Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Tree Metaphor

Yesterday, we had a tree cut down in our yard. (Conveniently, it was technically public property, since it was near enough to the road. Handy to have a registered surveyor in the house.) It was in danger of falling over after the Sunday storm loosened its roots a little more. Last hurricane to pass through the region got it started. Anyway, I ended up with a metaphor for evolution in the process:

I've heard that having an automatic sprinkler system in your lawn tends to cause problems for the trees: The regular watering and some leakage gives the trees easy access to surface water. As a result, the roots stay shallow in the soil. If they had to contend with drier conditions, the roots would grow deeper and provide a better foundation. With shallow roots, hard rains can loosen the soil they're in, causing the whole tree to fall.

That's like evolution, in a way: The tree doesn't have any foreknowledge or intelligence. It doesn't know it needs deep roots to avoid toppling from a storm. It's programmed by its DNA and developmental environment. The roots grow towards water sources. In times of drought, they'll grow downward, and coincidentally provide a stronger base. Those conditions exist in nature, but we change that with those around our houses. The roots grow for short-term interest, but in the wild, the strategy leads towards long-term success by a strong root base.

Evolution only responds towards short-term success. Long-term success happens, but an environmental change can easily destroy that. That's because it doesn't have any foresight either. One example is "Killer X mutation," a gene selfish enough that it tends to cause extinction of its species out of 'short-sightedness'. In the short run, the gene benefits by making copies of itself more plentiful. In the long run, it ends up eliminating the male population and wiping out the species.

There's no Platonic eidolon leading creatures towards some perfect form, or any foresight that'll provide us with superhumans adapted for catastrophes that haven't happened yet. There's just population statistics that favor genes that have momentary advantages.


Dark Jaguar said...

I know someone at a forum I go to often who has a very corrupted idea of evolution. It's not that the guy is a creationist or even an intelligent design person. This guy isn't even a member of any recognized religion, just generally "spiritual".

The guy seems to think that cells willingly evolve of their own accord. That is, the cell "detects" a change in it's environment and will know that it "needs" to evolve and will then mutate itself intentionally toward whatever it needs to do. He thinks all cells do this.

At first he apparently thought that's what evolution TAUGHT. I corrected him on this very quickly through a number of links to all sorts of biology sources online. Now he's at least aware that this is NOT what evolution says happens, but is convinced that he's still right and now the scientists are the ones that are wrong.

This is such a unique misunderstanding of evolution that I'm hard pressed to find sources online that specifically tackle this sort of thing. At best all I can find are things tackling intelligent design.

Clint Bourgeois said...

Sounds like he subscribes to some kind of Lamarkian evolution. Or maybe he's thinking of Epigenetics?

Dark Jaguar said...

It's very lamarkian. He's convinced he's right because "people who swim a lot have kids that swim well". When asked for evidence, he does this thing where he insults me for just not already knowing that.

Don said...

people who swim a lot have kids that swim wellParents who like to swim a lot can't possibly take their kids swimming more often than other parents, thus ensuring that they learn to swim well at an early age.

So the fact that parents who like Star Wars tend to have kids who like Star Wars is also due to these spontaneous cellular changes?

It's like for this guy culture doesn't exist at all. Tell him I said he's a moron.

Valhar2000 said...

Actually, Dark Juagaur, it doesn't sound like your acquaintance misunderstands evolution; it sounds like he is an arrogant douchebag.

Dark Jaguar said...

As much as I like the guy, it does get like that at times. He's also convinced light guns work by detecting electrons from CRT TVs, when in fact electrons won't travel in straight paths unless in a vacuum (hence why a CRT is high vacuum) and a light gun in fact detects... light! LCD screens have issues with light guns because of timing issues, not because they don't fire electrons. Also, I had to explain that our eyes can't detect elecrons, that the electrons are "visible" only in the sense that they excite a layer of phosphors on the TV screen which then in turn emit visible light, they see the lihgt coming out of a TV, but he kept running around in circles about how that's just how they work because it's how they work.

Also explaining that CDs consist of exactly two depth layers, a "1" and a "0", rather than a "full range" of different depths was rather exasperating, as he was convinced that just two layers of depth could never encode the full range of pitches in a song. The facts of how digital information is encoded being able to do exactly that escaped him.

Plus he's completely obsessed with his one psychology class he took years ago and tries to wedge everyone's behavior into these outdated freudian ideals. He's completely convinced that not only are guns a phallic symbol, but they are designed AROUND the phallic symbol. It's one thing to say that they work as a symbol and another to suggest that the engineering could ever have worked any other way. You can't have a trumpet shaped barrel and expect it to fire correctly, and a longer barrel assures a more accurate shot. The symbolism may well come into play after the fact with a lot of people, but if you are going to get a gun that works, it has to be designed a certain way.

Anyway, I've sort of hijacked the thread here so I'll get back on the topic of his weird ideas of evolution.

I've basically looked at all of what he's recently said and have posted a long post just telling him what evidence I'd need and if he has it. I'll see where it goes from there.

Dunc said...

Sounds very much like he's suffering a bad case of the "arrogance of ignorance". Have him read the classic paper on the subject: "Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One's Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments" [pdf] - it should be required reading for everyone.

Don said...

I was just going to say the exact same thing.

He might also be what I like to call a "psychological meatbag," who learns some tiny corner of a subject and thinks he's an expert in it, and who constantly thinks that trivia is the same as real knowledge.

Rhoadan said...

Well, to be fair to the guy, two layers of depth can't encode the full range of pitches in a song. However, two layers of depth can encode the range of pitches to sufficiently fine granularity that listeners can't tell. That's why it's digital, not analog.