Does Conflict Drive Evolution?

Today's Bizarro comic is funny. But having spent some time today talking with someone who genuinely seemed to believe that biological evolution meant a fish suddenly sprouting legs or even turning into a human being, it seems necessary to address the popular misunderstanding that could be reinforced by the cartoon. Many of us have wished at some point that we could sprout wings and fly away from some difficult circumstance. None of us did so. Evolution involves slow changes, largely invisible except on time scales much longer than a human lifespan. It bears mentioning that – however much fun it might be to imagine Tiktaalik having suddenly turned fins into feet in order to get away from nagging or whatever else it may have been. When scientists talk about conflict or competition being a factor in evolution, this isn't what is meant.


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  • arcseconds

    I can see how this might be interpreted in the way you suggest, but it doesn’t require this interpretation.

    What we might be seeing here is one of the first tetrapod-fish arrived at through (exaggerated for humourous effect, obviously) usual evolutionary means (mutation and natural selection) who is using their abilities to avoid an uncomfortable situation. And, we could believe, do this constantly, as their nagger doesn’t seem surprised, more just consternated.

    Mind you, these kinds of mistakes about evolution (including more subtle but much more pernicious one that evolution is about making things better and more superior) bug me, too. A far bigger vector for this notion than single-frame cartoons is all the science fiction that buys into the ‘next step in human evolution’ being psionics or whatever that apparently just arise completely spontaeously.

    The most obvious offender here that’s still very much in the general public’s mind is X-men, of course.

    Don’t get me wrong, it’s a nice enough premise for a superhero series. It allows an endless array of characters with arbitrary powers, and in some ways is easier to buy than dozens of characters with arbitrary powers, each of whom gained them by completely different implausible events. You just have to buy into one extra feature of the universe.

    But I’d be more comfortable about this whole thing if I thought most people had roughly the right idea about evolution. As it is, I wish they’d come up with a different premise to explain the occurrence of ‘mutants’.

    • $41348855

      You could regard the superhero stuff as a kind of antidote to creationism. Creationists would like us to believe that mutations filtered by natural selection cannot build anything useful. Superhero comics have the opposite idea. Mutations are capable of building useful things immediately. Bruce Banner gets a dose of gamma radiation and he walks away, not with cancer, but with superhuman powers.

      • arcseconds

        I suppose so, but I think that just really is the problem. People don’t actually understand how evolution works pretty much at all, they actually think it’s already like this, although maybe not quite as dramatically.

        It is, of course, kind of absurd to suppose that something useful and complete just appears out of nowhere — at least it certainly requires some kind of explanation, and it had better be a good one.

        So, you can almost see creationists as doing something rational here, maybe even (if you screw your eyes up tightly) more rational than people who beleive in progressive, next-step, homo superior evolution. The later believe in an absurd notion of evolution. The creationists also think evolution is like that, but have rightfully rejected the notion as absurd.

        James’s acquaintance would seem to be one such example, assuming they are a creationist, which seems to be implied but isn’t stated.

        I don’t think the answer to pernicious nonsense is to provide equal and opposite pernicious nonsense.

  • Hydroxonium

    The environment (which comprises other species) is constantly testing the “truth” of a species, and if they fail to survive, then they have failed the test. New genetic mutations means new species are gradually produced, which is what makes it possible for “evolution” to take place.

    The same principle works in epistemology. In order for knowledge to evolve, we must continually generate new ideas, then consciously test them against the existing body (environment) of knowledge. Sometimes, new ideas can be so powerful that they can even radically change the existing body of knowledge. As far as we can tell, “Survival of the Fittest” is an undeniable mechanism through which everything (even abstract ideas) evolves.

    People who deny evolution in nature, are also denying evolution in the sphere of knowledge.

    This sort of “evolutionary” epistemology was famously addressed by Karl Popper, who successfully explained how the Scientific Method tends to improve our knowledge of the natural world. The epistemological framework is called Critical Rationalism.

    • $41348855

      Another good example of natural selection comes from our immune system. It is impossible to programme our immune system with all the antibodies that it needs because our genomes simply couldn’t contain all the necessary information. The solution to the problem is that when lymphocytes are formed they create their antibodies by randomly shuffling gene segments. This generates a vast array of antibodies.

      When something like a virus enters our bodies there is certain to be an antibody that can bind to it. However, the fit won’t be perfect. This is where natural selection comes in. When the antibody binds to the virus the lymphocyte bearing the antibody will start to replicate. The genes that encode the antibodies are particularly prone to mutation, therefore the replicated lymphocytes will have a range of antibodies with varying degrees of similarity to the original one that could bind to the virus.

      Amongst these there are likely to be some that can bind more effectively to the virus. The closer the affinity between the antibody and the virus the more likely it is that the two will bind and that the lymphocyte with this antibody will replicate. So the virus is “selecting” a series of antibodies with an ever more effective ability to bind to it.

      • MattB

        Hello Stuart, I know this is off-topic, but I was wondering if you know any good philosophical topics to argue about. I have to write a research paper(1000 words), and I can’t think of any good ideas.

        I would argue for the existence of God, but that seems like such a broad topic that would involve way too many arguments.

        I was kind of thinking of writing about Time

        • $41348855

          Hi, Matt. How about this comment I made recently:
          It’s about Alexander Vilenkin’s idea that the laws of physics themselves have the power to bring the universe into existence. Does it make sense to think of abstract laws having this kind of power? How does this compare to the traditional theistic idea of a non-physical God creating the universe?

          • MattB

            Hmmm….that’s a good idea. Thanks for the article stuart:)

            btw, nice comebacks on the Bible and Inter. website against those mythicists. The best thing we can do is pray for them.

            I just don’t understand how some people can adopt crazy conspiracy theories like Mythicism.

            I feel sorry for Carrier’s infidels because they were duped into sending him money to support his “Mythicist” research grant, which in turn Carrier promises his infidels or at least gives them the idea that his book will eventually turn-the-tide in contemporary NT Scholarship. When in reality, his book will rejected by mainstream historians because they know how bad it will be. If I were one of Carrier’s infidels, I would request my money back.

          • $41348855

            You’re welcome. I’ve had another idea, if you’re interested. There is an intriguing phenomenon in psychology that you can read about here:
            I think this phenomenon has some interesting philosophical implications about the nature of our beliefs that might be worth exploring.

            Yes, it was an interesting debate, wasn’t it. It’s funny what happens when mythicists are challenged to show how their theory can explain the facts.