Saturday, 8 February 2014

Intelligent Design - What A Lot Of Balls!

Some years ago, on our first visit to the beach in Port El Kantaoui, Tunisia, we were astonished to find it littered with suspicious-looking, slightly flattened fibrous balls, especially along the tide line. Were these washed-up camel turds, maybe? Should we complain to the hotel on whose private beach all this stuff was scattered? Was this beach fit to walk barefoot on?

Eventually, curiosity got the better of us and I gingerly picked up one. It was dry and when I sniffed it (one has to be prepared to make sacrifices for science) it was odourless save for a slightly salty sea smell. It was clearly made of tightly matted plant fibres which could be pulled apart. Maybe they were seed cases of some sort but we could find no seeds in them and what sort of seed case would be made of randomly arranged fibres? Being an inveterate collector of natural curiosities, I simply had to take some home.

I still have one in my little museum alongside fossil trilobites, a plesiosaur vertebra, pieces of fossilised wood, bits or fossilised coral, sea anemones and ammonites - the latter three picked up from a single field in Buckinghamshire, England. But still we had no idea what they were or if they really had passed through the digestive system of a camel, or a fish of some sort. And why did they come in assorted sizes from one or two inches to some six inches or more. Did they all start off the same size and get worn down by wave action? So many questions; so few answers. The only thing for sure was that they had come from the sea.

The basic problem was that they were clearly made of plant matter and had shape and form, but they just didn't look like they had grown and didn't seem to have any purpose.

The problem was that we were looking for evidence of natural design for a function, because that is what we normally see in natural things. Evolution creates the appearance of design and designed things have a function. But these balls of randomly arranged plant fibres had form but no obvious purpose since they were clearly not seed-cases and were not vegetative dispersal phases like tumbleweed. Clearly they had not been designed, yet they were not mere random assemblages, although the individual fibres were randomly arranged.

What I was looking at was structure which had emerged from chaos.

I now know that these fibre balls are common on Mediterranean beaches. If you've been to the North African coast, or the beaches of Greek Islands, you will very probably have seen them. They are produced by wave action on the dead fronds of the seagrass Posidonia oceanica or rather the tough 'veins' which are left behind when the softer parts decay. P. oceanica is still relatively common in the Mediterranean where it is an important component of the ecosystem, but it is under threat from pollution. Curiously it grows nowhere else apart from the sea around Australia.

How it evolved to live in the Mediterranean is probably an interesting story in itself since the Mediterranean Sea is known to have been filled only 5.33 million years ago. The same goes for very many other unique Mediterranean species - maybe the subject of another blog one day.

This seagrass grows offshore, just beyond the breakers and the fibres clump together under the action of waves and tidal currents, sometimes into long sausage-shaped rolls which then break into sections. The clumps are picked up by waves and, like pebbles, are rolled around and worn into the shapes we see deposited along the tideline.

There is no direction to this process save that provided by the slope of the sea-bed. At all stages everything is random, from the movement of water molecules to the alignment and distribution of the fibres, yet the shape of the seabed, which causes the random waves to break in a definite zone, then the random movement of the forming balls, produces structure and form and quite definitely a non-random structure at the level we see laying on the beach. If William Paley had found one, how would he have fitted this into his watchmaker model of a designed universe?

Despite what creationists tell you, order can come from chaos under nothing more than a directional force (in this case the slope of the sea bed). In the case of the formation of galaxies and stars the direction is provided by gravity; in the case of living organisms the direction is cause by non-random natural selection which pushes randomness towards 'design' for survival and the function of reproduction.

No intelligence, no plan, no magic and no magic creators required.

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  1. Last year (or maybe end 2012, my memory isn't clear on the exact date) mysterious spheres were dug up somewhere in a village in India. Speculation was rife whether those perfectly smooth spheres (about the size of a shot put) were dinosaur eggs, as the locals claimed, or cannonballs left over from some forgotten war. Finally scientists got their hands on the spheres - and discovered they were completely naturally created mineral formations.

    The significance is that at no point did anyone, even illiterate villagers, claim any kind of divine origin for them. One of the plus points of living in a nation with no Creationist thought and no mainstream tolerance for Creationism whatsoever.

  2. Colin Connaughton10 February 2014 at 18:58

    This is a good example, I think, of apparent order emerging out of chaos. There are other examples that I can think of. Crystals form in a somewhat orderly way, including crystals such as diamonds and other carbon-based precious stones, and snow flakes. Another is the vortex which starts when water goes down a plug-hole. And yet another are the rings of Saturn. They, I think, are caused by the simple fact that all other trajectories, except the meteorites going round Saturn together in an orderly way, are inherently unstable with endless collisions taking place. So, inevitably, as I understand it, a stable orderly pattern must eventually emerge since the unstable movements will be endlessly changing. (That is my layman's theory. I don't know if it is the accepted theory. By layman, I mean I still have my old PhD in Mathematical Physics).

  3. Colin. Those are good examples too. I'm not sure I know the process but I don't think there is any mystery in the formation of Saturn's rings, though I doubt my O-level maths would be up to it. :-)


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