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The Blind Watchmaker

The Blind Watchmaker

The Blind Watchmaker 11


  CHAPTER 4

  Making tracks through animal space

  As we saw in Chapter 2, many people find it hard to believe that something like the eye, Paley’s favourite example, so complex and well designed, with so many interlocking working parts, could have arisen from small beginnings by a gradual series of step-by-step changes. Let’s return to the problem in the light of such new intuitions as the biomorphs may have given us. Answer the following two questions:

  1. Could the human eye have arisen directly from no eye at all, in a single step?

  2. Could the human eye have arisen directly from something slightly different from itself, something that we may call X?

  The answer to Question 1 is clearly a decisive no. The odds against a ‘yes’ answer for questions like Question 1 are many billions of times greater than the number of atoms in the universe. It would need a gigantic and vanishingly improbable leap across genetic hyperspace. The answer to Question 2 is equally clearly yes, provided only that the difference between the modern eye and its immediate predecessor X is sufficiently small. Provided, in other words, that they are sufficiently close to one another in the space of all possible structures. If the answer to Question 2 for any particular degree of difference is no, all we have to do is repeat the question for a smaller degree of difference. Carry on doing this until we find a degree of difference sufficiently small to give us a ‘yes’ answer to Question 2.

  X is defined as something very like a human eye, sufficiently similar that the human eye could plausibly have arisen by a single alteration in X. If you have a mental picture of X and you find it implausible that the human eye could have arisen directly from it, this simply means that you have chosen the wrong X. Make your mental picture of X progressively more like a human eye, until you find an X that you do find plausible as an immediate predecessor to the human eye. There has to be one for you, even if your idea of what is plausible may be more, or less, cautious than mine!

  Now, having found an X such that the answer to Question 2 is yes, we apply the same question to X itself. By the same reasoning we must conclude that X could plausibly have arisen, directly by a single change, from something slightly different again, which we may call X'. Obviously we can then trace X' back to something else slightly different from it, X'', and so on. By interposing a large enough series of Xs, we can derive the human eye from something not slightly different from itself but very different from itself. We can ‘walk’ a large distance across ‘animal space’, and our move will be plausible provided we take small-enough steps. We are now in a position to answer a third question.

  3. Is there a continuous series of Xs connecting the modern human eye to a state with no eye at all?

  It seems to me clear that the answer has to be yes, provided only that we allow ourselves a sufficiently large series of Xs. You might feel that 1,000 Xs is ample, but if you need more steps to make the total transition plausible in your mind, simply allow yourself to assume 10,000 Xs. And if 10,000 is not enough for you, allow yourself 100,000, and so on. Obviously the available time imposes an upper ceiling on this game, for there can be only one X per generation. In practice the question therefore resolves itself into: Has there been enough time for enough successive generations? We can’t give a precise answer to the number of generations that would be necessary. What we do know is that geological time is awfully long. Just to give you an idea of the order of magnitude we are talking about, the number of generations that separate us from our earliest ancestors is certainly measured in the thousands of millions. Given, say, a hundred million Xs, we should be able to construct a plausible series of tiny gradations linking a human eye to just about anything!

  So far, by a process of more-or-less abstract reasoning, we have concluded that there is a series of imaginable Xs, each sufficiently similar to its neighbours that it could plausibly turn into one of its neighbours, the whole series linking the human eye back to no eye at all. But we still haven’t demonstrated that it is plausible that this series of Xs actually existed. We have two more questions to answer.

  4. Considering each member of the series of hypothetical Xs connecting the human eye to no eye at all, is it plausible that every one of them was made available by random mutation of its predecessor?

