Natural Selection

“So just because the religious don’t understand it, doesn’t mean evolution doesn’t exist.”

Question from CLH:
Asking you a question about specifically about evolution might seem a bit off-topic in regard to atheism.
But as you probably know the majority of the scientific community (the majority of which are atheists) regard evolution as scientific fact.
And we’re talking the entire theory, not some watered down “micro-evolution” version.

I’ve recently read some books to increase my knowledge and understanding on the theory of evolution.
It is now abundantly clear to me that all living things on this earth have evolved (as opposed to having been “designed” in their present form).

Until you understand that these changes have occurred slowly over billions of years it is kind of hard to grasp the concept of evolution. Even then it is mind-boggling to thing that we could get from a single-celled organism to where we are today.

But the facts are indisputable in that regard. But while evolution doesn’t fit well with the story of creation as told in the bible, it doesn’t
completely rule out intelligent or conscious design at point in the evolutionary process.

In my reading about evolution the authors do a great job of explaining how evolution consists of the natural selection of random mutations.
It seems confusing to people at first (which is it…”random” or “selection”?), but I get now the basic concept. But the part that I don’t understand
is this. They make it clear that neither random mutations or natural selection is a “conscious” process.
This suggests to me that there is no needs assessment or analysis taking place. But without such a needs assessment or analysis taking place, how
are we to believe that the natural selection process could have any direction or insight in determining which random mutations are actually beneficial and should therefore be selected?

Consider the evolution case study “How Beach Life Favors Blond Mice”

The basis of the study is that beach life survival favors mice with blonde as opposed to dark colored hair. The understanding is that flying predators
can more easily see and located the contrast of dark colored mice against the white sand background as opposed to blond colored mice. Makes perfect sense
and I believe that has actually been proven in some scientific experiments. But here is what I don’t get. Without a conscious assessment of someone or something
to make the observation that being blonde is more beneficial how does the natural selection go about making the right selection that we’re giving it credit for?
It would be one thing if you had a group of mice that were gathered behind a rock and saw a couple of their buddies (one blond and one dark) run
out onto the sandy beach and make the observation that time and time again the predator preys on the dark colored mouse. It that observation (conscious knowledge) were somehow
transferred and converted to their DNA for future generations to make use of in the natural selection process then that might make sense.
But once again we’re told that natural selection is in no way a conscious process. So that being the case, one has to wonder what basis natural selection
has for doing the needs assessment and making the right selection? That seems to leave open the possibility that intelligent design might be interceding at some point. Not necessarily a theist “God” mind you, but some form of intelligent (conscious) design. Or perhaps the scientists are just wrong about natural selection not being a conscious process?

On a side note, I’m wondering if there is a more common sense explanation for the blond mice case study such as the following:
As more dark mouse die off there are less and less of their dark mouse DNA to contribute to the future generation gene pool resulting in the future breading and reproduction cycle of more and more blond and less and less dark colored mice.

Answer by Andrea:
I see that your critical thinking skills are well-honed, since you basically came up with the answer as to why evolution is not a conscious process in your last paragraph.
My religiously conservative dad once took a tour through Grand Canyon and when the guide told him that the squirrels had changed through natural selection my dad laughed, “Isn’t that silly, squirrels choosing each other?” I tried to stifle my own laugh while I explained they don’t consciously choose each other, it’s that the squirrels best adapted to their environment (in your example mice being blond and less visible to predators) live longer and therefore produce more offspring. Their offspring that carry those adaptive genes will also live longer, which allows them to also carry forth those genes to a greater extent than those not carrying the beneficial genes until they become commonplace in the population. The version of the gene with less adaptive properties then often becomes recessive or eventually it loses its function due to disuse.
With respect to mutations, a lot of religionists will say that mutations are bad, and it’s ridiculous to think they could generate a whole new species. But what they don’t understand, or perhaps want to know, is that our genes mutate all the time throughout our lives for many different reasons, and most of those mutations are neither harmful nor beneficial. When harmful mutations arise, they are typically not spread widely since their carriers are not as fit for the environment and typically don’t live as long or as healthily.
Darwin termed this “natural” selection, which is selection guided nonconsciously by environmental cues. This is compared to the selection he saw by pigeon and dog owners, who guided the selection “unnaturally” by selectively breeding their animals to produce the desired genetic mix.
So just because the religious don’t understand it, doesn’t mean evolution doesn’t exist. In fact, it takes a far greater “leap of faith” to believe that an intelligent designer zapped everything into existence — for example, who zapped the intelligent designer into existence? And if that creator has always been around, why not just believe the universe has always been around in different form, for which there is much more evidence? It’s much more logical to believe that since only four out of 118 or so elements needed to produce life — oxygen, hydrogen, nitrogen and carbon (albeit under the right conditions). There is fossil, genetic, chemical and empirical evidence for evolution, yet there is absolutely none for the intelligent design, also known as the creationist, point of view.
Creationists will admit there may be evidence for evolution but assert that this is only on the microevolutionary scale, such as with regard to bacteria and viruses. Although they deny that macroevolution occurs, we have already seen it with other quickly-producing organisms such as birds, fish and small rodents to the extent that they can no longer interbreed — one step at which they are considered a new species. There is also plenty of scientific evidence in the form of fossils, and there are transition species for almost all of the major transitions, including from water to land (see Tiktaalik, discovered in 2006).

