Have you heard the news? Did you see the special report? Did you get the re-tweeted Twitter tweet with a shortened twitly link?
Science has finally figured it out! They’ve solved the ultimate question: where did we come from? It’s actually quite stupendous, as the name might suggest: The Super Stupendous Random Life Generator Device or SSRLGD for short.
Wouldn’t you believe it though, the process is so convoluted and multifarious that most scientists had mistaken the process by which it works for a natural Rube Goldberg machine. This veil has been lifted though…the light has shone, and their eyes have seen…SSRLGD is real and it explains everything!
I’ll get to the details in a minute, but first, let’s look at some other examples of seemingly pointless, overly complex and ultimately unfeasible machines at work.
Imagine, all this time, the answer was right under our noses! So what is it? I’ll tell you, but you won’t believe me.
All right, so I’m blowing smoke up your miniskirt. Clearly there’s no such thing as a Super Stupendous Random Life Generator Device, and as much fun as Rube Goldberg machines are to watch, (as opposed to building one), they really don’t make much sense. And while you might now be wondering just what my point is, I have the sad privilege of informing you that there are a lot of people who look on the process of evolution with much the same disbelief. You might be one of them.
To many people, the idea of evolution seems…acceptable, if not highly complex and confusing (much like the SSRLGD?). A lot of people claim to understand the process, though in reality they haven’t the first clue how it works. Others have latched onto a dangerously small bit of the explanation and are running around, flailing their arms in the air and screaming something about blasphemy and the apocalypse. But I’m here to tell you that an understanding of the idea, the theory and the facts of Evolution by Natural Selection is not out of your reach. It really is simpler than a machine that turns on a light by way of a bowling ball, a blow torch and a mouse trap.
Evolution is compounding random genetic mutation. See…simple!
It really is as simple as that, but to explain it further, I have no choice but to complicate things a bit…I’ll try to keep it simple. Let’s talk DNA.
Deoxyribonucleic Acid, or DNA, is actually a real life Super Stupendous Random Life Generator. It is the reason we’re here, it’s the reason you’re able to read these words, it’s even the reason your lungs have air to breathe. It’s an incredible thing, if I do say so myself.
Your DNA is the recipe for building a You. Each of your cells, all fifty to seventy-five trillion of them, contains a twisted ladder structure consisting of protein molecules called amino acids. Amino acids come in many different shapes, sizes and flavours. On a microscopic level amino acids like to group together with other amino acids to form chains. As these chains grow and become longer, eventually they become what are known as genes. It is genes that make up the structure of the DNA double helix. The DNA in your cells is identical; every cell in your body has exactly the same DNA structure, organized with amino acid chains in exactly the same order. This makes You.
DNA, when paired up with RNA (Ribonucleic Acid) – which is a similar structure, made up of amino acids as well, but which has a different function – makes for a powerful team. Without delving into the technical jargon of evolutionary genetics (the science of DNA), it can suffice to be said that where DNA is the recipe for building a living being, RNA is the cook. RNA has the function of instructing cells on their purpose, by telling them to read specific parts of the recipe (DNA), and thereby distinguishing between a skin cell and a brain cell.
The magic of evolution happens during the combining of DNA from two individual biological beings, through embryology.
Embryology is the science of baby-making, and it just happens that the process of making babies is where evolution starts, for the individual. Most everyone understands the process by which species breed and procreate (if you don’t, I would recommend some prerequisite internet browsing before proceeding), through that process DNA from each parent is, essentially, spliced together to form a new double helix for the offspring. Which, as above, means that the new baby will have a new recipe, from which their RNA will construct them, ultimately, the baby’s cells will contain DNA that is similar to each parent, though not an exact 50/50 split. However, the splicing process is, shall we say, less than perfect, though to suggest that this is a flaw in the system would be an error.
When the baby is conceived, that is, when the sperm cell penetrates the egg, the parent’s respective DNA will be copied inside the egg, using some genes (long chains of amino acids) from the father and some from the mother. However, occasionally the mechanism responsible for copying genes makes mistakes. Sometimes those mistakes are small and sometimes they’re quite large. Geneticists refer to this as copy fidelity, and actually, photocopy machine technicians use the same term. Copy fidelity is a fancy way of saying “reliability of the mechanism for copying genes (or parts of an image) without making errors.” Genes are notoriously poor copiers; however, they need to be in order for evolution to work.
Every time a copy error is made, there is some change in the cells that corresponds to that particular part of the recipe, resulting in a change to the biological make up of the individual. Sometimes that change is good, for the baby, and sometimes it’s bad. (We’ll be coming back to this…it’s very important to the process.) These errors are called mutations, and it is the effect of many, many mutations over the course of many millions of generations, over many millions of years that are referred to as Evolution. Each time a baby is born (of any species of animal or plant), whatever mutations it carries in it’s DNA will ultimately be passed on to it’s own offspring, whether new mutations or old ones passed on from it’s parents, grandparents, great grandparents and on back through time to it’s earliest ancestor. Every aspect of every form of life on earth is literally the result of a mistake in gene copying at some point in history.
So, basically, we’re made up of little unreliable photocopy machines, housed inside cells who get bossed around by various kinds of protein molecules. I suppose that’s it, in a nut shell. But wait, we’re not done yet.
