Category Archives: evolution

You can’t teach an old dog new tricks

An early carnivore that was a close relative of Miacis uintensis, Vulpavus. (Credit: Marlene Donnelly and The Field Museum)

An early carnivore that was a close relative of Miacis uintensis, Vulpavus. (Credit: Marlene Donnelly and The Field Museum)

Remember on the Planet of the Apes when the monkeys had evolved into Humanoid like creatures, well, don’t put your bets on that happening in reality. It’s just not the way evolution works.

I think that I’m discovering that each general species group, such as carnivores for example, has a period in its early history when it’s innovative and has the ability to evolve. Evolution is more volatile early on. But once it’s an old timer, say a wolf, it’s not going to change much from there. An old dog really can’t learn new tricks. However, the early carnivore certainly could. It was a young dog and it had the right stuff to turn into bears, raccoons, hyenas and cats too. And it did.

Take another example: the sea otter. Could it ever become like a baleen whale, the early ungulate ancestor of our water spouting cetaceans? I don’t think so. There were times in which evolution was rampant throughout the animal and plant kingdoms. The morphologies of those species were simple and general. The behaviors were probably also characterized by general habits rather than highly refined. But as species groups began filling the smaller niches, their traits became more and more specialized and as a result the morphologies became distinct and stable.

It seems that the fossil evidence shows that once a species hits it’s archetype, it doesn’t change all that much afterward. If true, this is significant. It demonstrates that, yes, evolution is unidirectional. And no, survival is not the underlying method for evolution. Species evolve because they are tending toward their archetype.

I’m not a paleontologist, but this theory could be tested by looking at the fossil record and graphing various species groups and how much they changed over time. I expect that you’d find that all species groups’ morphologies change significantly early on and less significantly as time progresses.

What does this say about mankind and our species? It says that bonobos can’t become human. It also says that mankind has an archetype into which it is evolving (or has evolved). And my bet is that it is not Homo technicus. Instead, we tend toward our Archetype: Christ.

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men.The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.

John 1: 1-5

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The Pulling Force of Evolution

Posted by David

I broke the tip of my finger this week, which has limited my ability to type and has given me a new respect and compassion for those who are disabled in profound ways. My injury has also brought back the memory of a deer leg bone that I once found in a pinyon forest in the foothills of the Sangre de Cristos.

Little flesh remained on this deer leg, but the joints were still intact. It had all the normal number of bones, except the upper leg bone had an ‘extra joint’ which was a bit larger than a baseball. This was a mass of bone growth, hinging a bit, which had developed from a full fracture.

What was truly amazing was how both sides of the fracture had sent calcareous projections toward the other side, like two hands full of fingers grasping at each other. Since the deer had spent much time walking on the injury, the growth never made a full connection, so the mass of bone kept getting bigger and bigger.  How did it die? I can only guess that a mountain lion got it, since I couldn’t find the rest of the skeleton anywhere.

Bodies are truly given an amazing gift of healing, aren’t they?

This idea of growth mechanics being directional and having two sides is important. I think of evolution in particular (the mechanic of gravity also provides an example of another important misconception). In classic and neo-Darwinism, the driving force of evolution mechanics come from the bottom-up, i.e. random mutations and the ‘desire’ for survival in the individual. But not only does the mechanics, the force of evolution, come from a pressure from the bottom part of the equation, but it also comes from a pulling force from the top.  Evolution has both bottom-up and top-down force mechanics. Once side pushes, the other side pull. Traditional evolution seems to be only concerned with the bottom up pressure and disregards the pulling force from the top.

As the deer bone healed, there was growth from one end of the bone to the other. But there was also a pulling force that said in effect, “here I am, your mate, the other end of this bone onto which you must adhere.” The same is the case for the process and driving forces behind evolution.

There is a pulling force from the ‘top’ which says for the jaguar, for example, “Time to become a great forest cat.” Or in the case of a temperate montane forest, the pulling force says, “Time to become a forest of pointed, snow-shedding trees.” Then the genetics, creatures and communities of organisms below respond and evolve into those species characterized by those morphological traits. This is the greatly overlooked aspect of evolution. Evolution is a pulling force rather than a pushing force from below. There is a pushing force from below, but that’s not what drives species directionally into their particular morphology. The pushing force is simply what we call life.

