Category Archives: science

Evolution: Of Trees and Fish

Suppose I should not be writing this, because it might draw somebody’s attention to the fact that I’m getting the Frankfurter Rundschau each day without having ordered it or paying for it, and after a while I have gotten quite used to it. I still am not the kind of person to read the entire paper, say during breakfast. But I have come to like leafing through real paper in my lunch break, for example. And I tend to find a couple of articles that catch my attention. Sometimes, they make me want to smash my head on the table (oh, and since we no longer have a glass table, I actually could.) Such was today’s interview with author Nicholas Sparks.

Nicholas Sparks in the “Frankfurter Rundschau”

Why read it, you might say, and I suppose I would not have if I had not caught the word evolution. Somewhere close to a picture of Scarlett Johansson, is what I’m guessing the real reason was. Now, I’m still interested in the whole story of evolution vs. intelligent design and was curious to read what a popular person such as Mr. Sparks, whose voice would possibly have an impact on the opinions of a more general populace, might have to say about it. Let’s start by saying that I was pleased to read that the Christian school he founded does indeed teach the theory of evolution. But oh, for how he continued (my translation):

FR: At your school the theory of evolution is being taught. That is not the case at every Christian school in the United States.

Sparks: The theory of evolution, too, is just a theory that has never been proven. There are a lot of things that aren’t very clear to me. When the first fish leaves the ocean, who does it mate with? And how did trees evolve from that? Or were the trees there, first? I don’t fully understand that. But I still think, the theory of evolution is the best explanation we have to date, and that’s why we teach it at our school.

Is this guy serious?

I mean, I fully appreciate Christians who can be laid back enough to let science do its thing. On the other hand, what he’s doing, though, is acting as if evolution to normal people was just as much a mystery as is the religious mystery that is belief. And then, when with this kind of argumentation the plausibility of the theory of evolution has been discredited enough and everybody’s free to choose what they consider plausible, a literal interpretation of the Bible might seem more plausible than your salmon Al saying to his wife: “You know, Peg, I’ve had it up to here. You can have the ocean, I’ll move on to dry land.” Or how this salmon, after one hell of a leap, finds that there are no girls to mate with on land, and trees grow from all the salmon semen he keeps losing …

Isn’t it obvious that that’s NOT what the theory of evolution claims? Is this the level at which evolution gets discussed? Sure, not everybody can be a rocket scientist, but everybody who ever gets to talk to the media about evolution should understand a few, simple facts about it. And there must be something wrong with schools, if an adult person having seen at least some education, does not. Because, in fact, the fundamental ideas of the theory of evolution are extremely simple and compellingly plausible in their simplicity.

  1. Evolutionary processes take a LONG time: The first fish to step out of the sea does not just decide to do that on a day and starts to grow some legs.
  2. Repeat after me: Adaptive Radiation: Change happens all the time. The sum of the genetic information in any live population of creatures on Earth changes all the time. Be it through reproduction, mutation or viruses. Random change happens all the time, but within the context of the pressure that the environment exerts on those creatures, some changes will decrease or increase chances of survival. The former changes probably won’t be handed on to as many future generations as the latter. That’s basic probability. That’s survival of the fittest. Simple as that.
    And sometimes a certain mutation will not make a difference in terms of chance of survival, until something changes in the environment. Maybe it gets very cold all of a sudden and suddenly the hairy and somewhat larger mutations of a given kind of animal, that had hitherto just been somewhat infrequent freak occurrences, become the norm, because all the others die more easily under the changed circumstances.

So, the fish leaving the ocean, wasn’t A fish, but generations of fish. They probably had fins different from other fish, to start with, maybe because they had previously undergone a mutation that allowed them to (now I’m making stuff up) dig up food that had hitherto been inaccessible, giving them a competitive edge. And even if there was a first single individual to spend time above the water level, that individual would probably have done that for short periods of time and returned to the sea for mating. It will probably have taken many generations for such animals to be able to spend longer periods of time on dry land or not to have to return to the sea, at all. And the changes to enable that would not have needed to be a matter of course or directed at enabling the conquest of dry land. Fish already able to leave the water for short periods of time might still get offspring incapable of doing that. But their siblings able to would just have a competitive edge, no predators, no competition for food. And every mutation that improves that ability would have increased the advantage. Take a couple of millions of individuals and let probability do its work. I don’t see how anybody can find anything but a compelling plausibility in here. Unless, of course, someday we’ll find a Message in a Bottle by the first lonely fish on dry land.

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Rodney Brooks: Flesh and Machines

Been meaning to write this since we returned from our vacation on Mallorca where I, what would you expect, found the time to read a good book, i. e. Flesh and Machines by Rodney Brooks.

