Err, no

Consider, for instance, the eye. We are familiar with its form from biology textbooks. A lens, a retina, a squishy liquid-filled package. From the octopus to the okapi, it doesn’t differ much. Yet that’s actually very strange because while the octopus, okapi and human share a common ancestor, that ancestor could not see. The eye developed independently, and in precisely the same way.

They didn’t develop in the same way.

Convergent evolution is a thing of course. There are simply some solutions to problems that work and some that don’t. Those that don’t aren’t here. The marsupial wolf and the more normal one we know about have very similar skull and teeth settings. Because being that sort of apex predator requires that sort of jaw and teeth. The torpedo shape of a shark and a dolphin are similar – but note that the back flippers are entirely different, vertical in one, horizontal in the other.

Reality imposes (say, the nature of light, or fluid dynamics) certain spaces in which a solution can be engineered. There are different paths to getting to that solution, that’s convergent evolution.

But the larger claim here, that this means that intelligence will arise no matter what, well, jury’s still out on that one.

The moral is that although evolution’s material changes, its outcomes do not, and to some scientists this has become close to a general rule.

No.

30 thoughts on “Err, no”

  1. It’s easy to become bored correcting the basic (GCSE-level) science mistakes in the ‘serious’ papers. Confusion between power and energy is a common one. I wonder why they can’t employ a couple of subs with at least a science A-level, which might help them avoid such egregious errors.

  2. Dawkins’ Climbing Mount Improbable (his best book IMHO) has a wonderful description of this process.

    Saying that intelligence is inevitable is to give evolution a foresight which it does not have. They have got it the wrong way round: the process of evolution is

  3. inevitable but the outcomes are different. Matt Ridley’s new book on evolution is also worth reading.

  4. As the review makes clear, there’s no scientific way of settling the dispute between convergence and divergence in evolution. It’s more a philosophical or metaphysical question.

    As for Dawkins, I gave up on him after ‘The Selfish Gene’ . Anyone who thinks that book is science doesn’t know what science is. It is riddled with metaphor and metaphysics.

  5. Dawkins is an OK scientist. He just discovered there’s more money in pop science. Can’t blame him for that. A chap’s got to eat.

    Intelligence is a pretty big variable in any case. All the races of man are intelligent, but civilisations come and go and only a few have developed technology.

  6. Looks like you’ve disproved your own contention there, Tim

    “Reality imposes (say, the nature of light, or fluid dynamics) certain spaces in which a solution can be engineered. ”

    Entirely true. For any creature without intelligence. Those are spaces that that creature is bound to. But intelligence widens the spaces where a solution can be engineered. The creature is not limited to what its body-plan can provide. Humans use intelligence to live outside the space their physical form would limit them to. By engineering reality.
    It’s an evolutionary niche & evolution usually ensures a niche will be filled.

  7. “From the octopus to the okapi, it doesn’t differ much.”

    The eye of a sea-dwelling cephalopod predator is quite different to the eye of a forest dwelling giraffe….

  8. The world looks very different through the eyes of people, birds, cats, flies and, I daresay, octopodes. We call the organ by the same word but they operate differently

  9. You see similar outcomes in the field of automotive design.
    After analysing the legal requirements for ergonomics, fuel efficiency & emissions, safety requirements and so on ( and on and on ) you discover that there are only so many ways to design a car.
    This is why all modern cars essentially are the same, having converged on similar solutions.
    All advances come from new material technologies or from improved manufacturing techniques.
    As BIS says, human ingenuity can expand the range of solutions available, but the laws of physics are still immutable.

  10. “This is why all modern cars essentially are the same”: though it’s not the reason all German cars are essentially the same, is it?

  11. Re Dawkins, I don’t like his politics nor his public pronouncements but as a scientist and a writer he deserves huge respect. He admits that selfish gene theory was not his idea but he developed it and elucidated it. The idea that our bodies are “vehicles” for our genes rather than the other way round seems commonplace now but in its time was extraordinary. That the rest of his career was devoted to explaining and popularising (and in many ways rehabilitating) Darwinian evolution is a worthy vocation. He’s also one of the greatest living writers in any genre. That’s enough to be going on with. I only say this because people seem to diminish his achievements: maybe it’s a British thing.