Tragically, this component is overlooked in our high school textbooks. We overlook the Great Pulling Force in science, because that pulling force is the love of God. Modern science won’t accept that kind of force. On the other hand, oddly enough, it will accept ‘randomness’ as a force or ‘chaos’. This is because man does not wish to go toward that great pulling force. All other forms of life grow naturally toward that pulling force, but in the human’s ability to choose, a.k.a. our will, we responds by not growing into that great pulling force, but choose to grow into our own particular egocentric bubble. We grow inward rather than outward toward the pulling force. Jesus came to change our direction of growth.

I’m hoping for a speedy recovery in my finger, that those little filaments of bone are starting their journey across the great gap!

See, I set before you today life and prosperity, death and destruction. For I command you today to love the LORD your God, to walk in obedience to him, and to keep his commands, decrees and laws; then you will live and increase, and the LORD your God will bless you in the land you are entering to possess…Now choose life, so that you and your children may live and that you may love the LORD your God, listen to his voice, and hold fast to him. For the LORD is your life, and he will give you many years in the land he swore to give to your fathers, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.

Deuteronomy 30:15-20

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Why does the left brain control the right side of the body?

Posted by David

I’m pretty excited right now. I just found a minor confirmation of something I’ve mulled over recently. I’ve thought that the reason the right brain controls our left-side motor function and vice versa is due to the fact that we have eyes. See Why are vertebrate nervous systems crossed? 

To understand this idea think about how a pinhole camera works. The light comes through the pinhole and displays the exterior image flipped horizontally and vertically on the film. What was on the right is now projected on the left. It works the same way with our eyes. The pupil in the eye causes the field of view to be flipped when the image is projected on the retina. The left side of the body ‘thinks’ it is controlling the left side, but it actually controls the right, and vice versa. Here’s a nice synopsis of the theory.

So, why is this important? It says to me that feedback mechanisms drive the development of an organisms physiology. And as one might expect, crossed nervous systems are not specific to humans. Fish work the same way. When the early proto fish first developed eyes, it was visual feedback that caused its nervous system to develop in reverse. The evolution of physiology is a direct effect of sensory feedback. It’s not just some random gene mutation that caused the nervous system to cross. Sensory feedback caused the reversal. I expect that this is how all of evolution works. Species develop and emerge based on feedback.

One must then ask, how does this feedback get back into the genetics of subsequent generations?  I conclude that the individual’s genes itself are affected by the sensory feedback. They pass the trait to the next generation, because their genes have been modified by sensory feedback. In the case of a crossed nervous system, why would a gene mutation be preferred for development? There would seem to be no special reason why a species would be better equipped to have a reversed nervous system. 

Another interesting implication has to do with awareness, but as of yet, I’m not sure what to make of that!

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Whence Comes Morality?

Posted by Mike

In Take Me to the River (or Somewhere Nearby) [NYTimes.com July 30, 2009], journalist and scholar Robert Wright laments about his continuing to have a well developed – yes perhaps even burdensome – sense of sin and guilt despite his years of having given up on the religion of his youth and now being a nonbeliever. He concludes that “natural selection built the conscience, hence guilt, into our brains.” He seems to be somewhat perplexed as to how people without a religious-based moral code to guide them can remain moral creatures, but concludes that “you can be an atheist and feel that there’s such a thing as right and wrong, and that you’ll try to align your life with this moral axis.” He goes on to suggest that, “In fact, I think you can make a sheerly intellectual, non-faith-based case that there is some such transcendent source of meaning, and even something you could call a ‘moral order’ out there.”

When Wright discusses the possibility of a transcendent source of meaning he does leap into the mystical unknown, which he had previously studiously avoided. I have no problem with wondering about the unknown; however, prior to moving in that direction it seems to me that we should acknowledge that Wright’s original premise re natural selection holds regarding human morality. Can we not parsimoniously conclude that it was likely the survival of the most adaptive features of the human that led to the development of our moral sense? Neither the tribe or a much expanded complex society or culture would likely have been able to survive without the refined selection of moral values society in general now possesses, which among other things enables social cohesion. And whether or not we like to acknowledge it, we humans are family/group/tribal animals who would not have survived the way we are now without our intense social dependence. Lions would not still be with us had they not developed the functional-social unit of the pride, and we would not be here without the human family-tribe.

Once we acknowledge that we possess the moral sense (what Wright calls a “moral order“), that we have because it was selected by circumstances to enable the survival of the species as we know it, then we can speculate further about a mystical transcendent source of meaning. Given our fragility as individual humans and even our fragility in groups and our strong need for emotional supports, and given as well, historically, our profound ignorance regarding ourselves and the natural world, it is quite reasonable that we humans would create structures to make the unknown known and thereby increase our apparent, felt security. Part of our ability to organize and construct the world to meet our needs is derived from this innate and doubtless natural selection-driven need to organize and construct, not only the known, but to extend this to all areas of experience, to the unknown – to what is over the next mountain, to why it rains or why we have seasons, to where do we come from, and to what happens after death.