Flesh and Machines Cover Image

Didn’t get around to actually doing it due to too many things competing for my attention (why, I just finished a presentation on basic statistics for role engineers, which was really hard for me being no mathematician at all). I only really picked up the task again, today, after I watched a replay of a documentary on 3sat about this spring’s complexity conference and this supported an issue I was having with some of Mr. Brook’s reasoning.

First, it is worth noting that the book as such is very interesting, well written, and thought provoking. It was fascinating to read how Mr. Brooks begged to differ from the schools of thought prevalent at the time by creating robots of simple components. At a time when other people were building robots (and I’m not talking about the ones used in manufacturing) as primarily intellectual entities who would build a model of reality, then sit down and make an action plan, and finally do something purely based on a mathematical model, he was building a robot (Ghengis) made of very simple individual components where each had very limited alternatives for action but which were interacting with each other and with the real world directly (what he defines as being situated.) Through this interaction those very simple building blocks formed a behaviour that appeared like it possessed intelligent problem solution strategies where they, in fact, completely abandoned what some equate with intelligence, abstract thought.

I was a bit shocked when I realized that early scientist of the field of robotics had actually tried to create entities which/who would even try to build an internal model of reality to work on, where (a bit unfair 25 years later) it seemed so obvious to me that the larger part of life (intelligent or not) just does not work like that. Yes, a human being can close his eyes and form a plan purely on the memory of reality. However, that model is so coarse and the plan so rough, that even then the majority of detail is decided on the fly not based on a model but direct feedback from reality. One could not plan how to carry a cup that has been filled too full. When you even look at it, you will spill some of its content. But if you look straight ahead and let your hand do the work, you will get much better results. Or consider how we manage to focus on the same spot even if we turn our head, or how we pull up our leg if we trip on a snag to avoid a fall. A lot (I’d say the vast majority) of our cleverness works without any abstract model. Of course, you may argue, there is a difference between cleverness and intelligence. However, that may be smaller than we all think. Who can say if the behaviour of Ghengis was not a simulation of intelligence but a germ of the real thing? Connect a billion more neurons, and who knows what will happen?

Mr. Brooks continues with a (to me personally) charming side-kick at Creationism. He observes, though, that as yet, robots have failed to achieve the consistent long-term independence we know from real live beings. He then takes a look at other simulations of life, for example simulations of evolution, where given similar evolutionary pressures we observe in the real world, the simulations come up with fascinating virtual beings evolving from much more simple elements. Such simulations have even produced social beings with different sexes. Such simulations have not, however, produced intelligent virtual beings. There were limits to the improvement of species in them. Mr. Brooks discusses various possible explanations for those:

  1. In all of our simulation systems there are some parameters incorrect.
  2. Our systems are build in too simple environments. Everything would develop as expected if we would exceed a certain level of complexity.
  3. We are just lacking computing power.
  4. There is something missing from our biological models, perhaps we do need some “new matter”

To my very great disappointment, Mr. Brooks concludes it must be (4). This, I do not believe. And I find it hard to see why somebody who has given such a good practical example of how a complex arrangement of simple things produces something beyond the sum of the parts, would regard non-linear complexity as an insufficient explanation of a lack of organization we see in a simulation when the non-linear system “The World” displays it. And of course, given that the starting parameters for a simulation matching the the world in complexity would be quite numerous (like the state of every quark in the world, where each state may well be defined by a number of properties), the probability of errors in the starting parameters is rather high. Then, slight variations of starting parameters may make huge differences for systems of non-linear complexity.

So, reason 1 & 2 are more than enough for me to explain that we have not been able to simulate the evolution of life on earth to the same level it has in fact occurred. I would even venture so far as to claim that that is as such impossible. I believe, to accurately simulate a complex system, you need a simulation system that is at least as complex. So to simulate the earth, you’d need another earth. (In other words, you cannot accurately simulate at all, if you are interested not just in the object but the object within its environment). For practical purposes, you may not aim at an “accurate” simulation but an approximation and then statistics/probability may help to reduce the data. But even for simulating problems simple when compared to “life on earth”, like climate prediction, our current simulations are so far from doing the real complexity any justice.

What’s especially fascinating here is that this kind of thought seems to be moving out of the fractal, weather prediction, chaos theory weirdo space into mainstream science, where it evolves to an interdisciplinary form of research and brings about progress in seemingly unrelated fields as physics, biology, neuropsychology. It is probably well worth keeping an eye on the Complex Systems Society.

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I’m not a mere dreamer

When, in a previous post, I wrote that we don’t need free energy in the sense of extravagant theories around zero point energy, because I assumed we should be able to solve our energy problems with current and proven technology, I didn’t realize how real that idea was and how comparatively simple the solution could be, if the human race could just get its act together and agree that it really wants a solution.

Read about the TREC initiative’s Desertec Concept here.

Another blog post about it has some comments with alternative/additional projects.

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