  This is really a question about embryology, not genetics; and it is an entirely separate question from the one that worried the Bishop of Birmingham and others. Mutation has to work by modifying the existing processes of embryonic development. It is arguable that certain kinds of embryonic process are highly amenable to variation in certain directions, recalcitrant to variation in others. I shall return to this matter in Chapter 11, so here I’ll just stress again the difference between small change and large. The smaller the change you postulate, the smaller the difference between X'' and X', the more embryologically plausible is the mutation concerned. In the previous chapter we saw, on purely statistical grounds, that any particular large mutation is inherently less probable than any particular small mutation. Whatever problems may be raised by Question 4, then, we can at least see that the smaller we make the difference between any given X' and X'', the smaller will be the problems. My feeling is that, provided the difference between neighbouring intermediates in our series leading to the eye is sufficiently small, the necessary mutations are almost bound to be forthcoming. We are, after all, always talking about minor quantitative changes in an existing embryonic process. Remember that, however complicated the embryological status quo may be in any given generation, each mutational change in the status quo can be very small and simple.

  We have one final question to answer:

  5. Considering each member of the series of Xs connecting the human eye to no eye at all, is it plausible that every one of them worked sufficiently well that it assisted the survival and reproduction of the animals concerned?

  Rather oddly, some people have thought that the answer to this question is a self-evident ‘no’. For instance, I quote from Francis Hitching’s book of 1982 called The Neck of the Giraffe or Where Darwin Went Wrong. I could have quoted basically the same words from almost any Jehovah’s Witness tract, but I choose this book because a reputable publisher (Pan Books Ltd) saw fit to publish it, despite a very large number of errors which would quickly have been spotted if an unemployed biology graduate, or indeed undergraduate, had been asked to glance through the manuscript. (My favourites, if you’ll indulge me just two in-jokes, are the conferring of a knighthood on Professor John Maynard Smith, and the description of Professor Ernst Mayr, that eloquent and most unmathematical arch-critic of mathematical genetics, as ‘the high priest’ of mathematical genetics.)

  For the eye to work the following minimum perfectly coordinated steps have to take place (there are many others happening simultaneously, but even a grossly simplified description is enough to point up the problems for Darwinian theory). The eye must be clean and moist, maintained in this state by the interaction of the tear gland and movable eyelids, whose eyelashes also act as a crude filter against the sun. The light then passes through a small transparent section of the protective outer coating (the cornea), and continues via a lens which focuses it on the back of the retina. Here 130 million light-sensitive rods and cones cause photochemical reactions which transform the light into electrical impulses. Some 1,000 million of these are transmitted every second, by means that are not properly understood, to a brain which then takes appropriate action.

  Now it is quite evident that if the slightest thing goes wrong en route — if the cornea is fuzzy, or the pupil fails to dilate, or the lens becomes opaque, or the focussing goes wrong — then a recognizable image is not formed. The eye either functions as a whole, or not at all. So how did it come to evolve by slow, steady, infinitesimally small Darwinian improvements? Is it really plausible that thousands upon thousands of lucky chance mutations happened coincidentally so that the lens and the retina, which cannot work without each other, evolved in synchrony? What survival value can there be
in an eye that doesn’t see?

  This remarkable argument is very frequently made, presumably because people want to believe its conclusion. Consider the statement that ‘if the slightest thing goes wrong … if the focusing goes wrong … a recognizable image is not formed’. The odds cannot be far from 50/50 that you are reading these words through glass lenses. Take them off and look around. Would you agree that ‘a recognizable image is not formed’? If you are male, the odds are about 1 in 12 that you are colourblind. You may well be astigmatic. It is not unlikely that, without glasses, your vision is a misty blur. One of today’s most distinguished (though not yet knighted) evolutionary theorists so seldom cleans his glasses that his vision is probably a misty blur anyway, but he seems to get along pretty well and, by his own account, he used to play a mean game of monocular squash. If you have lost your glasses, it may be that you upset your friends by failing to recognize them in the street. But you yourself would be even more upset if somebody said to you: ‘Since your vision is now not absolutely perfect, you might as well go around with your eyes tight shut until you find your glasses again.’ Yet that is essentially what the author of the passage I have quoted is suggesting.

