The Imperfect Design – Evidence for Evolution!

Image of a beatufiul eyeOf all the species in the world, the evolution of human beings is the most controversial. People, especially religious ones cannot stand the idea that humans don’t have a divine origin and existence and that we are related to the other animals. For fans of creationism or intelligent design, it is hard to accept that humans underwent the process of evolution to reach the current state. They often site the human body especially the eye as a perfect example of design as our body is too complicated to have evolved naturally according to them. Well, I am okay with it provided when a trained person looks at this so called “design”, he should not be puzzled as to why certain parts are in a particular way because when we look carefully at the human body, that is precisely what we feel.

Therefore I would like to call on the scientific and engineering outlook of the reader in this article because I am going to site a few examples where it is required for you to think as to whether we are actually designed or not. Let me first talk about design as we understand from our lives. Any good designer would design a machine or a drawing with the minimal amount of defects. Further he or she would make sure that the design is simple and optimized enough so that troubleshooting is easy later on. Furthermore, he or she would make sure that there is a logic behind putting a component in a particular place. Therefore a good designer can easily make out whether a machine’s design is defective or illogical in some way by looking at it.

I request you to look at the following few examples to have an insight into what I mean:

  1. The Recurrent Laryngeal Nerve – It is a nerve that supplies motor function to the larynx and travels from the brain to the larynx. However, it does not take a direct route. Instead it goes all the way to the heart, wraps around a major artery and then goes up to the larynx. It is puzzling as to why the nerve takes such a detour for no reason. In fact, in giraffes, the nerve travels 15 feet to the heart and then goes up to the larynx which doesn’t make sense. If we were designed, then the designer would simply put the nerve in a direct route from the brain to the larynx. It’s as simple as that. What really happened is that  the fish like ancestors of modern tetrapods had the nerve direct as the heart was above the gills, as it is in modern fishes. But over the course of evolution, as the neck extended, the heart became lower in the body and unfortunately the laryngeal nerve got caught on the wrong side of the heart. A designer’s eye would easily dismiss this as a bad design. In the following video, Oxford biologist Richard Dawkins will demonstrate the detour of the recurrent laryngeal nerve in a giraffe.
  2. The Human Eye – This is cited as the most perfect example of intelligent design.  But from an engineering perspective, it is not perfect at all. A person who make a camera will make sure that all the wiring is at the back of the film and not in front of it. Similarly if a eye is designed, then obviously all the nerves should be behind the retina. Unfortunately in human eyes, the nerves are in front of the retina. And where the optic nerve leaves the eye, there is a hole that creates a blind spot, which is the reason why our eyes jiggle. We don’t have a functional reason for our eyes to be this way except that historically the common ancestor of all vertebrates did not have a better retina available to work with. Now, those of you who want to bring in God’s “divine purpose” behind this should know that an octopus’s eye doesn’t have this problem. All the wiring is behind the retina for the octopus. In fact, the octopus eye is a much better “design” compared to humans. This link will tell you exactly what I mean by blind spot. The famous German psychologist Hermann von Helmholtz once said that if an engineer had given him the human eye, he would send it back. The video here would show you how the eye can actually evolve naturally without any divine intervention.
  3. Vestigial Structures – An engineer or designer would want his design clean. He wouldn’t want an unwanted component in the machine without serving a purpose. As in the human body and in other species, there are plenty of structures that do not serve any particular purpose. Right from the DNA to visible organs, one wonders why a designer would put them there. The answer as to why these vestigial structures such as the pelvis in snakes, human appendix, the male nipples, the tail bone etc. exist comes from evolution. These are relics from a common ancestry where these structures once had a function. As humans evolved, some of these functions either stopped or changed thereby creating these vestiges. Not only in the organs but also in the DNA we find vestiges. There are several genes that form part of what is called genetic junk. The only reason they are there is because evolution didn’t clean it up properly.
  4. Fatal Errors  – Image of Ectopic Pregnancy - Courtesy Mayo FoundationThere are some really fatal mistakes in the human body. Only because of modern medical care that we can counter death caused by these flaws. For instance,  in women, the fertilized egg can mistakenly implant into the fallopian tube, cervix or ovary instead of the uterus  causing ectopic pregnancy because of a cavity between the ovary and the fallopian tube. Before modern surgery, this used to kill both the woman and her baby. In men, the testes develop first in the abdomen and then migrate to the scrotum. This creates weak points in the abdominal wall where hernias can form in future and without modern surgery, it is a sure way to die. The human pharynx is yet another design flaw. It is the passage used for both ingestion and respiration, which increases the risk of choking. And as mentioned above the appendix is a vestigial organ that serves no known purpose. However, if you get appendicitis, it is a sure shot way to die. 

