5 Things I Didn’t Know About Evolution

February 18, 2011 By: erik Category: Geeky, Reviews, Science 270 views

Rate this post:
1 Star2 Stars3 Stars4 Stars5 Stars (No Ratings Yet)

I recently read The Greatest Show On Earth, by Richard Dawkins, which details the evidence we have for Darwinian Evolution. Dawkins’ ability to elegantly simplify complex scientific concepts remains as powerful as ever. The reader need not remember or have yet taken high school physics to understand radioactive carbon dating and other fundamentals of how we know Evolution is true. Much of it I already knew, either from school, reading science blogs, listening to science podcasts, or from books. But there were a few bits that were new to me, or exceedingly interesting, so I thought I’d share them.

1) Dendochronology

Muir Woods - Redwoods History RingsEvery school kid knows that you can count the rings on a tree trunk to know how old the tree is (or was when it was cut down), but what is left out of the school lesson is that every growth ring is unique, and that they are proportionally identical for all the trees in a certain geographical region. When one tree has a really strong growth year, they all do, and when the resources are tight another year, all the trees grow a little bit less. This is pretty obvious, but then comes the genius bit… To use Dawkins’ example, what if you want to know the exact year the timbers in your Tudor House (built in the Tudor Period from 1485 to 1603) were cut down? Impossible, right? Wrong.

Because we have pieces of wood cut down throughout the centuries that overlap with the present day tree ring record, we can simply line them up with the tree rings we know the dates of for sure, and then we can go back further. We do that again, and again, and again, and we end up with a database of tree rings going back… wait for it … 11,500 years!!!

Of course dendrochronology is mostly used for archaeology rather than paleontology, but it helps demonstrate just how clever scientists can be when it comes to properly dating objects from the distant past. Dawkins mainly included it in his book to show how using only trees and methods a six-year-old could understand, scientists can blow Young Earth Creationism out of the water.

2) Homology

HomologyTo quote Dawkins:

What a piece of work is the mammalian skeleton. I don’t mean it is beautiful in itself, although I think it is. I mean the fact that we can talk about “the” mammalian skeleton at all: the fact that such a complicatedly interlocking thing is so gloriously different across the mammals, in all its parts, while simultaneously being so obviously the same thing throughout the mammals.

What he’s talking about his homology, how skeletal structures can be identical across related species, despite the size of each bone being different. I was unaware that every bone in the human skeleton has an exactly correlating bone in the skeletons of mice, elephants, whales and bats. The image I’ve included here is a wonderful example showing how the wings of pterosaurs, bats and birds differ. When flying, the pterosaurs supported their entire weight on the equivalent of their pinky finger, the bat supports its weight on its four fingers, and the bird uses its entire arm. The important point being that they are all the same bones, just sized differently due to their repurposing.

3) The Laryngeal Nerve

Okay, I confess to having heard of this before, but I’m including it because it’s so ridiculously interesting. There’s this nerve, you see, that goes from the brain to the larynx, the “voice box” organ used by mammals to make noise and swallow. Rather than travel directly from the brain to the throat, as any engineer designer with any intelligence would have it do, it meanders all the way down into the chest, loops around an artery leaving the heart, and heads back up to the throat. Of course there are hundreds of “no competent engineer would design it this way!” bits across the spectrum of anatomy (of particular note, because if its fame as a Creationist talking point, is the optical botchery that is human eye), but the laryngeal nerve is probably the most glaringly obvious, especially in the animals with the longest necks: giraffes.

Dawkins was lucky enough to attend a dissection of a giraffe neck to study this nerve.

He also ventures humorously into chin-stroking armchair conjecture land with:

Quite apart from the waste of resources involved in making such a long nerve, I can’t help wondering whether giraffe vocalizations are subject to a delay, like a foreign correspondent talking over a satellite link. One authority has said, “Despite possession of a well developed larynx and gregarious nature, the giraffe is able to utter only low moans or bleats.” A giraffe with a stutter is an endearing thought, but I won’t pursue it.

4) Arms Races

Another concept that was only vaguely familiar to me is that of evolutionary arms races, which refers to two species, typically predator and prey, evolving strategies and abilities in unison. I love the aptness of the term “arms race” in this sense. The example used in the book is that of cheetahs and gazelles. Both are fast, but what the cheetah has in raw acceleration (0 – 60 mph in three seconds!), the gazelles make up for in endurance. As subsequent generations of cats got faster, the ungulates did too. But, as Dawkins points out, each gain in speed and agility is met with costs, like real arms races, because energy spent on making legs longer and muscles stronger are not spent on the genes’ primary goal of reproduction. His point is just how futile it all is (the section of the book is titled “Running to stay in the same place”) and how ridiculous it would be for an omnipotent designer to make Nature like this.

