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Darwin, Whales, and Red-heads.

I was feeling well enough tonight to attend a pair of lectures on evolution which were being hosted by Carleton University in the Kailash Mital theatre. The first (Darwinian Evolution: From Conception to Misconception by Dr. Andrew Simons, Carleton) was not too interesting to me as I was familiar with the issue; the lecture was meant to address certain linguistic problems which have tended to derail the debates on evolution. To put it briefly, faulty metaphors tend to be used to describe biological problems or phenomena (ie. missing links, random v. directed, nature v. nurture), which cause people to look for problems where there aren't any, and be blind to the actual questions of the day. For instance, the debate over the origin of species tends to be framed in terms of (random v. directed) with evolution associated with randomness, and creationism associated with direction. In actual fact, such a debate cannot exist for (biological evolution =! random); rather, biological evolution is in a sense directed by certain discrete forces such as natural selection. Thus, the debate should actually be framed as (directed v. directed), and the real issue should thereby be over the nature of the direction. Instead, public discussion remains mired in empty debate over a disagreement which doesn't actually exist.

The second lecture (Evolution and its Causes, Dr. Charles Goodnight, Vermont), was more interesting, as it was a run-down of the four, now commonly identified, forces which underlie biological evolution, namely migration, mutation, drift, and natural selection. "Migration" denotes the familiar effect of members from one isolated group of a species encountering and reproducing with another isolated group from the same species; the succeeding generation tends to have traits from both groups which is expressed as a fundamental, lasting change in the average phenotype. "Mutation" denotes an inheritable, genetic change in a particular member (or members) of a species which has occurred spontaneously -- perhaps due to radiation or chemical influences, etcetera. "Drift" is an expression of another common-sense phenomenon: that, given both sufficient generations and equal chances for reproduction, minority traits will tend to disappear from a population (think of the gradual disappearance of natural red-heads in the human population; they just can't keep up with the hoards of brunettes). "Selection" is the familiar force identified by Darwin: certain traits will allow their holders to better survive and reproduce in certain environments, thereby causing the traits to become the norm.

The interesting bit, of course, is examining how these three forces can play against each-other, thus making life inherently unpredictable. For instance, if "drift" and "migration" had their way, perhaps there wouldn't be any natural red-heads left in a few generations: globalization has tended to enforce cosmopolitainism and intermarriage between carrot-tops and brunettes. Red hair might easily disappear from the human population. However, if civilization collapsed before the onslaught of armies of cannibal robots, and the fickle finger of "natural selection" came to favour the red-haired (because what self-respecting cannibal robot would eat a red-head?), then that particular trait would tend to become more common as all the brunettes and blonds perished amidst the clanking, blood-letting orgy.

There was also discussion of cases of rapid, micro-evolution (HIV virus), contrasted with slow, macro-evolution (from land-whales to sea-whales), and there's a lengthy philosophical critique to be made of it all, but I sense that my mind has begun to drift slightly....

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