Category Archives: Evolution

Descent with Random Modification … Until Now


In line with my self-appointed mission of cleaning up the language of evolutionary science, I offer this.

The current issue of the Skeptic contains a chapter of a book about evolution. The author writes of “[Darwin’s] discovery of the theory of evolution by means of natural selection”. I submit that the correct description is “the theory of evolution by means of descent with random modification”.

I see the concept of “natural selection” as a purely physical layer atop something more fundamental and more important to the theory. Every inanimate and animate thing changes all the time (time == change). Some living individual things prosper more than others in their current environment. The physical earth-water-air-light environment of an individual living thing usually changes relatively slowly, but the living food-family-competitors environment of an individual living thing often changes quickly. Because an individual living thing’s DNA cannot change, individuals must die. These facts drive why living things must evolve or else disappear, but they are mostly independent of how living things evolve. Living lineages evolve (change) only through descent with modification, which Darwin saw and described clearly although without knowing the mechanisms.

Descent with modification has been completely random for billions of years: random flaws in protein replication, and random recombination of genes in sexual reproduction.

But humans can now carry out purposeful, directed evolution, for example by using CRISPR to wipe out malaria by genetically engineering the mosquitoes through which it spreads, or to wipe out Lyme disease by genetically engineering the rodents through which it spreads.

We are at a singularity. Now.


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Filed under Biology, Evolution, Natural Science, Uncategorized

What’s Wrong with this Cartoon?

From the New Yorker issue of April 23, 2018, this nicely done cartoon brings a chuckle. But it’s nearly all wrong.

The sun began “working” billions of years ago. The sun would emit the same energy whether or not any planets revolved or revolve around it. The sun’s energy is pure physics, a chance result of the Big Bang.

The sun’s emitted energy slams into this planet, which is a mote or speck in its neighborhood. This planet is a hot coal on the inside, a cold coal at the surface except where the sun beats down on it. Outside of gravity, nearly everything we see and feel on the planet is powered by the sun’s energy. In the background the planet grinds away, floating continents and spewing relatively small amounts of energy out of volcanoes and underwater vents. Life on this planet might have started around those underwater vents, but today it’s driven almost completely by sunlight – i.e. by starlight from the local star.

Our sun relentlessly presses life along. The sun doesn’t know it presses life along and it cannot care that it does. The sun does not support life! Its energy sparks and powers life, crashing into rock and dirt and water and air and other existing life, spiraling up more and more complex life forms, dancing, spinning, pushing – but always blindly, without purpose. One asteroid hit could all but destroy life on this planet. The sun could never notice.

We daily give free ammunition to creationists and intelligent-design advocates by anthropomorphizing our environment and unfolding existence. The sooner we start using accurate, unsentimental language and images to describe and discuss life on this planet, the sooner we will mature as a species and recognize our actual origin and place in the universe – as an unplanned and un-designed means by which this planet and this solar system have happened to emerge into self-awareness. I hope you’ll join me in making that happen.

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What Is

Your own personal forever-unique DNA has been billions of years in the making.
The probability that your exact DNA could happen to come into existence is all but zero.
The probability that it does exist is 100%. Here you are!
There is a direct unbroken connection from you back to the very first sparks of life on earth.
Contemplate your navel, and its navel, and its navel, …
Contemplate yourself contemplating yourself contemplating…

You are a process, not a thing.
You could not exist unless other humans existed.
Humans could not have existed unless plants existed.
Plants could not have existed unless single-celled photosynthesis existed amidst water and dirt.
You are an unplanned side effect of starlight pushing around sea water and dirt on this planet.

Wind and water and dirt are all unplanned side effects of starlight – sunlight – pouring onto the earth.
You are unable to live on water and dirt. You can live only by consuming other life and oxygen.
You are able to convert other life to energy only through the bacteria in your gut.
You could be seen as bacteria’s way of moving around, a bus for microorganisms.
Microorganism cells comprise 60-90% of the cells in your body and up to 3% of your weight.
Your immune system, outsourced to microorganisms, does not belong to you.
You are a vibrant community of many life forms.

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Filed under Evolution, Uncategorized

Denying Evolution is Implicitly Denying That Airplanes Fly


Our choices and uses of words get us into endless troubles among ourselves (speaking about all humanity here).

The word “evolve” connotes development from simpler to more complex, or from primitive to something better, whatever “better” might happen to mean in the context. The word “evolution” connotes something gradually changing from simpler and more primitive to something more complex and increasingly better.

Everyone agrees that living things and their artifacts change. We individually grow and decay and die, our human groups form and fracture and disappear, fashions come and go. Nothing – but nothing – is static and unchanging, not even the most rugged mountain, not continents, not the tilt of the earth’s axis. We know these things now. Time and change mean exactly the same thing. There would be no time if there were no change, and vice versa.