These are just a few examples of imperfections in the seemingly perfect human body. There are hundreds of such examples and in some cases the design flaw is so much that it can be fatal as described above. A designer with any level of logic or common sense would never create a body like this. Therefore the only conclusion that can be made is that either there is no designer or the designer is a very bad designer. Everything from top to the bottom in our body is trade-offs that came about through millions of years of evolution. It’s an undeniable fact.

The Common Ancestry Problem!

Evolution is a crucial process in the realm of biology, geology, cosmology etc. However, it has been the subject of debates because of misunderstanding that stems out of misinformation. This misunderstanding is often misused against the Theory of Evolution and people who do this get away because they know that common man does not really understand what exactly is going on in evolution. In this article, I will explain Biological Evolution and the concept of Common Ancestry in simple terms so that even common man can get a framework of knowledge on the subject from where he can build up further.

image of beautiful sandy island

To understand evolution and common ancestry, we must first understand what is “genetic mutation” and “natural selection“. Hence, before we begin, let us make a few assumptions that could simplify the explanation. Imagine an island in the Pacific Ocean. Let’s say it is a sandy island with trees, bushes and plenty of insects and other small creatures etc. Also let’s assume that there is a population of a particular species of lizards living there. Let us call them “Species – A“. Now, these lizards have particular characteristics based on the environment they live in. These characteristics include skin color, body strength, agility, heat resistance and so on.

image of sandy island lizard

The genes of our lizard species never stay the same during their lifetime. Genetic mutation happens due to several factors which include exposure to chemicals such as pesticides, industrial wastes, extreme climates, radiation from outer space etc. Once mutated, the new gene might carry a positive, negative or neutral trait. New positive traits may form such as improved skin color, stronger limbs, better digestive system and the like. Negative traits may include impaired vision, unwanted skin spots, weaker limbs and so on.

Image of genetic mutation example

In order to survive, the lizards must consume food, avoid predators and reproduce successfully. Positive traits are the ones that help these lizards survive better in this particular island and negative traits are the ones that make survival difficult. Hence, lizards with positive traits such as stronger limbs have better chance to run after preys and also to avoid being eaten by predators. Further, lizards with skin color more adapted to the surrounding sandy environment also helps camouflaging while it is hunting and also while it is being hunted. Since, the lizards with positive characteristics have better chance of survival, they are more likely to mate and reproduce. When male and female lizards mate, half of the chromosomes from the female combines with half the chromosomes from the male through chance recombination. Therefore, some of the positive traits from both the father and the mother are passed on to the offspring thereby making it fit to survive in the given environment.

However, though difficult, even lizards with negative characteristics may survive by either sheer luck or by other factors such as hunting of predators by other predators etc. In such a scenario even some of the lizards with negative characteristics might also mate and pass on their negative characteristics to the next generation. If the population survives for many generations, we can find that in every generation, the number of individuals with positive traits is more than the number of individuals with negative characteristics. We also find that certain type of traits such as a particular eye color or skin color or longer limbs etc. become marked trait of this species overtime with more individuals possessing them. In short, successful variations survive and others perish and as a population of species, it is important to have more number of individuals with positive traits reproduce. Thus, individuals would choose to mate more number of times with individuals possessing positive characteristics. This sort of “arms race” for dominance which ensures “survival of the fittest” and thereby survival of the species is called natural selection.

image of pacific rocky island

Now, let us say this process of genetic mutation and natural selection goes on for a thousand generations. We now have a species that is extremely adaptive to our sandy Pacific island and different from the parent species. We will call them “Species – A1“. Let us now assume that a few individuals such as a pregnant female or group of pregnant females manage to swim across the sea and arrive at an island that is miles away from our original sandy island. They could also arrive in other ways such as when predators that carry one or more of our lizards or lizard eggs accidentally drops or leaves them on this new island.

