General Question

iamthemob's avatar

Are complex organisms a mistake more than a product of evolution?

Asked by iamthemob (17147points) October 5th, 2010

This question is based on my admittedly rudimentary understanding of organisms as, essentially, DNA engines. Considering that single or simple multicellular organisms persisted for billions of years, and to this day, without the need to develop complex organic mechanisms to assist in their survival, is it possible that the diversity of life that’s a consequence of sexual reproduction should be better framed as a mistake of asexual reproduction, and that perhaps the best form of life is the simpler forms we “evolved” from?

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42 Answers

bob_'s avatar

It’s too early to tell. Humans, for instance, have only been around for 200,000 years. It’s difficult, if not impossible, to tell if we’ll be able to survive for billions of years.

CMaz's avatar

What ever the process might be… It is a product of evolution.

JilltheTooth's avatar

I think your use of the word “mistake” in this case is misleading. I’ll go with your implied premise that higher organisms are unnecessary, but “mistake” implies error. (unless you’re taking about some sort of divine design, in which case I am so not going there!)

Janka's avatar

Evolution cannot make mistakes, as it does not have any goals to begin with. We are all products of evolution, and that’s that. If we will be viable in the future, is a question for future evolution.

iamthemob's avatar

@JilltheTooth

I think “mistake” is actually appropriate. Considering that, arguably, the majority of complex species that have developed have been failures in one way or another (consider the percentage of extinct species), and the fact that evolutionary theory is based on the assumption that it is not directed, all new characteristics are random, and survive only if they prove beneficial to the organism, it is reasonable to frame the fact that at some point multicellular organisms began to develop and reproduce sexually as a mere error in the coding and recoding of the already efficient “simpler” engines.

iamthemob's avatar

@Janka

This doesn’t assume intention on the part of evolution. It’s looking more at the way we’ve considered evolution as moving from simpler to more complex, as opposed to the entire process as being more of a freak accident that has consistently produced diversity yes – but a vast failure from an effective “engine of life” perspective.

Looking at it from a natural selection perspective…it seems that the most efficient engines had already been produced, and if there had been any intention, a “designer” would have opted to go with the KISS theory and left everything as was. However, because of the inevitable mutations or introductions of alien elements into the mix, less efficient models were spun off…and have been playing catch up ever since.

the100thmonkey's avatar

The use of the word “mistake” implies teleology.

If you gloss it more neutrally, it is a chance occurrence, which is what evolution is – frozen accidents.

Janka's avatar

To consider “evolution” as progress from one form to another is indeed a mistake, but not of evolution, but of people. :)

If you are asking if evolution is also dependent on chance, and not just effectiveness, yes, then, you are correct in that.

Ivan's avatar

In one sense, complex organisms are the result of the failure of simpler organisms to adequately survive. If all organisms could exist as single cells, being able to reproduce as freely as they wanted to, then there would be no need for organisms with higher complexity. But, organisms have to compete with one another for resources. One organism is always bound to be less equipped to fight for those resources. So, to compensate for its shortcomings, it adds a layer of complexity.

I wouldn’t call that a “mistake”, though.

cazzie's avatar

Your question is flawed. ‘Mistake’ would require intention. Evolution happens. end of story.

bob_'s avatar

@cazzie Right. And if something wasn’t “meant” to happen, evolution will take care of it (i.e., extinction). And then the story really does end for that “mistake”.

whitenoise's avatar

Evolution makes no mistakes…. it has no intention.

iamthemob's avatar

Wow.

Alright. Please read previous posts before saying “Evolution has no intention.” Good lord.

Now, as @Janka pointed out, evolution as a word, to many people, connotes development. As evolution (as I’ve stated) is not directed, this is a flawed perception. However, discussions of the appearance of certain beneficial features (e.g., the eye) bring into the mix a discussion of interstitial or more “rudimentary” versions of the feature. As the less beneficial versions are selected out, we get what we see today.

However, adaptation, regardless of the denotation or connotation of evolution, does clearly imply improvement, at least in terms of how an organism survives in its environment. Further, the public perception is that we are constantly evolving into something better.

I’m wondering if it is more beneficial to a more neutral understanding of evolution to consider that more complex organisms are, in essence, less adapted to survival than their predecessors, and essentially should be considered an odd mistake of evolution from the perspective of organisms as DNA engines (i.e., life is the vehicle by which DNA spreads).

whitenoise's avatar

Well… so far quite a lot of complex organisms seem rather successful, given that they are quite well represented. I understand your reasoning, however, and I find it interesting.

Complex organisms may offer some significant benefits. For instance cells that are organized may be more mobile and capable of escaping/manipulating the environment they happen to be in. They may indeed be less adaptable as a whole, but better capable in resisting their shared habitat and if needs be, manipulate it or seek another one.

Besides, in the past the particular DNA that resulted in multi cell, complex organisms seemed to have had a cutting edge. For that DNA, it ended being the only way to spread itself.

