The story of evolution-16: The evolution of the eye

The eye is one organ almost invariably brought out by creationists to argue against evolution. How could something so complex have possibly evolved incrementally, they ask?

Darwin himself suggested the way that the eye could come into being. Due to the fact that eyes don’t fossilize and thus leave a permanent record, it is hard to trace back in time and see the various stages in the evolution of the eye as linear developments. So he looked instead at the eyes of currently existing different organisms at intermediate stages of development, and concluded (On the Origin of Species, 1859, p. 188):

With these facts, here, far too briefly and imperfectly given, which show that there is much graduated diversity in the eyes of living crustaceans, and bearing in mind how small the number of living animals is in proportion to those which have become extinct, I can see no very great difficulty (not more than that in the case of many other creatures) in believing that natural selection has converted the simple apparatus of an optic nerve merely coated with pigment and invested with transparent membrane, into an optical instrument as perfect as is possessed by any member of the great Articulate class.

Steven Pinker (How The Mind Works, 1997, p. 159) describes how Darwin established how the eye could have evolved, according to the step-by-step process that I have described earlier, each step having a low probability for an individual but becoming likely when large numbers of organisms are involved over long times.

By looking at organisms with simpler eyes, Darwin reconstructed how that could have happened. A few mutations made a patch of skin cells light sensitive, a few more made the underlying tissue opaque, others deepened it into a cup and then spherical hollow. Subsequent mutations added a thin translucent cover, which subsequently was thickened into a lens, and so on. Each step offered a small improvement in vision. Each mutation was improbable, but not astronomically so. The entire sequence was not astronomically impossible because the mutations were not dealt all at once like a big gin rummy hand; each beneficial mutation was added to a set of prior ones that had been selected over the eons.

Still think it is implausible? Once again, using mathematics and computer simulations based on strict natural selection principles and starting, as Darwin himself suggested, with a light-sensitive nerve, it is possible to estimate how long the process of eye evolution took (Pinker, p.164):

The computer scientists Dan Nilsson and Susanne Pelger simulated a three-layer slab of virtual skin resembling a light-sensitive spot on a primitive organism. It was a simple sandwich made up of a layer of pigmented cells on the bottom, a layer of light sensitive cells above it, and a layer of translucent cells forming a protective cover. The translucent cells could undergo random mutations of their refractive index: their ability to bend light, which is real life often corresponds to density. All the cells could undergo small mutations affecting their size and thickness. In the simulation, the cells in the slab were allowed to mutate randomly, and after each round of mutation the program calculated the spatial resolution of an image projected onto the slab by a nearby object. If a bout of mutations improved the resolution, the mutations were retained as the starting point for the next bout, as if the slab belonged to a lineage of organisms whose survival depended on reacting to looming predators. As in real evolution, there was no master plan or project scheduling. The organism could not put up with a less effective detector in the short run even if its patience would have been rewarded by the best conceivable detector in the long run. Every change had to be an improvement.

Satisfyingly, the model evolved into a complex eye right on the computer screen. The slab indented and then deepened into a cup; the transparent layer thickened to fill the cup and bulged out to form a cornea. Inside the clear filling, a spherical lens with a higher refractive index emerged in just the right place, resembling in many subtle details the excellent optical design of a fish’s eye. To estimate how long it would take in real time, rather than compute time, for an eye to unfold, Nilsson and Pelger built in pessimistic assumptions about heritability, variation in the population, and the size of the selective advantage, and even forced the mutations to take place in only one part of the “eye” each generation. Nonetheless, the entire sequence in which flat skin became a complex eye took only four hundred thousand generations, a geological instant.

In his book The Ancestor’s Tale, Richard Dawkins points out (p. 388) that after the evolution of light-sensitive cells in worms about 600 million years ago, the kinds of image-forming optics that we now call the eye is estimated to have independently evolved more than 40 different times in various parts of the animal kingdom. Vastly different eye forms like the human eye and the compound eye of the crustaceans evolved differently and independently from a primitive common light sensitive cell that formed a proto-eye.

So far from being an event of unimaginably breathtaking improbability, the evolution of the eye is relatively mundane, although the organ itself is quite remarakable.

That is exactly the point that those opposed to natural selection refuse to acknowledge when they act as if all the parts of the eye must have come together almost at once. What is highly improbable to happen in one fell swoop becomes possible when it happens gradually.

Richard Dawkins in his book Climbing Mount Improbable looks at case after case of things that seem to be very complex and how they could have come about by natural selection. But Darwin did not need Dawkins to be convinced. In his own day, he had enough evidence to satisfy him. “If it could be demonstrated that any complex organ existed, which could not possibly have formed by numerous, successive, slight modifications, my theory would absolutely break down. But I can find no such case.” (Darwin, p. 189)

He further added (Darwin, p. 109): “Slow though the process of selection may be, if feeble man can do so much by his powers of artificial selection, I can see no limit to the amount of change, to the beauty and infinite complexity of the coadaptations between all organic beings, one with another and with their physical conditions of life, which may be effected in the long course of time by nature’s power of selection.”

POST SCRIPT: Great moments in the evolution of technology

Have you seen the the sideways bike?


  1. Cindy says

    I learned recently that some jellyfish have eyespots, which is fascinating because they don’t have fully developed neurons, just sort of a neural net that helps with locomotion. I hear people are starting to do more jellyfish neuroscience, which I’m really looking forward to reading, since they represent such an interesting step on the way from plants to animals, and maybe an important link to the evolution of brains. 🙂

  2. says


    That’s interesting because I thought that the worms were the first to develop light-sensitive cells about 600 million years ago. But jellyfish came even earlier, about 700 million years ago. Do you know if the evolution of eyespots was an independent development in the chain of descendants that originated with jellyfish? Or did the worms inherit it from jellyfish?

  3. Cindy says


    I don’t know, but the researcher I was talking to was at the Monterey Bay Aquarium (MBARI). It certainly seems plausible that jellyfish evolved the eyespot first, since one would guess they would have a lot to gain from discerning up from down even before there were mobile critters around. There’s also a cool Nature paper on the visual system of the box jelly, which can do some actual imaging, by Nilsson, 2005.


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