Sunday, September 29, 2013

The Catbird Seat

In a James Thurber short story from the 1940s, a character makes reference to someone “sitting in the catbird seat,” a phrase attributed originally to baseball announcer Red Barber. It means holding an inviolable position, able to do no wrong, untouchable, golden.

The catbird seat is not something you necessarily achieve through hard work or merit. It’s not a position you attain by being better, quicker, or faster, like a tennis player with an indomitable backhand or a commercial competitor with a demonstrably better product. The catbird seat, in the original baseball sense, was “like a batter with three balls and no strikes”—and while you might avoid strikes by skill, balls are an inadvertent gift from the pitcher. Sitting in the catbird seat is like drawing a full house in poker, a position of sudden power that is yours to play and hard to play badly.

Something about sitting in the catbird seat is mildly offensive to the American sense of justice and fair play. If it’s a temporary advantage, like a batter having three balls and the breathing room to take a few injudicious swings, the catbird seat can be an admirable thing. In the long run, every baseball player settles into a network of lifetime averages—hits at bat, home runs, runs batted in, errors—that fairly accurately reflects his skills and attention to the game. The catbird seat is a rickety perch, and nobody actually lives there.

Some people will try. You see this in the small or weak person who suddenly attains a position of power: the head of an obscure department whose treatment of the people below him is not immediately apparent, through its affect on the bottom line, to the people above him; the blackmailer who believes that holding an embarrassing secret or evidence of wrongdoing confers unlimited power over the wrongdoer; the aristocrat or heir to a commercial fortune who lacks the imagination to foresee a change in the political or economic winds; the politician who thinks he knows where all the bodies are buried.

When I was learning karate,1 one of the bits of fighting lore they taught was never to back an opponent into a corner. True, for some fighters finding a corner is a good thing, a safe and defensible position that limits the angles and sides from which enemies can approach. But for most people, going into a corner means going into a box from which there is no escape. The rule was, if you limit an opponent’s ability to quit and run away, you invite him to heroic efforts which might suddenly overmatch your own skill and technique. Panic is a tricky thing in a fight, and you want to avoid it on either side.

As noted elsewhere, I’m a fan of Frank Herbert’s Dune books, because they have a lot to teach about interpersonal relations.2 One of his more interesting inventions was the Bene Tleilax, a mysterious organization numbered among the Great Schools, who are described as “amoral scientists.” These are unpredictable people who will follow an interesting line of investigation past the limits of rationality and morality onto unstable ground and unthinkable pursuits. In the later books, we learn about their troupe of Face Dancers, humans with malleable flesh and minds who can duplicate the body and persona of anyone they touch. In the Dune worlds, Face Dancers are used as assassins and spies. But they have an unusual ethic: they always leave their victim a means of escape—if he can find it.

For the Face Dancers, this is a kind of grim courtesy. But it reminds me of my karate teaching: always leave your opponent an exit path. And in the larger world, beyond the sparring floor and the fencing piste, in any exchange—a debate, a commercial confrontation, an affair of honor3—you want to leave your opponent a chance to escape, a way to withdraw without losing face. The best way of fighting is to avoid a fight. This is not to say that your opponent will then owe you a debt, repay your kindness, or become your friend. It’s enough to say that he will not force you to bruise your knuckles in beating him.

Someone who thinks he or she lives in the catbird seat will not be mindful of letting an opponent find an honorable escape. Habitual sitters upon that perch tend to think they have the right, if not the obligation, to baffle, batter, and daunt those about them with impunity. And that’s what the thoughtful person will find distasteful.

No one sits in the catbird seat forever. And, as any baseball player will tell you, skill and attention will always play out, and your rightful place in the averages will always catch up with you.

1. In the active sense of attending a dojo and taking instruction. As a karate practitioner, you become a life-long learner. See my web page Isshinryu Karate.

