One frequent description of evolution is that it involves survival of the fittest. Survival more specifically means not on that the individual survives to maturity but also that it has successfully reproduced and that the descendants themselves manage to reproduce. When used in context of evolution, survival is meaningful only in the sense of successfully generating grandchildren. Individuals are mortal but their species will continue long after they die.
A second meaning of survival is in terms of the threats. I imagine a sterile planet before any life appeared. The first life form would have to survive to reproduce offspring that themselves are able to reproduce. In world, life would face only natural threats from a variable environment such as extremes in temperature or exposure to damaging radiation, poisonous surroundings, or extremes in availability of nutrients. An initial life form would first compete against nature, but if successful the species would overpopulate to the point to competing with itself.
In contrast to this competition to nature, the more common notion within natural selection is that there are competing species. The threat to survival of one species is the existence of another. It is easy to see how this can work out when multiple species exist, and such a condition is assumed to be inevitable due to natural variation among isolate sub-populations adapting to different conditions. Eventually the evolved different species of some common ancestor would encounter each other and their competition would either lead to extinction although that may be locally so that the sub-populations end up occupying different territories of ecological niches.
Another key concept of evolution is that of the food chain. Sunlight provides energy for green plants that get consumed by smaller animals that become prey of larger animals that become prey to even higher predators. At some point, there is an apex predator, the predator that has no predator outside of its own.
This food chain evolved as a consequence of the innovative evolution of a new species that would prey upon another. I like to envision the food chain itself as a life form that evolved to be what we see today, the constituent species within the chain are as integral to its existence as the different organs and tissues within our bodies or inseparable from our existence.
In this thinking, food chains are synonymous to ecosystems. A territory where multiple species live in various niches in balance with their predators. Instead of thinking about the origin of species of life, we could think about the origin of ecosystems.
We think of the origin of life as a sequence: first there was life, then much later there was an ecosystem, or we might consider the first life to automatically define the first ecosystem.
Equating the food chain to an ecosystem suggests that the ecosystem must have come first. In particular, life is all about exploiting some source of nutrients. Through that process, that life form itself becomes a richer source of nutrients for others. If life is a consequence of the presence of a source of nutrients, then the origin of new species is a consequence of the introduction of new sources of nutrient concentrations in other living things.
This is how evolution was taught to me. In order to survive in an evolutionary sense (having surviving grandchildren), the individual must somehow avoid demise in the ever present risk of becoming food for another: survival of the fittest means eating while not being eaten.
Under such a conception, it is not hard to imagine random variations. While many of these variations may be more likely to become prey to others and thus never propagate their variants, it is conceivable that some variation will have some advantage in either being better eaters or better at evading being eaten at least long enough to reproduce.
I prefer an intelligent design explanation to the origin of life and of its various forms. Many of the arguments against intelligent designs point of the imperfections of the design: the design was not too intelligent after all. I consider those arguments to be motivated by the argument that the intelligent designer could not God.
When I think of intelligent design, my model of intelligence is human intelligence. The intelligent designer of life is very much like human engineers. Their designs are often flawed. Some of those flaws are due to ignorance or sloppiness. Many of the flaws are a direct consequence of economic manufacture of the product. A realizable design needs to use affordable raw materials and affordable processes for shaping and assembling those materials. The affordability itself is a source of flaws.
In human manufacturing, there are multiple methods of producing products. We can carve something out of a solid material, we can mold something that later hardens, we can join materials with different methods such as gluing, nailing/screwing, soldering, welding.
Recently, we have seen a manufacturing revolution in the form of 3D printing. 3D printing is an additive process requiring specific materials that are compatible. To make different forms, the process leaves behind certain artifacts that are unique to 3D printing methods involved. Due to affordability, we tolerate some remnants of these artifacts in the finished product.
I am impressed with expert artisans of all of the human methods of manufacturing products from intelligent designs. These require mastery of skills developed over many generations.
Intelligent design of life has to adapt to its own manufacturing process, one that must start with a single cell responsible for replicating itself into distinctly specialized cells that self organize with strategy placement that must survive through development in order to be around when its function is needed in the mature organize to survive in the evolutionary sense.
I marvel at why damage to nerves (such as what occurs in paralysis) is nearly always permanent. The nerves can’t heal despite the fact that they got where they were in the first place. They got where they are in the adult because their progenitors were formed in the right places when the embryo was very small so that the arrangement was easier. Then, as the embryo grew larger, the established arrangement grew to maintain the necessary relationship, essentially stretching to accommodate the development of the rest of the anatomy.
