The Mechanism of Wonder (The Greatest Show on Earth)

It has always confused me, and I am talking back into my high school days when I was really introduced to Biology (it came up earlier, but I don’t know that I really understood it well enough to form an informed opinion), and its cornerstone, evolution, why people find it so hard to believe. I mean, I’ve talked about evolution at some length, even on this blog, but I was just rehashing common talking points with my own personal flair, but I doubt I was converting anyone. I’d like to expand on at least one point here, and see where it takes me.

It doesn’t necessarily require religious dogma to find evolution hard to swallow (though they do like to layer on very heavily the reasons why evolution is a faulty theory, in their eyes), and I do understand that. It is difficult to grasp the idea of small changes over hundreds of millions of years, especially if you grow up around people telling you that the world is much younger, and also that evolution is bogus. I feel bad for children who grow up in areas of even the most affluent first world countries that are told, in the science classroom, that evolution is a “controversial” theory; it is anything but.

One particularly odd argument against evolution is that there is no such thing, there is merely adaptation (which is undeniable; Darwin’s finches adapted before the venerable scientist’s very eyes. Hell, even scientists at Liberty University have seen adaptation at work in bacteria. Also, Liberty University is a leading Liberty University science of bacteria Liberty University.). It is odd to deny the overarching theory when accepting that things adapt to change over time; almost mind boggling, actually.

I think I have to approach adaptation at this point, as I think there is some confusion. First, there is no practical difference between adaptation and evolution, and to deny this is to misunderstand the point. What we see, in our limited scope of study, is the sum total of a process running longer than our minds can possibly conceive of, possibly imagine. “We have never seen a duck become a dog,” and other similarly vacuous arguments, wildly misinterpret the scope of adaptation and evolution. There is no scientist in their right mind that would ever argue that from a duck’s egg would hatch anything but a duck, so let’s forget that line of reasoning altogether.

It was Richard Dawkins who mentioned, far too casually, a point that really revolutionized my own understanding of evolution, and I would like to make that the cornerstone of this small essay. In “The Greatest Show on Earth”, he mentions in passing that evolution is so slow that, looking from generation to generation, each child will look so much like its parents that you won’t even see the difference. It is only when you step back and look over 100,000 generations, or 1,000,000 generations, or more, that you are even to tell the difference between two species to the point that they would even be marked in different columns in a paper by a biologist.

Evolution is so slow that if you were to speed up time and watch it in action, there would only ever be one species, because each animal looks so much like its parents. If you were to look at a picture of the adult form of each child, it would seem like a time lapse photo of a single organism slowly transforming into myriad shapes, sizes, colors, forms, it would grow and lose hair, it would form antlers and drop them, but each iteration so closely resembles its parents that it would, in all of these forms, still seem to be that of a single species.

How is this possible? If that’s the case, how do we have species at all? The answer to that lies both in the advanced stage of evolution (and time) in which we currently find ourselves, and the convenience of the fossil record. I say convenience, and that word will be held against me in a court of debate, but the fossil record has truly made the study of biology not only possible, but wonderful, awe-inspiring. Fossils form only rarely, so we get snapshots. This is not the time lapse photo from above, this is one photo between thousands, and if you look at these snapshots in time, you can clearly see the differences in this species; you can see that one had certain features in its skeleton, certain bone structures, certain horns, tell-tale eye sockets, or any one of a thousand signals that it was different from its cousins, because you only see it as a single piece of a large puzzle rather than a single frame of a long movie.

Let’s give some small examples, then, as I don’t think my above analogy was very clear (though I am struggling to come up with anything better). We go back 15,000 years, when there are only very few species of canine. In this case, our subject will be a pack of wolves that, through careful coaxing and bribery, are more or less domesticated (or at the least captured and bred). These wolf pups are raised, and only the most docile are further bred (for the purposes of this example, I will be using highly accelerated selective breeding). Each shares so much in common with its parents that it is difficult to tell that there are changes at all, but the selective breeding continues. As these wolf cubs are selectively bred for docility, they also gain floppier ears. Other small changes occur over the years, and there are cubs bred (now that they have been domesticated) for different tasks; larger cubs are taken by hunters and bred for aggression and discipline, smarter cubs are taken and bred to think on their feet and assist with rounding up cattle or sheep, smaller cubs, or the most docile cubs, are bred for loyalty and friendliness. Each cub, bred in captivity, down an unbroken line of succession, appeared (for all intents and purposes) to share the traits of its parents so closely that they don’t appear to be a different species.

It is at this point that I would like to present a visual aid to our study of evolution.

Click Here, and you will see a small assortment of dog breeds.

Click Here, and you will see the parent from which ALL (that is, 100%, 1/1, each of, all of, and any of) these breeds came.

This is in less than 15,000 years, mind you. Given the amazing amount of differences we can see cropping up, is it really so hard to see that maybe this and the above link to wolves may have shared an ancestor some time in the past? Given that the primary living diversity we see is about a half a billion years old, we can take 15000 to be about 0.003% of the current age of complex life (it is even less than that, but I am using the simplest math I can because math is hard). I mean, each of the presented species (canine and feline) share a staggering amount of similar traits; the tail to body length ratio is similar, they are both quadrupeds, they share similar coloration, many species of canine and feline share the same triangle shaped ears, they both share similar dental characteristics, their skeletons (when viewed completely free of tissue) are almost identical aside from differences in the skull.

So why is it so hard to believe that canines and felines shared an ancestor in the distant past?

And, if you accept that, what happens when you go further back even than that? Rats are similar but smaller, horses are similar but larger. Well, if you take horses to be similar, now we look at cattle, buffalo, bison, as they share characteristics with horses, such as hooves, body shape, bone structure. Well, now that we have accepted that, let’s go back further. You’ve seen a hairless gerbil, yeah? Imagine that with scales, change the dental work, and we’ve got ourselves a reptile. This isn’t all as easy as I have made it sound, I understand that, but the further you break it down, the easier it is to see the patterns and the relationships inherent in the animal kingdom. You can make a simple chain of “w is similar to x, x is similar to y, and y is similar to z, but w is NOT similar to z… However, I have proven, through a series of events, that w and z are related.”

Cats are similar to dogs, dogs are similar to horses, horses are similar to certain breeds of cattle, and by this short chain, I have shown a relationship between cats and cattle. They may not appear related, but that is the glory of the masterwork that is evolution. And each child of the above could appear so similar to its parent that we would never notice it changing… But what will cats look like in 100,000 years?

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