We Are Not Aquatic Apes

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Anthropology is a subject that has attracted its fair share of anti-intellectual theorists before. These anti-intellectuals are scientists from other areas of scientific inquiry that attempt to propose their own theories about who we are and where we came from despite having no formal anthropological training. Consequently, these people are usually a massive headache because they have no idea what they are talking about. Dr. Jonathan Marks did a great job elucidating why anthropology may attract this type of anti-intellectualism in a recent podcast I did with him.

Either way, I woke up yesterday to an infuriating article published in the Guardian: Big brains, no fur, sinuses… are these clues to our ancestors’ lives as ‘aquatic apes’? The article gave an international platform to several scientists that support the Aquatic Ape Hypothesis/Theory (AAH/T). This hypothesis proposes that there was a, as yet unidentified, aquatic phase of human evolution causing our ancestors to develop bipedalism, big brains, subcutaneous fat, sinuses, and lack of fur. Supporters of the AAH believe that these features are all indicative of an ancestral past spent living primarily in deep creeks, river banks, and the sea.

But there is one major problem: there is no evidence to support it. No evidence is usually a problem in science. No ancestral hominids have ever been found that lived in an aquatic environment.

The theory was first developed in 1960 by Sir Alister Hardy. Since then its supporters have generally been from biology. The AAH has received little to no serious consideration from the anthropological community. And nor should it. Paleontologist Chris Stringer accurately acknowledged in the Guardian article that:

[T]he whole aquatic ape package includes attributes that appeared at very different times in our evolution. If they were all the result of our lives in watery environments, we would have to have spent millions of years there and there is no evidence for this – not to mention crocodiles and other creatures would made the water a very dangerous place.

These are all very important points. If the AAH is valid we would have spent millions of years in a watery environment and we should suspect all features of the “aquatic ape package” to have evolved together, not at separate times. But this is not what paleoanthropology has taught us about our past. We know that our hominid ancestors lived primarily in woodlands 6 million years ago, and primarily in savanna landscapes 3 million years ago. Furthermore, two of the most important features that the AAH attempts to explain, bipedalism and encephalization, developed millions of years apart from each other.

Paleoanthropologist John Hawks has previously deconstructed why no anthropologists take the AAH seriously. He accurately pointed out that the AAH’s single assumption does not explain why we retained these “aquatic characteristics”:

Certainly it makes sense that hominids would develop new anatomies to adapt to such an alien [aquatic] environment. But once those hominids returned to land, forsaking their aquatic homeland, the same features that were adaptive in the water would now be maladaptive on land. What would prevent those hominids from reverting to the features of their land-based ancestors, as well as nearly every other medium-sized land mammal? More than simple phylogenetic inertia is required to explain this, since the very reasons that the aquatic ape theory rejects the savanna model would apply to the descendants of the aquatic apes when they moved to the savanna. […] It leaves the Aquatic Ape Theory explaining nothing whatsoever about the evolution of the hominids. This is why professional anthropologists reject the theory.

And yet anti-intellectuals still get a credible platform to spout nonsense about our aquatic past. Perhaps I could contain my disappointment if it all remained academic. However, ecologist Dr. Michael Crawford claims that our brain growth was solely because our aquatic ancestors had a diet rich in Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), which is found in seafood. So he then makes the dangerous (and ridiculous) argument that:

[W]ithout a high DHA diet from seafood we could not have developed our big brains. We got smart from eating fish and living in water. More to the point, we now face a world in which sources of DHA – our fish stocks – are threatened. That has crucial consequences for our species. Without plentiful DHA, we face a future of increased mental illness and intellectual deterioration. We need to face up to that urgently. That is the real lesson of the aquatic ape theory.

Using an unsupported theory of human encephalization to claim that lack of fish in someone’s diet will lead to mental illness and intellectual deterioration is just anti-intellectual pseudoscience. Considering how far evolutionary theory has progressed in the past few decades, it is disappointing to see these scientists employ it so poorly. The Aquatic Ape Hypothesis is nothing more than an unsupported adaptive story. It has not been supported by evidence, and I find it highly unlikely that it ever will be.

In 2009, John Hawks thought the AAH fit the description of pseudoscience. In 2013, it still fits the description. We have never been aquatic apes.

What do you think of the AAH?  Let Cadell know on Twitter!