2. See The Dune Ethos from October 30, 2011.

3. Affairs of honor are rare these days. Most people would consider them a barbaric relic of our aristocratic European past. But they served a purpose: a gentleman was expected to back up his words with an act of courage. If one chose to call another gentleman a liar, a cheat, or make some other indefensible attribution, one would expect to meet him at dawn to prove the allegation. Or in the language of the barroom, “Step outside and say that.” An affair of honor had the virtue of reminding everyone to drink abstemiously and hold his tongue. Today we have no such recourse, and the medium of civil exchange is usually the worse for it.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Perhaps with a Whimper

If you take an absolutely scientific approach to life, you do not have much to say about death, except that the life process—whatever it might be—stops. And so, when you die, your mind goes blank. You go away. In the imagery of the Buddha, you go out like a candle. You as a person, a process of insight and expectation and memory, cease to exist. All you that have known, hoped and expected, learned and discovered disappears.1

But we don’t know, exactly, what that the life process is. We have begun to track it at the level of the cell: an interplay of chemical energy absorbed in the form of nutrients, prepared as high-energy phosphate bonds in the mitochondria, and expended elsewhere in the cell through the breaking of those bonds. In multi-celled creatures, individual cells also communicate with each other chemically by releasing, bathing in, and reacting to special proteins—hormones, antigens, kinins, and their like—that give each cell a sense of the communal world around it.

The brain is generally understood to be the seat of human consciousness, mental activity, motor control, and memory. It is currently understood to be a network of cells called neurons, which extend branches of themselves, called axons, outward to form connections, called synapses, with other neurons. Individual neurons fire electrochemical signals down their axial connections and, depending on chemical mediation at the synapses, encourage other neurons to receive and transfer the signal, or not. But that’s not everything going on inside the brain.

Other cells of the type called glia, which outnumber the neurons by the thousands, support this activity. Oligodendrocytes are glial cells that wrap around the axon and boost the signal, like repeaters on a telegraph wire. Microglia live between the branching nerve cells and, like brain’s own personal immune system, fight off invading bacteria and viruses. A third glial type called astrocytes hold the neurons in place, feed them nutrients, and absorb dead neurons. Astrocytes seem to have their own transmission system based on chemistry, but whether that contributes to thought and emotion or is simply part of the housekeeping is still not understood.

We know that the brain has about 100 billion neurons and they make many times their number in connections. The brain has special structures that regulate consciousness, emotion, sensory inputs, and even expectation and future orientation. But a single neuron firing a signal to another neuron is no more meaningful than a single on/off bit sitting on a computer chip and changing its state. Two neurons do not make a thought or a memory. Neither do three or four. But maybe dozens, hundreds, or thousands just might. We know from neurosurgeons that electrically stimulating a tiny patch of cells in the brain can trigger complex sensations and memories. But how many actual neurons are involved in a thought or sensation, and at what distance from the point of stimulation, are matters still poorly understood.2

We also don’t understand whether memory is an active process, requiring electrical stimulation between neurons to maintain the content, or whether some part of the memory or experience is converted into a stable, inactive chemical that can later be activated or refreshed. We do know that processing short-term experience into long-term memories requires time and the brain’s daily shutdown through the processes of sleep.3

We know—or perhaps “believe” is the better word—that the mind arises through the complexity of interconnections among the neurons. We also know that the mind has many separate and interrelated processes that work through at least three separate and distinct brain types that arose during our animal evolution. First came the brain stem, which we share with the fishes; it controls the autonomic functions—those of which we are hardly aware, like breathing—as well as raw consciousness. Next to arrive was the hind brain, or cerebellum, which controls and integrates sensory functions and motor control out in the body. And finally the cerebral cortex developed, which integrates and controls thoughts, memories, and expectations. Conscious awareness—not at the raw on/off level of the brain stem, but at the higher levels of thinking, feeling, deciding, and doing—is a complicated process. We don’t have just one thought at a time, like a locomotive moving down a track. We have a jostle of thoughts, feelings, sensations, and memories, like a school of fish moving all more or less in the same direction but each with its particular voice and function.4

The mind as brain function arises through the complexity of the neural network. And stimulation or interruption of activity in that network can cause effects in the mind. But the mind is not the same thing as the brain, in the same way that the movements of a school of fish are more than the actions of a single fish, a forest is more than the trees that compose it, and an institution like a great company or school is more than the actions of the individuals who join it. Forests have cycles of respiration, grown, age, dormancy, and environmental effects that are separate from the life cycle of any one tree.5 In the same way, the mind—once it arises—may have effects and persistence separate from the brain. At this point in our knowledge, that’s probably not the way to bet, but still …

