What is the "engine" of evolution?
AUTHOR: Allen MacNeill
SOURCE: Original essay
COMMENTARY: That's up to you...
Ever since Darwin, the primary "engine" of evolution has been considered to be natural selection. However, if one takes a closer look at this, it is clear that natural selection is not an "engine," it is an outcome. If evolution is defined as change in the characteristics of the members of a population over time and natural selection is defined as unequal non-random survival and reproduction (or, more parsimoniously, differential reproductive success), then the underlying cause of the changes that are differentially preserved over time is the real "engine" of evolution by natural selection.
And what might this "engine" of change be? Exactly what Darwin said it was in the Origin of Species: the "laws of variation" of which naturalists of his time were almost "completely ignorant." That is, given that some variations are heritable and that they can be passed from parents to offspring in the process of reproduction, then it is the processes that cause such variations that are the real "engine(s)" of evolution, including evolution by natural selection.
Darwin was on the right track when later on he sought out the specifics of the "engines of variation" in Variation of Animals and Plants Under Domestication, published in 1868. Darwin suggested that the rate of variation changed over time, in response to specific changes in the environment. For example, he pointed out that the variation between domesticated animals and plants was considerably greater than that found in the wild. This suggested to him that something about domestication – increased food, improved nutrition, lack of predators, etc. – caused an increase in the production of variations that were then exploited by animal and plant breeders.
However, it is now generally accepted that the only real difference between domesticated and wild animals and plants, in terms of variation, is that the conditions of domestication allow more variants to survive and reproduce, rather than causing more of them to be produced in the first place. I do not know enough genetics to say whether or not this is the case, but it seems to me at least that Darwin's idea is worth empirical investigation. Here are the relevant questions (which may or may not already have answers):
• Is the rate of generation of genetic and phenotypic variation a constant?
If the answer to this question is "yes," then all we need to investigate is the actual genetic and developmental mechanisms by which such variations are generated. However, if the answer is "no," then the rate of generation of genetic and phenotypic variations is variable, which immediately suggests more questions:
• Is the increased rate of generation of variations correlated with any identifiable factor in either the genetics/development or the environment of organisms in which such variable rates of variation are observed?
If the answer to this question is "no," then we may safely assume that the underlying "engine(s)" of variation is/are entirely random, insofar as we can observe it changing randomly over time. However, if the answer is "yes," then there are more questions:
• Via what mechanism(s) is the increased rate of variation generated, and are the "triggers" for such increased variation endogenous, exogenous, or some combination of the two?
Clearly, the "engine(s)" of variation are prodigious, as it/they have been able over time to modify something as simple as a mycoplasm into an oak tree or a blue whale. Some supporters of "intelligent design" (ID) would dispute this statement, of course, claiming (without any empirical evidence) that "you can't get here from there." However, we clearly have gotten here from there; the real question is "how?" There are logically at least two possibilities:
• The process(es) by which the "engine(s) of variation" have produced the necessary variation have operated endogenously by means of a prodigious (and undirected) "random variation generator," the products of which have been sorted over time by natural selection (i.e. the Darwinian hypothesis), or
• The process(es) by which the "engine(s) of variation" have produced the necessary variation have operated endogenously by means of a less prodigious "non-random variation generator," the products of which have been sorted over time by natural selection (i.e. the ID hypothesis).
Noticing that the only difference between these two possibilities is the amount of variation and its source immediately suggests a way of testing the two hypotheses: do the currently identified mechanisms of genetic and phenotypic variation produce enough variation to get from there to here, or not? If the answer is "yes," then the ID hypothesis is unnecessary, and therefore irrelevent to science.
So, the next obvious question is, what are the currently identified mechanisms of genetic and phenotypic variation, and do they provide enough variation to get here from there? The answer to this question will be posted soon -watch this space.
And as always, comments, criticisms, and suggestions are warmly welcomed!