Let us assume this is a rocky island with plenty of water, plants and trees but lesser populations of insect and small creatures compared to the original island. The lizards who are used to eating insects, earthworms etc. from the sandy island will soon find that the new island is slightly inhospitable when compared to their “motherland”. They will also find that their softer bodies are not very suitable for the rough terrains of the rocky island. However, they have sufficient water supply, plants etc. The first generation to arrive might either perish totally or return to their homeland or somehow survive eating the little number of insects they have there.

image of pacific island fishes

If they choose to survive there, very soon the same process of genetic mutation and natural selection would ensue. This time our lizards need stronger and faster bodies to chase the insects in the tough terrains. They can continue to develop stronger and faster bodies to catch insects and survive for generations or they can switch to eating alternative food sources such as plants or small fishes in the water bodies inside and around the island. If they find plant eating is a good option to survive since they are there in plenty, the subsequent generations would eventually become totally vegetarians. If they choose to eat fishes, subsequent generations would develop traits such as improved streamlined bodies suitable for swimming, agility and alacrity in catching fishes etc. They might even become amphibious in due time by developing traits that would help them survive in water for longer periods of time.

After a few generations, say a thousand generations of genetic mutations and natural selections in the new island, our original lizard species A1 would have developed into a new species of lizards that have diverted in their physical structure, eating habits etc that helps them flourish in the new island. We can now call them “Species – B”. Now, our original Species A1 did not remain the same either in the sandy island. While A1 transformed to B in the rocky island over a thousand generations, A1 was undergoing the same in the original island. Now, after another thousand generations, we have “Species – A2” in the original island. If we take lizard species A2 and B, we find several similarities as well as differences in their body, color, size, overall fitness and even sounds they make. Sandy lizards would move in zig-zag motion which is better suited for sandy environments and the rocky lizards might move faster in straight line, which is suited for rocky environments.

However, both species A2 and B have a “common ancestor“, which is the species A1. Hence, we can say that A2 and B share “common ancestry“, which is the main topic of this article. Please note that common ancestor need not always be a single person. It can be a population of individuals who share similar traits.

image of beautiful galapagos crabs

When Darwin arrived at the Galapagos Islands in the pacific, he noticed marked differences and similarities in species of iguanas, tortoises, finches and so on in the different islands in the group. It caused him to think as to whether these species are cousins to each other. And that is what led him and Alfred Russel Wallace and many other biologists to study the process in the subsequent years and establish the theory of evolution by natural selection. This theory is currently the only explanation for the complexity and diversity of living beings on our planet. This theory has survived the test of time and is qualified as a scientific theory because it passes the four criteria I described in my previous article. Today we have enormous amounts of evidence to support the theory which include fossils remains, comparative study of homologous structures, molecular evidence such as ERV (Endogenous Retrovirus) infections in the DNA etc.

These are things I wrote directly from my head based on what I have read and studied. I hope I have accomplished the task of explaining evolution in simplified terms. Please let me know your comments and suggestions if any so that I can make this article better.

Evolution – What is in it for me?

image of phylogeny tree

Evolution is the slow process of change that occur in physical, chemical, biological, geological, social, linguistic and cosmological systems and the components within those systems over time. The theory of evolution, which is the subject of this article is obviously biological evolution and its far reaching implications pertaining to human life. How the knowledge of evolution affects a person’s everyday life is something unknown to common man and something that he doesn’t bother to know. It is a fact that the reason why human species exist and flourish in various parts of the world today lies primarily in the process of evolution and the human knowledge of the same.

Before I start with the main content of this article, I would like to describe what exactly is meant by a scientific theory. Any scientific theory must qualify the following four criteria:-

  1. It must explain an observable phenomenon and/or experimental result
  2. It must be substantiated with evidence obtained through experiments and/or observations and/or material evidence
  3. It must make testable predictions that can be verified by new observations and/or experiments and/or material evidence
  4. It must pass a rigorous peer-review process

Evolution is a theory that qualifies all the four criteria described above and provides an accurate explanation of the complexity and diversity of life on Earth. As a side note, I would also like to tell you that every scientific theory that qualifies the above four criteria still has its own realm of application. For instance, you can’t expect a scientist; no matter how gifted to explain why a sperm and egg fuse to form a zygote using the theory of gravity. That wouldn’t make sense since there are theories on sexual reproduction such as meiosis that give clear answers to questions pertaining to zygote formation. Similarly, you can’t expect someone to explain why objects fall using meiosis.

image of charles darwin

Hence, I don’t want to see comments asking, “Why doesn’t evolution explain the origin of life?” because evolution is not meant to explain it. There is another theory called abiogenesis that explains the various possibilities of origins of life on earth and possibly in other planets given the right conditions. Also I wouldn’t tolerate comments that defame Darwin and his contributions using contrived and misinformed information about his “deathbed conversion” and “rebuttal of his own theory because of missing links”. It is beyond doubt that Darwin was never converted in his deathbed and though he did accept that missing links existed, he never said that it is proof against evolution. In fact fossils of many of the missing links he postulated were later discovered and classified. Further, since 1859, the year when “On the Origin of Species” was published, there have been thousands of books written; hundreds of thousands of peer-reviewed papers published and millions of pieces of evidence amassed in support of evolution.

