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Rarebear's avatar

Is evolution as mindless as the weather?

Asked by Rarebear (25144points) February 23rd, 2010

At the risk of starting another creation/evolution debate, I heard this on a podcast I was listening to, and I liked the analogy. The issue is, of course, is evolution controlled, or is it totally mindless? Is it just really lucky (or unlucky as the case may be) that I’m typing this right now?

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35 Answers

Ivan's avatar

Mindless? Sure. Random? Not really. Natural selection is sort of the opposite of random.

Rarebear's avatar

@Ivan Fair enough. I’ll remove the “random” in the question.

frigate1985's avatar

James Rollins has some definite views on that issue. His view( or others) that the possibilities collapse to a reality depending on the environment and circumstances are pretty believable to me.

lillycoyote's avatar

In a way, yes, of course it is. It follows natural laws, like the weather. There is no “intelligence” directing evolution anymore than there is some “intelligence” directing the weather. Evolution is mindless, but it is not stupid.

JONESGH's avatar

I like to think that evolution happens when some other object or organism comes into the picture. Either on purpose or by accident.
Kinda like Jigglypuff can’t evolve without a moonstone.

Rarebear's avatar

@frigate1985 I’m not sure I understand what you mean, “possibilities collapse to a reality”.

Rarebear's avatar

@lillycoyote I followed you until your last sentence. What do you mean “it is not stupid”? (BTW, it’s me, Benny)

lillycoyote's avatar

@Rarebear hi benny! Yes, I was a little concerned about that phrasing too, but I was tossing off kind of a quick answer. What I meant was that while evolution is mindless, as in not consciously directed, the process favors strategies that work over strategies that don’t work. A process that favors strategies that don’t work over strategies that do work could be one of the definitions of stupidity. That’s kind of what I was going for, though I didn’t express it very well, I will admit.

Rarebear's avatar

@lillycoyote OK, then I understand and agree with what you’re saying. btw I’m drinking a Stone 13 Anniversary ale right now. Absolutely incredible

frigate1985's avatar

@Rarebear it’s a difficult concept. It was on the book “Black Order” i think. It means that the possibility to either show a certain characteristic(in a gene) coexist with the possibility not to. And situations force that possibility to collapse into either showing or not showing a possibility.

For example, finches, intheir genes, have the possibility of growing and not growing their beak size. A lack in food supply would collapse that coexistance and possibility into growing larger beaks so that finches may eat bigger seeds too.

Its a difficult concept and it took me a while to understand it too. Its related to quantum mechanics :D hope this helps.

lillycoyote's avatar

@Rarebear I meant to mention this to you the other day, if you ever do treat yourself to a World Tour of Beers I Know and Love, you will most certainly be coming to my neck of the woods, to visit the Dogfish Head Brewery in Milton, De and the Dogfish Head Brew Pub in Rehoboth Beach, DE. If you do, look me up. :)

Shuttle128's avatar

@frigate1985 I’m sorry but I don’t understand how quantum mechanics has to do with natural selection. Genetic drift explains finches’ evolution without invoking a mechanism such as “possibility collapse” that has no explanation as to how it functions.

The genetic material in finches have variations. When a subset of finches find themselves in a niche that favors large beaks the finches that are born with the variation of a larger beak are more likely to survive. There is no “possibility collapse” simply a selective pressure and natural variation. You might say it resembles quantum decoherence in that possibilities exist and something constrains the possibilities, but that’s about as far as you can go with that. Wavefunction collapse is considered to be genuinely random while evolution is most certainly not.

@lillycoyote and @Rarebear I finally had a few of those 90 minute DFH IPA’s…..man they are to die for. We’re supposed to be having a beerfest in Atlanta soon, but I can’t seem to find the details anywhere.

Rarebear's avatar

@frigate1985 I don’t understand either, what quantum mechanics has to do with evolution. They’re entirely different.

@Shuttle128 and @lillycoyote the dfh 90 min is indeed an outstanding beer. Avoid the 120 min though or at least be mindful of the alcohol content

Qingu's avatar

Evolution and the weather are both examples of emergence. Emergence is, essentially, when a system’s top-level “order” comes from the random or chaotic behavior of its parts.

Another good example of emergence is flocking behavior among birds and insects. Nobody “controls” flocking behavior. It’s the birds reacting to one another. But it looks like it’s controlled or directed.

Similarly, the stock market is emergent. Nobody “controls” the stock market. It emerges from the behavior of individual stock traders, reacting to each other and the market as a whole. But the stock market sometimes seems to have an intelligence, to react to events.

Evolution is definitely “mindless.” But because it’s emergent, it seems to have directions and to respond to stimuli. The way evolution helps organism fill up niches, for example—that’s definitely not “random,” even though it arises in part from random mutations.

lilikoi's avatar

I don’t think the weather is mindless…..we just don’t fully understand how it works yet.

Rarebear's avatar

@Qingu Yes, that’s good. I’ve read a couple of books on Complexity theory and it’s fascinating.

Qingu's avatar

@lilikoi, well… it all depends on how you define “mind.”

Storms can act very lifelike, perhaps even “intelligent” by some people’s understanding of the word. They can be said to have a sort of metabolism. They respond to their environments, they grow, they “eat.” They have “lives,” they “die.” They produce huge amounts of energy.