Also posted via Svbtle:

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Extreme Evolution

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The coelacanth is the oldest living species of lobe-finned fish. In fact, it is so old that it has acquired the nickname “living fossil.” The distinction is probably more an artifact of the history of science than of the coelacanth’s ancientness. In the early 20th century scientists believed that the coelacanth went extinct 70 million years ago (15 million years before the K-T mass extinction!). So when a live specimen was discovered off the coast of South Africa it came as a major shock. Upon first analyzing the fish, South African chemistry professor JLB Smith famously wrote the cable:

MOST IMPORTANT PRESERVE SKELETON AND GILLS = FISH DESCRIBED

Since this discovery scientists have been perplexed by this Lazarus taxon. How has the coelacanth managed to persevere over the past 300 million years without changing at all?

This question really gets at the heart of a bigger evolutionary conundrum: does evolution have a uniform speed? Or is the speed of evolutionary change intrinsically variable?

Evolutionary theory pioneer Stephen J. Gould was one of the first to propose that evolutionary change varied tremendously. In order to explain this change he proposed the idea of punctuated equilibrium. This theory proposed that species change is largely contingent on environmental change. Gould recognized that morphological stasis could be correlated with ecological stasis. Therefore, he reasoned that massive ecological changes would prove to be the major drivers of rapid selection over the scale of evolutionary time.

This contradicted dominant theory in the 1970s because all theorists embraced phyletic gradualism: the idea that evolution was steady state with gradual transformations changing lineages. In reality, both punctuated equilibrium and phyletic gradualism are not mutually exclusive. We know now that some species can change quickly (in evolutionary terms) in response to major ecological pressures. However, change can also occur gradually over millions of years in response to more subtle ecological changes.

This brings us back to the “living fossil”: the coelacanth. Has this species really remained unchanged for nearly 300 million years? Is it really a “living fossil”? If so, its history would be a remarkable example of how an organisms environment can stabilize selection.

A recent study published in Nature finally gave us some insight into this decades-old evolutionary mystery. In this study the first genome sequence for the coelacanth was reported. The data revealed what had been obvious to many, the coelacanth’s protein-coding genes are evolving slower than any other known animals. One of the researchers in this study, Kerstin Lindblad-Toh explained that:

We often talk about how species have changed over time, but there are still a few places on Earth where organisms don’t have to change, and this is one of them. Coelacanths are very likely specialized to such a specific, non-changing, extreme environment – it is ideally suited to the deep sea just the way it is.”

However, Lindblad-Toh was also quick to emphasize that the term “living fossil” is unscientific and not an accurate representation of a extant species:

It’s not a living fossil; it’s a living organism, it doesn’t live in a time bubble; it lives in our world, which is why it’s so fascinating to find out that its genes are evolving more slowly than ours.

Here is where we can highlight an interesting (and extreme) example of just how variable evolutionary change can occur. Our species, Homo sapiens sapiens, have evolved very quickly. Let’s put this in comparison by comparing our evolution to our slowly evolving coelacanth cousins. Coelacanth fossils have been found that stretch back to the mid-Paleozoic. This is approximately the time the last supercontinent, Pangaea, first formed. That means the coelacanths emerged 70 million years before the entire Dinosauria clade.

In contrast, our genus, Homo, is approximately 2 million years old. Over this period of time our brain has tripled in size. That is unparalleled evolutionary change. I have written extensively about our genetic origins in the past so I won’t repeat myself here. However, I do want to emphasize that one of the drivers of this change has been ecological disequilibrium. Recent studies by several geoscientists have convincingly demonstrated that the East African savanna was characterized by rapid environmental change during a 200,000 year period approximately 2 million years ago. Clayton Magill, a graduate student involved in one of these studies elucidated how these changes could have stimulated punctuated equilibrium-like effects on human brain growth:

Changes in food availability, food type, or the way you get food can trigger evolutionary mechanisms to deal with those changes. The result can be increased brain size and cognition, changes in locomotion and even social changes – how you interact with others in a group. We show that the environment changed dramatically over a short time, and this variability coincides with an important period in our human evolution when the genus Homo was first established and when there was first evidence of tool use.

Since that period environmental change has played a tremendous role in the creation of our species genotype and phenotype. As modern humans exploded throughout the world, we were forced to adapt quickly to previously alien environments. Most of this adaptation was made possible by our unique ability to drive cultural and technological evolution. However, pertinent contemporary phenotypic differences within our species, like skin colour variation, were also caused by biological adaptation to extreme differences in environmental conditions.