Even the most clear-eyed, data-grounded, scientific, supernatural-denying mind must consider that the universe is more complex than we yet understand. One day, we may understand it all and resolve all questions. But for now there is room enough to wonder and to doubt. In a quantum mechanical universe which finds a mathematical basis for hypothetical particles like gravitons and their related fields that bend spacetime, for quantum entanglement among particles separated in both space and time, and for tiny, stringlike vibrations operating in obscure dimensions beyond the three we can count on our fingers, no scientific mind can say for certain that the energy of the human mind does not represent something more than mere cellular discharge.6

No one can say that some of that energy, in some form more or less coherent, does not persist after the cellular functions have ceased. It may not be completely human, nor contain every memory of your earliest childhood—although most of us can’t remember what we had for breakfast a week ago Saturday. This carried-forward residue, deprived of its human origin, may not depend on sight or hearing from eyes and ears that are no longer attached. It may not feel in all ten fingers and all ten toes, because the shape and inputs and control of the body are no longer relevant. But it may have a hint of the old “me” about it, especially as concerns basic attitudes like wonder and fear, or susceptibility to joy and anger, and dominant transactional states like loving, hating, giving, and taking. Divorced for the first time from the body and brain that formed it, that energy residue will have different sensations and new thoughts. It will be confused at first, and its perceptions may never become clear. It may not persist forever, or even for very long.7 It may dissipate with a tiny electrical “poof” and a whimper.

With such a possibility before us—distant, probably nonexistent, possibly still wishful thinking—what can we say in the face of death. Certainly, all of us on this plane of existence can say, “Goodbye!” But even the most scientific mind can also summon the grace to say, "Fare well, voyager."

1. Unless you have managed to capture some slim fraction of this externality through your writing, music, painting, photography … telling stories to your grandchildren … or some other means of communication with other human minds. And then when they—all of the people in your circle of contacts, however vast or small—have died, then the refined essence of what you thought also dies for all time.

2. Consider that axons can go a long way. For example, neuron cells located in the brain connect with your muscles by extending their axons throughout your body by way of the spinal cord and its branchings.

3. Some people even suggest that memories can be stored in or shared with other cells in the body, among the organs and tissues, carried outward from the brain by neuronal axons. Some say memories can even be transplanted to a new mind through a donated organ. While the evidence for this appears to be anecdotal, and involves the hugely evocative and emotional subject of death, the subject opens interesting possibilities for exploration.

4. For slightly more detail on brain structure and processes, see my earlier posting Death is Nothing from April 28, 2013. You might consider that a companion piece to the current meditation.

5. See Emergent Properties from August 11, 2013.

6. Note that by invoking a universe of unresolved quantum oddities which is based largely on mathematical reasoning, I am partly arguing against some of my previous positions. I am resistant to physical theories that draw most of their observations from mathematics, which is itself a construct of the human mind. See Fun With Numbers (I) and (II) from September 19 and 26, 2010.

7. And what does “forever” mean anyway? Not even the universe is destined to last forever.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Not an Arms Race

The popular view of evolution is that it’s something like an arms race. Predators develop longer claws and sharper teeth; so prey develop scales, armor plates, and detachable tails.1 That’s the old “red in tooth and claw” view of evolution. We saw some of that, to be sure, during and after the Cambrian explosion with development of exotic forms like the bony-headed fishes.2 But life as an arms race is a simplistic view, focusing on the drama we can see on the African veldt or the ocean depths, which is really just a small segment of life. Most of the mechanics of evolution goes on at the level of basic chemistry: proteins evolving to get better at their jobs or to undertake new jobs.

The idea of a quid pro quo arms race was also undercut by Darwin’s early understanding of evolutionary processes. He believed that bodily changes developed slowly and gradually. Sure, gradualism was a popular notion in the 19th century: that mountains wore away grain by grain; rivers cut their valleys inch by inch; and elephants grew their trunks or giraffes their necks by tiny increments over many generations.3 The one problem with gradualism in evolution was that the fossil record didn’t seem to support these gradual changes. There just weren’t the equivalent of proto-elephants with vestigial trunks and proto-giraffes with medium-sized necks. And of course, most protein evolution doesn’t get recorded in the fossil record at all in the way teeth and bony plates do.

Of course, since the groundbreaking study of Galapagos Island finches by Peter and Rosemary Grant,4 today we know that evolution can proceed almost as we watch. Environmental factors like seasonal rainfall, which can affect the size and toughness of seeds year by year, can also change the shape and strength of a finch’s beak within a generation.