5) Four Memories

The concept of four memories that help us survive is very elegant. It goes like this:

  1. Genetic Memory – Our DNA, in its direction of our embryonic development, contains helpful information about the distances our eyes need to focus, our instinctual responses to possible predators, our distaste for poisonous substances and like of calorie-rich substances.
  2. Immune Memory – Within our own lifetime, our immune system remembers specific diseases it has fought off and stores the recipe for antibodies to defend us against those diseases in the future. Through science, we have been able to develop vaccines (like immune memory school) to trick our immune systems into thinking that we’ve already had polio or the measles and thus defend ourselves against future encounters.
  3. Regular Memory – What we normally refer to with the word memory, stored in our nervous system. We can recall events that have happened to us and how we survived them.
  4. Collective Memory – This is the memory of our ancestors, passed down through language. The capacity of this memory exploded with the invention of writing, and then exploded again with the printing press and the Internet. Imagine if all we knew were our own experiences! Instead we go to school for decades to learn all the information of those that came before us.

Okay, so that may not have been about specifically about evolution, but it was an idea new to me that was presented in the book.

  • If there were like aliens who came to earth and they had evolved on their planets to ‘see’ in a spectrum outside of ‘visible spectrum’ and they were incredibly dense and slow-moving, but very long lived, we would find it very difficult to communicate, right? Not only in the sense that words on paper might be hard for them to see, but also in that the kinds of thoughts we have are informed by the way we interact with the world. Even if we found some way to translate a thought like “it is a very pleasant morning” into the aliens’ language, we would have no assurances that it would produce in them a mental state that corresponds to one a human would have under the same circumstances. I have read where this has been expressed better by others, but googling “ability to communicate with aliens” is just depressing so I stopped looking.

    Anyway, my point is just that it’s kind of ridiculous to comment on “how ridiculous it would be for an omnipotent designer to make Nature like this”. Maybe cheetahs chasing gazelles really, really fast is exactly what an omnipotent designer would want. To say that no intelligent designer would wrap the laryngeal nerve around an artery in your chest presumes that you can know the designer’s goals. Installing a urinal in a public space without hooking it up to water or drain is ridiculous if your goal is a tidy place for dudes to pee. But Duchamp’s goals were different, and unforeseeable to most of his contemporaries (and almost certainly incomprehensible to anyone from earlier times). Come to think of it, it is entirely possible that Duchamp is/was god.

    Any system that presumes the existence of an ineffable magical force is free to be 100% consistent. All you can accomplish by saying that the universe doesn’t make sense as a rational creation is to make yourself look presumptuous. There are plenty of good arguments against religion; this isn’t one.

    • erik

      I’m not sure where you were going with the dense alien thing, but I don’t think you got there.

      Neither Dawkins nor I ever said any of this was an argument against Religion in general (he nailed that argument – no pun intended – in another book), but it is a pretty good argument against a benevolent intelligent Designer who is concerned with the suffering and/or efficiency of His creations. All of us have looked at a particular piece of work in our own fields and thought, “Man, whoever did this had no idea what they were doing!” (I think this about my own work quite often.) That’s all biology has told us: that anatomical anomalies like the laryngeal nerve make perfect sense if they were the result of a slow process of natural selection, and they make no sense whatsoever if they were designed that way in 4,000 B.C by a Creator that had any idea what He was doing.

      Any system that presumes the existence of an ineffable magical force is free to be 100% consistent. All you can accomplish by saying that the universe doesn\’t make sense as a rational creation is to make yourself look presumptuous.

      More presumptuous than the person declaring a magical force? You can’t really mean that.

      • I think we’re talking past each other. You say “they make no sense whatsoever if they were designed that way in 4,000 B.C by a Creator that had any idea what He was doing”. Don’t we need to know what he was doing before we decide whether he did it well?

        • erik

          Not necessarily. We don’t have to know the ultimate divine intention to discard hypotheses to what the divine intention might be.

          I can say, “I think The Creator’s intention was X.”
          And then you can say, “Well, given evidence A, B, and C, if X was the intention, he didn’t do it very well.”
          Boom, one hypothesis discarded.

          Of course there is no argument against the “Mr. Rogers” creator that wanted us and loves us “just the way we are”, because it makes no testable hypotheses, and is therefore not a scientific claim.

          • I didn’t read your statement at the bottom of #4 as being the rejection of any particular hypothesis. But I agree with what you’re saying in the preceding comment.

  • I remember most of this from college biology, I always did think it was a fascinating subject. But I didn’t know about the laryngeal nerve. I had no idea that it was that twisted. It certainly doesn’t seem to be a very efficient “design”. Good point.