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The Blind Watchmaker
The Blind Watchmaker 13
Darwin wrote (in The Origin of Species):
If it could be demonstrated that any complex organ existed which could not possibly have been formed by numerous, successive, slight modifications, my theory would absolutely break down.
One hundred and twenty five years on, we know a lot more about animals and plants than Darwin did, and still not a single case is known to me of a complex organ that could not have been formed by numerous successive slight modifications. I do not believe that such a case will ever be found. If it is — it’ll have to be a really complex organ, and, as we’ll see in later chapters, you have to be sophisticated about what you mean by ‘slight’ — I shall cease to believe in Darwinism.
Sometimes the history of gradual, intermediate stages is clearly written into the shape of modern animals, even taking the form of outright imperfections in the final design. Stephen Gould, in his excellent essay on The Panda’s Thumb, has made the point that evolution can be more strongly supported by evidence of telling imperfections than by evidence of perfection. I shall give just two examples.
Fish living on the sea bottom benefit by being flat and hugging the contours. There are two very different kinds of flat fish living on the sea bottom, and they have evolved their flatness in quite different ways. The skates and rays, relatives of sharks, have become flat in what might be called the obvious way. Their bodies have grown out sideways to form great ‘wings’. They are like sharks that have passed under a steam roller, but they remain symmetrical and ‘the right way up’. Plaice, sole, halibut and their relatives have become flat in a different way. They are bony fish (with swimbladders) related to herrings, trout, etc., and are nothing to do with sharks. Unlike sharks, bony fish as a rule have a marked tendency to be flattened in a vertical direction. A herring, for instance, is much ‘taller’ than it is wide. It uses its whole, vertically flattened body as a swimming surface, which undulates through the water as it swims. It was natural, therefore, that when the ancestors of plaice and sole took to the sea bottom, they should have lain on one side rather than on the belly like the ancestors of skates and rays. But this raised the problem that one eye was always looking down into the sand and was effectively useless. In evolution this problem was solved by the lower eye ‘moving’ round to the upper side.
We see this process of moving round re-enacted in the development of every young bony flatfish. A young flatfish starts life swimming near the surface, and it is symmetrical and vertically flattened just like a herring. But then the skull starts to grow in a strange, asymmetrical, twisted fashion, so that one eye, for instance the left, moves over the top of the head to finish up on the other side. The young fish settles on the bottom, with both its eyes looking upwards, a strange Picasso-like vision. Incidentally, some species of flatfish settle on the right side, others on the left, and others on either side.
The whole skull of a bony flatfish retains the twisted and distorted evidence of its origins. Its very imperfection is powerful testimony of its ancient history, a history of step-by-step change rather than of deliberate design. No sensible designer would have conceived such a monstrosity if given a free hand to create a flatfish on a clean drawing board. I suspect that most sensible designers would think in terms of something more like a skate. But evolution never starts from a clean drawing board. It has to start from what is already there. In the case of the ancestors of skates this was free-swimming sharks. Sharks in general aren’t flattened from side to side as free-swimming bony fish like herrings are. If anything, sharks are already slightly flattened from back to belly. This meant that when some ancient sharks first took to the sea bottom, there was an easy smooth progression to the skate shape, with each intermediate being a slight improvement, given bottom conditions, over its slightly less flattened predecessor.
On the other hand, when the free-swimming ancestor of plaice and halibut, being, like a herring, vertically flattened from side to side, took to the bottom, it was better off lying on its side than balancing precariously on its knife edge of a belly! Even though its evolutionary course was eventually destined to lead it into the complicated and probably costly distortions involved in having two eyes on one side, even though the skate way of being a flat fish might ultimately have been the best design for bony fish too, the would-be intermediates that set out along this evolutionary pathway apparently did less well in the short term than their rivals lying on their side. The rivals lying on their side were so much better, in the short term, at hugging the bottom. In genetic hyperspace, there is a smooth trajectory connecting free-swimming ancestral bony fish to flatfish lying on their side with twisted skulls. There is not a smooth trajectory connecting these bony fish ancestors to flatfish lying on their belly. This speculation cannot be the whole truth, because there are some bony fish that have evolved flatness in a symmetrical, skatelike way. Perhaps their free-swimming ancestors were already slightly flattened for some other reason.
My second example of an evolutionary progression that didn’t happen because of disadvantageous intermediates, even though it might ultimately have turned out better if it had, concerns the retina of our eyes (and all other vertebrates). Like any nerve, the optic nerve is a trunk cable, a bundle of separate ‘insulated’ wires, in this case about three million of them. Each of the three million wires leads from one cell in the retina to the brain. You can think of them as the wires leading from a bank of three million photocells (actually three million relay stations gathering information from an even larger number of photocells) to the computer that is to process the information in the brain. They are gathered together from all over the retina into a single bundle, which is the optic nerve for that eye.