Exploring evolutionary change in the coelacanth and humans represent two major biological evolutionary extremes. Both organisms perfectly encapsulate Stephen J. Gould’s theory of punctuated equilibrium. Ecological pressure can either strongly stabilize selection or drive rapid changes over relatively short periods of time. However, I do want to emphasize that these are the extremes. For many species, phyletic gradualism is king because ecology will change, but it will change slowly.

And don’t forget, today is DNA Day! A time to celebrate the discovery of the molecular backbone of all life on our terraqueous globe! Without the discovery of DNA our knowledge of our own evolutionary past would be relatively impoverished, and this article would not have been possible!

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#DNAday

What do you think about extreme evolution?  Let Cadell know on Twitter!

Also posted via Svbtle:

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Redefining The Singularity

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The technological singularity has quickly become one of the most controversial concepts. It represents a theoretical future period in time when superintelligence emerges through technological means. During a recent conference on the future of artificial intelligence (A.I.) futurist Anders Sandberg proposed that this concept has three major commonalities:

  • accelerating change
  • prediciton horizon
  • intelligence explosion

The term was popularized by computer scientist Vernor Vinge in 1993. He recently expounded on the creation of the concept and the reasoning behind it:

the spectacular feature of A.I. was not making something as smart as a human, but creating minds that were more intelligent than humans. That would be a different type of technological advance. That would change the thing that is the top creative element in technological progress, and since it would be beyond human intelligence, there is a certain unknowability about what would happen beyond that point. Therefore, I came up with the metaphor with the singularity as it is used with blackholes in general relativity reflecting this fact that there is not much information you can imagine beyond the point in time when super-human intelligence comes into place.

Several theorists have hypothesized about how the singularity will happen, when it will happen, and how it will change human nature. In 2007, artificial intelligence expert Ben Goertzel published a paper in Artificial Intelligence outlining the main scenarios proposed by futurists thus far. They included everything from a Sysop scenario where a highly powerful benevolent A.I. effectively becomes a “system operator” to a Skynet scenario where A.I. is created, improves itself, and malevolently enslaves or annihilates humanity. I am definitely most closely aligned with the Kurzweilian scenario. I believe that humanity will create advanced A.I. that can create better, more advanced A.I. However, I also believe that we will intimately merge with technology. By the end of this process humanity will essentially be post-biological in nature. I suspect that it will not be an abrupt or particularly chaotic transition. It will happen gradually over the span of decades (in some ways it has already started happening).

Either way, I am writing this post because I would like to start an important discussion on the term “singularity.” Although I have referred to myself as a “singultarian” and count myself as a Kurzweilian-defender, I find the term singularity problematic. As Vinge stated the term singularity is used to suggest unknowability beyond a certain technological event horizon. However, I posit that this “technological event horizon” is not an actual future reality. I believe that there will come a time when humans are no longer the “top creative element of technological progress” but a “singularity” will not happen. What I mean is that if we keep using the term “singularity” it may start to metaphorically resemble the carrot and stick idiom:

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If humans start artificially enhancing their own intelligence in the 2030s and developing relationships with advanced A.I., the approaching decades (e.g., 2040s-2050s) currently predicted to play host to the singularity will start to become clearer to us than they currently are (i.e. they will not be a technological singularity).

Vernor Vinge has admitted this much stating that:

If you became one of the supersmart creatures, things would not be any more unintelligible to you than the current world is to un-enhanced humans.

Furthermore, we cannot remain intellectually comfortable with the term singularity if we are starting to make predictions of a post-singularity world. Several futurists, including Ray Kurzweil, have already started proposing probable post-singularity developments. But making these predictions completely contradicts the metaphorical validity of the term. If the singularity metaphor proved useful we should find ourselves facing a literal information blackhole. But I don’t think that is what we find ourselves facing.

As a futurist, I feel like we need a new term to better describe what we mean when we say technological singularity. I do not yet know what term would fit best. The term “infinitely self-generating technology” has a nice ring to it. However, I can already think of a host of reasons why that term is problematic.

What do you think?  Let Cadell know on Twitter!

Life Before Earth?

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A few days ago biologists Alexei Sharov and Richard Gordon published a paper that sent shock waves throughout the academic community. In their paper titled Life Before Earth they propose that life originated before the formation of our planet. But just in case that wasn’t radical enough, they further state that:

adjustments for potential hyperexponential effects would push the projected origin of life even further back in time, close to the origin of our galaxy and the universe itself.