We humans don’t agree yet on the fundamental cause or causes for change. But some of us humans now know the key mechanisms of physical change, through logic and science, and only through them. Energy continues to flow from some unknown starting point billions of years ago. Suns eventually beam energy onto earths that have energetic molten cores. Atmospheres form. Sunlight whips up winds and clouds. Rain. Bodies of water. Energy from sunlight and/or geothermal vents churns up more complex molecules in water and mud. Eventually some molecules self-replicate as ever more complex crystals. After a few billion years, primates and humans emerged here along with self-awareness and science and poetry. No master designer needed. True, there’s an enormous amount more to learn and know about exactly how and when. But we can now predict with increasing accuracy, for example the next three days of weather. Darwin and Wallace predicted in the 1860s that a moth with an extraordinary 18-inch tongue must exist on Madagascar; 40 years later biologists found exactly that. Accurate prediction distinguishes logic and science from belief. Humanity knows that vaccinations can bring down certain people a little or even a lot, but we predict accurately that if not enough people get vaccinated for some dread disease, then far more people will suffer terribly or die, for example with smallpox or polio or (hopefully soon) Ebola.

Some humans don’t accept the above. Instead they apply intuition along with inherited texts and myths to explain the world around them and the visible relentless change in everything. As you wrote in a recent blog entry, we humans have the illusion of free will, that things happen because we choose for them to happen. The multiplicity of religions and gods among humans demonstrates that no one such belief or text or myth could be the sole ultimate truth. In contrast, logic and science are the same everywhere around the planet. The art of engineering rests completely upon logic and science. Believers can ride in airplanes miles up in the sky only because logic and science and engineering were applied carefully with highly predictable (but not always perfect) outcomes: flights across continents, around the world, all the way to the moon and Mars and out towards the stars.

What can we say to people like Pence to help them understand the bedrock truths and facts of logic, science, engineering and prediction? I imagine talking about the Mississippi River. Look at the empty oxbows, the enormous delta south of New Orleans. Did some self-aware entity design these patterns? If you, all-knowing Mr. Pence, were tasked with designing the Mississippi, would you make hundreds of thousands of false starts that leave abandoned side oxbows and dead-end bayous? Or would you just make a perfect Mississippi and be done with it? The last is obviously an absurd notion. There’s no being done with it. We ourselves can see and feel the rains and floods and re-channeling. The Mississippi is an enormous changing entity, writhing and evolving under the flow of energy transformed into moving water. Is the Mississippi somehow “better” today than it was yesterday? Meaningless question. Could be worse today. It depends. And the Mississippi will disappear too, someday.

There is no Theory of Evolution, really. We’re stuck with those words right now. The bedrock truth is, everything changes always and everywhere, all things are interdependent, some things happen to persist in their current environment while other unlucky things wither or die. To deny Evolution is to deny logic, science, engineering, prediction, and commercial airline flight. One might accuse the deniers with being freeloaders or parasites or worse, taking the fruits while rejecting the toil and the blood and suffering invested by millions of humans, Galileo and so many others, to bring us, with many fits and starts and backtracks, this far out of the darkness. We cannot, we must not allow ourselves to sink back into that darkness.


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Filed under Evolution, Politics, Science in the News

So-Called Artificial Intelligence: Google Translate Awakens


This weekend’s New York Times has a fine article on AI, The Great A.I. Awakening. I commented briefly on the article on the Times’s site but I want to say a lot more.

The article vividly documents Google Translate’s recent revolution in how it works. Until now, auto-translation engines have modeled languages explicitly via rules, dictionaries, and the like. The new Translate, and its Chinese competitor on Baidu, instead enable a multi-layer neural net – a simulated brain, basically – to learn language translation by being fed thousands or millions of existing examples of translations. Researchers fed Google Translate the complete English and French versions of the Canadian Parliament’s proceedings, for instance, presumably along with many translated classic books, newspapers, and so forth. The new engines learn like human toddlers do, by unconsciously copying behaviors they observe, over and over again, until they evolve to proficiency. And like humans, the new engines will continue learning their entire “lives” by observing and copying new examples with new words and new phrases in all languages. But note: the new engines will not be able to go out in the world themselves to find worthy new examples, not for a very long time yet. They’ll need human care and feeding for the foreseeable future.

From near the end of the article:

A neural network built to translate could work through millions of pages of documents of legal discovery in the tiniest fraction of the time it would take the most expensively credentialed lawyer. The kinds of jobs taken by automatons will no longer be just repetitive tasks that were once — unfairly, it ought to be emphasized — associated with the supposed lower intelligence of the uneducated classes. We’re not only talking about three and a half million truck drivers who may soon lack careers. We’re talking about inventory managers, economists, financial advisers, real estate agents.

