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Nov 13 2008

Why do people, PhDs included, keep misunderstanding the concept of evolution?

This is why physicists don’t generally work on biology problems, and vice versa.  Two scientists at Princeton University made an interesting protein discovery, where a specific protein acts as a sort of error-correction for DNA strands, only now they think the protein they found is actually the mechanism driving evolution.

Now, you must be thinking, “what the hell is a computer geek with no science credentials doing, telling some PhD level scientists they’ve got their heads up their asses?”  And normally, you’d be dead right.  But in this case, these scientists are claiming that this protein is driving biological organisms to change themselves within their own lifespans, when all they’ve proven is that the protein corrects DNA replication errors (think Scandisk for the DNA in all your cells).

Here’s the thing about evolution.  It has no intent.  There is no driving force, no guiding hand — evolution is not equal to God fiddling with our DNA, it is rather the by-product of the natural world.  Evolution is defined as the net sum of what happens when biological organisms change from generation to generation, with the environment and random chance (like how even creatures with evolutionary advantages might sometimes eat a rotten berry or get seen by a predator and eaten), ending certain genotypes early.  Evolution is not pushing creatures to change — evolution IS the change, over time, of creatures upon whom an evolutionary influence is exerted.

So, here we have creatures that mutate certain genes naturally when they reproduce.  Some of these gene mutations are advantageous, and those creatures have an increased ability to survive.  Some are disadvantageous, and they are more likely to die before reproducing.  These mutations happen when the zygote is formed.  Later on, once out of that zygote stage, those aforementioned proteins try to prevent DNA replication errors throughout the body, because if a cell’s DNA is altered through a mutation, it can become a freckle, a mole, a cancerous tumor, et cetera.  So these proteins fight what could become cancer and kill you, but they don’t actively drive a living creature to suddenly sprout an extra arm or grow gills during that creature’s lifespan.

There need be no magic mechanism that “explains why all that random chance formed you and I”, because the naturalistic explanation works just fine in explaining that.  Over millions of iterations of reproduction, wherein genes have fused, new genes expressed, genes have had errors in transcription that happen to work out nicely, whole new features can come into being practically spontaneously when the environment selects for certain abilities.  The Cambrian Explosion happened after a dramatic shift in the environment.  Likewise when plants evolved to emit oxygen and started pumping out that otherwise corrosive gas in record amounts, so too did creatures evolve to breathe it.  No need for an invisible hand rewriting our genetic code, and no need for a special protein to drive us to change within the span of our own lives to adapt to the new circumstances of our environment, when reproduction and natural selection (meaning specifically, how some genes can be advantageous for survival or reproduction) both have explained the whole process quite nicely.

I’m likely to edit this post later to include a bunch of links or videos to explain things better.

4 comments

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  1. 1
    Jason Thibeault

    I’ve recently started wondering why it is that the concept of evolution is so hard for people to grasp. I have to admit that up until recently I never really ‘got it’, and am in fact still struggling with the finer details. I’m not talking about the struggle to accept the ideas that evolution brings forth, or choosing sides in the never-ending debate between religion and science. I’m just talking about understanding what the theory of evolution actually is, what it’s trying to explain.
    My default answer for these kinds of things is usually that there is something fundamentally wrong with the public school system, but I’m not sure it’s even that in this case. Is it that the concepts in the theory of evolution are just so complicated that only ‘gifted’ people are likely to understand it easily, or is there something about our minds that limits us?
    It just seems like so many people get it wrong that I have to wonder what is going on here? The theory has been around for ages and in one form or another has been being taught in schools and yet, the general populace still doesn’t understand? I suppose the same could be said for many scientific topics such as physics or chemistry, but this one really seems to get people.
    Sorry this is a bit rambly, but I just don’t understand why it’s so hard for people (again, myself included).

  2. 2
    Miranda

    This has nothing to do with your post i’m afraid, but seeing as how this is the only way I know how to get a hold of you :p

    I can’t remember if you were aware of my health situation or not, but I was recently (a few months ago) Diagnoised with a heart condition known as WPW, it’s congenital so i’ve had it all my life, it took a rather bad episode and a trip to the ER for it to reveal itself. If your courious about the condition there’s all kinds of information online, just google it.

    Anyway, there was a surgery involved to correct the problem which was attempted on me last Thursday, there were no complications, but the long and short of it is that the surgery didn’t work.  I was on the table for 6 hours (about 4 hours longer then originally thought) I’m ok, just sore and bruised and will have to go through it yet again, and I found out that while Morphine and Valium may be lots of fun while it’s in your system, coming down is a bitch (I vomited on 3 different nurses .. FUN!)

    So anyway, that’s my update. How’ve you been?

  3. 3
    Jason Thibeault

    Wow, that’s absolutely crazy, I had no idea.  Wolff-Parkinson-White isn’t a fun condition to have to deal with from what I’ve read, but luckily death as a result of it is extremely rare.  Why did they have to perform surgery, was it elective to eliminate the problem?  I can’t imagine what it must have been like to go under the knife to have your ticker messed with — if it was me, I’d have probably refused, if it was completely optional.

    At the very least, I understand the symptoms will only present themselves if you get your heart rate way up.  So I guess you shouldn’t do anything exciting… no more roller coasters or massive orgies.  All for the sake of avoiding future arrhythmia.  So sad.  A shame the surgery didn’t correct the party so you could resume orgying. When do you go back under the knife?

    As for the morphine weirdness, for my back issues, I was on Percocets (ratio-oxycocet), which are also opiates, and they made me feel sick too.  Plus they gave me a neck-ache and pain behind both eyes when coming down.  It’s pretty horrible.

    My life hasn’t nearly been as adventuresome as yours… nothing much going on here, just sprinting to keep up with work, and getting over that bout of sciatica and the accompanying prescriptions and a brief cold.  I’ve been neglecting the blog lately, my apologies.

    Thanks for letting me know what’s up… hope you’re feeling better soon.

  4. 4
    Miranda

    It was elective, but it was strongly suggested I get it done because I want to have children, they can’t give you the meds or the surgery to help the problem if your pregnant, and if I have a bad episode while pregnant it can harm the baby, no oxygen pumping through me no oxygen pumping through the baby afterall.

    Turns out I actually have the harmfull kind of WPW, the way the Dr.’s explained it there are two types of WPW, depending on which way the electiricty circuits through your heart, the only thing they actually found out in the operation (which I had to be awake for btw, more or less, Morphine and Valium kinda knock you out, with an amnesiac kicker I don’t remember the whole 6 hrs) was that I have the type of WPW that’s more harmful and more likely to get a bad episode that can kill me, the whole “sudden death syndrome thing” so know it’s not elective anymore.

    If the second surgery doesn’t work I have to go in for a third, mostly because they think the extra pathway may be on the outside of my heart, which requires a far nastier surgery, which they can’t do at the QEII currently because the equipment is too out of date … figures :p

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