Proof from Design, or the Teleological Proof (5)

Evolution and Chaos

That’s a real problem, because there are a lot of similarities between the math I’ve taught you and evolution.

Flip back to my earlier definition. The copying process is a form of positive feedback. Unchecked, it would lead to exponential growth as the original made copies, and the copies also made copies, and the copies of copies also made copies, and so on.

The limited environment is negative feedback. It’s continually throttling or cutting down self-replicators in a multitude of ways; a lack of food, no more room to grow into, the length of a day, imperfections that kill it off after a time, predators in the environment, and a lack of mates are but a few examples from biology.

The changes to the copy are a nudge value. They’re a real wild card, sometimes increasing negative feedback (such as birth defects in biology), positive feedback (making tail feathers more attractive to the opposite sex), neither (changing eye colour), or even both (boosting metabolism and cancer rates). The rate of change can vary too, unlike the constant in our math.

The simple rules of evolution contain all the components needed for complex behaviour.

You may have noticed that I’ve avoided the word “organism,” and tacked on “in biology” in the examples above. While biologists were the first to stumble onto evolution, the same process works just as well on the non-living.

Musicians learn music by copying what’s come before. Their songs are different, but not because the songs are mixed via sex or tweaked via an error in the copying process; instead, creative exploration is to blame. All these songs, old and new, have to make an impression on other people, otherwise they won’t be played and will wind up forgotten, which is a limitation imposed by their environment.

All the pieces are in place, so it’s no surprise that music shows signs of evolution. When the Motown genre began, it was etched into vinyl records with the volume turned down slightly, just like all records at that time were. By the time this genre had faded in popularity, Motown records were as loud as the vinyl physically allowed. Why? Motown was usually played at loud parties and clubs; the louder it was, the more likely it would be heard and enjoyed, and the more likely it would be bought. Musicians and record producers inadvertently evolved to be louder, as a result.

The principles that drive evolution have been used to build more efficient antennas, stronger concrete reinforcements, robots that can walk, and even create art. I’ve used it myself several times, to find the minimal value in a complicated formula without doing a lot of messy math, and to find ideal exam schedules for a school assignment. It explains why music became louder after portable music players were invented; the environment changed to be louder, and feedback unconsciously shaped our music in response. In theory, anything that can be quantified into a number or imperfectly copied, then measured in some way, could be developed further by using evolution.

Baby Steps to a Light-Sensitive Patch…

Time to return to biology, to explain how eyes developed. Thanks to a mutation, an organism was born with a light-sensitive patch of skin. This patch allowed it to hide in dark corners or locate food better than organisms that didn’t have a patch, so it was more likely to survive and reproduce. A mutation that caused the patch to “cave in” protected it somewhat, so again that organism had an advantage. As the patch sunk deeper, it could sense light direction, and as the top nearly closed over it became a pinhole camera. A clear membrane kept out debris, but also acted like a lens. Muscles formerly used to control skin hair could bend this lens, moving the focus around. Detaching the outer layer of skin allowed it to rotate, and skin muscles went from having a slight effect to being dedicated to providing this rotation.

Each of these intermediate steps has been found in an existing species, so the entire process is very plausible.[132] There’s no intention behind his process, no great plan, and yet the end result is careful design.

The immune system took a similar arch, but with one crucial difference. For the eye, we have a pretty good idea of how it started. While scientists can roughly pin down the dates for when the immune system evolved,[133] and understand the aftermath quite well, they aren’t sure what it evolved from.

Some believers have seized on this. If scientists don’t know how the immune system started, that must mean it was created by a god! The same line of thought has been applied to countless other examples, ranging from the bacterial flagellum[134] to thunder.

Recognize this? I covered the same line of reasoning back in the Cosmological proof. Not knowing what caused something does not prove YHWH or Shiva or whatever agent you’d like did the deed, it does nothing but leave the causer unknown. And if we ever think of any mechanism that also explains how it came about without relying on a god, Ockham swoops in and rules out the supernatural version.

Again we have two theories, design by deity and design by evolution. One requires a god, the other does not, so we could invoke Ockham’s Razor if we wish.

Take A Chance

We can do better, though.

Evolution is a slow, haphazard process, that only improves by small steps. Gods are smarter and more powerful than us, capable of large improvements and planning ahead. We could infer the method of design, then, by looking at the results.

Most land dwellers on this planet are capable of producing Vitamin C. Indeed, by examining our DNA, scientists have found that we too would be capable of it, if not for a disabling mutation. This would have been crippling if not for our varied diet, which consumes enough vitamin C producers to make up the loss. It took the recent invention of long sea voyages to even discover this missing ability; as luck would have it, our best sources of vitamin C tend to rot quickly.

Both designers seem to be on equal footing, until you notice one detail. If our inability to make C was due to the gods, why did they leave a crippled deactivated version of it within us? A designer capable of foresight would have omitted it completely, saving us from accidentally re-activating it up and mucking up the plan. A blind single-step process, on the other hand, could never yank the entire thing out in one go. Instead, we would cart around the damaged copy until mutations and deletions had whittled it down to nothing. This process takes time, so a nearly-intact copy is a sign the change was pretty recent. This squares nicely with the evidence, too.

Design by deity has problems with the nerve connecting our voice box and brain, too. This pathway runs down our neck, into our chest, around the major arteries and veins by our heart, and back up our neck. There’s no benefit to this long route, yet we spend precious resources to create it. It’s a stupid design, and any competent designer would have gotten rid of it long ago.