In my last post I discussed the transition from non-life to life. However, no where in that article did I discuss the timing of that transition. The dominant view at present is that life originated ~3.5 billion years ago. This estimation comes from direct and indirect evidence of prokaryotic (single-cell organism) activity in Western Australia and South Africa. Although it is hard to prove empirically, most biologists are confident that life on Earth did not exist before this period. This is because between 4.6-4.0 billion years ago Earth can best be described as a chaotic hellscape of magma oceans and planetesimal collisions (i.e., not the best place for RNA replication).

But this latest paper by Sharov and Gordon claims life existed before earth (before even the formation of our galaxy). To be precise they calculate the time of origin for life to be 9.7 ± 2.5 billion years ago. For context our galaxy is ~8 billion years old, and our solar system and planet is 4.6 billion years old.

How could this be?

The authors propose that biologists have neglected to acknowledge the “cosmic time scale” of life. In their paper they posit that in terms of genetic complexity life has grown exponentially (they measure genetic complexity by the number of non-redundant functional nucleotides). Prokaryotes, eukaryotes, worms, fish, and mammals were included in the authors study sample and genetic complexity was plotted on a logarithmic scale (Figure 1). With these data they found that genome complexity doubled every 376 million years. They conclude that if genome complexity doubles at this rate prokaryotic complexity could not have been achieved by 3.5 billion years ago. Both Sharov and Gordon blame biologists of presuming a rapid primordial evolution in order to fit the time scales required by our planet’s age.

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Figure 1

Within this new proposed framework the authors suggest that this exponential doubling time is an inherent evolutionary process accelerating quickly with new, more efficient forms of information storage than genomes (e.g., highly complex brains, language, books, computers, internet). Now I am definitely someone that believes exponential growth is an inherent property of evolutionary processes. I am also someone that thinks evolutionary processes generally tend towards greater and greater levels of system complexity (even though recent research has demonstrated that this is not always the case). However, more than doubling the time of the origin of life proposes a radical re-imagining of life and our universe. Such a proposition demands tremendous evidence. I commend Sharov and Gordon for proposing a bold idea and approaching the evolution of life from a novel perspective, but they did not provide us with tremendous evidence.

Biologist PZ Meyers was first to point out that they cherry picked their data. They did not include many organisms that would have completely thrown off their logarithmic scale. Furthermore, even if the logarithmic scale with all organisms plotted remained unchanged it would not be scientific to assume you can project it back to single nucleotide replicators that existed 9.7 billion years ago. Finally, biologists have only started to understand what is and what is not functional within the human genome. Therefore, we cannot assume that measuring genome complexity based off of our current understanding of functional non-redundant nucleotides is useful.

Unfortunately the claim that life originated 9.7 billion years ago might destroy the credibility of both the paper and the authors. I say unfortunately because within this paper the authors actually make a profound claim that I agree with:

The Drake Equation of guesstimating the number of civilizations in our galaxy may be wrong, as we conclude that intelligent life like us has just begun appearing in our universe. The Drake Equation is a steady state model, and we may be at the beginning of a pulse of civilization. Emergence of civilizations is a non-ergodic process, and some parameters of the equation are therefore time-dependent.

Recently I wrote about why I think it is highly probable that we are the first intelligent civilization to develop in our galaxy. My main reasons for thinking this are:

A) Our universe was not always well-suited for the evolution of life

B) Biological evolution requires billions of years of planetary stability

C) Biological evolution can produce trillions of species without ever selecting for high-intelligence and civilization

There are actually many more reasons why I think this is likely so I suggest reading my entryIntelligent Life in the Milky Way if you want to know more about it. Either way, my line of reasoning is certainly in line with Sharov and Gordon’s assertion that “intelligent life like us has just begun to appear in the universe.” Although they come at it from a slightly different perspective, I obviously find this assertion profound and compelling.

In the end I think Life Before Earth is worth a read if you are interested in learning more about Sharov and Gordon’s claims; but I am personally not sold. Biologists may never know the precise historic pathway of inanimate to animate matter and the specific materials present on the prebiotic earth, but I still think a 3.5 billion year origin for life is more likely than a 9.7 billion origin.

In the future biologists do need to demonstrate how biological evolution was able to produce highly complex prokaryotic genomes in a relatively short period of time. There could be a number of currently unknown reasons for this that do not require a single-nucleotide replicator with pre-galactic origins.

