Monday, 8 April 2013

Evolution - A brilliant concept and yet...

Swami Gulagulaananda wondered:
"If you keep wishing for wings for a million years, will you sprout wings? Can I ask for a jet-pack instead?"

I recently watched this video on Youtube where David Attenborough describes how life evolved from the basic primitive unicellular organisms to the superior organisms that we see today.

Evolution is not something as trivial as becoming more advanced from a simpler creature. From a strictly engineering standpoint, it is a process of upgrading the version to build extensible systems.

Let us take an example of one of the most primitive organism called Charnia. The structure of Charnia's body is simple in that, the body was based on fractals. It's like - You take a unit, and each of  the sub-units are similar to the main unit, and each of the sub-sub-units are also similar. If you were designing an organism, the fractal one can be very tempting because of its simplicity. It is like recursion of programming. You write it once and you call it a lot of times. This also becomes a disadvantage in that, you cannot make complicated things with a single thing. Therefore this design was scrapped and the Charnia apparently has no known descendants.

The next good example that you can look at are insects and vertebrates. I remember reading this in Biology in school, I believe it's called homoplasty. For example, birds can fly, insects can fly. But the wing structure and bodies are differently made. Or take a beetle with a hard crust for an exoskeleton. It seems that the insects cannot become bigger than a certain size because of the fact that they don't have a skeleton within their body. So as they become larger, they collapse within themselves. This problem however will not occur in vertebrates because of the solid skeletal framework inside.

If you were solving these problems, I think this would seem like common sense too. Like, a clay model will not stand as per the shape set because it would collapse. You would perhaps create a wireframe first and then apply the clay on top of it. It seems like common sense.

If you also look at evolution, you will notice that every time there was a problem or a situation, the organisms adapted accordingly to fix it. If a tail was not needed, it got dropped. If wings were needed they were developed. Leaves were high, get a long neck. It's brilliant. And there are no redundancies. Ok, some vestigial organs might still be hanging around (like the appendix) but I'm sure pretty soon they will be lost.

But now I ask you a final question. As brilliant as evolution is and nobody doubts its beauty and elegance, the only thing that bothers me is - Do you really believe that organisms can do it by themselves? As in, if I want to fly, and all other humans want to fly. And all our children want to fly and their children want to fly. After a million years, would humans be flying? Is it just will power that can make these changes? Is it desire that can make these changes? Does that mean that stupid looking creatures were all thinking so much? This is where I lose the ability to come up with a clever idea. I understand that circumstances drive evolution. I understand a giraffe developing long neck - Perhaps all giraffes were stretching and that 'stretch' quality got passed on somehow. But a structural deficit like lack of backbone getting fixed by developing a backbone or replacing gills by lungs seem a little too radical for automation. I hope you understand what I mean. This doesn't appear to be something that can automatically happen without a clever engineer's experimentation and trial and error...

I think these kind of questions either have not yet been fully answered, or I am not aware of them, or aliens are modelling us, or God is... :P Whatever it is, I believe evolution is a fabulous subject to study, to see how real engineering challenges are rectified, and how it can still not fully obliterate God.

Comments from Facebook

Raghavendra Gali:
As far as I understand Evolution, there are no grand designs, just accumulated local optimums. Guess we're looking for patterns when none exits. Over time the sets of genes that aided survival of themselves(the genes) survive.The organism is just a vehicle for those surviving genes. It's surprising that so little intelligence/design was involved in evolving intelligence.

Nikhil Baliga:
Interesting approach. But that does not explain why organisms like Charnia had to die out. If it is possible for me to survive with a given configuration, I don't need to improve right? The Charnia was doing a great job surviving and at that time, there were no predators

Raghavendra Gali:
There is meiosis that results in gene shuffling and new variation for adaption. For surviving this far in the evolutionary race, a lots of sets of genes have competed and lost. We are the product of genes that could get us surviving so far. The improvement is nothing but genes that aid survival surviving, because those only could get propagated.

You may also like to read
Purpose of Existence


rameshddrr said...

Well ... The evolution has happened and it something that can be seen with our very eyes. The wild grains of wheats have very loose seeds, but the plants figured out that loosing seeds is not the best way to procreate when humans are ready to aid their reproduction. So, the seeds remain intact in the plant resulting in humans favoring those strains. This has different aspect to it .. It is Evolution by Natural Selection that I think you missed out. A small mutation which (keeps happening all the time during the process of reproduction) when favored by the environment survive and gets passed on to the generations. Thats the reason evolution takes millions of years.

As in wheat grain example a group of plants which mutated to have the seed intact rather than dispersing was favored more by humans and it survives today more than other wild strains. So, the plants evolved.