So, having established that evolution is a fact and the theory of evolution explains this fact, let’s move on to the main topic of this article. I will discuss some areas where knowledge of evolution affects everyday life:

Medicine

Evolution’s biggest use for humans and one of my favorites is in the field of medicine. It won’t be an exaggeration to state that we are alive because of evolutionary theory. Evolution helps us predict the outcome of antibiotic overuse in both humans and livestock and mutation of pathogens such as in the cases of avian flu, west Nile virus etc. We could study parasites such as tubercle bacillus, plasmodium etc. and how they evolve and this knowledge helped in treating resurging and resistant diseases using drug cocktails such as the ones used in the treatment of tuberculosis and HIV/AIDS.

image of mosquito evolutionary disease carrier

The recent outbreak of SARS and H1N1 show how vulnerable we are to pandemics created by evolved viruses. This combined with the fact that any infected person can reach anywhere in the world in a matter of hours cause the spread of any mutated virus more easy. Hence we must be aware of evolution of pathogens. HIV, a rapidly evolving retrovirus shares common ancestry with SIV (simian immunodeficiency virus). Hence we have new avenues of research into effective treatment of AIDS. Drug cocktails for HIV patients are creating remarkable success around the world. Further, the cocktails need switching so that the virus doesn’t adapt to a particular mix at any time. Only evolution gives insights into the right combinations of antibiotics.

Scientists are in the process of improving vaccines in the light of rapid evolution and antibiotic resistance of microbes so that people can stay resistant to diseases for longer periods of time. In times of scarcity of antibiotics and chemicals extracted from plants and microbes, it is easy to find related species and look for chemicals in them. Knowledge of evolution helps in finding related species. For example, the Pacific Yew tree used to generate Taxol, the drug used to fight cancer became endangered since 4 to 6 trees must be destroyed to produce one dose of Taxol. However, scientists used the common ancestry theory to find other common trees of the same family that contain Taxol-like compounds thereby helping cancer patients and saving lives.

Environmental Conservation

Understanding evolution of a particular gene pool helps biologists manage different species and their habitats. And if unfavorable conditions are located, endangered species of plants and animals can be relocated to more favorable habitats.

Agriculture and Biotechnology

Evolution helps in knowing the ecological adaptations of various crops and livestock which in turn helps farmers and researchers to introduce these crops and livestock in new environments. In addition it helps in understanding and implementing cross breeding. Further, it helps in artificially selecting the desired characteristics in crops and livestock. In biotechnology, the evolution of genes help in splicing beneficial genes between species which in turn help in producing disease resistant crops and the like.

Human Physiology and Behavior

The theory of evolution also helps us understand disorders such as autoimmune disorder, ADD etc. Understanding genes and their evolution provide new insights into hereditary diseases. Evolution also throws light into the various factors of human behavior such as existence of aggression and compassion.

Economics and Market Dynamics

Evolution also helps in market research where researchers can find out why certain products sell better than certain others. Economics changes in market systems, barter systems, forms of currency etc. are also studied in the light of evolutionary theory these days.

There are other fields that are totally unrelated to biology where evolution finds application. For example cosmology, geology, meteorology, oceanography, linguistics, sociology, politics, economics, theology and anthropology are some of the field where evolution plays an important role. However, this evolution is not biological evolution. In cosmology and astronomy, scientists study the origin and development of celestial bodies such as black holes and the changes in orbits of these bodies. Formation of land forms and plate tectonics and continental drifts form part of geological studies. In meteorology and oceanography, we have climate change, dynamics of ice ages, El Nino, La Nina, oscillation events etc. In linguistics, researchers study origins and development of languages. Sociology and politics also make use of evolution in studying social norms, customs, political systems etc. In anthropology, we use evolution to study the development and diversification of cultures. Finally theology also makes use of evolution in studying religious practices, beliefs and rise and fall of religions.