That is not to say that life could not have originated completely or partially from space. The idea that asteroids with complex organic compounds seeded our planet during the late-heavy bombardment 4 billion years ago is quite possible. But positing the chemical compounds necessary for life existed 9.7 billion years ago requires more evidence than a logarithmic scale with cherry picked data points.

What do you think?  Let Cadell know on Twitter!

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From Non-Life to Life: The Unity of Evolutionary Processes

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The origin of life. If there is a more controversial (or complex) scientific problem I have yet to encounter it. Well… the origin of everything, or why there is anything at all is perhaps a little more controversial and complex. But the origin of life is certainly in the top 5. I know it is a scientific problem that has consistently perplexed me. But I shouldn’t feel too bad because it seems to have stumped even the brightest scientific minds. However, a study by chemists Addy Pross and Robert Pascal published in Open Biology last month seems to have laid out one of the most impressive working hypotheses I have seen to explain the transition from non-life to life. The paper is boldly titled: The origin of life: what we know, what we can know and what we will never know. It is open access and a tremendous read.

For several decades evolutionary theorists have been working hard to extend the concept of biological evolution into the realms of physics, chemistry, culture, and technology. In my mind this extension is imperative because it will help us more clearly understand major system transitions and the processes that drive change in our universe. The most important of these major system transitions is the transition from non-life to life. We know that biological evolution via well-understood mechanisms (e.g., selection, mutation, gene flow, genetic drift, etc.) allows for the existence of a complex and diverse biosphere. But we do not know how inorganic matter becomes organic matter.

In the recent publication by Pross and Pascal, they first outline what they feel we will never know about this transition: a) the precise historic pathway of inanimate to animate and b) the specific materials present on the prebiotic earth. I agree with them and I can’t overstate how important it is that they recognize this. I feel like attempting to re-create the environment of prebiotic earth is the biggest theoretical and methodological flaw scientists make when investigating the transition from non-life to life. Those experiments are admittedly interesting, but they are not falsifiable.

What we need to do is build an understanding of the relationship between chemistry and biology. Pross and Pascal believe that they have successfully elucidated this relationship. They state that:

In the context of the [origin of life] debate, there is one single and central historic fact on which there is broad agreement – that life’s emergence was initiated by some autocatalytic chemical system.

Adding that:

It follows that the study of autocatalytic systems in general may help uncover the principles that govern their chemical behaviour, regardless of their chemical detail. Extending Darwinian theory to inanimate chemical systems: The recognition that a distinctly different stability kind, dynamic kinetic stability (DKS), is applicable to both chemical and biological replicators, together with the fact that both replicator kinds express similar reaction characteristics, leads to the profound conclusion that the so-called chemical phase leading to simplest life and the biological phase appear to be one continuous physicochemical process, as illustrated in scheme 1.

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Under this working framework it does not necessarily matter what organic molecules were present on the prebiotic earth. What matters is that we can understand how replicating systems work, whether they be chemically based, biologically based, or some grey zone between these two replicating worlds.

A theory to unite how replicating chemistry forms the basis of biological systems has been long in coming. Addy Pross suspects there has been such a lack of progress on this unification because chemists have a much better grasp on the static “regular” chemical world. However, he contends that there are “two chemistries”: one static and one dynamic. And both of these worlds produce stability (i.e., persistence over time) in very different ways.

Pross believes that there is enough empirical evidence from the study of systems chemistry to conclude that replicating molecules can persist via Dynamic Kinetic Stability (DKS). This type of chemical stability is vastly different than regular chemical stability. With regular chemical stability molecules lack reactivity. A good example of this is the molecule H2O, which is a hydrogen-oxygen mixture that forms a stable bond over time (it persists as a “thing” and we call that thing water). This hydrogen-oxygen mixture can form rivers, lakes, and oceans that can persist as a stable entity for an indefinite amount of time. However, replicating chemistry has a different type of stability that must operate on the population level because they are highly reactive. DKS essentially is the product of a group of replicating molecules that can be stable over time as a “population” even though their individual members are constantly changing (which is very different from how a “population” of H2O molecules achieve stability). These systems tend to drift from less stable to more stable over time non-randomly. The quantitative level of stability for the replicating system is dependent on a) its overall size and b) the amount of time it has existed. Again, this is very different from something like water that can possess the same level of stability regardless of its size or how long it has existed.

