Thursday, August 12, 2010

Turning a fish into a dog in four steps -or- You can't buy God a beer!

I don't like heavy furniture, and I don't like writing in permanent marker on canisters.  I don't like owning a pet that's supposed to live thirty years.  What's the theme?  It's that I think flexibility is very important.  It's usually a bad idea to make a change that's too rigid, or permanent, when the world around it is changing constantly, and before long it will no longer be appropriate.

Also, I have a canister full of dry pinto beans in the cupboard that says "Froot Loops" on the side.  Eventually I'm going to have to buy a new canister.

So, if I was an omnipotent being, perhaps the Christian god, and I wanted to make a planet full of animals and plants, I would think twice before writing them in permanent marker.  If I saw a friend (who, of course, is also a god) creating a planet that way, I'd have to take him aside.

"Hey, buddy.  Not a good idea.  If you're organisms can't change when their environment changes, they're going to die.  All of them.  Give it a million years, and you're planet will be a giant barren desert."

But he doesn't listen, and now we have Mars.

All kidding aside, though, I'm discouraged by the tendency of some to ignore or avoid the idea of natural selection because of their religious beliefs.  I don't even see where the debate of creation vs. evolution came from.  I'm no Bible scholar, but I'm pretty sure that when God decided his creation was good, he didn't say, "And now it will all stay the same forever."  That statement is more recent.

So, if the argument isn't based on the Bible, what is it based on?  I think it may have more to do with observation than religion.  Science has its fair share of intangible specters; things that are so small, so far away, or take so long that we never have any real experience of them.  Natural selection is one of those things.

I guess the way I look at it is, how could you avoid a process like natural selection?  The most basic premise of it is that :

  1. Siblings* are born different from each-other.  Besides some twins, nobody is identical to his/her brother or sister.
  2. Some creatures/plants have a better chance at surviving than their siblings.  If a squirrel can run faster than his brother, it's not absurd to think he will live longer.
  3. Surviving longer means having more babies.  More mating seasons, more mates, more little selves running around.
  4. Children inherit tendencies from their parents.  So not only did one sibling have more offspring, those offspring are, on average, living longer than the other sibling's offspring... and having more offspring themselves.  You see where this is going.
Now, I think that most of us will agree on those four separate points, and maybe even on that process as a whole, but what does it look like over the course of millenia?  Can it really make a fish look like a dog?  Well, I think a better question is this: Will the changes continue to happen, or will they stop?  If they continued, over unimaginable lengths of time, I think your fish would eventually be burying bones in the back yard.  

But what would it look like if the changes did stop?  Every pup born, and every egg hatched, every creature, would be genetically identical to his/her siblings.  Huh.

So, are organisms changing, or are they static?  

I'm personally blown away by the process, which I find to be awe-inspiring.  Almost numinous.  I'm not offended by the thought of the wholeness of life springing from single-celled organisms, I'm humbled by it.  When I really sit and consider the absurd traits, the unlikely simbiotic relationships, the unfathomable variety in the world, I get a feeling that's only a few blocks away from worship.

If I was religious, and also understood natural selection, I'd buy God a beer, and not a cheap one, either.

Thanks for reading.

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