientific scrutiny should mean that I can trust that their work is rigorously reviewed.

So far, so good.

I have read The Selfish Gene. I have read other books that attempt to explain to a novice how evolution works. And I still think it must be rubbish.

I have no issue with survival of the fittest - that is to say, that which is most adapted to its environment. It makes much more sense if a bird can fly away from its predators, that those who are able to fly are much more likely to survive, to breed successfully and to pass on their genes. Agreed. Tick.

I also understand that these changes happen not overnight, but over literally millions of years. So a bird probably didn't develop wings in a day, and all the other wingless birds weren't immediately eaten. I get that too. (But wonder a bit how the "stubby wings" stage they presumably went through provided any help whatsoever. Though am willing to accept they must have.)

I also understand that "evolution" happens as the result of (for want of a better word) a faulty gene, a mutated gene which contributes an extra feature that its parents and previous generations didn't have.

What I don't understand is this: how these slight mutations become the "norm". Let's take for example pruney fingers. You know what I'm talking about, when you've stayed in the bath a bit too long and your fingers go all wrinkly.

Now, recent research has suggested that this might have happened because wrinkly fingers improve our grip in water, thus giving an evolutionary advantage, as our ancestors foraged for food in wet conditions. OK.

So several million years ago, Jonny Ugg was born with the freaky mutation that no-one had ever seen before, which caused his fingers to go all wrinkly when he got them wet. Brilliantly, this actually afforded him an advantage because it meant he could catch more fish than Timmy Igg. Timmy Igg's family starved, and Jonny Ugg passed on his wrinkly fingers, and the world rejoiced.


No. STUPID. Firstly, a genetic mutation is surely likely to be a recessive rather than a dominant gene. I may be wrong about this, but my understanding is that that would mean it's fairly unlikely that future generations would also inherit the wrinkliness.

Even if I'm wrong and genetic mutations can be dominant genes, so far we have ONE wrinkly-fingered freak in a whole population of smooth-fingered humans. And yes, he does OK and gets enough food - but that doesn't in itself mean that everyone else is going to starve immediately. Equally, I can't imagine Jane Grunt refusing to shag Timmy Igg from now on because of his disgustingly smooth fingers, thus preventing his unwrinkly fingers getting passed on. It makes no sense.

And what about things that are likely to have no effect on reproduction at all? For example, I have a weird allergy to sunlight, meaning I break out in awful itchy red bumps if I overdo it. It hasn't stopped me reproducing. No man has ever said to me, "Laura, you are my perfect woman, but your strange allergy to your own melanin makes me feel sick and I could never impregnate you." (they may have said the last ten words or so, but that's a separate story).

I would argue that the vast majority of "mutations" that we call evolution are not drastic enough to actually impact reproduction or survival. Even going back millions of years, are we really arguing that someone's slightly wrinkly fingers meant that the whole of the rest of the human race died out?

Don't even get me started on the peacock. To be honest, if you were a peahen, and all your peacock friends had normal-looking tails, and then suddenly Simon ShowoffPeacock turns up with a massive fucking turquoise train that he's just evolved, you aren't going to think, "I'd fuck that," you'd probably think, "What a twat."

So yes, I don't believe in evolution (but would be genuinely interested to hear from anyone who could explain the logic flaws above). I don't believe in a god either, so I'm in a spiritual and intellectual vacuum. Send help.


Jack said...

I loved this, as it captures very humorously something I've been pondering over for years myself. I also would identify myself as being in a bit of a spiritual and intellectual vacuum (it’s almost as if we had a similar upbringing…).

I think it’s a really interesting point. ‘Origin of the Species’ is a masterpiece not in what Darwin writes, but what he is careful not to write. Darwin is meticulous in explaining how species originate - that is, out-competing the more edible competition - but very careful to admit it is difficult to explain the more slippery fingered competition. He states ‘Variations neither useful nor injurious would not be affected by natural selection’.

He identifies natural selection as one of a number of selection pressures, including sexual selection (e.g “that peacock looks like a show-offy twat, he’s not getting any”). He is also very very careful never to state the origin of variation and states ‘Our ignorance of the laws of variation is profound’.