If this is difficult to conceptualize you could apply the same concept of a biological species and it should come into clear focus. Think of the human species. We have persisted for over 150,000 thousand years as a single biological system, and yet our individual members are always changing (at least for the time being #singularity). Other biological systems have achieved even greater stability. For example, cyanobacteria have remained essentially unchanged for 2.5-3.5 billion years. This ancient form of life, a dynamic system, has achieved greater stability than Mount Everest! And within this analogy resides the key to the discoveries within modern systems chemistry: replicating chemical systems essentially “behave” in the same way that replicating biological systems do. This means that abiogenesis – chemical process by which the simplest life emerged from inanimate beginnings – may have an underlying physicochemical continuity with biological evolution that had previously been unrecognized. A non-random selection for stability and complexity.

For me this research is incredibly fascinating for two reasons: 1) systems chemistry reveals that evolution operates at deeper, more fundamental levels of reality via potentially analogous mechanisms and 2) we are now theoretically able to build models of understanding that the origin of life is a non-random evolutionary process.

This research has very deep implications for how common we should expect life to be in our universe. If life is a product of replicating chemical reactions that acquire stability and increase in complexity via selection mechanisms, we should expect molecular life to be ubiquitous.

This discovery could represent a critical reformation of how we understand and conceptualize the universe. If studies of systems chemistry had revealed that at the molecular level there was only random chemical reactions, then our existence would begin to look extremely bizarre. I mean really, really bizarre. The chances of random chemical processes leading to the complexity we find at even the simplest biological levels is essentially zero. Pross and Pascal eloquently end their paper stating as such:

There is good reason to think that the emergence of life on the Earth did not just involve a long string of random chemical events that fortuitously led to a simple living system. If life had emerged in such an arbitrary way, then the mechanistic question of abiogenesis would be fundamentally without explanation — a stupendously improbable chemical outcome whose likelihood of repetition would be virtually zero. However, the general view, now strongly supported by recent studies in systems chemistry, is that the process of abiogenesis was governed by underlying physicochemical principles, and the central goal of [origin of life] studies should therefore be to delineate those principles.

I am very excited to see what future studies in systems chemistry reveal about these underlying principles. I am already formulating my hypotheses! It seems likely to me that the basic evolutionary mechanisms that have been so profoundly useful for describing all life, will also help us explain how other dynamic systems change over time. And hopefully this research will not always remain theoretical. Although we cannot recreate the prebiotic Earth, but if we ever go to Europa or peak at another Earth maybe we will be able to see the transition from non-life to life first hand.

It is an exciting time to be alive!

What do you think about the non-life to life transition?  Let Cadell know on Twitter!

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Complexity by Subtraction

At the age of 17, I had never given any serious thought about “how life got here.” If you had asked me at the time I would have said I had no clue, which is ironic considering I now study and write about evolution for a living (well… trying to make a living).

Either way, as a young adult without any science background or knowledge, I was introduced to the world of science through the pseudoscientific concept of Intelligent Design. A family friend had introduced the idea to me and told me that it was a concept that could explain all of life. He sent me a book by biochemist Michael Behe titled Darwin’s Black Box. Of course, the book was way over my head but it seemed reasonable, logical … and scientific.

Throughout Darwin’s Black Box Behe argued that life could not have arisen via evolution because cells and organisms were “irreducibly complex.” He used examples of how the human eye is functionless in a “simpler” or “less complex” form, and therefore could not have been selected for gradually via natural selection. He also used the analogy of the mousetrap to explain that if you take out any one part of a mousetrap it will no longer be functional. He reasoned that that was because it required an intelligent designer, and that biological systems operated in the same way so their existence was proof of an intelligent designer.

I thought the ideas were certainly plausible. But more than anything it stimulated me to learn about the processes he was critiquing: biological evolution. After reading On the Origin of Species and several modern science books describing the processes by which evolution occurs, I instantly realized that Intelligent Design was a pseudoscientific attempt to legitimize creationism.

Several scholars have demonstrated that irreducible complexity is empirically false. There may be no “irreducibly complex” structures in nature. Eyes for example, while complex have (and do) evolve from simpler forms and structures. There are several examples of eyes in nature that can only detect a few photons of light. These are called “eyespots.” Eyespots are simple patches of photoreceptor proteins in unicellular organisms. The ability for eyespots to detect photons is minimal, however being able to distinguish between light and dark could be the difference from a meal or becoming a meal. Researchers have demonstrated that even very primitive eyes are adaptive and can evolve complexity gradually to suit various functions.