Wright does not directly suggest it, but (extending the argument in his article), it seems that believers and unbelievers alike need notion, concept, or belief in the transcendent. Though science has, especially in the past several hundred years, unlocked so many secrets of the organic and inorganic world and radically expanded the “known,” there continues the vast expanse of the unknown that we need to have organized in our minds in some way for us humans to feel safe and secure. Historically over time as the veil of ignorance about the world is lifted by human discoveries, our understanding of reality has become more objective and less subjective and we have increasingly had less of a need to create or maintain explanatory myths. The notion of a transcendent source of meaning is a rather hypothetical construct and has the features of a culturally supported, traditional explanatory myth. It may be that as individuals and as societies we will never have sufficient knowledge and understanding to let go of such myths completely. In addition, the poetics of explanatory myths and our human responsiveness to the deep inexpressible meanings inherent in poetry are hidden features of our myths which ground them so tenaciously in our psyches.

http://www.newamerica.net/publications/articles/2009/take_me_river_or_somewhere_nearby_16376

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The Archetype of You

Posted by David

Earlier I defined evolution in one line: Evolution is the process whereby a natural system becomes its archetypal form. Let me go a bit further on this idea.

First, to see where I’m going with this we must realize that an individual is not independent. Nothing is independent. Everything is part of a greater whole. As John Donne put it:

No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less…any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind…

The same goes for a species. To understand how a species develops a particular set of characteristics or a morphology, we must look at the broader organism: the species as an organism, the genera as an organism, the order as an organism, etc., the phyla as an organism, and even life as an organism. An not only do we need to look at a particular family or genetic grouping, we also need to look at the local and broader ecosystem as an organism. For example, the grasslands with all its organic and inorganic substances is an organism. The continent of North America with all its climatic influences and biomes is an organism. The earth is an organism. The universe is an organism.

I suppose I’ve gone far enough. You get the point. But here’s the clincher: each of these life forms grow just like you do, just like a dog does, just like a tree does. An apple seed becomes an apple tree. A baby dog, becomes a dog. A grassland ‘seed’ becomes a grassland. An earth ‘seed’ becomes the earth. You became you.

An earth ‘seed’ didn’t become Mars. A tiaga seed didn’t become a tropical rainforest. A rainforest may have once existed where the tiaga now exists, but it grew out of a different ‘seed’.

Each of these broader organisms is a form of life and has a particular specialness that is inherent to it. Each had a seed. Each, one might say, inherited a plan, much like the genetics written in your DNA. But the seed that grows a grassland, doesn’t look like a cashew nut. And the egg that grows an elephant species didn’t take just a 22 months to develop into an elephant. These ‘broader’ seeds took millions of years to develop interdependent the genera and biomes we see today.

What’s also interesting is that in the first few million years of growing into an elephant, the elephant didn’t look anything like an elephant. In fact, it probably looked more like rock hyrax. But, make no mistake, it became an elephant. It also became other things too: manatees, dugongs, mammoths and mastodons to name a few. But the ‘seed’ that grew the elephant species could not have grown a cheetah, a whale or a star. It simply couldn’t have. It couldn’t have no more than your mother’s egg could have produced a hummingbird instead of you.

One common misconception in evolution is the focusing on one-half of the process of evolution and missing entirely the other half of the process. The common notion is that the branches become more diverse as time progresses, call it an upside-down pyramid, or the phylogenic tree.

But the opposite is also true. There’s a right-side-up pyramid that deserves equal attention if we’re really and truly to understand how evolution works. This pyramid has to do with the evolution of broader ecosystems. It’s also known as succession.

Succession

Let’s take the example of a grassland. Over the years the correct climate and soils would drive the characteristics of the local ecology to take on the appearance of a grassland. This is the case for all biomes. It is also the case for you.

And there are only so many of these archetypal forms. There is not an infinite number of them. There may be a seemingly infinite number of successional steps within a paticular biome just as there are seemingly infinite number of steps between you as a fetus and you as an adult. But if you look around the earth, you will find a fixed number of these archetypal biomes. Each of them are slightly different, but in principle they are the same. Grasslands, forests, deserts, tundra are some of the primary ones on land. No matter what you do to these systems (unless you change the climate), inevitably in time, they will redevelop into their archetypal form. And what’s so totally amazing—from a personal and relational standpoint—the same is the case for you. You are an archetypal form.

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