  12. Dawkins I find a tolerable writer at best. It’s on air that he really shows what an arrogant and incompetent argued he is. As an atheist i think he is possibly the least suitable advocate imaginable .

    Though kudos for getting no-platformed for Islamo-realism. That’s almost as cool as what happened to Germaine Greer over the tranny thing.

  13. Using the octopus as an example of “all the same” is so wrong its shining in its wrongness, as its the epitome example of how eyes have developed entirely *differently*. An octopus eye is “wired” from behind whereas mammal eyes are “wired” from the front resulting in a blind spot where all the nerves cross the retina.

  14. Intelligence is nice to have, but I don’t see it as complusory in evolution. Large unweildy thing on top of your neck, incredibly greedy for energy…
    Once you’ve got eyes and fire you are top dog anyway. Just do a bit of hunting and gathering, then when you see the vultures circling you walk to the kill spot, drive the hyenas away and get your steak. Not much brains required for that.

  15. No, the brains are needed to prevent *other* intelligences from getting to the kill before you. And then there’s the theory that it’s a sexually selected feature, so big brains want to hump big brains marginally more than marginally smaller brains, and so breed big brains.

  16. ‘The idea that our bodies are “vehicles” for our genes rather than the other way round seems commonplace now but in its time was extraordinary.’

    It may be a commonplace, but it’s not science or a scientific statement. It’s a metaphor, as your use of scare quotes shows, and a category mistake. There’s no experiment that could ever show that our bodies are vehicles for our genes.

  17. “The moral is that although evolution’s material changes, its outcomes do not”

    Bugger me, and there I was, for 50 wasted years, thinking that evolution was responsible for many different outcomes.

  18. jgh
    I understand your point
    But if we were in an evoltionary arms race for brains we sould have got where we are now quicker.

  19. “But if we were in an evoltionary arms race for brains we sould have got where we are now quicker.”

    Until there’s other intelligent species to compare with it’s impossible to establish a benchmark on what would be slow or fast evolution.

  20. “But the larger claim here, that this means that intelligence will arise no matter what, well, jury’s still out on that one.”

    And it will always be out. Because, if you find a situation in which it didn’t arise, the obvious response would be, “But it will. Just give it more time.”

  21. bis
    there is
    the rate at which sea snails are becoming land saneils, for instance.
    maybe I’m just competing with sea snails I’ll grant you.
    There’s a whole literature out there discussing whether evolution works by creeps or jerks.

  22. “It may be a commonplace, but it’s not science or a scientific statement. It’s a metaphor, as your use of scare quotes shows, and a category mistake. There’s no experiment that could ever show that our bodies are vehicles for our genes.”

    Yes, it’s metaphorical language, of course, but it’s also shorthand for a powerful scientific idea, viz. that genes, as opposed to organisms, are the central unit of natural selection – which is not to impute a motive to their behaviour but merely to suggest that the cumulative effect of genes as replicators and their effects on mind and body is to build a vehicle (the organism) which ensures their survival.

  23. From the tree’s point of view, birds are just a way of spreading seeds. From the birds point of view, tree’s are just a way of turning sunlight and water into food. From the gene’s point of view people are just a way of propagating genes. Points of view are by definition subjective. Science is about the objective.

  24. It’s an evolutionary niche & evolution usually ensures a niche will be filled.

    Evolution does no such thing. Any niche filled is filled entirely by accident.

    It took half a billion years to get from vertebrates to a fully sentient, tool using, social vertebrate (no good being brainy if, like dolphins, you ain’t got the right appendages to go with it, or being tool using and not prepared to work in groups).

    There’s lots of niches in the world that were not filled until man filled them by carting animals around. 85 million years and NZ’s birds were a long way off filling the “rodent” niche, and nothing much was filling the predator niche. Not helped by nothing there much filling the “grass” niche, so no herbivores either. Cases of really close convergent evolution are the exception.

  25. Chester, actually birds were filling most of the niches but not the predator ones, possibly a case of “can’t get to their from here” syndrome. Takahe for example are grazers.

  26. “…the cumulative effect of genes as replicators and their effects on mind and body is to build a vehicle (the organism) which ensures their survival.”

    No experiment could ever show that to be true. It is a speculative, metaphysical theory. And it is not science.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *