“Natural” selection is brainless.
I am always irritated by the assumption that natural selection and its resultant evolution is a “good thing”. After grinding my teeth for a while I tend to switch off when a “scientist” starts assigning values of goodness or badness to something that just is. So this comes as a reaction to an idiot scientist I just heard on radio, gushing about how wonderful evolution is.
Natural selection has no direction. In fact it is unintended selection. It just allows for the survival and the reproduction of the “just good enough” individuals (not of the best individuals). “Evolution” is then just the resulting changes in species, where some individuals have had the genetic variation (errors or abnormalities) to be able to survive in a changed environment (habitat and/or competing species). Paradoxically, species which display a wide genetic variation in individuals (large errors), have a greater chance of surviving change. Of course, many abnormal individuals fail to survive, which is the price paid for the survival of the species. In that sense, “natural selection” sacrifices individuals for the sake of the species. The unplanned, unintended “selection” occurs primarily by the deselection of the unfit individuals. You could say it was unethical, since the end (species survival), justifies the means (deselection of unfit individuals). There is no compassion for deselected individuals in natural selection.
Excellence of a particular attribute is never selected for. Survivors are those just good enough, to live long enough, to reproduce. Evolution by this “natural selection” clearly works, but it is not intentional, is not very efficient and can only cope with slow, small changes to the environment. Rapid or large changes cannot be matched by the available genetic variation. When the genetic variation (errors) among individuals does not throw up some which can survive some external change, species go extinct. It is the selection not by a pro-active choice but by whatever is left surviving after a multitude of trials of the errors.
It is said that 99% of all species that ever existed are now extinct. It follows, then – by that measure – that evolution has a pretty dismal 1% success rate. A process with 99% of the production being rejected. It is hardly six-sigma. It also follows that many of the species alive today are not quite suitable, are intended for rejection and must go extinct. (I have always thought that this embarrassing level of inefficiency is in itself a powerful denial of any “intelligent design”).
The “wondrous evolution” of the eye, for example, is not all that wondrous considering the length of time involved (3.8 billion years from light sensitive algae to the human eye), and the mamillions of generations of trial by error. (A mamillion is the mother of all millions and is one million raised to the one millionth power). The eye is no doubt wonderful, but as a sensor of electro-magnetic radiation, it is only just “good enough”. It could have been much “better”, if excellence of the sensor was a purpose. The long, slow process by which the human eye has evolved is pretty unimpressive as a process, even if the result is not that bad. Natural selection does not even have survival as a purpose. It just throws up a multitude of possibilities and survival of some lucky few is the result. It is this shotgun approach of natural selection which is so inefficient – but to its credit, I have to admit it is a low-cost process which has been sufficiently effective to keep the selfish genes alive.
My contention is that an “artificial selection” approach, which had purpose, intelligence and direction, could have produced a superior eye and in much less time. Having direction means that excellence of an attribute could explicitly be sought. “Artificial selection” would be the precisely targeted, rifle-shot, giving a better eye with every generation, compared to the “something should hit the barn sometime” approach of natural selection’s shot-gun, where a better eye was only one of many possibilities for the coming generations.
Consider then what “artificial selection” might have achieved – may yet still achieve – for the human form. Surround-sight eyes seeing deep into the uv and ir spectra. Ears able to discern pressure waves from the rumble of elephants and whales and upto the ultrasound of some creatures. Skin with an ability to absorb solar energy. Retractable gills. Cells for photosynthesis. Intelligent, armed, police cells patrolling the body for nasty, criminal cancers. Generalist antibodies. Regenerating cells. Rebooting capabilities for the mind. A brain which could beat a supercomputer at chess. Auto-translation cells between the ear and the brain. A hooded “third eye” to detect the undetectable. A heightened olfactory sense. A shielded “inner ear” to detect gravitation waves. A multi-tasking, retractable tail. Tunable radio receivers in our heads.(And many more desirable attributes I cannot even imagine).
Natural selection is about being just good enough. Artificial selection could be about excellence, an excellence as perceived at the time of selection. Artificial selection would then indeed be the application of intelligence to design. It would not take a million years for an “all seeing eye”.
That would be a Brave New World for a brave new species of homo sapiens superior.