Sunday, 29 September 2013

Unintelligent Design

It's amazing how, when you have a modicum of understanding of evolution - and I like to flatter myself that I know a little about it - you can find examples of it in other areas of life, not just in biology.

While waiting for the powers that be at Twitter to get their act together and decide what to do about my @RosaResurrected account being suspended for reasons which they just don't seem to be able to put their finger on right now, I'm busying myself with a pass-time I've had for some ten years or so now. I'm a volunteer transcriber for the FreeBMD website. This charity aims to put the official indices (sorry spell-checker but I refuse to call them indexes) of English & Welsh births, marriages and death registrations on line in an easily searchable format for people who want to research their family tree. To date I've transcribed over 1.25 million entries though rather fewer in recent years than I once did.

It suddenly occurred to me how an aspect of it is an almost perfect analogy for a feature which can sometimes be hard for non-biologists to understand about evolution - how redundancy can be built in and retained and why inefficiency is not always eliminated.

Briefly, and without being too technical, the indices we transcribe are scans of alphabetical indices to the actual registrations of births, marriages and deaths, since the second half of 1837, giving enough information for people to obtain a copy of the birth, marriage or death certificate if they require one. The indices themselves can be use to confirm the dates and places of the events and, in later years, the mother's maiden surname, the age at death, or the spouse's surname without needing to buy the certificates from the UK Government's General Registration Office. This, together with census records, is often all a genealogist needs to build up a family tree.

The software most transcribers use is WinBMD, a brilliant piece, designed by software devoloper Ian Brooke and intended to make the transcription process as fast and as accurate as possible. To that end, when entering the forename, the numbers 1-9 on the keyboard are predefined with what were the nine most common forenames in England and Wales. This list is user-definable but comes with default settings along with several other background files.

The 'problem' is that this list was derived from transcriptions from around 1850-1880 which were some of the earliest indices we transcribed. Obviously the fashion for forenames changes over time and what were the most common in those days are not the most common ones in use when transcribing the 1967 indices for example.

But users like me are now used to the list and know that pressing '5' will enter the name 'James' or that '3' will enter 'Elizabeth', etc. We don't want the list to change because we would have to get used to a new one and would probably keep selecting the wrong one while we learned it. By repetitive usage of the software we have developed a set of reflexes so that when we see 'John' we hit '6' or when we see 'Mary' we press '7'. For other names we start typing then select from a drop-down list by number - a drop-down list we've built up over the years by adding 'new' names to it when we transcribe them for the first time.

To learn a new common names list, or even just to change it slightly by reordering it, would slow down the transcription process and introduce possible errors, so we are stuck with an increasingly illogical and inappropriate list which becomes more out of date as time goes on, yet the investment in effort and loss of productivity entailed in changing it is never a cost worth bearing.

Just so with evolving organisms where an intelligent designer would be able to scrap an increasingly inefficient design and start afresh with a new improved version, whereas Darwinian Evolution never has any mechanism for a radical redesign because any tendency to do so will always involve a loss of efficiency, so any carriers of these genes will be less successful, not more, and so will be eliminated. The process of Darwinian evolution is invariably upwards towards peaks in the evolutionary landscape but only in very rare and exceptional circumstances, such as genetic drift in a non-selective environment, is evolution ever to able to move a very small way down this fitness landscape.

This is exactly what we see with the mammalian eye where a redesign would result in a better eye yet any moves towards rearrangement would produce a loss of function and a complete reorganisation with a single mutation is simply not possible because of the way the eye develops in the embryo. Not a problem for an intelligent designer, who would not have made such a silly mistake in the first place anyway, but quite impossible for Darwinian Evolution.

We see a very similar problem with the mammalian recurrent laryngeal nerve where, even in the giraffe with it's long neck, the nerve takes a ludicrously long path to get from the brain to the larynx - via the thoracic cavity where it passed under one of the aortic arches before going back up the neck again. This path made sense in our remote fish ancestors with their short neck where the heart lies just a little below and behind the brain, but with evolution's small steps forward and the impossibility of going backwards, we've ended up with an unintelligent design because the overall change led to more descendants and the one small step at a time lengthening of the nerve never gave a disadvantage large enough to counter the overall improvements.

The extreme detour of this nerve (about 15 feet in the case of giraffes[16]) is cited as evidence of evolution. The nerve's route would have been direct in the fish-like ancestors of modern tetrapods, traveling from the brain, past the heart, to the gills (as it does in modern fish). Over the course of evolution, as the neck extended and the heart became lower in the body, the laryngeal nerve was caught on the wrong side of the heart. Natural selection gradually lengthened the nerve by tiny increments to accommodate, resulting in the circuitous route now observed.

This is how we can tell that life is not intelligently designed. It quite simply isn't what an intelligent designer would end up with.

I hasten to add that Ian Brooke's WinBMD design is far from unintelligent but even he can't avoid his designs being subject to the natural force of evolution and so accumulating some of the features of it such as the increasingly inefficient yet not easily redesigned 'commonest' names list.

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