  He also states, as though it were obvious, that the lens and the retina cannot work without each other. On what authority? Someone close to me has had a cataract operation in both eyes. She has no lenses in her eyes at all. Without glasses she couldn’t even begin to play lawn tennis or aim a rifle. But she assures me that you are far better off with a lensless eye than with no eye at all. You can tell if you are about to walk into a wall or another person. If you were a wild creature, you could certainly use your lensless eye to detect the looming shape of a predator, and the direction from which it was approaching. In a primitive world where some creatures had no eyes at all and others had lensless eyes, the ones with lensless eyes would have all sorts of advantages. And there is a continuous series of Xs, such that each tiny improvement in sharpness of image, from swimming blur to perfect human vision, plausibly increases the organism’s chances of surviving.

  The book goes on to quote Stephen Jay Gould, the noted Harvard palaeontologist, as saying:

  We avoid the excellent question, What good is 5 percent of an eye? by arguing that the possessor of such an incipient structure did not use it for sight.

  An ancient animal with 5 per cent of an eye might indeed have used it for something other than sight, but it seems to me at least as likely that it used it for 5 per cent vision. And actually I don’t think it is an excellent question. Vision that is 5 per cent as good as yours or mine is very much worth having in comparison with no vision at all. So is 1 per cent vision better than total blindness. And 6 per cent is better than 5, 7 per cent better than 6, and so on up the gradual, continuous series.

  This kind of problem has worried some people interested in animals that gain protection from predators by ‘mimicry’. Stick insects look like sticks and so are saved from being eaten by birds. Leaf insects look like leaves. Many edible species of butterfly gain protection by resembling noxious or poisonous species. These resemblances are far more impressive than the resemblance of clouds to weasels. In many cases they are more impressive than the resemblance of ‘my’ insects to real insects. Real insects, after all, have six legs, not eight! Real natural selection has had a least a million times as many generations as I had, in which to perfect the resemblance.

  We use the word ‘mimicry’ for these cases, not because we think that the animals consciously imitate other things, but because natural selection has favoured those individuals whose bodies were mistaken for other things. To put it another way, ancestors of stick insects that did not resemble sticks did not leave descendants. The German-American geneticist Richard Goldschmidt is the most distinguished of those who have argued that the early evolution of such resemblances could not have been favoured by natural selection. As Gould, an admirer of Goldschmidt, said of dung-mimicking insects: ‘can there be any edge in looking 5 per cent like a turd?’ Largely through Gould’s influence, it has recently become fashionable to say that Goldschmidt was underrated in his own lifetime, and that he really has much to teach us. Here is a sample of his reasoning.

  Ford speaks … of any mutation which chances to give a ‘remote resemblance’ to a more protected species, from which some advantage, however slight, might accrue. We must ask how remote the resemblance can be to have selective value. Can we really assume that the birds and monkeys and also mantids are such wonderful observers (or that some very clever ones among them are) to notice a ‘remote’ resemblance and be repelled by it? I think that this is asking too much.

  Such sarcasm ill becomes anybody on the shaky ground that Goldschmidt here treads. Wonderful observers? Very clever ones among them? Anybody would think the birds and monkeys benefited from being fooled by the remote resemblance! Goldschmidt might rather have said: ‘Can we really assume that the birds, etc. are such poor observers (or that some very stupid ones among them are)?’ Nevertheless, there is a real dilemma here. The initial resemblance of the ancestral stick insect to a stick must have been very remote. A bird would need extremely poor vision to be fooled by it. Yet the resemblance of a modern stick insect to a stick is marvellously good, down to the last fine details of fake buds and leaf-scars. The birds whose selective predation put the finishing touches to their evolution must, at least collectively, have had excellently good vision. They must have been extremely hard to fool, otherwise the insects would not have evolved to become as perfect mimics as they are: they would have remained relatively imperfect mimics. How can we resolve this apparent contradiction?