If DNA ‘wants’ to get off the planet, it may likely have a better chance in complex organisms, like ours to take them away.

iamthemob's avatar

@whitenoise

The fact that complex organisms have developed in a manner that we’re still around, though, is not an argument for the fact that complexity is a more efficient vehicle for DNA transfer.

In fact, it is far less efficient the more complex – the more complex, the more energy required in the formation (e.g., longer gestation). Therefore, the less likely it is that it will be transfered. Asexual reproduction doesn’t have that drawback.

JilltheTooth's avatar

@iamthemob : So you are talking about teleology as @the100thmonkey suggests, so your use of the word “mistake” was appropriate. That was unclear from the wording of your question.

iamthemob's avatar

@JilltheTooth

Not at all – outside any teleological processes that are already inherent in certain aspects of the evolutionary theory.

My question is based more on the framing or the conception many have of evolution as a developmental process from simple to complex, and a way to reframe that to provide a more neutral picture of the process.

It also is approaching it from a more narrow perspective of life as an engine of information transfer (life is, by definition, organized – whether it was on the backs of crystals or however it happened).

GeorgeGee's avatar

Complex life is not a mistake, but nor is it “designed” for its niches.
Our understanding of life is that it has been opportunistic in developing.
More complex life evolved from single celled creatures, not because it was no longer practical to be single celled, but because when multi-celled creatures came about through genetic accidents, they were able to survive. The single celled creatures are still there, even now. The multi-celled creatures survived because a viable niche existed for them. Since life can’t just spring up into new niches from nothing, each life form must be based on the blueprints of an older one, with some tweaks, so it’s like a house of cards. Or imagine for instance: A chair. You want to move around in it so you add wheels. You don’t want to have to push it, so you add a sail. You want to warn people when you’re approaching so you add a horn. You can add anything you like, one small feature at a time, but you can’t easily take anything off. If you want to climb up a building, you can’t just create a ladder, you have to modify your chair, so you start adding grappling hooks and suction cups…

iamthemob's avatar

@GeorgeGee

Careful there – life had to spring from nothing in various niches, or else there would be no life.

Also, adaptation doesn’t require a steady increase in complexity. We lose (or begin to lose) features all the time (consider the appendix).

the100thmonkey's avatar

How can something that exists because it out-competed its rivals in that ecological niche be less adapted than the predecessors it out-competed?

iamthemob's avatar

@the100thmonkey

Well, there’s nothing to rule out accidental environmental factors – mass extinctions are not uncommon.

However, you’ve of course phrased the question in a manner so that there is only one response, and that is “It can’t!” ;-) But I didn’t say anything to suggest that situation – my most recent comment was about the loss of features no longer adaptive.

GeorgeGee's avatar

@iamthemob – Actually my understanding of evolution is that it did not just spring from nothing in various niches, springing from nothing (primordial soup anyway) need only have happened once. Once single celled creatures existed and propagated all over the world, more complex forms could evolve from these within any of those niches, but not from “nothing”
And I didn’t say we don’t ever lose complexity, I said “you can’t EASILY take anything off” And that is correct. Stephen Jay Gould’s theory as to the development of wings is that they likely were structures that evolved for cooling that were no longer needed. It was opportunistic as they grew to start flapping them.

iamthemob's avatar

@GeorgeGee

But you can’t easily add an adaptive feature necessarily either.

And although it need only happen once…the world is a big place. Why shouldn’t life develop in several locations in similar conditions? Regardless, it’s still life springing from nothing into at least one niche.

Foolaholic's avatar

Sorry if this seems picky, but wouldn’t a “mistake” created by evolution still be considered a “product” of the evolutionary process?

iamthemob's avatar

@Foolaholic

Sure – but that’s what I’m talking about. It seems like we ironically might get a more neutral view of adaptation and evolution generally if we frame it one way rather than the other. That doesn’t exclude the other. not at all picky

the100thmonkey's avatar

@iamthemob: I was responding to this:

I’m wondering if it is more beneficial to a more neutral understanding of evolution to consider that more complex organisms are, in essence, less adapted to survival than their predecessors, and essentially should be considered an odd mistake of evolution from the perspective of organisms as DNA engines (i.e., life is the vehicle by which DNA spreads).

Mass extinctions are hardly a norm – they present the survivors (who have survived because they were fit enough to survive the mass extinction) with opportunities that would have been closed to them otherwise. It really depends on the extension of “predecessors”. If it means the organisms from which a current organism is descended, then the point stands and there exists only one answer. If you mean “every organism that has ever come before the current organism(s) in question”, then the question is meaningless, as it’s obvious in the natural light that Carcharodon Megalodon was more adapted to its environment than we are.

Evolution is the exploitation of opportunity.

Foolaholic's avatar

@iamthemob

Alright, cool. In that case, I would argue that it’s totally a mistake. I mean, we didn’t intend to become this complex, it just sort of happened as a by-product of naturally selection. In order to survive, organisms slowly realized that some genetic “mistakes” actually provided a competitive edge in life, and there you have evolution.

iamthemob's avatar

@the100thmonkey

I never said they weren’t the norm – but the vast majority of complex organisms that have been alive are extinct – not evolved, but extinct.

