Over at the shillelagh-wielding Mike Flynn’s Blog, he posts some fascinating thoughts on natural selection and molecular biology. Read that. Here’s a comment I made:
You hit upon a whole bunch of issues I’ve been pondering for years. First off, the Darwinism of Dawkins (and E.O.Wilson) was a response to the happy-happy talk of the proto-environmentalist, who wanted to see harmony in nature, even in natural selection. Wilson and Dawkins were defenders of orthodoxy (and reason) against what might be called a misguided teleology of environment – that the various competing parts of an environment *want* to be in harmony.
So, we get the Selfish Gene. And then, the Extended Phenotype, which takes the concept of a the genes of within an individual member of a species – and extends it to the environment. Hmmm. To be sure, Dawkins is not trying to reestablish the hippy-dippy harmony he and Wilson just shot down on a more rational, mechanistic basis. Rather, he’s trying to show how some of the odder behaviors and structures in nature can be explained within his theory.
But, it seemed to me – and here’s the tie-in with your thoughts above – he didn’t go far enough. And here I must apologize, for I am not nearly as widely read as you on this topic, and have not yet had a chance to review the materials you’ve linked to above. Perhaps this all is discussed at great length in literature I’ve yet to read.
Molecular biology is the place to start any evolutionary discussion, because it is the molecules that make up the cells and creatures that have undergone whatever mechanisms are at play for the longest time and under the most varied circumstances. Even a single celled organism represents, under Darwin via Dawkins, an apex of evolution – it is the inconceivably complex result of *some* processes, having taken place over at least a billion years. Unlike modern animals and plants, a single-celled organism is dealing directly with an environment chock full of free-floating genetic stuff, stuff which can invade or be invited into a cell. Such invasions and invitations, along with mergers and acquisitions, as it were, were and are where the action is, and has been for a couple billion years, and at least potentially accounts for ‘mutations’, whatever that term means is this context. Evolution, under any mechanism, should first and primarily be concerned with how cells, or even smaller units such a viruses, deal with this.
All the characteristics that Darwin observed, all the diversity and behaviors in animals and plaints, are like the paint on a house. The fundamental interesting part about a finch cracking seeds is really how it is that the finch can digest those seed and build ‘finch’ out of them. Read once about how mammals replaced birds as the apex predators in South America a few million years ago due, they supposed, to a slight advantage in metabolism. And how placental mammals have replaced marsupials almost everywhere, and for the same reason. How many other ‘survival of the fittest’ battles have been decided based on how well some fundamental molecular interaction, including the exclusion, inclusion or repair of genetic materials, takes place? All of them? Continue reading “Cells and Natural Selection”