  One kind of answer suggests that bird vision has been improving over the same evolutionary timespan as insect camouflage. Perhaps, to be a little facetious, an ancestral insect that looked only 5 per cent like a turd would have fooled an ancestral bird with only 5 per cent vision. But that is not the kind of answer I want to give. I suspect, indeed, that the whole process of evolution, from remote resemblance to near perfect mimicry, has gone on, rather rapidly, many times over in different insect groups, during the whole long period that bird vision has been just about as good as it is today.

  Another kind of answer that has been offered to the dilemma is the following. Perhaps each species of bird or monkey has poor vision and latches onto just one limited aspect of an insect. Maybe one predator species notices only the colour, another only the shape, another only the texture, and so on. Then an insect that resembles a stick in only one limited respect will fool one kind of predator, even though it is eaten by all other kinds of predators. As evolution progresses, more and more features of resemblance are added to the repertoire of the insects. The final multifaceted perfection of mimicry has been put together by the summed natural selection provided by many different species of predators. No one predator sees the whole perfection of mimicry, only we do that.

  This seems to imply that only we are ‘clever’ enough to see the mimicry in all its glory. Not only because of this human snobbishness, I prefer yet another explanation. This is that, no matter how good any one predator’s vision may be under some conditions, it can be exceedingly poor under other conditions. We can easily, in fact, appreciate from our own familiar experience the whole spectrum from exceedingly poor vision to excellent vision. If I am looking directly at a stick insect, 8 inches in front of my nose and in strong daylight, I shall not be fooled by it. I shall notice the long legs hugging the line of the trunk. I may spot the unnatural symmetry which a real stick would not have. But if I, with the very same eyes and brain, am walking through a forest at dusk, I may well fail to distinguish almost any dull-coloured insect from the twigs that abound everywhere. The image of the insect may pass over the edge of my retina rather than the more acute central region. The insect may be 50 yards away, and so make only a tiny image on my retina. The light may be so poor that I can hardly see anything at all anyway.

  In fact, it doesn’t matter how remote, how poor is the resembl
ance of an insect to a stick, there must be some level of twilight, or some degree of distance away from the eye, or some degree of distraction of the predator’s attention, such that even a very good eye will be fooled by the remote resemblance. If you don’t find that plausible for some particular example that you have imagined, just turn down the imaginary light a bit, or move a bit further away from the imaginary object! The point is that many an insect was saved by an exceedingly slight resemblance to a twig or a leaf or a fall of dung, on occasions when it was far away from a predator, or on occasions when the predator was looking at it at dusk, or looking at it through a fog, or looking at it while distracted by a receptive female. And many an insect was saved, perhaps from the very same predator, by an uncannily close resemblance to a twig, on occasions when the predator happened to be seeing it at relatively close range and in a good light. The important thing about light intensity, distance of insect from predator, distance of image from centre of retina, and similar variables, is that they are all continuous variables. They vary by insensible degrees all the way from the extreme of invisibility to the extreme of visibility. Such continuous variables foster continuous and gradual evolution.

  Richard Goldschmidt’s problem — which was one of a set that made him resort, for most of his professional life, to the extreme belief that evolution takes great leaps rather than small steps — turns out to be no problem at all. And incidentally, we have also demonstrated to ourselves, yet again, that 5 per cent vision is better than no vision at all. The quality of my vision right at the edge of my retina is probably even poorer than 5 per cent of the quality at the centre of my retina, however you care to measure quality. Yet I can still detect the presence of a large lorry or bus out of the extreme corner of my eye. Since I ride a bicycle to work every day this fact has quite probably saved my life. I notice the difference on those occasions when it is raining and I wear a hat. The quality of our vision on a dark night must be far poorer than 5 per cent of what it is at midday. Yet many an ancestor was probably saved through seeing something that really mattered, a sabre-tooth ‘tiger’ perhaps, or a precipice, in the middle of the night.