Teaching Evolution

The advantage that evolution offers students as a practical science to study life sciences as well as other related fields is profound. It is as important as other scientific theories such as quantum mechanics which describe the world around us. Hence, it is important to be taught in schools and colleges in both breadth and depth so that students who move into fields of biotechnology, agriculture, medicine, molecular biology and even geology and paleontology etc. can benefit in their future academics and research. The fact that our contemporary society has more number of scientists and consumers of science than ever before is in itself a good reason why knowledge of evolution and its education is important. Dieting, pharmacology, cloning, global warming, you name it and evolution plays a role there. Censoring evolution from school and college syllabus hence would eventually thwart progress in the fields mentioned. Thus it is imperative that people accept evolution and teach children about the same from a young age. The why part of science such as the flight of a bird, its songs, the resemblance of children to their parents, the similarities between species, the biochemical processes of eukaryotic cells etc. makes sense only in the light of evolutionary theory.

Conclusion

Evolution is the only scientific explanation of the history of life on earth and is also the only explanation that one can give for life elsewhere. There are no alternative theories to evolution! If someone says that there is, then that alternative theory must pass the four criteria I mentioned before. Any alternative theory that does not pass those criteria is not scientific and hence has no place in the academic or research world.

Bibliography

E vs R?


Image of The Blind Watchmaker
The Blind Watchmaker by Richard Dawkins

Recently I watched Dr. Richard Dawkin’s 1987 TV Show “The Blind Watchmaker” which is based on his bestseller with the same name. In it, he speaks of a program he wrote to simulate what would happen if a character set is made to rearrange at random or use the principle of natural selection in order to finally form the Shakespearean phrase “METHINKS IT IS LIKE A WEASEL” from Hamlet.

Image of DNA

DNA

I obtained the C++ source code of the program from here and ran it. It demonstrates nicely how something can evolve by natural selection. Even though the biological evolution doesn’t know what is going to happen in future as compared to the program, it does try to predict the survival strategy of the the living creature in question and propagate the genes suitable for such a strategy. He further went on demonstrating the same using a graphical program with advanced features.

Image of Toc H Institute of Science and Technology

Toc H Institute of Science and Technology

I recall an incident that occurred few years back. My college was founded in 2002 and mine was the first batch and hence we didn’t have any seniors. But the following year, we started getting new students and hence juniors. There were many of us who tried to rag them but the management was strict about its anti-ragging policies and ragging in the college remained a fun activity than anything serious.

When the third batch came, the story repeated. However the new principal who had taken charge very recently came to our class one day and said:

Image of Passage of Time

Passage of Time

I know you will be interested to know your juniors and get acquainted with them and I appreciate that. But I don’t appreciate the way you have chosen to do that. If you look at history, there has always been two processes of development. One is a rapid advancement of a concept to bring forth notable changes within a short span of time. Such a change is called ‘revolution’. There is another way of development which is a very slow and gradual improvement on existing concepts that bring forth lasting changes over a period of time and that is called ‘evolution’. I suggest you follow the evolutionary way of getting acquainted with the new students.” Evolutionary way!

Image of Mutation

Mutation

It is a proven fact that given sufficient time, species change to ensure that their genes survive in the changing environment.  A recent article in Nature says that in every generation of humans, there are at least 100 to 200 mutations happening in the genes. Hence we may also evolve into a new species in another few thousand or million years. But I must add that along with biological evolution, human intellect has evolved too. We see rapid advancements in fields of artificial intelligence and genetic engineering. Also we see human cloning as one of the emerging fields. We humans have become capable of artificial selection!

Let’s pause and think where this is leading us.

Image of Brain Chip

Brain Chip

I recall my friend saying: “Our generation is the one that struggles the most. In the past, there was very little to study and you could get any job after your 10th grade. In future, advancement in brain chips will make learning obsolete by creating babies who already possess, at the time of birth, all the necessary information for its survival on the planet!

I admire him for this accurate prediction because it was not based on intuition but on real facts that we see around. Indeed that’s what is going to happen. We will surpass the pace of evolution and start producing a new breed of humans who will be far superior to us in all aspects. If as mentioned in the opening paragraph, a simple program can be made to follow the process of selection, we may even create an artificial evolutionary process by which machines can evolve and finally make the human nature survive through those machines long after the human race has vanished!

Image of Survival of fittest

Fittest will survive!

The title of the post, “E vs R” as you might have rightly guessed is “Evolution vs Revolution“. The future will be a combination of both. We will revolutionize by conquering and controlling evolution! We won’t be left behind in the struggle for existence. There won’t be any more “the fittest will survive” motto since everybody will be equally fit and we shall all survive together.

Now whether this equality that we try to bring about is in the interest of our existence or not is something we need to wait and find out.