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The everyday reality of evolution

08 January 2013, 07:09

Evolution is a theory. A hypothesis.  A concept. Many Christians dismiss it as no more than that.  Of course the reality of the hypothesis is self evident.  But before looking at some aspects of it in nature, let’s look at the concept in human terms.

Take the automobile.  The car when it was first produced was thought that it would move so quickly, a person’s organs would be crushed when the vehicle accelerated (yes, even the measly accelerations of the first cars).  Ironically, some of those intuitions were very broadly correct.  Safety in vehicles was (and remains) a factor, and haemorrhage does occur more frequently than we would like,  often in the aftermath of a collision.  As a result, vehicles have had to evolve.  They have evolved safety harnesses, an engineered ‘crumpling’ system which allows the body of the car (especially in front) to absorb much of the impact. A more recent innovation is strengthened aluminium panels, ABS breaking, air bags, sensors in bumpers along with a host of new materials and sensors.

Another stressor on the auto industry is of course high fuel prices.  And vehicles have since evolved (most fairly recently) to sip less fuel, and to catch less wind.  It is actually incredible to look at how vehicles have transformed over time, in terms of shape, mass, fuel consumption, speed and the computer technology built into the system.  It is easy to dismiss the evolution of the vehicle and say, “Ah, but who created it?”  Is the simple answer really a man was sitting in a room, and ‘invented’ the motor vehicle?  I’m sure some would like to think so, for their own reasons.  Fortunately, the story is far bigger, and more vivid and colourful than that.  More on that in a moment.

The point is that once the vehicle was on the scene, environment stress and to some extent demand (which is an analogy for sexual selection) has led the design and engineering.  In other words, vehicles are not produced – for the most part – in spite of the environment, but to be practical and meet a host of other needs, including aesthetics.  (Nature does that too, again, to promote sexual selection).  Sometimes, in nature and in automobiles, aesthetics trumps engineering.  Think the peacock, bower bird, birds of paradise and perhaps some parrots and sunbirds and then think of the Buggati Veyron and every sports car and SUV ever made.

One can take the analogy even further and say, oh but a car will always be a car.  It was invented, it’s not like evolution which claims that horses came from dogs, and a fish and fruit fly are closer relatives to (a particular lizard say), than another similar lizardish looking crocodile creature but which happens to be far more evolved.  If that seems vague, let me be more specific. The car, in fact, was not simply invented for its own sake, out of thin air, simply created in order for it to exist.  In fact, if one does a little research, it turns out that a major volcanic eruption – one of the largest in human history – in the early 19th century, caused a year without summer, leading to massive worldwide crop failures in 1816.  Read about it here:

The result was that the world horse population was decimated over a very short time.  This necessitated thinking and ingenuity, and thus it was in Germany that the precursor to the bicycle first appeared on the scene in 1817 (although a sketch by a pupil of Leonardo da Vinci from 1493 shows that the idea had been on people’s minds for a good while).

Read about it here:

It was called a ‘dandyhorse’, and even today the seating arrangements are called a saddle (taking the cue from horseriding). The wheels had spokes, much like on a wagon, and a similar shape.  They were heavy, made of steel. This first iteration of the bicycle had no pedals, one would sit astride it and sort of run with the two wheels between ones legs.  It wasn’t long before bicycles became the predominant form of locomoting human beings on the planet. 

Horses pulling cars meant that under certain circumstances – muddy roads for example – tracks were laid down to relieve the strain on the horse, and prevent excessive breakdowns.  This led to the evolution of the bicycle (which was not a called a ‘bicycle’ until later) into two directions.  The first was the machine on rails, powered by steam, with the familiar spoked rims.  The second was a machine on the road, which had the wheels of a bicycle, and a small engine, powered by electricity.  It was the precursor to the electric car, but for reasons of expediency, that adaptation was allowed to linger in the background, so that the combustion engine (which was apparently cheaper and more powerful) could enter centre stage. 

It’s clear that when one understands the whole process, all the pieces fit together, and we see how small changes, and the environment, and an exterior driving force (in this case the demand for transport) cause many small changes over time.  If the reader imagines that the bicycle was ‘invented’ one afternoon, he should do a little research, the innovations took decades to perfect, some of course were elementary, others, like the derailleur, and gearing, were profound at the time and had applicability in other engines including cars, propeller driven ships and aircraft.

It is also absolutely clear that these changes, although modest at the time, over a long period of time, can make it difficult to see the original setup that spawned them.  It may be hard to imagine that a Boeing 747 evolved as a result of some of the technology that went into a bicycle, but it did.  In fact some of the first attempts at flight were on contraptions that very much resembled bicycles (lightweight pedalling contraptions etc).

Why can we not see these connections?  Firstly, because we do not try.  We don’t do the research, we don’t bother to read.  Second, because despite having all this information at our fingertips, we believe we already know all the answers.  Third, because our beliefs tell us that things were created out of nothing.  There is no story – there is no process.  There are just incomplete fragments, which God, in his wisdom can restore to a whole.  God is responsible, and that’s all we need to know.  Of course, from a particular perspective, this ignorance is impressive in terms of its sheer arrogance.

The same story as the one above can be told in terms of the evolution of the computer.

 We can also look at the evolution of dogs

 and roses

and cereal crops

The evolution story too is fascinating, and I’d encourage you to read it.

We learn, for example, about the arms race between predators and prey.  The one gaining strength, the other sacrificing strength to achieve lightness and speed (think lion versus gazelle).  In forests, trees try to outcompete each other in order to capture available sunshine.  Of course, that means growing higher, which costs them the materials required to grow taller.  As a result, all the trees grow taller.  For more of these fascinating insights, try reading The Greatest Show on Earth (and indeed it is), written by Richard Dawkins.

Or ignore it all. Call it a ‘theory’ but realise that this is a dismissive and nonsensical statement. And be clear that you prefer ignorance because you are terrified of the alternative.  If that is the case, you cannot also claim to be enlightened about the world.  Someone who chooses not to understand it, is either terrified or ignorant or just plain dogmatic.  Which are you?  And better, what will you do about it?

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