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IF EVOLUTION’S clock were wound back and restarted, would I be here to compose these lines or you to read them?
This provocative question is addressed in Jonathan Losos’ book Improbable Destinies: Fate, Chance, and the Future of Evolution, reviewed by Steven Rose’s “Coloured Spots v. Iridescence,” in the March 22, 2018, issue of London Review of Books.
Evolving Evolution. A principal theme in Losos’ book is that science is not static; the theory of evolution itself is evolving with time. As an example of this, LRB reviewer Rose cites two evolutionary biologists with opposing views, Simon Conway Morris and the late Stephen Jay Gould.
From Gould’s book Wonderful Life, 1989, Rose gleans the view that “chance events shaped the direction of evolution, and that if we were to rewind this tape of life to its beginning and let it run again, it is extremely unlikely that anything like humans would come about.”
In a Gould-envisioned rerun, forget SimanaitisSays. And forget you.
On the other hand, Simon Conway Morris is a paleontologist who disagrees with Gould. What’s more, he is known for his theistic views on biological evolution.
Note, Conway Morris is not a “creationist” in the sense of denying evolution. Rather, he argues against science being atheistic.
Rose cites Conway Morris’ book The Crucible of Creation, 1998: “… the range of evolutionary options is tightly constrained, he insisted, and wherever there is life, on earth or any other planet, human-like creatures are likely to emerge.”
Gee, there may even be a SimanaitisSays to read elsewhere in the universe. That would certainly have me thinking theistically.
Which is Correct? Or Neither? Rose writes that it’s traditionally thought “evolutionary change through natural selection is glacially slow, unobservable within a human life span, and hence not amenable to experimental testing.”
However, as detailed in Losos’ book, recent research in evolutionary biology suggests this isn’t necessarily true. Indeed, see Darwin Comes to Town here at SimanaitisSays for reports of rapid evolutionary adaptation. Rose, a neuroscientist by profession, also discusses this “extended evolutionary synthesis” in a most interesting video.
A Guppy Tale. Rose’s LRB title, “Coloured Spots v. Iridescence,” comes from experiments with the guppy, a species with “brightly spotted males and somewhat less flashy females.” This, of course, is not uncommon and thought to be a means of males attracting females when money or fancy cars don’t work.
Ancestors and present-day cousins of fish-tank guppies are from South American and Caribbean ponds. Some of these ponds also have voracious pike cichlids, fish preying on the highly visible, brightly colored guppy males. Before long, such ponds are populated with dun-colored guppies of both sexes.
However, Rose writes, “transfer dun-coloured guppies to cichlid-free pools and with a few generations, the pools fill with colour-spotted males. Vice versa, if cichlids are put into a previously predator-free pool coloured males disappear, leaving dun descendants.”
Yet, Rose continues, “When later researchers repeated the transfer experiment putting dun guppies in a predator-free pool, instead of evolving spots the males became brightly iridescent.”
Losos’ View. Says Rose, “Losos relishes the details of these and the many other evolutionary experiments he discusses.… Coming finally down on the side of Gould [and chance-related evolution], … as for humans, he argues, we are… an outlier, a unique oddity… and the chance of human-like life on other planets seems remote.”
Thanks for reading SimanaitisSays here and now. ds
© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2018