August 31, 2014
Thoughts Concerning Fred Reed's Eight Questions on Evolution
Then as we linger at luncheon here,
O’er many a dainty dish,
Let us drink anew to the time when you
Were a tadpole and I was a fish.
—Langdon Smith (Evolution)
I was introduced to Fred Reed's writing two years ago when his article on soldiering went viral on the internet. My first reaction was, “ Wow! This guy writes like Tim O'Brien only orders of magnitude more graphic. ” The following week, I built my post around a short quote from Fred's article.
Fred has a way of getting to the heart of a matter with very few words. This is a talent I admire deeply. For example on the Latinization of the United States, he writes,
“The fat lady has sung, Latino-wise. It’s over. Seventeen percent of the United States is now Latino. The percentage is increasing, and will increase. You can like it, or hate it, or not care. It doesn’t much matter. You might as well dislike gravitation.”
And on the arrogance of demanding that the rest of the world adopt all that is American (Democracy, Capitalism, Militarism, Christianity, Lady Gaga, Justin Bieber (Canadian), public sex, etc.):
“I may think that hornets do not have an ideal social organization. But I know better than to poke their nest.”
Sometimes when I can't grasp the meaning of an event, I turn to Fred Reed for insight. In the case of Bowe Bergdahl, Fred did not let me down:
“Infrequently a soldier has the courage to see that what he is doing is both stupid and immoral, and walk away from it. Bowe Bergdahl did. I say, speaking as a former Marine in Viet Nam, and as a life member of both the Veterans of Foreign Wars and the Disabled Veterans of America: You have my admiration, Sergeant Bergdahl.”
Fred also his a way of coming up with short catchy descriptive phrases, such as “intellectual loin-cloth wearer” that really capture the essence of a person or group of people. I admire that talent too.
Now there is much that Fred Reed writes that I do not agree with; but that's a good thing. I could go to a website like Common Dreams and read article after article and say, “Yup, right on;” but that gets tedious after a while. If you only read opinions you already agree with, you might as well be brain-dead.
Last month Fred posted an article in which he poses eight questions on evolution to John Derbyshire. I think they are good questions and deserve answers. Fred implies that he does not really expect to get answers from Derbyshire, so I have endeavored — not necessarily to answer — but at least to jot down some thoughts on these questions. I am not John Derbyshire; but perhaps my thoughts on these matters will prove helpful.
Fred Reed's Eight Questions on Evolution
1. What selective pressures lead to a desire not to reproduce, and how does this fit into a Darwinian framework?
There appear to be (at least) two successful strategies of reproduction:
(a) Have a lot of progeny, and let environmental circumstances dictate that the best adapted (if any) survive.
(b) Have few progeny, nurture them well, so they will be better able to survive.
The gestation period of an elephant is two years. Litters consist of a single calf or sometimes twins. Elephant calves are nurtured by the entire herd. (It takes a herd to raise an elephant.) The interbirth interval is generally four or five years. Let's call (b) the elephant strategy.
On the other hand, (a) could be called the cockroach strategy. While cockroaches are among the most successful of organisms, having remained essentially unchanged for more than a hundred million years, modern elephants are relative newcomers, probably less than five million years old. Cockroaches appear almost impervious to human depredations. Elephants are classified as endangered (Asian) and vulnerable (African). Elephants suffer from loss of habitat and wanton slaughter for their ivory tusks.
In times of environmental change, the cockroach strategy would appear most favorable. Larger numbers of offspring and more generations per unit of time increase the chances of favorable adaptations. In times of environmental stability, the elephant strategy affords the advantage of long periods of nurturing. If nurturing didn't provide an evolutionary advantage, mammals and birds would never have evolved.
Humans are neither elephants nor cockroaches. However, both strategies are evident in human societies. As our environment becomes increasingly unstable and turbulent, I would expect the cockroach strategy to increasingly dominate human societies, as it appears to be doing now.
2. Why should I not indulge my hobby of torturing to death the severely genetically retarded?
I assume that you are looking for a response based on evolutionary rather than legal or moral principles.
If your goal is to produce as many viable offspring as possible, your hobby would seem to be a monumental waste of time. You'd be far better off with a hobby that would attract nubile members of the opposite sex. For example, you might try learning to act and sing like Justin Bieber. Granted, your hobby of torturing the severely handicapped might attract a Hillary Clinton or a Condoleezza Rice; but I suspect it would repulse far more females than it would attract.
Further, you might mistake amyotrophic lateral sclerosis for “severe genetic retardation” and torture Stephen Hawking (whom you refer to in question 6 as possessing genes of “extraordinary superiority”). Others who have tried to decree who should live or die based on their limited understanding of genetics, including the one you have referred to as “that dark squatty effeminate blond Aryan superman of the Beer Hall Putsch,” have made similar mistakes.