But lacking this novel insight into the rapid pace of evolution, Stephen Jay Gould and Niles Eldredge in 1972 came up with the idea of “punctuated evolution.” They argued that populations in equilibrium do not change much over time, as wide-scale interbreeding tends to absorb and diffuse minor genetic changes throughout the gene pool rather than let them flower into new forms. But out at the edges of a population, groups of individuals might occasionally become isolated. Then new forms can appear and, if the two populations are later reunited, appear to be a sudden change or even the appearance of a new species.

But what about populations that formerly were in equilibrium with their environment and then, because the environment changes, begin to fall out of equilibrium?

Genetic mutations are happening all the time. Because of the vast redundancy in the DNA protein-coding system, most of them don’t mean anything. The code uses four different bases—adenosine (A), cytosine (C), thymine (T), and guanine (G)—which are read in groups of three to identify the next amino acid to be added to the growing chain of any protein. Four bases in three positions yield 64 different ways (4 X 4 X 4) to identify that amino acid. But the system uses a total of only 20 different amino acids to build up all the millions of proteins used in life processes. So each amino acid can be called by two or three different coding combinations. Knock down one of those bases, and chances are the other two will still call for the correct amino acid.

At the same time, proteins are big, messy molecules. They use their folded configuration and the positive and negative charge domains that the folding exposes to work their special magic: forming a membrane or a structure, speeding up or slowing down a chemical reaction, or signaling changed conditions from one cell to the next. Swapping out one amino acid in the chain for another doesn’t always have much effect. The same goes for leaving one out or adding an extra amino acid. Of course, adding, subtracting, or changing a key player in the sequence will occasionally have major effect, sometimes lethal effect. But one change usually doesn’t mean much. However, when you get change on change on change, interesting things can start to happen.

If you’re part of a species that’s flourishing under a stable environment, any change that emerges at the level of protein function is likely to be bad for you. Your species was optimized for your environment; so making random changes is likely to make you suboptimal, less able to survive, less likely to attract mates who like the healthy look of prime specimens. But if the environment has drifted in subtle ways—more moisture or less, more sunlight or less, more acidic or basic, or a combination of these changes—then the competition from all those perfect specimens falls off. All members of the species are facing stressors, lack of fitness, tough times.

If you have accumulated enough genetic modifications to put your protein functions into play, that’s still no guarantee that you will succeed where others are failing all around you. In fact, you have an equal chance that your new protein regimen will be meaningless or even harmful in the new environment as that it will confer any benefit. Poor you. But still, you have a chance. And members of your species who get no mutations at all, preserving their pristine status as top players under the old conditions, will suffer even worse.

A changing environment is like a storewide clearance. Customers no longer care for last year’s fashion, the older model, the same old same old. It’s a time when evolution blindly tries new forms, like a safe cracker randomly spinning the dial hoping to stumble on the right combination, trying to find one that will work. A lot of random numbers fall out in this process. A lot of random mutations don’t happen to be the winning combination of function and form.

Evolution is not directed. The environment in all its guises—sometimes sharper teeth in a predator, but more often a shortfall in the amount of rain—changes the conditions of the test and the criteria for survival. Some members of the species come up with the right genetic number and win the lottery. Most don’t and die off.

Evolution is cruel, especially on the level of the individual. Your baby gets a bad gene and dies, bang dead. You get a bad gene and your life never rises to the level of your hopes. Evolution requires a lot of wrong choices and sudden lethality to work—and that’s why most people don’t like it. It seems too cold, too random, too capricious.

But consider the alternative. Your beautiful, pristine species meets a change in the environment—perhaps one you can’t even detect, like a change in acidity or loss of a trace element—and everyone withers and dies. Nobody survives. Nobody carries on. You and everyone you know goes bang dead.

We’d like to have an all-seeing, all-knowing presence guiding the process. He/She/It would allow a change to occur in the environment and then artfully, painlessly, and overnight change all our genes at once so that everybody survives and can still recognize each other, still interbreed successfully, in our new state. That would be a kinder, gentler universe. A world without death and futility. It would also be a fairytale.