But the point of this article is not to provide another redundant analysis of why Intelligent Design is pseudoscience. This morning an article titled Complexity by Subtraction was published in the journal Evolutionary Biology that proposes an alternative evolutionary process to disprove irreducible complexity. In the article, evolutionary biologists Dan McShea and Wim Hordijk propose that it is also possible for complex structures to evolve from complex beginnings and then gradually become simpler. They call this idea “complexity by subtraction”. In this sense, the idea of complexity by subtraction counters the dominant mode of evolutionary thinking that posits that adaptation tends to select for ever more complex forms and structures. In their words:

Standard thinking says that the evolution of complex functionality is driven by selection, by the functional advantages of complex design. The standard thinking could be right, even in general. But alternatives have not been much discussed or investigated, and the possibility remains opent hat other routes may not only exist but may be the norm.

However, they do more than posit that adaptive processes may not always tend towards increasingly complex functionality. They used a computational model simulation to demonstrate that complexity by subtraction is theoretically possible. And they also used an example of skull complexity in nature to show that vertebrate skulls have actually decreased in complexity over time. Co-author Dan McShea stated:

The skulls of fossil fish consist of a large number of differently shaped bone types in the evolutionary transitions from fish to amphibian to reptile to mammal. In some cases skull bones were lost; in other cases adjacent bones were fused. Human skulls, for example, have fewer bones fish skulls.

The authors defined complexity in a biological structures as having “many different parts.” To me, both authors propose an interesting aspect of evolutionary theory that has yet to be explored fully. The notion that simplicitic functional structures could become adaptive is certainly counter to dominant thinking at the moment in evolutionary science. In the few examples I have heard of biological structures becoming less complex involve structures that were once functional, but are no longer. However, if functional biological structures can become simpler, this will really change our understanding of evolutionary theory. Although I am only aware of examples of complexity by subtraction from this paper, I do find both their computational simulation and examples of skull evolution from the paleontological record compelling. Of course there research raises more questions than answers and should spur interesting new research. For example:

  • Do functional structures tend towards simplicity or complexity?
  • Are their certain environmental situations that would lead towards one over the other?
  • Does complexity by subtraction impact evolution on the microevolutionary scale?
  • How does increased simplicity become adaptive?

This is all very interesting, but a report by Science Daily emphasized that this studies primary intellectual importance was to provide evolutionary scientists with “an alternative route” to debunking Michael Behe’s concept of irreducible complexity. To me, this seems like an unnecessary overstatement.

I am not sure whether McShea and Hordijk also believe this, but this concept is in no way an “alternative route” to debunking irreducible complexity (not that evolutionary scientists need a new concept to debunk irreducible complexity). The concept of complexity by subtraction simply explains how adaptation of a functional biological structure can become less complex over time; it does not explain how biological complexity itself evolves in nature. To explain increasing biological complexity an understanding of gradual adaptation is still all that is really necessary.

Either way, McShea and Hordijk have proposed and demonstrated an interesting evolutionary concept that complicates current theory. If I were to guess, I would suspect gradual adaptation for increasingly complex functional structures to be far more common than complexity by subtraction. Despite this, I am certainly excited to see what future research reveals about the role complexity by subtraction plays in the origin of species.

What do you think of complexity by subtraction?  Let Cadell know on Twitter!

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An Evolutionary Success!

3D Printing Is Here

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Last week my friend and I had an interesting discussion on the nature of “revolutions”. We both agree that when historians look back at our era (1990-2010) they will say that we were living through the “internet revolution.” However, did it feel like we lived through a revolution? Well, even though the internet fundamentally changed everything we do, the transition to a world built around the internet didn’t feel like a revolution to me. It just sort of felt normal. Of course, part of that has to do with my age (I’m 26 so I grew up with the revolution). However, this brings up an interesting aspect of revolution: we seem to impose revolution on the past. We construct the narrative of revolution.

Take for example the two most famous historical revolutions: the agricultural and the industrial. For someone living through either revolution, they would not have known they were actually living through what we now see as a significant turning point in the narrative of human existence. In fact, both of those revolutions happened at imperceptibly slow paces compared to the internet revolution. The agricultural revolution diffused so slowly that it developed in five different geographic regions independently. The industrial revolution only had one diffusion center, however its global spread took centuries. The internet revolution arguably took about 10-20 years (even though some would argue it won’t be complete until the end of this decade when almost every human will be online and connected).