Another brilliant proof for evolution is the genetic proof, which have been collected and available for people to see.

Another hypothetical and may be even naive way of looking at evolution would be :
If there is a new disease which affects the hair follicle of people and killed all those who are non-bald. Then thousands of years from now there would be only bald people roaming. It wasn't that an individual wished for that option but thats how the environmental factors shaped up the evolution..

Wow !!! I really bug people with my comments dont I!!!! Nice one Niks

Nikhil Baliga said...

I think you missed my point. I am not saying evolution didn't happen. I said it has indeed happened. However, some things are responses to stimuli like the giraffe thing that I said or the wheat thing that you said, while others are far too complex to happen because it is not trivial to get a complete redesign. The complete redesign aspect is what makes it interesting... I hope you got my point

Suraj said...

An interesting post as always, Nikhil, kudos!

"It is not trivial to have a complete redesign". It's an interesting thought.
I was reading a book and came across something called "Wallace's paradox". Basically, humans apparently had all the mental faculty to do what they are doing today, but for about a million years, they did not do anything. And suddenly, there was an explosion of culture. The paradox lies in the question that why the enhanced brainpower evolved in the first place when it was in fact latent for a million years? What prompted the evolution of the human brain, of the associated language and logic regions? Some piece of the puzzle is clearly missing.

Such paradoxes exist all around in the evolutionary theory, some of which you seem to have mentioned. Very interesting indeed. :)

If we look at evolution as a greedy algorithm, some instances mentioned were kind of able to compute multiple iterations of the same, in a single step. Did evolution predict itself? Can this be called intelligent design? Some questions to ponder on. :)

Roshan said...

You have misunderstood evolution.
'''Evolution does not "plan" to improve an organism's fitness to survive. For example, an incorrect way to describe giraffe evolution is to say that giraffe necks grew longer over time because they needed to reach tall trees. Evolution doesn't see a need and respond, it is instead a goalless process. A mutation resulting in longer necks would be more likely to benefit an animal in an area with tall trees than an area with short trees, and thus enhance the chance of the animal surviving to pass on its longer-necked genes. Tall trees could not cause the mutation nor would they cause a higher percentage of animals to be born with longer necks. In the giraffe example, the evolution of a long neck may equally well have been driven by sexual selection, proposing that the long necks evolved as a secondary sexual characteristic, giving males an advantage in "necking" contests over females.'''

Nikhil Baliga said...

There are two theories for the Giraffe's neck. You can read it here -

One is what you told, and one is what I told. The one that I told was a common example of evolution that has been given time and again.

More importantly, if you look at evolution as goalless, it doesn't make it clever at all. It would only mean that a random bunch of changes are happening, the ones that are advantageous are probably retained, while the ones that are not are scrapped. This would probably explain why it *seems* like advancement is happening and make it seem like advancement is the objective.

However, this would mean that it is trial and error and in that case, we should see a whole lot of combinations of trial and error. I doubt it. Let me read a little more.

Prashanth Bhat said...

Here are a bunch of thoughts that came to my mind:

1. It is said that if the entire time of existence of life on Earth was represented as 1 year, appearance of early humans would only be close to midnight on December 31. Humans have existed for about 15000 years(from the book: Guns, germs and steel). That should give you an idea of how long life has existed on Earth. Given that life has existed for so long, it is not possible to observe the process of evolution. So, if you compare two generations of a species, the differences probably cannot be measured. However, if you compare species with thousands of generations apart, you will see some changes, some of which may be drastic enough that you have a new species.

2. Evolution is not a direct process, it is the name we use to encapsulate a lot of effects of other processes. To explain this statement, evolution doesn't happen. Changes such as mutation happen to organisms. If these changes are beneficial and give a higher probability of survival to an organism, then there is a higher chance that this organism will reproduce and the changes will get passed on. If it so happens that the external factors, which make these changes beneficial, persist, then the changes are strengthened over hundreds of generations.

3. To give you an example for point 2: Let's say Humanity has lost all of it's technology, and food sources on land. To get food, one needs to swim into a lake or a sea and catch some fish. Somebody who can hold his breath longer can get more food for himself and his family. So, he has a higher chance of survival. His offspring will also inherit his breathing ability and they also have a higher chance of survival compared to their peers. So, after 1000 generations, this persons lineage will have thrived, giving rise to a new species of humans with underwater breathing capability.

4. To answer your question: No, we won't develop an ability to fly, irrespective of how deeply we may want it. If it gave an advantage over our peers in survival, we will survive, our peers won't, and so on, giving rise to flying humans.