Humans, with our growing knowledge of the molecular basis of life and our developing ability to link gene to protein to function, may one day reach that stage. We may one day be able to redesign ourselves to meet strange new environments, along the lines of James Blish’s The Seedling Stars. Until that day, however, we have to work the old-fashioned way: blind luck, random chance, and the genetic lottery.

1. Why do you think a squirrel has a thick, fluffy tail almost as long as its body that moves with the same galumphing motion? If a predator is chasing the squirrel from behind and makes a desperate leap, it may take a bite out of sacrificial hair rather than actual squirrel meat.

2. This was a time, half a billion years ago, when most of the major animal phyla burst upon the scene in a geologically short time, 20 million years, and the rate of evolution as shown in the fossil record accelerated by an order of magnitude over the next 70 or 80 million years.

3. This view was opposed by catastrophism, which said gullies like the Grand Canyon could be cut by massive floods—here the gradualists were shying away from the Biblical story of Noah—and mountains thrown up by violent eruptions. Of course, catastrophes do happen, as demonstrated by volcanoes and the floods unleashed at the end of the last Ice Age. But mountains and valleys sometimes also develop slowly. In my opinion, too much of science has become embroiled in ding-dong battles about “either/or,” where everything has to work either like this or like that, rather than “both/and,” where you have to examine the facts of the situation and choose the model that fits the data.

4. Jonathan Weiner, The Beak of the Finch (Vintage Books, 1994).

Sunday, September 8, 2013

A World Between Two Palms

As a writer, I am fascinated by the way an author can create for his or her readers a place, a person, a world, or a piece of reality that never had true existence except as a finite number of words on a collection of pages that you can hold between your two hands. This is truly a case where the whole exceeds the sum of its parts.

Early on in my writing career I wanted to see how this was done. So I took a favorite novel, the first Dune book by Frank Herbert,1 and analyzed it as best I could. I took each of the many unnumbered chapters, some containing multiple scenes, and wrote a short summary of each piece of action, as if I were outlining the novel before writing it myself. Who were the characters involved in each scene? What action took place? What did it achieve in advancing the story? In this way I had a grasp of how much “screen time” each of the many characters was given to develop his or her persona and view of the overall story.

I don’t have the summaries anymore, and I’m not going back to recreate them now—or even try to count the unnumbered chapters in that thick book—but I ended up with somewhere between one hundred and two hundred separate bits of action. Each character got maybe five or ten scenes, and usually less, to open him- or herself to the reader’s inspection. It was a surprisingly compact feat of storytelling to make readers believe that so much more was happening, so much more lay behind the story that was told, than actually lay on the pages.

Yes, that first Dune novel had four appendices—which feel like part of Herbert’s background notes before he started writing—covering the ecology and religion of the planet Dune, the nature of the religio-political organization known as the Bene Gesserit, and the backgrounds of the Great Houses with which most of the characters were aligned. But I’ll bet most readers came to these “historical documents” only after falling under the book’s spell. The work of a master storyteller lay in the main text of the novel itself.

The novel had a map of the planet’s northern hemisphere, and it may have helped active, inquiring readers fix various places in their minds. The book also included about twenty pages of glossary, “Terminology of the Imperium,” which explained new words and concepts, although the words and images Herbert used in the text were usually self-illuminating if not self-explanatory. The glossary really only helped if you came upon the term a second time and needed a reminder.

The universe Herbert created owed a certain amount of its richness to these new words and the ideas behind them. In the same way, John Le Carré created a new world of spies in the operational language of London Circus in his George Smiley novels.2 Words are the means by which we know the world, and a deft writer will create his or her own vocabulary to set the fictional world apart from the reader’s everyday world.

The author is painting a complete world with a few brushstrokes. He or she is assembling it for the reader out of the bits of language, attitudes, social norms, artifacts, and attributes that fall within the purview of the characters as they go about their plot business. While these world-building elements may be chosen in the random walk of the character’s lives, they cannot in fact be random. The author cannot put in elements ad hoc and without thought.

Every artist who paints a tree with a few dapples of green and yellow must have in mind’s eye a full and complete tree to justify the sweep of each stroke and the choice of its color. In the same way, an author can create a sense of depth and perspective on a particular world or society, but the elements must relate to one another. Behind this glimpse and that glimpse must be a complete whole that ties the glimpses together. The author always tells less than he or she knows, but at the same time he or she must have more in mind than is shown. That deeper vision does not have to be worked out in every detail, but it must be full enough that the seemingly random bits work together in a way the reader can understand.