But I digress.

Last week I wrote a post explaining that we should anticipate a robot revolution in the 2020s-2030s that will change the world more than the internet did between 1990-2010. However, before I get ahead of myself, I think we should also realize that we are the cusp of an equally revolutionary moment in history right now: the 3D printing revolution.

Before you accuse me of using the word revolution too liberally, let me first list the developments in the world of 3D printing this year:

These are all things that have happened this year and it is only April! Is it safe to say that 2013 is going to be remembered as the year of the 3D printer? Actually, maybe it will be remembered for the introduction to 4D printing

In 1999, Ray Kurzweil explained that dynamic systems evolve exponentially. He called this type of evolution the Law of Accelerating Returns (you can read more about this law here). The Law of Accelerating Returns has profound implications for the future of technological evolution, especially when applied to something like 3D printing. However, I don’t think you have to be a technological evolution expert to understand that the human future will be fundamentally transformed by 3D printing.

From my perspective all the developments in 3D printing this year indicate that we are on the cusp of a revolution. What does our world look like when manufacturing becomes decentralized? Many experts predict that affordable, easy-to-use 3D printers will be in peoples homes in 10-20 years. These printers could be used for replacing spare parts, making food/meals, creating clothing, furniture, cars … organs?

Many 3D printing enthusiasts propose that you will only be constrained by your own imagination. Check out the 3Doodler as an example of the type of creative products that will emerge over the next few decades.

This decentralization of manufacturing will almost certainly change the global economy in ways that are hard to predict. Will there be jobs for anyone in the manufacturing sector? What type of value will physical objects have when production is inexpensive? How will 3D printing (and advanced Watson-like A.I.) transform hospitals? Will individual people be able to create established companies that required hundreds of people to build in the past (e.g., automobile, clothing companies, etc.).

We also need to contemplate more sinister sides to this revolution. How will we protect biological information? Will someone be able to manufacture and print a deadly virus or bacterium? What about the possibility of an individual 3D printing weapons of mass destruction?

I think the developments in 3D printing this year force us all to contemplate questions like this (both positive and negative). In terms of the future of manufacturing, we may get a glimpse of what this revolution will look like if we analyze what is happening in media today. I feel as though the internet revolution decentralized media mediums, enabling individuals to build their own empires. Bora Zivkovic brilliantly explored the dynamics of this transition well in a recent Scientific American article on science writing:

[In the 20th century] very few people could afford to own printing presses, radio and TV studios, etc. Running all that complicated equipment required technical expertise and professional training. Thus media became locked up in silos, hierarchical, broadcast-only with little-to-none (and then again centrally controlled) means for feedback. There was a wealthy, vocal minority that determined what was news, and how to frame it, and the vast majority was consuming the news in silence. Today, all one needs is some source of electricity (e.g., a small battery in your smartphone) and some means of accessing the Internet. The act of publishing is reduced to clicking on the “Publish” button. Yes, this still leaves some people out of the media, especially in the developing countries, but compared to just twenty years ago, vastly larger numbers of people now have access to the means of production of news. The obstacles to access – money, technical skills for running the machinery – are now much, much lower, almost free. This turns everything on its head! Silos are breaking down, economics of media are severely disrupted, former gatekeepers are squealing in distress, old hierarchies are broken down (and replaced by new hierarchies), and now everyone has to learn new “media hygiene” practices: who to trust, how to filter the information, how to organize it for one’s self. The new ecosystem now contains both the traditional outlets and the individuals, “people formerly known as the audience“, as equal players.

There are several examples of dominant media outlets today that would not have been possible before the internet revolution. I feel as though we will be able to say the same about automobile, clothing, computer, robotics, biotech companies, etc. in the 2030s. So if you are in business (or want to get into business), understanding how the Law of Accelerating Returns applies to the 3D printing industry could be very helpful.

I’ll end by adding that my roommate (who is in business) always tells me that the worlds of science and business don’t communicate enough. I agree, but when I study chimpanzee behaviour or the future of exoplanet detection there may not be any relevance to the business world. However, people who study technological evolution can definitely help inform those in business (and vice versa). So if you are interested in learning more about what some leading theorists think about how next few decades of technological change will transform business (and our planet), check out this panel discussion hosted by Big Think.

How do you think 3D printing will change our world?  Let Cadell know on Twitter

Also posted via Svtble:

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