The basic unit of evolution is the gene, it is the instruction inside the DNA recipe that tells the cells what to be and what to do. There are genes (instructions) for literally every possible aspect of life, and believe it or not, our DNA contains many of the instructions for making the cells of monkeys, dogs, whales and even fish. It is the combined effect of our entire DNA double helix that ultimately determines whether we’ll be a hagfish or a human, but don’t worry your baby won’t be born with gills.
If the gene, in the micro world, is the true engine behind evolution, which it is, how does it affect the macro development of the body? Earlier it was mentioned that genetic mutations could be small or large. The idea doesn’t easily transfer to the effect of those mutations on the macro scale however. Generally speaking, a large volume of genetic mutation over a span of a few generations might well go unnoticed in the macro world, and those kinds of genetic changes that get passed along the generational line are the ones that really count in the really long term. Significant genetic mutations that cause large and noticeable effects in the macro being are often so disruptive to that being’s ability to survive, that those mutations fail to be passed along to future generations.
This is called Natural Selection.
A mutation, is a mutation, is a mutation. There is no way to place a value on a genetic mutation in one way or the other. (I told you we’d be coming back to the good, the bad and the ugly.) Until, that is, such a mutation causes an effect in the individual that either impedes that individual’s ability to survive or helps it. The word survive in this context, doesn’t necessarily mean happily ever after. It means live long enough to breed, and hence, pass those genes, complete with any and all previous mutations up the genetic line. Any mutation that is sufficient to cause a change in the individual that will allow that individual to better compete against it’s environment, to the end of surviving long enough to find a mate and breed (including in some cases, living long enough to care for the offspring), will be favoured among the mutations of that species other individuals.
Essentially, a bug whose environment requires it to have a hard carapace (shell) would benefit from genetic mutations that caused it’s carapace to become harder, while genetic mutations that caused it’s carapace to become softer would result in those individuals dying long before they had the chance to breed, thus their genes and mutations (including the one for softer shells) would die with them.
Those things in the environment that would cause the premature death of an individual are called Selection Pressures. Selection Pressures can be simple environmental conditions, changes in food quality and availability, predators, population size and density and disease. Changes in these areas will cause individuals to compete for survival amidst that environment, against other species and their own species. This had been termed The Survival of the Fittest historically, though that term lead to a great deal of misunderstanding about how evolution works, because it caused people to think of individual animals and plants competing for resources, rather than the true source of evolution, the competition between genes for survival. The ultimate goal – which is a dangerous term to use when speaking of evolution – of evolution would be to continue to pass genes on to future generations. I say that using the word goal is dangerous because it has a tendency to cause people to think of the process in a backward manner.
The macro world cannot affect genes directly. It can only have an impact indirectly by not allowing certain genes (mutations) to pass on to future generations. And thinking of it like that provides a glimpse of the fallacy involved in speaking of evolutionary goals. It seems silly to think that the macro world has any care to affect a gene, even if only to allow it to pass along or not. The macro world is not an entity, it has no will, and to suggest so is just silly, but the reverse is also true.
Evolution has no will. Genetic mutations are just that, mutations. There is no planning involved, there could never be. A gene mutates as a result of a mistake in copy fidelity, and the resulting change to the individual is incidental at best. So, one might ask, precisely how did such complex creatures evolve if the process is all about the survival of genes?
We, you and me, my friend, are simply genetic vessels. Our purpose, the whole reason we were born into this world, is to carry our genetic material long enough to pass it on, and in the case of you and me, to live long enough to care for the product of that purpose, until it too can fulfill the same purpose. In the long term, and I mean the extremely long term, the competition between genes for survival resulted in individuals who were more fit for surviving their particular environment. Each successive generation presented its own mutations, some of which were passed on, some were not, but every successive mutation was built upon previous mutations. Where one mutation might have had the effect of making one cell sensitive to light, the next mutation could have had the effect of making that particular cell even more sensitive to light. And tiny mutational step after tiny mutational step, almost all animal life ended up with a collection of cells that are highly sensitive to light, and most amazingly with cells that are specially adapted to focus, limit and redirect light rays in order to compile a visual image of our surrounding environment. The effect of each small mutation is compounded over time to have a huge effect on the species as a whole. That effect, as can plainly be seen, is a natural progression toward ever increasing biological complexity, resulting in, among other things…us.
So, Evolution by Natural Selection is a process of compounding random mutations over time. I told you it was simple. OK…maybe it’s not that simple, but it can be understood with a little effort. And I would recommend, highly, that anyone who is interested in gaining a full grasp on the specifics of this amazing and somewhat counter-intuitive process, should seek out and pick up Professor Richard Dawkins book series The Blind Watchmaker, Unweaving the Rainbow, Climbing Mount Improbable, The Selfish Gene and The Greatest Show on Earth.
In the end, it’s relatively apparent that the Super Stupendous Random Life Generating Device is real. It’s the gene of the DNA double helix. It is the process by which all life evolves using random mutation after random mutation to build a creature or plant that is better suited to survive its environment than its predecessor.
 Some say that this is a particularly bleak way to look at life, though, when one asks the question of the empty space around them (as in prayer); what is my purpose? The silence they are faced with seems pretty bleak to me.