For most authors writing in contemporary society on planet Earth, the question of the underlying vision usually does not arise. They write about what they know and have experienced, and the reality of everyday life is the binding glue. But for the author of science fiction, fantasy, and historical fiction, the task becomes a bit harder.

Imagination is a great thing, but it must be controlled. The author cannot in one part of the book describe a libertarian society and then in another part hem the characters in with speech codes and laws about spitting on the sidewalk. The author can’t create an agrarian society where most of the background characters plod along as indentured serfs and then populate this world with frictionless machines drawing on boundless energy that replicate all the essentials of shelter, food, and clothing.3 Behind the laws and customs that readers are meant to perceive, behind the lifestyle and artifacts they are asked to accept, the author must imagine a consistent framework that yields logical results through those bits of custom and artifact.

As a novel is an expression of the author’s character and emotional temperament, so it is also an expression of his or her knowledge and study. A deep knowledge of and formal training in science is not necessary to write science fiction, although it’s not safe to delve into alien morphology without some sense of biology, nor travel among the stars without a grounding in astronomy and physics. But an author who sets out to create a world that feels whole and complete must also be versed in the basics of history, economics, and human nature,4 with a grounding in military strategy and tactics as needed.

If you want to sit down and create a world—from the waterless planet Dune, for which Frank Herbert supposedly studied geology and marine biology, to the tight circle of espionage in London Circus, which drew on John Le Carré’s experiences in the British foreign service—you must be intensely curious about the world around you. You must constantly be asking about motives and mechanisms: “Why would he do that?” “Why does this work?” “Why couldn’t they do it that way?” You must constantly seek the underside of things and how they connect in the places you can’t see directly.

If you live on the surface of your world, accepting things as they come without question, you won’t necessarily be alive to the connections that make a world work. The author paints things on the surface for the reader, but he or she must live amidst a vast underlying mechanism of science, sociology, history, and relationships. The author’s world may exist on the pages of a book held between the reader’s two palms, but its reality, its implications, its underlying framework must extend into the reader’s mind and experience like the many-layered internal dimensions of a hypercube.

1. The novel is structurally composed of three “books,” although I have never seen it sold as more than one volume. Herbert wrote a number of sequels to the Dune story, and his son Brian in collaboration with Kevin J. Anderson have written even more prequels that expand on the history. But for the purposes of this analysis, I am focusing on the first novel—which is all any reader had until the first sequel, Children of Dune, came out, and by then the world was fully fixed in our imaginations.

2. Consider such concepts as “tradecraft,” “legend,” “lamplighters,” and “scalphunters,” which the reader immediately understands from their context. The terms also suggest the different and slightly skewed, mildly sinister view that the Circus organization has of the world around it.

3. These are examples from the top of my head and should not be taken as criticism of any particular author’s work.

4. Yes, even if your characters are non-human aliens, you still need to understand basic psychology and the rules of logic in order to make them sensible to human readers. Until we are confronted with a truly non-human perspective with reasoning based on a non-human logic, we are probably not in a position to appreciate how different the aliens are likely to be from humans. My bet is, when we finally meet them, we probably won’t even know they’re alive. Their thinking processes, their timeframes, their needs, desires, imperatives, and dislikes, will be more foreign to our minds than those of army ants or tube worms. “Take me to your leader!” … Um, define “leader.”

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Evolution as Adaptation

A recent issue of Science1 has a fascinating article about the development of turtle shells. Since the turtle’s shell is anchored to its ribcage and not an independent piece of external hardware like a crocodile’s hardened scales or armadillo’s bony plates, the question arises whether the turtle’s shell is an outgrowth of its skin, which then attached to the bones, or an outgrowth of the rib bones, which then replaced the skin. Scientists have studied the genetic development of turtle embryos and the development of soft-shell turtles, but they still can’t agree. Some even think different turtle species developed their shells along one or the other pathway.