Good job analyzing.

4 thoughts on “Natural Selection”

  1. I think CLH’s answered their own question, as pointed out by Andrea above.
    There is one thing I find very interesting about Evolution and the future course it will take. Evolution till now has been a one way process in the sense that random mutations effect organisms and then spread through the process of natural selection against the background of a more or less fixed nature/ environment.
    Now as our species starts changing the environment more and more, will natural selection be dictated by this changing environment? Would we (& other organisms that inhabit this planet), say, develop traits in a few hundred thousand years that are suitable for survival in an environment of our own creation? And if so, what would those traits be like.

    Random thoughts ๐Ÿ™‚ Just to keep the brain busy.

  2. Without a conscious assessment of someone or something to make the observation that being blonde is more beneficial how does the natural selection go about making the right selection that weโ€™re giving it credit for?

    This is the key to really understanding evolution: natural selection is just a filter. The ‘right’ selection is only ‘right’ inasmuch as anything that doesn’t work is filtered out through selection pressures – i.e., things like availability of food, competition for mates, various aspects of physical prowess, et cetera. Selection pressures may even be something as obscure as a random allele mutation that alters a female’s brain to be attracted to males with legs of a specific shape.

    I often like to use a coin sorting analogy. Intelligent design would be a person who knows the different types of coins and intentionally sorts them accordingly. Natural selection would be like a set of natural physical structures that imitate a coin sorting machine and can roughly sort coins by size and shape. It wouldn’t be perfect, but with each pass it would weed out more and more of the ‘wrong’ kind of coin in each slot.

  3. The concept of evolution has always been one of my favorites to talk about with my wife. She is a very devout Christian who is open to discussions about the concepts of religion and theology in general. I am a very open minded atheist (to date I have tried to find faith in 7 different religions and have only found further reasons to disbelieve) who loves getting the occasional victory against her (shhhh don’t tell her that last part).

    My favorite part is our evolution discussions, especially when she flat out denies even the possibility of macroevolution. Because the answer to that is simple (at least in my mind). If her God were able and intelligent enough to create from nothing (or through the Big Bang if you are a scientific believer as well) everything that exists then he had to understand that the ability to adapt (or evolve) was paramount to everything surviving. Her normal response is that the timeline (her belief is that Earth is roughly 20,000 years old) is much shorter than what is generally excepted in the scientific world and so even if macroevolution is true there is no way that it has had the time needed to develop.

    My best example in this case was an experiment done by Theodore Garland Jr. in which he effectively bred super fast mice from 1993 until present. Basic premise was he setup multiple groups of mice and attempted to “breed” (forced evolution) a mouse which ran more (in this case distance) than the other control groups (which he just let go hog wild). The amazing part of this is that the mice that run more (about 3 times as many revolutions, although not 3 times longer, they actually run faster) are the best example you can have to do a proof of concept about evolution.

    In the real world scenario imagine a large number of mice in which a fast predator is introduced. The slower the mice are the more likely they are to be eaten, so only the fast survive. So eventually (longer time than presented in the experiment by a long shot) mix a fast mouse with a fast mouse and you are more likely to get an even faster mouse. Some of the research has already shown the reasons they run faster, for example their hind legs are more symmetrical than those of the control group and they have larger hearts.

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