The intelligence is in the foresight needed to strategic establish the necessary structures early on in development so that it would become functional in the adult.
But the real genius is in the manufacture of a complete adult individual starting from a single cell that builds itself with no outside instruction or external assembly.
There is a lot of discussion about bad design, but many of those complaints conceive of how we can do better with our robotics. Our robotics are built from human manufacturing processes, most of which involves assembly of externally built parts each prepared to match exactly the final product’s requirements.
An inside-out manufacturing process from autonomous self-replicating cells must content with survival of premature arrangements that require feasible arrangements and intermediate arrangements for nourishment so that they will be in the right place and the right size to benefit the adult living a long time in the future. Perhaps there are better ways to organize this method of manufacturing to result in more optimal arrangements in the adult, but I can’t imagine how the this manufacturing process produces what it does, both within individual species and across all of the species.
The point of this post is not to persuade anyone one way or the other about presence or absence of intelligence in evolution or in embryonic development. Instead, this is a background for my thinking about the food chain or ecosystem, and ultimately about the origin of species.
As mentioned earlier, the food chain model suggests that new species arise to exploit some new opportunity at exploiting an available source of nutrients, most frequently in the form of consuming organisms of a different species. Evolution is about becoming a better eater of other organisms or being better at avoiding being consumed.
I started thinking about this following something that happened at my job this week. This was not unusual. I simply found a problem after noticing something that bothered me about the data. Something about the data looked strange to me, so I investigated, drilling down to find the components of the data as well as coincidental data. I had no idea what I was looking for, there was not even a working hypothesis.
I had seen similar patterns before. If earlier I had created some algorithm to alert me when the pattern would recur, I expect I would be overwhelmed with false alarms. Something about this particular pattern bothered me. My motivation for searching deeper was emotional: the data made me uncomfortable: a combination of anger, spite, fear with no real intelligence. Emotion drove me to look. Consistent with past episodes like this one, this emotional motivation resulted in ultimately discovering something important. I would not have found that had I not been emotionally driven to assuage my discomfort.
As usual, when I find a problem, I would implement some test to alert me when this would happen in the future, but importantly this test would not be based on the pattern of data that first bothered me. I built a test based on the relevant data I would not have looked at earlier. The earlier observed pattern occurs frequently and basing a test on it would result in numerous false alarms.
There must have been something quantifiable in that original data that inspired me to seek an explanation. Perhaps it was the time of day, or the location, or maybe it was something overheard in a seemingly unrelated discussion. I don’t deny that perhaps some massive machine learning algorithm could have discovered the problem base on more data than I was conscious of. I only know that I was not inspired by an intelligent hypothesis that this was worth investigating. I was inspired purely emotionally, and I was emotionally invested in finding satisfaction.
As I think of intelligent design in evolution, I think in analogy to my own experiences. I’m more intelligent than a rock but I’m no genius. I have adequate intelligence to maintain my employment as someone who frequently enough finds something worth finding.
When I think about most of my achievements, I am embarrassed at my lack of intelligence even without the ridicule from peers that frequently happens. I do add value to the project, and sometimes even the sloppiest solution persists for years as being good enough. Despite the gratitude of my employer for some of my solutions, I would hesitate presenting them as a portfolio demonstrating my intellect.
Instead, my contribution was emotional. I get upset when I see something and this upset motivates my finding some explanation that satisfies me. This emotional response may be informed by training or experience but that intelligence alone would not have been enough to seek an explanation. I base this on knowing others with similar experiences seeing the same data would have not notice anything wrong, after all it was not unusual.
Based on this experience, I imagine a similar kind of intelligence behind evolution. That intelligence ultimately is emotionally driven. An intelligence design is not really a deduced solution to a problem. Instead, the design is emotionally driven. Something happens that motivates the designer to respond in exactly the same way I did: to eliminate that what emotionally triggered me.
In my case, I would create a new test that would alert me when this happens again if I didn’t instead find a solution to prevent it from ever happening again. My creation was to annihilate what bothered me, or to get as close to annihilation as I could.
Evolution of species may really be an evolution of an ecosystem. That ecosystem could respond emotionally and that emotion motivates it to find some solution to relieve that emotion. Emotionally driven intelligence would almost always come up with flawed designs. Those designs would satisfy the emotions instead of the intelligence.