Selection and plan:

There is a painful debate in the United States between those who believe in evolution and those who see the hand of a designer.  One might phrase the question: did the present form of life reach this state by natural selection among random mutations, or is the result of deliberate design?  At serious risk of offending both sides, I must remind you of the obvious truth.  Both have played a part. 

The fact of selection without deliberate human intervention was established long ago.  During the Industrial Revolution, Britain began to burn lots of coal.  That produced a lot of soot, and things that were outside and not being washed tended to get black, including tree trunks.  Moths, that before had rested in relative safety on those trunks, were now conspicuous to predators, their lighter color standing out against the dirt.  It was observed that on average the moths were getting darker.  This was dubbed with the jaw stretching moniker, “Industrial Melanism.”  My understanding is that when the pollution got cleaned up, the moths began to get lighter again.  So there seems to be no real question that selection happens without any conscious plan.

On the other hand, there certainly is conscious planning.  Plants and animals are regularly bred for desirable traits.  That is not natural selection.  It is human selection, and it happens.  In fact, humans produce animals that could not possibly have arisen by evolution.  The mule, the cross between a male donkey and a female horse, is not sufficiently fertile to establish a stable population.  Usually the male is totally infertile.  If human or nature tried to breed a mule by selection, before the product was very close to being exactly like a mule, it would already be infertile.  So the fact of intelligent design contributing to life is beyond question.

What the relative strengths of the contributions have been leaves room for argument, and that has certainly been forthcoming. 

One argument is the proposal that although either natural or artificial selection can tweak a species, it cannot turn it into a different species.  In a manner of speaking, there is a point there.  Suppose for no reason but with enormous time and resources, somebody tried to breed dogs into cats.  Mutations would arise, the most cat like would be selected for and in the fullness of time it is likely that there would be a small, easily domesticated carnivore that went meow and had retractable claws and slit pupils.  Suppose this was carried to the point that there was no recognizable difference between this animal and an ordinary cat.  Any cat fancier could examine it to contentment of heart and would never be able to detect the cheat.  Would it, an animal with no cat ancestors, then, be a cat?

The answer is absolutely not.  Barring some incredibly unlikely series of events, the new cat-like creature would have achieved its status by an entirely different arrangement of genes from those of a real cat.  It would not be able to mate with a real cat and produce kittens.  In that sense, it is not possible to breed one species into another. 

But do species arise in the wild, I mean separate species where before there had been but one?  Excuse me, harrumph, but being the only person in the world with a mathematical model for speciation (outlined on the main page of this site), and having been ready to express it and defend it for years now, I think I can render an opinion. 

First, I must point out that there are a lot of definitions of species.  One, the most practical, is simply that if it looks like a different species it is, and our pseudo cat would have passed that test.  But a more stringent definition runs something like this: A species is a population of mutually inter-mating individuals or potentially mutually inter-mating individuals that can have fertile offspring. 

In other words if there are mice in one valley that are all mating at random, and mice in another valley that are randomly mating, you cross males from one valley with females from another.  If the result is mice that are sterile in the first generation or soon thereafter, they are different species.  If the cross goes off without a hitch, then they are the same species.  That seems clear enough, and awkward but doable. 

Now consider a great city of a million inhabitants.  Are they all the same species?  Well suppose they mate at random on day one. It would take at least 20 generations or about 600 years before everybody could count everyone in the city on day one as an ancestor.  But as I have shown on the main page, that cannot happen.  Long before the 6 centuries were up, the population would have collapsed from infertility.  They are simply not a population of “potentially inter-mating individuals that can have fertile offspring” in the end. 

I’m sorry.  Species happen with blinding speed even by historical time scales.  To be sure, just about anybody now can mate with anybody from anywhere in the world and hope for fertile offspring.  But carry that on for several generations and things break down. 

But of course I am begging the question.  The issue is not whether the intelligent design of species is possible.  We know we do it.  The question is whether species have been designed by non-human intelligence.  And there is the question that I prefer to beg off answering. 

If you have a deeply held religious conviction, do not let anything I say threaten that.  I am not just being polite.  At some time I hope to discuss just how important that conviction is to all of us. 

But perhaps you have the opinion that we have been designed by extra-terrestrial aliens who were themselves perfectly natural life forms.  If this opinion is so intense for you as to be the equivalent of a religion, I will offer it the same respect as a religion.  But suppose it is only a whim, a fancy.  Then we can have a little fun with it. 

I shall be taking the position that it has all been a natural process.  I shall take that position for one reason.  I find it convenient.  In this sense, this is pure science.  Science is simply the search for the most convenient way to describe the world we see.  It properly lays not claim to absolute truth.  It specifically excludes anything we experience that is not available to the five senses.  Of course instruments are permitted, but in the end nothing is admitted that is not witnessed or potentially witnessed by anyone interested. 

So saying, let us abandon science for now and look at your inconvenient notion of humans designed by extra-terrestrial aliens.  First off the bat we must acknowledge that these aliens are really good at this sort of thing.  It is far beyond our own capability and will be for a very long time.  But we are able to understand evolution, AND you are able to understand what I am saying.  So your aliens had to know all this, too. 

Second, we must inquire of their motivation.  That may seem difficult, but it seems clear at least that there was a plan.  If there was no plan, if this was some adolescent prank, then I think our plight is terrible, somehow worse than if we appeared by blind chance.  The idea is not disprovable, but it is disagreeable.  We exclude the matter from consideration.  (I told you this would not be convenient.)  So they had a mature plan, understood evolution, understood what I have been saying, and arranged for evolution to be put on hold.

Imagine that they left us free to evolve.  Evolution depends on rare and inherently unpredictable mutations.  They simply would have had no way to know what they were doing.  This is not the stuff of plan.  And if they made other animals as well, they had to do the same thing for them, else we might well have been eaten.  So how could they stop evolution? 

All they would have had to do was to optimize us as well as evolution would have done.  Then we would already be so complex that further increase in complexity would have been most difficult.  The end result would have been the same whether your aliens were there or not.  I find it easier to discount them, but I cannot disprove them.  Either way, the reasoning on the main page of this site would hold. 

So peace.  Believe as you will.  When I say evolution, make such mental reservation as you will, but you are probably already used to doing that. 

As I said, I shall use the concept of evolution because it is a convenient way of describing what we see in the world and make no further moral or religious inference.  This is pure science, not some religion masquerading as science.  If you do not believe in evolution, you can still make prudent choices.  If you DO believe in evolution, you may have the sneaking suspicion that I have wasted your time.  But I did not intend to.  Going forward, it will become ever more important that we respect, even cherish, views we do not hold.  I have tried to give us all a little nudge in that direction. 

There have been 54 visitors to the site so far.  This is research not advice.  Linton Herbert

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