Marvel of design

Walkabout podcast – Marvel of design

I delayed this one slightly to serve as my Darwin Day post ;-)

I freely admit that there are some really stunning things to be found in nature – in fact, that’s what many of my ‘Too Cool‘ posts are intended to highlight. Predator/prey relationships, highly specific adaptations, remarkable methods of camouflage – they’re all fascinating and awe-inspiring examples of the natural world’s properties. And, it’s not particularly hard to find someone who will point to these as evidence of a supernatural design, interactions and traits too precise to have arisen at random – this occurs quite frequently, in fact. Naturally (a ha ha) I see some problems with this perspective.

First of all, the idea that it’s ‘random’ is more than a little misleading, a misunderstanding of natural selection the stems from both unfamiliarity and intentional fudging. While genetic variations and mutations are largely random, there’s the ‘selection’ half that’s, really, a very simple algorithm: if it improves the organism’s chances of survival or reproduction, it stands a better chance of being passed to offspring. Add to this the converse – that something detrimental to survival/reproduction is much less likely to pass along – and you have a simple system that produces beneficial changes in species over time. Many people no longer even try to argue against such a selection process, since it’s blindingly obvious how it would work, but instead assert that this would take far too long to produce the drastic changes that had to have occurred. The very same people also ask how come we’ve never seen a new species arise (in the 150 years we’ve even known about this process,) so it’s rather clear that making sense isn’t high on their list of priorities.

Yet there are bigger issues with the ‘design’ aspect than all that. To maintain this perspective of design, one has to possess the same kind of blind spot that fosters a belief in psychic powers: the complete dismissal of every last example that doesn’t support the idea. It’s easy to claim that flowers which mimic female bees to attract pollinators are truly remarkable, but what of the numerous viruses that have sparked pandemics? Moths that avoid being eaten by looking exactly like hummingbirds are almost unbelievable, but what about spiders that fail to fend off the paralyzing stings of wasps, and play host to wasp larvae that eat them alive from within? Perhaps that’s a remarkable design from the wasps’ standpoint, not so much from the spiders’. And let’s not ignore the thousands of species that have gone extinct, absolutely begging the question of what they were designed to do. In fact, the ubiquitous examples of competition, of scarce resources, even of parasites and cancers, really makes the entire idea of design distinctly asinine. Let’s be serious: the first thing anyone would do in designing something is define the goals and ensure sufficient resources. And to be blunt, what possible use is even the ability to change in the first place, much less change for the worst?

The typical answer to such questions is that there is a huge master plan that we cannot fathom. It’s hard not to see this as being opportunistically two-faced, since it was the very idea that we could see the design that causes people to trumpet this design; immediately claiming that it’s a hidden design demonstrates that there’s only one conclusion that’s acceptable, and logic be damned.

Buried within all of this is an even more revealing facet. We’re in awe of flies that mimic spiders because we don’t see it everyday; nature is not completely full of such things. If it were it’d hardly be remarkable, would it? It’s these rare exceptions that capture our attention and seem so unlikely, because most of what we see is rather haphazard. We’re well aware of the damage to ecosystems, the ripple effects of introduced species, and unchecked depredation precisely because they can occur so easily – things can get out of whack without much effort at all. How hard would it be to design stability, or correcting mechanisms? If there are more people in the world hunting bison or dodos, why don’t their populations keep pace? Why are there even more people in the world? And who the hell thought allergies were a great idea?

So many aspects of nature are remarkable only because they’ve come from such simple mechanisms as natural selection. It’s like saying that your child reads at a seventh-grade level; this is something to be proud of if the child is five, not so much if they’re twenty-five. The various traits of organisms are fascinating when viewed from the perspective that they originated from very slight advantages provided by very slight variations and perpetuated by very slight increases in reproductive success – this is, in fact, a perspective that far too many people fail to appreciate. Given a perspective that everything was carefully designed to be this way, we must wonder what kind of a bumbling fool was at work, and what possible outcome was intended. Thousands of people a year die from choking, solely and entirely because the food path crosses over the air path, a plumbing error that we would never accept in our industrial world. Ruminants, the animal class that includes cattle, have to have multiple stomachs to extract sustenance from the horribly inefficient source of grasses. We have seasonal changes across the entire planet because the damn axis is tilted! It’s fascinating how so many species have developed to cope with the huge amount of adversities available, but designed? Please.