How evolution works

An intricate scientific process, evolved over many years, may be helping the small rodents escape when they’re caught, according to animal behaviour experts.

Mice produce a sweat chemical which confuses cats, giving them enough time to plot their route to freedom, suggests Prof Benjamin Hart, from the University of California’s School of Veterinary Medicine.

They secrete molecules, called lactones, which have a mesmerising effect on their feline captor similar to the effect of catnip, which contains a molecule called nepetalactone.

OK, but as always we need to get the logic and causality the right way around here:

Scientists suggest mice may have developed the ability to generate this sweat chemical due to evolutionary forces.

The physiological process may have developed over many years as a way of helping them survive when they find themselves in the clutches of a ferocious cat.

Prof Hart told The Telegraph: “Mice produce lactones in the skin, which are excreted when mice are stressed.

“I hypothesised that mice evolved an alteration in the lactone to resemble nepetalactone and evoke catnip reactions in cats. Because the catnip, nepetalactone, induces playful behaviour, this gives mice a chance to escape”.

We must make sure to remember that the emission of lactone didn’t evolve to do anything at all. That’s just random mutation. It’s that those that did this were more likely to escape cat attacks and thus live long enough to pass on the mutation.

OK, cool, but this is also how economies work. Sure, there’s conscious thought rather than random mutation going into the activities of many economic actors – although not all perhaps – but the end effect is much the same. It’s not that the system has been designed in order to achieve this or that, it’s that those actors – or systems – which do this or that survive. Which is a warning to planners – at the very minimum Chesterton’s Fence must be seriously considered.

11 thoughts on “How evolution works”

  1. The process happens with actual manufactured products as well. The products that sell well stay in production and are made in greater numbers as well as being copied by competing companies.

  2. An intricate scientific process, evolved over many years…
    Obviously developed by mouse researchers working in secret laboratories behind the wainscotting. You wondered what those scratching sounds were…

  3. Not so much the survival of the fittest as the elimination of the unfit. Plus a large dose of dumb luck.
    Yep, that sounds like the market all right.

  4. ‘ An intricate scientific process, evolved over many years…’

    Do they mean Evolution?

    Why is a natural process of experimental trial and error until the the best outcome spontaneously emerges so difficult for people to understand?

    Why is it with all our allegedly ‘free’ sophisticated education, most do not understand Darwin’s Theory? Why do they confuse the meaning of ‘fittest’ in the expression ‘survival of the fittest (a phrase Darwin never used) as meaning ‘strongest’ rather than ‘best adapted’ – and thus most successful at reproducing.

    Then the Socialist smart set trot this phrase out to characterise (free market) capitalism as the strong preying on the weak, rather than a process of elimination of what doesn’t work, leaving only what does.

  5. I’ve often noted that the process does resemble something intentional, so much so that unless a writer is careful to avoid doing so they are quite likely to describe it this way. A bit like Adam Smith’s invisible hand.

  6. All the cats I’ve owned don’t seem confused when they catch a mouse. They just let it go to enhance and prolong the fun. They do the same with birds. Which don’t sweat at all, do they?

  7. “survival of the fittest” – it’s one of those word changes, like “making love”. In Darwin’s time educated English speakers – the sort of people investigating and reading about evolution – used it to mean “the best fit”. Today, even educated people automatically connect it to spending lots of time in the gym.

  8. “Why is a natural process of experimental trial and error until the the best outcome spontaneously emerges so difficult for people to understand?”

    Because that’s the opposite of what’s going on. The genetic material is trying to make an exact copy of itself. And failing. It’s that one of its failures turns out to be a more viable version than the original. So has a better chance of surviving to reproduce. Other failures are less viable & don’t survive.

  9. @BiS
    “The genetic material is trying to make an exact copy of itself. “

    Not quite, that is true for asexual reproduction like bacteria, but it isn’t true of sexual reproduction. The whole point of sexual reproduction (:) yes, a deliberate anthromorphism) is that the offspring is a random selection of components (‘genes’) from each parent. This greatly increases the variability, and also makes the variability of known working components, rather than random mutations of no particular survival value. As a result, sexual reproduction greatly increases the speed with which evolution can occur in changing circumstances: hence the emergence and widespread nature of sexual reproduction, especially in larger, longer-lived carbon-based lifeforms.

    Human – or livestock – cloning may have value as a vanity project, but it would be disastrous if it ever became dominant.

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