We still have single cell organisms, that thrive. They’ve never gone, and they’ve been around for billions of years before more complex ones. They weren’t replaced, so I’m not making any argument that more adaptive organisms replaced less adaptive ones. Simply that, from a DNA engine perspective, complexity appears potentially superfluous and even faulty.

GeorgeGee's avatar

Extinction doesn’t mean that a species wasn’t viable. If for instance you could invent a super prolific species that ate only mosquitoes, we would expect it to reproduce and reproduce and spread all over the world. But at some point, the mosquitoes would be gone, and this species would then die off completely and it and the mosquito would both be extinct.
Dinosaurs ruled the earth for about 165 million years. That’s not insignificant, and it’s a lot longer than human’s mere 200,000 year history.

the100thmonkey's avatar

@iamthemob: Evolution is the exploitation of opportunity

iamthemob's avatar

@GeorgeGee

I never argued the viability of anything. I don’t know what your point is here…

@the100thmonkey

That seems like both a vast oversimplification as well as a generalization. I very much doubt that opportunity so much as necessity pushed adaptation generally.

GeorgeGee's avatar

“complexity appears potentially superfluous and even faulty”
I would say that the complexity of dinosaurs was not superfluous or faulty, it was exactly right for the conditions that existed for quite a while.

iamthemob's avatar

But they’re dead. Simpler organisms remain.

You seem to be arguing “comparative complexity” as opposed to any complexity, which is what I’m wondering about.

GeorgeGee's avatar

So what if they’re dead? As I pointed out, that might well mean that they were 100% successful at exploiting their niche.

iamthemob's avatar

How would that be 100% successful?

the100thmonkey's avatar

@iamthemob: necessity doesn’t drive evolution. If that were that case there would be no extinction. If an animal – the dodo, for example – were to adapt to what was necessary to survive, they would be flying around outside your apartment right about now.

You need to drop the teleology from your thinking – chance and chance alone rules evolution. Had there been a group of dodos with a fear of predators inherited from their progenitors, they would have had a far higher chance of survival.

iamthemob's avatar

@the100thmonkey

Your first and second sentence here require a huge and unsupported leap in logic. Adaptation is, in essence, the response of an organism to the demands of its environment. How is that not, in some sense, necessity? This doesn’t do anything to preclude extinction – your statement is conclusory.

And please point out where I have represented anything about evolution itself being motivated by anything. My entire discussion is regarding the representation of evolution.

And really, you might need to drop your drive to lecture me. If evolution is ruled by chance and chance alone, how is it also conceptualized by the exploitation of opportunity (as you mentioned before)? It really seems like you’re the one who’s incorporating teleology into the argument.

cazzie's avatar

Let’s talk about the time it takes for an organism to evolve. It takes generations and generations to see an alteration that has made it’s way. You really can’t count sudden human intervention and our impact on rates of extinction and point to that as a flaw of ‘evolution’.

iamthemob's avatar

@cazzie

Okay. But I don’t know why you bring in human intervention and our impact into the discussion. It hasn’t been a considered factor.

cazzie's avatar

@the100thmonkey brought up the Dodo story, trying to prove some point about adaptation? Didn’t make much sense to me.

the100thmonkey's avatar

@iamthemob: because in terms of evolution, the organism doesn’t evolve; its decendants do, provided they have the necessary qualities conferred on them by their DNA for them to survive. In that respect, the leaps in logic have already been made and are supported by one and a half centuries of study.

Necessity doesn’t drive evolution; relative numbers of opportunities for procreation through the selective survival of organisms better-or-lesser suited to their environments does. Necessity doesn’t come into it. DNA is no more capable of perceiving ‘necessity’ than a rock is.

My criticisms of the way you are talking about evolution are grounded in a desire to see a topic neutral discussion – something you say is important: a discussion of the “representation of evolution” is the way you put it.

My post was not conclusory (I learnt a new word today – thank you) the argument and its conclusion has been laid out in more or less the same form for 150 years. If I read you correctly (which, it seems, I have not – I’m not trying to piss you off) you are suggesting that organisms (at the macro level) adapt to their environments. They do not, from a molecular perspective – they are either more or less suited to their environments or capable of making behavioral changes in response to them. If they are less suited, there is a higher probability that they will not survive to procreate. That is chance and adaptation at work. Necessity is an unnecessary concept.

At the molecular level, an organism is no more capable of changing the cards it has been dealt than you or I are when playing a round of snap. This is where the dodo analogy comes from – they didn’t adapt because their DNA, through the process of natural selection, had no time to offer innovative solutions to their predicament. It’s also the flip-side of the counter-argument to the idea that mass extinction is important for evolution. It is not – evolution will happen anyway, although a mass extinction creates countless more opportunities (to be understood as ecological or environmental niches which are either empty or where competition is possible) for it than otherwise would be available. No more, no less.

iamthemob's avatar

This is slowly descending into semantics. How does this all factor into the issue of organisms as efficient DNA engines?

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