All true. But all decades out in the future, maybe several or many decades. Why? I see it like this. A toddler computer learns from a team of humans whose only job today is to feed and raise this child quickly to do one thing well. The toddler computer has no eyes, ears, nose, mouth, hands, legs or feet. The toddler computer processes fed-in data 24×7 and learns its one thing quickly in its tiny simulated brain, much faster than a human child would. But a human child processes many orders of magnitude of far, far richer data per time period than the computer child can: visual, auditory, tactile, olfactory, the physics of standing and walking and making sounds, the complexities of language, and so forth, all integrated and organized within its real brain. See for example this discussion.

The human child’s brain is the culmination of millions of generations of evolving, increasingly more powerful prototypes equipped with extraordinarily capable sensors of several kinds. The human brain perceives and processes the world around it continuously at a huge data rate. The human body moves freely in space. With respect to attaining human-like intelligence and self awareness, then, the computer toddler has a truly enormous gap yet to cross. The crossing cannot possibly be quick, meaning in just a few years or a decade. It’s been only a few years since the total computing power on the planet exceeded just one human brain’s computing power.

Not to diminish or underplay the Google Translate achievements in any way. They are stunning. But I view them as like Watt’s invention of rotary steam motion in the late 1700s: an enormous enabler of a revolution, but still just the very beginning. And I’m not one bit worried by the article’s conclusion that “once machines can learn from human speech, even the comfortable job of the programmer is threatened.” No, not for a very long time yet to come.

As the article says, “The goal posts for ‘artificial intelligence’ are thus constantly receding.” Each step seems major, and Google Translate’s awakening is indeed major, but it’s still tiny in the big picture of true intelligence and self awareness.



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Filed under artificial intelligence, Evolution, Life, Software

The force


(I wrote this on a short-lived blog in 2010. It still represents my best shot at understanding what being alive on this planet means.)

What makes each of us emerge and grow and move and think?

The force of sunlight on spinning matter.

We are momentary patterns in the flow and ebb, warming and cooling, of water and soil under intense sunlight. You and I are massive colonies of bacteria heaved about daily by the sun. Bacteria are massive agglomerations of viruses and protein fragments. Viruses and proteins are not alive, but our bacteria are, and therefore we are.

There cannot be life without death. The world outside us is always changing. But none of us can change his/her internal pattern: once grown, each of us is essentially static as a genome. If we were each potentially immortal and had little or no drive to procreate, our species could not change, and we would die out under changing conditions. You and I are alive today because 400,000 generations of hominids and humans were driven to procreate. Each of our ancestors, randomly different from his/her parents and peers, happened to pass through the filters of natural selection that existed at that moment.

The sun drives us. Circumstances filter us. We need no conscious desire to adapt or change, and we have none within our physical beings. Change is forced on our species and every other species. Only a few lineages survive the filters.

How much do you know about your father’s mother’s mother? Probably almost nothing. How much of her is within you? Probably not much. Human patterns shimmer and evaporate in tiny fragments of time. Let us celebrate this.


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Filed under Biology, Evolution, Life

Evolution is a result, not a cause

Bernard, This New York Times article, Meet Luca, the Ancestor of All Living Things, exemplifies what I see as wrong-way thinking about evolution, thinking that directly or indirectly attributes purpose and foresight to evolution. Below are examples of what it says as opposed to what I believe it should say. Added text looks like this, deleted text. The article says: A surprisingly specific genetic portrait of the ancestor of all living things has been generated by scientists…

  • I maintain it should say: A surprisingly specific genetic portrait of a proposed ancestor of all living things has been generated by scientists…
  • Comment: Is it absolutely certain that change and natural selection didn’t winnow down more complex microbes, filtering out unused genetic material, resulting in what looks like an ancestor but is actually a residue?


I saw that interesting report too. The researchers applied powerful tools to uncover what genes might have been those of the now long extinct Last Common Ancestor of all living things, LUCA. All knowledgeable scientists, and me too, agree with you that evolution has no purpose or goal to achieve. The fancy way to say this is that it is not teleological. The sources of modification to any creature’s genome are random, and their direction is random. Some of these changes produce changes to the reproductive fitness of that organism in its particular environment, leading to the increase of the fraction of the population with those particular changes. But natural selection is not the only mechanism that leads to changes in a population’s genome. Research in recent decades has shown that random drift in a population the result of genomic changes that are either neutral with respect to natural selection or not exposed to natural selection are important sources of genomic and species change. Continue reading

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Filed under Biology, Evolution, Natural Science