Any engineer would naturally assume that the photocells would point towards the light, with their wires leading backwards towards the brain. He would laugh at any suggestion that the photocells might point away from the light, with their wires departing on the side nearest the light. Yet this is exactly what happens in all vertebrate retinas. Each photocell is, in effect, wired in backwards, with its wire sticking out on the side nearest the light. The wire has to travel over the surface of the retina, to a point where it dives through a hole in the retina (the so-called ‘blind spot’) to join the optic nerve. This means that the light, instead of being granted an unrestricted passage to the photocells, has to pass through a forest of connecting wires, presumably suffering at least some attenuation and distortion (actually probably not much but, still, it is the principle of the thing that would offend any tidy-minded engineer!).
I don’t know the exact explanation for this strange state of affairs. The relevant period of evolution is so long ago. But I am ready to bet that it had something to do with the trajectory, the pathway through the real-life equivalent of Biomorph Land, that would have to be traversed in order to turn the retina the right way round, starting from whatever ancestral organ preceded the eye. There probably is such a trajectory, but that hypothetical trajectory, when realized in actual bodies of intermediate animals, proved disadvantageous — temporarily disadvantageous only, but that is enough. Intermediates could see even less well than their imperfect ancestors, and it is no consolation that they are building better eyesight for their remote descendants! What matters is survival in the here and now.
‘Dollo’s Law’ states that evolution is irreversible. This is often confused with a lot of idealistic nonsense about the inevitability of progress, often coupled with ignorant nonsense about evolution ‘violating the Second Law of Thermodynamics’ (those that belong to the half of the educated population that, according to the novelist C. P. Snow, know what the Second Law is, will realize that it is no more violated by evolution than it is violated by the growth of a baby). There is no reason why general trends in evolution shouldn’t be reversed. If there is a trend towards large antlers for a while in evolution, there can easily be a subsequent trend towards smaller antlers again. Dollo’s Law is really just a statement about the statistical improbability of following exactly th
e same evolutionary trajectory twice (or, indeed, any particular trajectory), in either direction. A single mutational step can easily be reversed. But for larger numbers of mutational steps, even in the case of the biomorphs with their nine little genes, the mathematical space of all possible trajectories is so vast that the chance of two trajectories ever arriving at the same point becomes vanishingly small. This is even more true of real animals with their vastly larger numbers of genes. There is nothing mysterious or mystical about Dollo’s Law, nor is it something that we go out and ‘test’ in nature. It follows simply from the elementary laws of probability.
For just the same reason, it is vanishingly improbable that exactly the same evolutionary pathway should ever be travelled twice. And it would seem similarly improbable, for the same statistical reasons, that two lines of evolution should converge on exactly the same endpoint from different starting points.
It is all the more striking a testimony to the power of natural selection, therefore, that numerous examples can be found in real nature, in which independent lines of evolution appear to have converged, from very different starting points, on what looks very like the same endpoint. When we look in detail we find — it would be worrying if we didn’t — that the convergence is not total. The different lines of evolution betray their independent origins in numerous points of detail. For instance, octopus eyes are very like ours, but the wires leading from their photocells don’t point forwards towards the light, as ours do. Octopus eyes are, in this respect, more ‘sensibly’ designed. They have arrived at a similar endpoint, from a very different starting point. And the fact is betrayed in details such as this.
Such superficially convergent resemblances are often extremely striking, and I shall devote the rest of the chapter to some of them. They provide most impressive demonstrations of the power of natural selection to put together good designs. Yet the fact that the superficially similar designs also differ, testifies to their independent evolutionary origins and histories. The basic rationale is that, if a design is good enough to evolve once, the same design principle is good enough to evolve twice, from different starting points, in different parts of the animal kingdom. This is nowhere better illustrated than in the case we used for our basic illustration of good design itself — echolocation.
Most of what we know about echolocation comes from bats (and human instruments), but it also occurs in a number of other unrelated groups of animals. At least two separate groups of birds do it, and it has been carried to a very high level of sophistication by dolphins and whales. Moreover, it was almost certainly ‘discovered’ independently by at least two different groups of bats. The birds that do it are the oil-birds of South America, and the cave swiftlets of the Far East, the ones whose nests are used for birds’ nest soup. Both types of bird nest deep in caves where little or no light penetrates, and both navigate through the blackness using echoes from their own vocal clicks. In both cases the sounds are audible to humans, not ultrasonic like the more specialized bat clicks. Indeed, neither bird species seems to have developed echolocation to such a pitch of sophistication as bats have. Their clicks are not FM, nor do they appear suitable for Doppler-shift speed metering. Probably, like the fruit bat Rousettus, they just time the silent interval between each click and its echo.