3. How many years would have to pass without replication of the [abiogenesis] event, if indeed it be not replicated, before one might begin to suspect that it didn’t happen?
Here are two possible hypotheses:
(a) Perhaps the formation of a growing, self-replicating molecule occurred readily under conditions found on Earth four billion years ago; but rarely if at all under conditions on Earth today.
(b) Perhaps new life is forming all the time; but is gobbled up by already existing organisms as fast as it forms.
I'm sure there are others.
There is an interesting discussion of the subject of how life might have formed in this interview with Andrew Knoll.
Why can't we replicate the process of abiogenesis in a laboratory? You apparently think far more highly of our technological prowess than I do. Consider that it took some of our best minds years to figure out how to get the Ozark hellbender to breed in captivity. Compared to creating life itself from non-life, captive breeding of an extant salamander ought to be a slam-dunk.
Or maybe it has been done — perhaps even in the same military laboratory in which the HIV virus was created.
4. What are the viable steps needed to evolve from [two stage bugs like the cockroach] to [four stage bugs like butterflies]? Or from anything to four-cycle?
When it comes to entomology, I too am an “intellectual loin-cloth wearer;” however I fail to see the problem here. Butterfly larva (caterpillars) moult several times before forming a pupa (chrysalis). Before pupating, caterpillars have already begun wing development. One might surmise that in a long-ago ancestor, caterpillars continued the moulting process until becoming a butterfly-like creature. At some point the final moult or moults evolved into a pupa stage. I don't know; but it sounds plausible to me. I'm sure there are other plausible hypotheses as well.
When researching unfamiliar subjects like lepidoptera, I often begin with wikipedia, keeping in mind that articles on wikipedia may have been posted by “intellectual loin-cloth wearers” such as myself. There are many other sites available on the web devoted to lepidoptera.
I have a 16-year-old grandson living at home with me, and after some brief research into lepidoptera, I've come to the conclusion that humans would do well to learn to pupate around the age of 15 and remain in chrysalis at least until the age of 18. Every adult human I've discussed this issue with seems to agree.
Incidentally, I spent most of my working life at a highly-thought-of technical university where I rubbed elbows with intellects who had yet to reach the “loin-cloth-wearing” stage. See, for example the following cartoon.
5. Does not genetic determinism (with which I have no disagreement) lead to a paradox: that the thoughts we think we are thinking we only think to be thoughts when they are really utterly predetermined by the inexorable working of physics and chemistry?
I agree. Genetic determinism leads inexorably to the conclusion that we are nothing more than pre-programmed robots. Personally, I think genetic determinism is a heap of rubbish. Identical twins simply do not behave identically. We are far more than our DNA. We include our environment, a lifetime of experiences and something even more — call it a soul.
My favorite passage on free-will (or lack of it) comes from Chapter IV of Lewis Carroll's Through the Looking Glass in which Alice meets Tweedledum and Tweedledee. On hearing the red king snore, the Tweedle brothers inform Alice that the king is dreaming her; ‘and if he left off dreaming about you, ... you'd go out — bang! — just like a candle!’ After a brief unsuccessful attempt to prove she is real, Alice says to herself, ‘I know they're talking nonsense, and it's foolish to cry about it.’
6. Why do seemingly trivial traits (such as the epicanthic fold) proliferate while clearly important ones (the intelligence of Stephen Hawking, the body of Mohammed Ali, 20/5 vision, the astonishing endurance in running of the Tarahumara Indians, and so on) do not?
The words “trivial” and “important” are loaded words. Who is to decide what is trivial and what is important?
A genetic trait may be positive in one environment, negative in another and neutral in a third.
The epicanthic fold may or may not have positive or negative survival value in certain environments. I don't know. It may be linked to other traits that have positive or negative survival value under certain conditions. A cursory surf of the internet, turns up that the epicanthic fold, while normal among East Asians, is linked to Down Syndrome among Europeans.
It would be nice to have the intelligence of a Stephen Hawking; but his intelligence could be genetically linked to his ALS.
It would be nice to be able to run like a Tarahumara Indian; but I don't see how that would help a stodgy old professor. (Besides, I might end up at the finish line of the Boston Marathon blown to bits by some patsy whom the FBI or CIA talked into planting a knapsack bomb.)
It would be nice to have a body like Muhammad Ali; but what I admire most in him is his courage in refusing to be conscripted and his deep understanding of the connection between war and racism, “I ain't got no quarrel with the VietCong... No VietCong ever called me nigger.”
It would be nice to have the visual acuity of a hawk; but I think the ability to read faster with greater comprehension would have served me a lot better than 20/5 vision.
