Coded gray.

Wednesday 30 August 2000


Pic of the day: When dinosaurs ruled the Earth ... according to Civilization II, Fantastic Worlds.

Darwin & I

Last night I read the Darwin Awards, detailing the various means in which people removed themselves from the gene pool through feats of remarkable stupidity. I must admit to a certain level of fascination, particularly when people do something utterly pointless just to prove how manly they are. Like, cutting their head off or something.

But I was upset by the tone of smug satisfaction that permeated the site. The evident delight at being superior to those idiots. Because I know from experience that even a normally non-stupid person can occasionally do a stupid thing. Inexperience, hormones, lack of sleep, lack of time ... Off the top of my head I could think of several occasions where I could have made it into the hallowed ranks of the Darwin Award winners. But didn't. Evidently God is mightier than Darwin, still.

Besides, evolution is a blunt instrument at the best of times. Fate could be capricious. The dumbest human has a lot more brain than the smartest snail; yet there are millions of snails still out and about, while smart people die seemingly pointless deaths. And what does it profit you to be a genius, if you are run over by a drunk driver? How smart must you be to not catch a plague?


I shall assume your agreement that evolution is a fact of science. Certainly it would seem that wherever in the world we dig, the uppermost layers are the most similar to our own flora and fauna. Deeper down, weird creatures are unearthed; and soon, only single cells are found; this continues virtually down to the first sedimentary rock. So it would seem that life started quite small, and only after billions of years started to diversify into multi-cellular organisms.

Here already something strange is going on. We have multicellular plants, multicellular animals, even multicellular fungi, I think. These "kingdoms" of life had supposedly parted ways a long long time before any one of them got the bright idea of aggregating multiple cells in one organism. So how did the other two catch on? If it took 3 billion years for the plants to stumble upon this idea, why did the animals catch on so early that it's impossible to say who was first?

There are more of these. Oh yes. For instance, insects and vertebrates are not very closely related. Their supposed common ancestor was a simple slug-like or perhaps jellyfish-like water dweller. Despite this, insects and vertebrates share such traits as multiple color sight, and the invention of wings. For good measure, various classes of vertebrates have invented the wings anew. Somehow, good ideas seems to be recycled even when there is no known mechanism to account for it.

Some people - particularly those of a more theological bent - like to state that evolution may be a guided process. As in, there's someone up there pulling the strings. But, if you have that level of power, why would you bother with evolution in the first place?


There are actually people who have tried to reconcile these points of theology and evolution. The most recent is probably Dr. Anthony Kelly, a philosopher and theologian. Mostly philosopher, it would seem. He believes that to be fitting companions for God, we have to create ourselves. This is a tall order, but the universe is thoughtfully constructed so as to do the work until we reach the current level, where we have to take responsibility for our further development.

I can't say I agree fully with this; then again, I don't have those university degrees he has. I think the thesis will not satisfy scientists, because it presupposes a Creator. Nor will it appeal to Christians, since it implies that God is not interacting actively in our personal lives. And philosophers will point out that it opens the possibility that God has come into being in the same way, thus shooting the First Cause back into the mists of eternity ... there is no telling how many universes could have been created one after another or several at a time, spawning Light knows how many deities throughout the meta-eons. Incidentally, this image would also alienate virtually any religion known to man.


But returning to the more secular aspects of evolution: When Darwinism was young, it was assumed that evolution was a slow and gradual process. If you look at a horse today and its ancestor 5 million years ago, you should be able to draw the horse of 2.5 million years ago reasonably well. You would also have an idea of how the ur-horse looked 10 million years ago. Just put the ruler on and draw the line.

Today, we know this is just not the case. There is "micro-evolution", such as the prevalence of dark skin among humans living near equator, and paler skin near the poles. All this must have happened fairly recently. But if we look at things in a geologic perspective, things are very different. Species seem to be essentially stable for tens of millions of years. Then suddenly entire ecosystems dissolve, and there is a frantic pace of change. New species almost jump into existence, filling the new ecological niches.

A strange phenomenon is the events of change, called mass extinctions. These happen tens of millions of years apart, but some of them were tremendous. It would seem that life, or at least multicellular life, has trembled on the brink of extinction several times. And funny enough, those groups of life that were eradicated, were typically those who had been most succesful just before. This is counter-intuitive: You'd think that the dominant species, being more common, would be better represented in the new order. But no. One of these blasts took out the trilobites, sea-dwelling creatures remotely similar to flattened lobsters. They had been kings of the sea. Then they were gone. The first vertebrates on land were amphibians, and they grew plentiful upon the land. Armored toads larger than an ox crashed through the ferns. Then they were wiped away, and the reptiles rose to prominence. The toads never quite recovered, and have been small and humble to this day.

The death of the dinosaurs has captured our imagination: Ruling the world for more than a hundred million years, swept away before the burning shockwave of a crashing asteroid. Without this timely intervention from above, we would most certainly not be here. And now we're staging our own mass extinction: Hardly a day goes by that some species is not removed from the planet. What lifeforms will fill the world when our rain of terror ceases?

Perhaps there will be, like in one of Larry Niven's Ringworld novels, entire ecosystems populated by various descendants of humanoids. It is hard to imagine some of our descendants grazing the plains while others hunt them with teeth and claw...

Then again, none of them are likely to be my descendants, as I still sit quietly on the edge of the gene pool, dangling my legs and occasionally testing the water with my toes.

Yesterday <-- This month --> Tomorrow?
One year ago

Visit the Diary Farm for the older diaries I've put out to pasture.

I welcome e-mail:
Back to my home page.