In this case we can be absolutely certain that the two bird species have invented echolocation independently of bats, and independently of each other. The line of reasoning is of a kind that evolutionists frequently use. We look at all the thousands of species of birds, and observe that the vast majority of them don’t use echolocation. Just two isolated little genera of birds do it, and those two have nothing else in common with each other except that both live in caves. Although we believe that all birds and bats must have a common ancestor if we trace their lineages back far enough, that common ancestor was also the common ancestor of all mammals (including ourselves) and all birds. The vast majority of mammals and the vast majority of birds don’t use echolocation, and it is highly probable that their common ancestor didn’t either (nor did it fly — that is another technology that has been independently evolved several times). It follows that the echolocation technology has been independently developed in bats and birds, just as it was independently developed by British, American and German scientists. The same kind of reasoning, on a smaller scale, leads to the conclusion that the common ancestor of the oil-bird and the cave swiftlet also did not use echolocation, and that these two genera have developed the same technology independently of each other.
Within the mammals too, bats are not the only group to have independently developed the echolocation technology. Several different kinds of mammals, for instance shrews, rats and seals, seem to use echoes to a small extent, as blind humans do, but the only animals to rival bats in sophistication are whales. Whales are divided into two main groups, toothed whales and baleen whales. Both, of course, are mammals descended from land-dwelling ancestors, and they may well have ‘invented’ the whale way of life independently of one another, starting from different land-dwelling ancestors. The toothed whales include sperm whales, killer whales and the various species of dolphins, all of which hunt relatively large prey such as fish and squids, which they catch in their jaws. Several toothed whales, of which only dolphins have been thoroughly studied, have evolved sophisticated echo-sounding equipment in their heads.
Dolphins emit rapid trains of high-pitched clicks, some audible to us, some ultrasonic. It is probable that the ‘melon’, the bulging dome on the front of a dolphin’s head, looking — pleasing coincidence — like the weirdly bulging radar dome of a Nimrod ‘advance-warning’ surveillance aircraft, has something to do with beaming the sonar signals forwards, but its exact workings are not understood. As in the case of bats, there is a relatively slow ‘cruising rate’ of clicking, rising to a high-speed (400 clicks per second) buzz when the animal is closing in on prey. Even the ‘slow’ cruising rate is pretty fast. The river dolphins that live in muddy water are probably the most skilled echolocators, but some open-sea dolphins have been shown in tests to be pretty good too. An Atlantic bottlenose dolphin can discriminate circles, squares and triangles (all of the same standardized area), using only its sonar. It can tell which of two targets is the nearer, when the difference is only 1¼ inches at an overall distance of about 7 yards. It can detect a steel sphere half the size of a golf ball, at a range of 70 yards. This performance is not quite as good as human vision in a good light, but probably better than human vision in moonlight.
The intriguing suggestion has been made that dolphins, if they chose to use it, have a potentially effortless means of communicating ‘mental pictures’ to one another. All that they would have to do is use their highly versatile voices to mimic the pattern of sound that would be produced by echoes from a particular object. In this way they could convey to one another mental pictures of such objects. There is no evidence for this delightful suggestion. Theoretically, bats could do the same thing, but dolphins seem more likely candidates because they are in general more social. They are also probably ‘cleverer’, but this isn’t necessarily a relevant consideration. The instruments that would be needed for communicating echo pictures are no more sophisticated than the instruments that both bats and dolphins already have for echolocating in the first place. And there would seem to be an easy, gradual continuum between using the voice to make echoes and using it to mimic echoes.
At least two groups of bats then, two groups of birds, toothed whales, and probably several other kinds of mammals to a smaller extent, have all independently converged on the technology of sonar, at some time during the last hundred million years. We have no way of knowing whether any other animals now extinct — pterodactyls perhaps? — also evolved the technology independently.
No insects and no fish have so far been found to use sonar, but two quite different groups of fish, one in South America and one in Africa, have developed a somewhat similar navigation system, which appears to be just a
bout as sophisticated and which can be seen as a related, but different, solution to the same problem. These are so-called weakly electric fish. The word ‘weakly’ is to differentiate them from strongly electric fish, which use electric fields, not to navigate, but to stun their prey. The stunning technique, incidentally, has also been independently invented by several unrelated groups of fish, for example electric ‘eels’ (which are not true eels but whose shape is convergent on true eels) and electric rays.
The South American and the African weakly electric fish are quite unrelated to each other, but both live in the same kinds of waters in their respective continents, waters that are too muddy for vision to be effective. The physical principle that they exploit — electric fields in water — is even more alien to our consciousness than that of bats and dolphins. We at least have a subjective idea of what an echo is, but we have almost no subjective idea of what it might be like to perceive an electric field. We didn’t even know of the existence of electricity until a couple of centuries ago. We cannot as subjective human beings empathize with electric fish, but we can, as physicists, understand them.
It is easy to see on the dinner plate that the muscles down each side of any fish are arranged as a row of segments, a battery of muscle units. In most fish they contract successively to throw the body into sinuous waves, which propel it forwards. In electric fish, both strongly and weakly electric ones, they have become a battery in the electric sense. Each segment (‘cell’) of the battery generates a voltage. These voltages are connected up in series along the length of the fish so that, in a strongly electric fish such as an electric eel, the whole battery generates as much as 1 amp at 650 volts. An electric eel is powerful enough to knock a man out. Weakly electric fish don’t need high voltages or currents for their purposes, which are purely information-gathering ones.