There are storms on other planets. The Great Red Spot on Jupiter is a storm that has been “living” for at least 300 years.

I’ve always wondered usually when I’m high if long-lived storms can evolve patterns that resemble consciousness of animal brains.

ucme's avatar

As Darwin said. “Don’t piss down my back & tell me it’s raining.” Or something similar.

TheJoker's avatar

Mindless… absolutely. There is no design or predetermination to it. Not random though as its a biological response to environmental factors.

downtide's avatar

Mindless yes, but both evolution and weather follow natural patterns. They’re not controlled but they’re still very complex processes.

lilikoi's avatar

@Qingu I agree that the weather can be compared to, be like, life. But strictly in the biological sense, it is not alive. That you have installed quotation marks around the definitive characteristics signifying biological life to describe weather is proof in itself.

To deem something “mindless” is to imply that it has the ability to think, that it has a consciousness, that it has a mind. Metaphorically, I can see how this could be true of weather, but realistically, physically, practically it is absurd.

I would say that evolution has been influenced, not controlled, by humans historically. We graft; we select for certain traits over others – the sweetest fruit, the largest vegetable, the most fragrant and beautiful flower; we save the seeds we deem to be the best. As Michael Pollan says in The Botany of Desire, we were in a conversation with nature and the evolutionary process, it was historically a give and take relationship.

With the advent of genetic engineering and corporations like Monsanto, we now do indeed control the evolutionary process to a certain extent. We have created tools that can do what nature has never done before with much success – we have taken genes from one species and inserted them into another; we have crossed genes across phyla. In doing so, we have created artificial anomalies – life that most likely would not have occurred in the natural evolutionary process. And we are treating it as a commodity that can be bought and sold. We have created mechanisms to control whether or not a plant can produce seeds.

mattbrowne's avatar

I like the notion of our universe bursting with evolutionary possibilities. To me evolution is actually caused by the many wonderful properties of our universe, above all the abundance of carbon generated in nucleosynthesis coupled with the awesome chemical flexibility of the very same element.

Even without planets interstellar space is full of complex molecules, see
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_molecules_in_interstellar_space#Ten_or_more_atoms

Mindless? No way.

Rarebear's avatar

@mattbrowne By “Mindless? No way.” what are you saying?

mattbrowne's avatar

@Rarebear – Evolution isn’t controlled, but it’s not mindless either. The way our universe works is truly awesome. There isn’t just biological evolution. There’s also stellar evolution, an important precursor of biological evolution. In this case the random “mutations” are lumps of interstellar matter being pushed around. And there’s natural selection. Some supermassive stars die an early death collapsing into black holes leaving no descendants behind (but perhaps baby universes). Tiny red dwarf methuselahs live boring lives without any offspring. And then there are of course supernovae creating metal-rich yellow dwarfs with planetary systems.

Maybe there’s even evolution on the multiverse level and our universe with all the right mutations was favored by natural selection. In the grand scheme of things I see a lot of creativity going on. Quite the opposite of mindless.

Rarebear's avatar

@mattbrowne I don’t agree that the universe undergoes natural selection on a stellar scale. I see what you’re saying philosophically, but I think that sort of talk muddies the waters. Natural selection is a biological phenomenon of populations. To say that stars undergo natural selection borders on metaphyical BS (as does the multiverse, IMO, but I’ve already had this debate with Thanos on Inquire and I don’t care to have it again).

Also, your assertion that there is “a lot of creativity going on” I also dispute. Creativity implies an intelligence. I assert that there is no intelligence behind evolution.

mattbrowne's avatar

@Rarebear – Yep, there are two different worldviews. Some detect divine wisdom, others see blind pitiless meaningless indifference.

Shuttle128's avatar

@mattbrowne Not so, there are plenty of worldviews that see the universe as special without anthropomorphisms at all. Since the universe may not be sentient it is not a matter of compassion or indifference. We can be awed that the natural course of the universe caused evolution without assuming divine wisdom. To say that there are only two mutually exclusive worldviews that see the universe in anthropomorphic terms is a severe misunderstanding of what people actually think.

mattbrowne's avatar

@Shuttle128 – Granted, the two worldviews I had in mind are not mutually exclusive.

Barnaby's avatar

I think evolution can be as big as the universe and as small as the human mind. They are one in the same thing. Things are constantly evolving. Some quickly. Some over billions of years.

Rarebear's avatar

@Barnaby I’m not quite sure what you mean “as big as the universe and as small as the human mind”. Evolution is a biological process on how species change and adapt.

Barnaby's avatar

I dont know what I mean either. Just trying to sound clever really! I do however think that things can evolve that arent biological processes such as technology.
When it comes to evolution as far as biology is concerned I reckon that it probably is mindless. Things do happen by chance and chaotically and from that chaos we define uniformaty and meaning.

Rarebear's avatar

@Barnaby Ah. Well, I’m a literalist and an empiricist, so precise language is important to me when talking about science. In terms of evolution being entirely chaotic, it’s really not. Natural selection creates an evolutionary pressure in populations to evolve one way or another.

Barnaby's avatar

Good point.

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