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Story of Evolution, Evolution of Stories
Bryn Mawr College, Spring 2004
First Web Paper
On Serendip

Making the Image Less Wrong: Expansion and the Evolutionary Lottery

Julia Eddy

For a young scholar learning the basic concepts of science and biology, evolution was this grand theory of past life becoming more like present life over time via the utilization of such complicated and foreboding means as "natural selection" and "survival of the fittest." I came to understand that there was endless diversity of life, and variation was a result of the interactions of organisms with their environments. Natural selection placed pressure on the organisms forcing adaptations to be made, hence new species to arise over time. The oversimplified image of evolution that began to form in my head involved one single organism adapting to its environment and undergoing change in its own life span, therefore that one organism experiences evolution in action. I didn't think evolution was a process of becoming more "perfect" necessarily, but "better suited for more diverse situations," which boiled down to being better. Obviously this picture I was conjuring up was far from the most scientifically logical, and I was surprised and impressed to hear a better explanation. Evolution is depicted as an inconceivably time- consuming and expansion-driven process; it is not about "survival of the fittest" or being perfect, rather the most able to produce genetically variable offspring (less likely to be eliminated by natural selection). The major discrepancy between the two (oversimplified and clarified) formulations of evolution is the importance of random innate expansion, which arguably is a quality assigned not only to energy and matter on Earth, but also to evolution and as the entire universe.

One of the simpler discrepancies in my illogical view of evolution merely involved timescale and the mechanism of change. A single organism cannot evolve within its own life span because of environmental pressure. The very first of Mayr's seventeen principles of inheritance states, "genetic material is constant ('hard'); it cannot be changed by the environment or by use and disuse of the phenotype... Genes cannot be modified by the environment... There is no inheritance of acquired characters" (Mayr, 2001, p. 91). Therefore, one organism cannot possibly experience evolution in action as a result of environmental interactions. The term adaptation creates some confusion here because it is so often coupled with evolutionary change and expresses a change suited for certain environmental conditions. The fact of the matter is evolution, as well as adaptation, occur over many generations and changes are not directly related to the conditions of the environment. Environment doesn't trigger change, change occurs secondarily. It should be noted however that one single organism, in fact every single organism, is the result of random reproduction and is therefore involved in evolution as it is happening. However, selection is not predestined, it occurs after the organisms already exist with their set characteristics from birth. Mayr explains this on page 121 and writes, "Selection does not have a long-term goal" and "evolution is not deterministic" (2001).

In addition to not having a predestination, evolution is also not striving for perfection. Instead evolution is striving for survival, and survival only into the immediate future, it doesn't plan ahead. Mayr explains the process of selection within a population on page 117:

Every species produces vastly more offspring than can survive from generation to generation. All the individuals differ genetically from each other. They are exposed to the adversity of their environment, and almost all of them perish or fail to reproduce. Only a few of them... survive and reproduce. However these survivors are not a random sample of the population; their survival was aided by the possession of certain attributes that favor survival (2001).
Whatever the attributes are that favor survival, they aren't planned out in advance, nor are they an effort to become "perfect," they are merely random genetic conditions that make for an organism that is suitable for further reproduction and life the given time.

The discrepancy among evolutionary representations that needs the most attention is on the importance of sheer random innate expansion. Mayr writes on Darwin's theory that, "evolution through natural selection is best referred to as the theory of variational evolution. According to this theory, an enormous amount of genetic variation is produced in every generation, but only a few individuals of the vast number of offspring will survive to produce the next generation" (Mayr, 2001, p. 85). Clearly here there are two actions occurring, reproduction and selection. The reproduction is translated to expansion, and is completely random, whereas the selection aspect is systematic.

Natural selection is thrown around so readily that it seems to be the main ingredient in the evolution potion. Rightly, selection is a necessary process for change but it alone doesn't define evolution. The important and underrated force at play is expansion; the natural and unconscious drive to expand is inherent in the all matter and energy. In order for evolution to occur natural selection must eliminate organisms unsuited for the environment, but according to Mayr "at the first step, that of production of genetic variation, everything is a matter of chance" (Mayr, 2001, p. 120); the random generation of new genetic subjects creates the diversity which then can undergo selection. Why the random generation of offspring? Perhaps an innate need to expand?

Expansion means spreading out, extending, another synonym might be entropy, becoming messy. The 2nd Law of Thermodynamics explains entropy as the always ultimate flow of energy from order to disorder within the constraints of the Earth. A classic example of entropy at work would be that of the messy room; no matter how many times it gets cleaned, entropy always brings the disorder back. It is this flow of ordered energy or matter that can be related to evolution. The random and excessive reproduction is an effort to expand; therefore the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics is also applicable to evolution. There are spurts of expansion or Stephen J. Gould would say punctuated eruptions of species with a new generation then equilibrium or contraction as natural selection sets in.

While the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics is used to explain matter and energy on Earth and thus also applies to evolution, the more amazing place of application can be the universe. While the universe is infinite and hard to apply any rules to, entropy logically seems to be relevant here as well. According to the compiled observations of Einstein, Hubble, and Vesto Slipher regarding structure of the universe, light absorption of distant galaxies, and velocity or the rate of change in color among these galaxies, other distant galaxies are said to be traveling away from Earth's galaxy implying that they all matter was once mounted together prior to a Big Bang event. Perhaps even more boggling is that while matter (galaxies) is spreading out in the universe exhibiting entropy, it is actually suggested that the galaxies moving away are a result of space and the universe itself exhibiting entropy and expanding (Evans, 1995). The example used at the Expanding Universe website is making homemade raisin bread when the dough rises the raisins spread out in the dough as a result of the dough expanding, the raisins move with the dough not through it (Evans, 1995). Is contraction also occurring in the universe? It seems quite likely.

Nothing in evolution, science, and especially nothing in the entire universe is known for sure. There are no truths, only observations. Based on reliable observations, an approximate picture can be created. This new picture is of evolution being a process of random innate expansion followed by a process of selection, which leaves the lucky organisms with favorable characteristics to expand randomly in another round of the cycle. The selection occurs at the genetic level, with no regards to perfection or environmental goals. The key mechanisms are expansion and contraction. In presenting a more logical picture of evolution and the universe, it is possible to see that everything, all matter, energy, and even the entire universe itself, is perhaps in a perpetual cycle of expansion and contraction.


WORKS CITED

Evans, C. R. (1995). Expanding Universe. Retrieved 2/22/04 from University of Illinois: http://archive.ncsa.uiuc.edu/Cyberia/Cosmos/ExpandUni.html.

Mayr, E. (2001). What Evolution Is. New York: Basic Books.


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