This argument reminds me of a central fact of evolution. Nothing new arises on its own. The body parts we see all around us each had to be adapted from something else. Forelimbs with fingers evolved into single hooves by simultaneously shrinking the parallel bony structures of the digits into shin splints along the middle finger and pushing the nail out into a semicircular block of keratin for the hoof. Forelimbs with fingers evolved into wings by simultaneously shrinking the humerus and elongating the radius and ulna, stretching the forefinger into an even longer strut while shrinking the others into nubs, and pulling the skin of the arm skin further down the torso to make a pliable membrane. And the latter happened at least three times in evolution: once when certain reptiles evolved into pterodactyls, again when a different class of dinosaurs evolved into birds, and still once more when certain mammals turned into bats.2

None of this is design by what we would think of as intelligence. That is, someone sits down and asks, “How would I achieve this?” And then this mythical someone forms an image in the mind’s eye of the sorts of parts required to fit the purpose: a hard block with suspending struts and elastic bands to take shocks on stony ground, or a framework of struts and tissues to bend the wind. And finally the creator pulls out a sketchpad and creates the imagined structure in bone and muscle and skin, then translates those parts into the appropriate proteins. That’s design by intent, and it’s not what happens.

Instead, certain changes in the environment require the entire organism to change its life patterns or else decline and eventually disappear. Some members in each generation experience a small random change that either pushes them toward a new pattern, or pushes them away from it, or does nothing at all, or kills them outright. Most members of the species continue to struggle and fail. But those who get a little closer to being able to cope with the change succeed in proportion to the rest of their generation. If their offspring fail to inherit the change, they die and take the genetic change with them. If they inherit the change, they may succeed and breed again. And if they inherit, along with the original change, another tiny change that pushes them even further toward the successful pattern, their chance of success is even greater. And so it goes.3

The environmental background changes slowly or fast. The players in niches within that background either move toward a successful new life pattern or die out. The nature of the inherited change is random, for good or ill. What is not random is the effect of that change: it is tested in the environment and has either no effect or it succeeds or fails. Success—in whatever shape and on whatever terms the environment demands—is the only criterion.

Three things are certain. First, no species gets to a completely new and successful form all at once in the first generation. However, some species or individuals who may have been struggling in the old environment may find new opportunities as the environment changes around them. These species get a free head start on change. But it’s only a small advantage.

Second, these small random changes are happening all the time and in all directions of a better or worse fit to the environment, or to no apparent effect at all. Most of the changes are unimportant, or only slightly debilitating, or slightly helpful, or—occasionally—immediately lethal. Only when the change happens to fall in line with the direction in which the environment is already pushing the species does this small random change create the conditions for marginal success.4

Third, even when a favored individual inherits a change, and perhaps improves on it through mutation at the point of inheritance, and passes it along to the next generation, that individual will still die and disappear. Every individual dies, having made the best use he can of the equipment he inherited. Evolution relies on death, generation after generation going down to nothingness, just as the butcher, the baker, and the candle maker rely on their customers consuming their products, making them disappear, and coming back for more.

Evolution is not cruel. No more than a flash flood, a forest fire, or a tornado is cruel. These things exist, and they may be good for some organisms and bad for others. Sometimes you need to clear the ground unexpectedly so that other species get their chance to try their adaptations.

Evolution has only one rule: what works survives. Even if it’s ugly, like the nasal apparatus of a star-nosed mole. Even if it crosses previously established boundaries, like the duck-billed platypus. Even if it’s ungainly and improbable like the giraffe or the kangaroo. If it works, it survives.

If you require the universe to yield only perfectly logical and beautiful results, you won’t like evolution. If you require the universe to be motivated by thought, generosity, caring, and pity, you won’t like evolution. If death distresses you, you won’t like evolution. If the universe worked exactly the way you wanted it to, it would be a smaller place filled with more sameness.

But the universe is vast and complicated, where anything is possible. And that is a beautiful thought in itself.

1. Naomi Lubick, “Biologists Tell Dueling Stories of How Turtles Get Their Shells,” Science, Vol 341, 26 July 2013, p 329.

2. This haphazard tendency to use existing parts is one of the reasons why, after 120 million years of evolution, the top speed of a bird in level flight is still only about 50 miles an hour and, in diving flight, just over 100 mph. Consider that less than a century after the Wright brothers flew in North Carolina, the top speed of an airplane was Mach 3, humans had achieved orbit at about 17,000 mph, and landed on the Moon. And that’s my best argument against evolution by intelligent design.

3. See also Evolution and Intelligent Design from February 24, 2013.

4. “Marginal” in this instance refers to its original meaning: being at the outside edge, the far end of the curve, the next to last thing we try.