In typical flowery Victorian prose he says that we may call the origin of variation ‘chance’ but this hides our ignorance, and for me - replaces a supreme being with another one called ‘chance’. He writes “I have hitherto sometimes spoken as if the variations— so common and multiform in organic beings under domestication, and in a lesser degree in those in a state of nature— had been due to chance.This, of course, is a wholly incorrect expression, but it serves to acknowledge plainly our ignorance of the cause of each particular variation.”

He also steers a massive course around the evolution of behaviours (arguably, more important than physical characteristics once you’ve got the whole four limbs and which end is which of the alimentary canal sussed). He asks ‘ can instincts be acquired and modified through natural selection?’ and uses bees making cells as an example. He doesn’t try and explain it though. He speculates habit may form into instinct - but this verges on Lamarckism (which by the way has been partly vindicated by epigenetics) and states we still don’t understand the ‘origin’.

The whole geological time argument is a good point - I do believe most of us really can’t imagine quite how long it all took. You just can’t imagine 100 million years. I struggle to plan next weekend. BUT - it still doesn’t explain how a spider knows how to build a web. It just doesn’t. Don’t even get me started on mimic octopus pretending to be a poisonous lion fish.

Being a true scientist was the most important thing that Darwin was. He drew a line and said ‘I think I can explain this but I can’t go any further’. The problem is, at school we are taught the easy to explain parts of the theory, like natural selection, and left to assume the rest sorts itself out. In a way, this is just as dogmatic as many religious arguments.

Science, by its very nature, should continuously be asking to be proved wrong, to strengthen it and add to diminish our ‘cloud of unknowing’. I think because the creationist lobby is so powerful in rich countries like America and Saudi Arabia, scientists feel they have to flock together and form their own dogma, as breaking rank might weaken them. I think this flocking has meant that a few interesting voices have been muted and it goes against the very principle of what science should be. (As a side point, it seems most faiths also encourage this questioning - but over time, like with scientific dogma, the questioning gets drowned out in the rush to give people the answers, rather than teaching people to find them)

As a result, our generation were not brought up to acknowledge we still don’t understand the more fascinating subtleties. True science should be questioning every foundation constantly, not clumping around an agreed idea.

The answers are out there, they won’t be simple, they will probably need a supercomputer but they are out there.


Jack said...


That’s not to say we will ever know the answer or that it is even possible to comprehend it, it’s just being humble enough to say ‘this is cool but we don’t know how it works or why’.

And maybe the real point is eventually to just stop at the ‘this is cool’ stage and stop trying to know things and instead simply contemplate them. But that’s a whole different discussion...

Anonymous said...

I blame the parents...

Simon M said...

Let's use maths and the power of compounding!

[Made up unrealistic numbers ahoy!]

Timmy Igg and his wife have five kids (no contraception those days. His descendents marry wives/husbands from other families and also have five kids. But life is hard back then, so in each generation only 30% of the kids survive to have kids (and pass on their genes).

By the tenth generation around 58 Iggs are having kids. At the 30th generation around 190,000 Iggs are born.

Timmy Igg's friend Jonny Ugg has this strange trait where he gets wrinkly fingers when wet, and is slightly better at catching fish, so slightly better at feeding his family. It's a really tiny difference - instead of 30% survival chance, there's a 30.5% survival chance. He can pass on this trait to his descendants.

A few hundred years later, after ten generations, the Ugg family is still around the same size as the Igg family - 68 (vs 58). But after 30 generations there are around 310,000 Uggs (vs 190,000 Iggs).

This all happened in 30 generations, which is less than 1,000 years. Project this forward tens, hundreds of thousands of years, millions even, and you can see why the Uggs overwhelmed the Iggs in terms of numbers. In competition for scarce resources, and with all sorts of other evolutionary traits appearing and disappearing through that time, eventually there were barely any Iggs left and the overwhelming majority of cavemen get wrinkly fingers when they get wet.

(No idea about the dominant/recessive thing.)

Jack said...

yep, all clear and agreed. Doesn't explain where wrinkly fingers came from in the first place. If it is from random mutation may be I can't comprehend the maths. does this help us understand how a spider can build a web?

Jack said...

So this article by a Yale professor explains much more articulately than I did below about the point I was trying to make below.

It's long but well worth a read as it goes into the problems with Darwinism and how scientists who attack are then attacked.

"Power corrupts, and science today is the Catholic Church around the start of the 16th century: used to having its own way and dealing with heretics by excommunication, not argument.