So why hasn’t evolution trashed it too? Perhaps re-routing the nerve would require too big a change to happen by chance. Evolution only deals with small random tweaks, after all, so if any “repairs” need large co-ordinated adjustments, they’ll never be made.

Thanks to genome sequencing, we’ve been able to confirm this; multiple simultaneous mutations are needed to reroute that nerve, and the odds of that happening by chance are basically zero.

If there’s no reason for it now, evolution tells us that there must have been a reason in the past; otherwise, such a crazy combination never would have survived in the first place! As the changes mounted over time, this original “purpose”[135] was lost.

We can’t rewind the clock and track down our ancestor,[136] but we can look to our cousins instead. While every organism has been evolving for the same amount of time, they live in quite different environments that may have changed dramatically over the aeons. Since evolution is directed by the environment, if we can find a species that has always lived in an environment similar to our distant ancestors we might get a clue to the original “reason” for this layout.

It’s a long shot, and our first searches don’t lend us much hope. Chimpanzees, who must be very close to us by their anatomy, have the same detour. Dissecting other apes shows they have it too. Desperate, we start analyzing lemurs, sloths, squirrels, dogs, horses, mice, kangaroos… each time finding that blasted detour. Even giraffes have it, a ridiculous 5 metre long nerve to connect two bits of anatomy 10cm apart! Every animal with legs and a spine has that silly detour; insects and spiders don’t have it, but their insides look nothing like ours, and plants and fungi don’t have any nerves at all. Dejected, we turn to the sea, hoping to learn something from whales.

Instead, we’re shocked when we cut open our first fish.

They have air bladders and gills instead of lungs, of course, but they do have muscles, stomachs, spines, rib cages, and a lot more anatomy that looks similar to ours. Most importantly, they have vocal cords, a heart and a brain too…

… and the heart is in a direct line between the other two!

We keep dissecting fish, and each time we find the same brain-heart-vocal cord pattern. Our quest for a reason is over; that nerve heads for the heart because that once helped it to the voice box. As our bodies changed, and moved the vocal cord and brain into the head while leaving the heart lower down, single-step random mutations weren’t able to change this nerve’s path and thus it was forced into an odd detour.

Quests are known for granting important knowledge to the people that undertake them, and this one lives up to that ideal. To start, we now know we must have evolved from a fish-like creature. Not only that, but every land animal with a spine must have done the same.

It’s possible that large numbers of land animals originally made their home in the ocean, but over time all of them packed up and moved ashore. Since it would be highly unlikely for all of them to trace their ancestry back to the same style of sea organism, we should expect a wide variety of body plans. Instead, all of them conform to a four-limb spine-and-ribcage layout, have their internal organs in eerily similar spots, and develop in very similar ways.

From all this similarity, we’re forced to instead conclude that it’s far more likely that all land animals, including humans, evolved from a single creature that lived in water.

Insects and the like may not have, but our findings are suggestive: if creatures as diverse as elephants and snakes share a common ancestor, perhaps every living thing evolved from one organism.

The evidence from our basic building blocks all but confirms it. Every protein used by your body is encoded in a gene. There’s no need for every organism to use the same code for the same protein, and yet the overwhelming majority do. The protein that is used to exchange energy within our bodies, ATP,[137] is put to the same use in every multicellular organism we’ve found, and even a few single-celled ones. And most convincing of all, Douglas Theobald of Brandeis University ran a computer simulation that tested a variety of possible origins for life on a widely diverse set of life’s genomes. The odds of life having multiple ancestors, as opposed to sharing a single one, were 1 in 103,489. The odds of human beings spontaneously popping into existence, with no ancestors whatsoever, were a mind-shattering 1 in 106000.[138]

This is a problem for design by deity. Any intelligent designer would not hesitate to toss out useless code. Even if it did let evolution take over at some point, the net result would look like multiple ancestors for all modern life. Since we don’t find that, no deity could have designed any species save the first one. We’re forced into a biological sort of deism, at best, where a deity kick-starts a chemical chain-reaction then leaves it alone.

Is evolution the only designer? By no means; remember, all it took to generate complexity from simplicity were two conflicting feedback systems. With the bar set so low other examples should be easy to spot, and are. From the formation of ice crystals to the existence of stars, it’s clear that the laws of nature can create design without a supernatural designer.

[132]  Land, M. F. and Fernald, R. D, “The Evolution of Eyes.” Annual Review of Neuroscience, vol. 15, 1992.

[133]  Did you know you have two immune systems? The “innate” system appeared a billion years ago, while the “adaptive” popped up about 450 million years ago. Over time these two systems have integrated… mostly. I’d share more details, but quite frankly I don’t understand them!

[134]  Never heard of it? Then why did you skip past the introduction?!

[135]  There’s no intelligence driving evolution, as I’ve shown, so don’t take “purpose” and “reason” literally.

[136]  Sort of. Since mutations are small and random, you can reconstruct an earlier genome (and thus an earlier animal) by overlapping thousands or millions of sequences, and looking for the most common version of each gene. Without a womb, though, you’d never be able to convert this into a living animal.

[137] Adenosine-5′-triphosphate. Interesting fact: a typical Homo Sapiens Sapiens contains roughly ¼ of a kilogram of the stuff, yet uses enough in a day to duplicate its body weight.

[138]   Theobald, Douglas, “A formal test of the theory of universal common ancestry.” Nature, Volume 465, May 13 2010.