While the above paragraphs draw on my personal experiences, they demonstrate that there are niches in which these seemingly superior traits would be of little or no help at all. Perhaps the reason why the intelligence of a Stephen Hawking is so rare is that the niches where it would impart an evolutionary advantage are so few and so small. Eugene Linden writes:
“The random mutations that increase brain size are probably ubiquitous, meaning that it is reasonable to expect that virtually every animal alive today has ancestors that produced brainier offspring which in turn had the chance to be fruitful and multiply. But the evidence is that with very few exceptions, evolutionary experiments to increase brain power have not taken. ... The likelihood is that nature has had more failures than successes when it comes to increasing brain size (and in evolutionary terms, the jury is still out on whether the human experiment will ultimately be a success or failure...)”
Or as Kurt Weill and Berthold Brecht put it in Solomon Song from the Three Penny Opera: “I thought that brains were good — guess not.”
Granted, a hunter could benefit from 20/5 vision; but today one could easily simulate 20/5 vision with a pair of binoculars.
An athlete could surely benefit from a body like Muhammad Ali; but far more of us are staring into computer screens or flipping burgers at McDonalds than entering the boxing ring.
Muhammad Ali appears to be unique. “I am the greatest” does not necessarily translate into I possess superior genetic traits. They are two different things. The progeny of a Muhammad Ali, Stephen Hawking, Albert Einstein or William Shakespeare seldom inherit their parent's greatness. Perhaps exceptional traits come from a unique combination of genes, environment, experience, blind luck and the grace of God.
Why aren't we all exceptional individuals? If we were, there would be lots of empty niches. And the laws of evolution tell us that those niches would soon be filled. Nature loves diversity.
Finally, nature acting through the laws of evolution (natural selection for adaptation to a given environment) is the best and only true judge of what is important and what is trivial. I think Verlyn Klinkenborg stated the case very well:
“research, in nature’s laboratory, never stops. It explores every possibility. It never lacks funding. It is never demoralized by failed experiments. It cannot be lobbied.”
7. What is the reproductive advantage of crippling pain (migraines can be crippling) about which pre-recently, the sufferer could do nothing?
Fred, you got me stumped here.
Since migraines seem to have both a genetic and an environmental component, possibly those suffering from migraines learn to avoid harmful environmental factors. I don't know.
Some have found that sexual release diminishes the frequency, severity and extent of their migraines. This could provide a reproductive advantage.
The subject of migraines appears complex. Migraines apparently come in many shapes and sizes and have a variety of genetic, psychological and environmental causes. Those suffering from migraines display a variety of symptoms.
I hope John Derbyshire can give you a better response than this.
8. If one believes in or suspects the existence of God or gods, how does one exclude the possibility that He, She, or It meddles in the universe—directing evolution, for example?
I'm writing down my thoughts on Fred's eight questions. I intend to post them on my website and send links to Fred Reed and John Derbyshire. At some time in the future I may revise these thoughts; meddle with them a little; maybe meddle a whole lot. As the author, I have a Right to meddle with my own writing.
I also meddle with other people's writings. One of my hobbies is reading to young children. Well, I don't exactly read. What I do is more like story telling and I don't always tell a story the way it is written. As a storyteller, I have a Right to meddle with the stories I tell.
Now, let's talk about God. I don't think God meddles. I don't think God lives in space-time the way we do. God is everywhere and everywhen (all at the same time). Think about it. It's a difficult concept to wrap your mind around because we are so used to thinking of time as unidirectional and linear. But if God did not encompass all space and time, how could he be omniscient, omnipotent and omnipresent?
Perhaps time is multidimensional and includes all possible choices, kind of like one of those choose your own adventure books. (Draw your sword — go to page 42. Turn and run — go to page 50.) One has free will. One can choose. But whatever one chooses, one is still inside the book.
God has no need to meddle the way people do. He doesn't need to direct evolution, because he created evolution, whole, from the beginning to the end and everywhere in between (all at the same time).
If this isn't clear (and I don't see how it possibly could be) read Lewis Carroll's Alice books. I particularly recommend Martin Gardner's annotated edition.
I don't see any argument between “intelligent design” and “evolution.” I believe in both and find the two totally compatible.
On a personal note: I am Muslim, although I think I could have arrived at similar conclusions through almost any religious persuasion, including atheism (another religious persuasion in my opinion). However, I believe being Muslim gives me an advantage. Muslims do not think of God as having human form or being an old man with a beard and a thunderbolt, etc.
Fred, I hope these thoughts prove helpful to you. I learned a tremendous amount just from thinking about and researching your eight questions. I'm sure that should John Derbyshire do likewise, he will also gain from the exercise.
On a final note, there are several cartoons on evolutionary themes posted on my website. This one is my favorite.