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Redesign human body parts?
November 3, 2007 11:36 AM   Subscribe

The pancreas is a completely crummy organ...... so which parts of the human body could you design better? Interesting article and comments.
posted by Rumple (71 comments total) 7 users marked this as a favorite

 
Is this a trick question?
posted by psmealey at 11:48 AM on November 3, 2007 [1 favorite]


"The design flaw could be considered either the lipid deposition and inflammatory response, or the tendency of the recovery process to fail - the so-called "unstable" plaques that fail to hide the inflammatory mess from the bloodstream. Evolutionarily, this was a non-problem. Heart attacks kill you long after you've reproduced, so there isn't a great need for this system to work perfectly. However, I think most of us would like to see an improvement so we can live long healthy lives..."

Well, herein lies the problem in saying "this design is better" or "this design is worse": Evolution doesn't care what we think. Evolution only cares that we live long enough to breed and that our offspring can do the same. Thats it.

The article would make more sense if we lived in a universe governed by some omnipotent and benevolent deity (a contradiction in terms, m i rite?) because at least then we could say "Hey Sky Grandpa, your design really starts to suck once we turn 40! Now we're having heart attacks and cancer and shit! What gives?"

But there is no sky grandpa. Natural selection does not have our happiness or well-being in mind. In fact, in has nothing "in mind" because it doesn't have one. All it "cares" about are genes, and whether or not they survive. All else is secondary.

Now if we could harness evolution to change ourselves, that would be another matter entirely....
posted by Avenger at 11:50 AM on November 3, 2007 [3 favorites]


"It's unfortunate we can't digest cellulose, like some organisms. That would greatly expand our diet and make vegetarianism more efficient."

This is one of my few complaints every time I go back packing.
posted by 517 at 11:54 AM on November 3, 2007


I would eliminate the greater omentum altogether.

I wanted retractable claws or infrared vision, but instead I got an apron of fat. Blech.
posted by Quietgal at 11:57 AM on November 3, 2007


I'm pretty sure that's his whole point, Avenger. He's in fact pointing out the flaws in Intellegent Design by making better designs (from, obviously, the perspective of human beings rather than their genes).

This is where he goofs in my opinion:

The third thing I'd fix would be human aggression. There are socially maladaptive behaviors that were evolutionarily useful but now, not so much. Aggression, jealousy, selfishness. Mostly a problem of men, we are too violent and prone to rage.
posted by Bookhouse at 11:59 AM on November 3, 2007 [1 favorite]


Intelligent design, my ass!
posted by mullingitover at 12:00 PM on November 3, 2007 [1 favorite]


Dolphins have it right. I would make genitalia prehensile.
posted by Cat Pie Hurts at 12:00 PM on November 3, 2007 [1 favorite]


I would redesign my wiener so I could fit it through a door.
posted by Astro Zombie at 12:00 PM on November 3, 2007 [6 favorites]


I think that I would add in semi-conscious control over the immune system.
posted by 517 at 12:04 PM on November 3, 2007


So God got his engineering degree from a community college?
posted by mr_crash_davis at 12:10 PM on November 3, 2007


If you eat or drink more calories than your body needs over a day or two, your tongue should start making all food and drink other than water taste like cat shit.

If you lose a tooth, a new one should regenerate.

Women and men ought to be able to decide when to be fertile.
posted by pracowity at 12:24 PM on November 3, 2007 [4 favorites]



Intelligent design, my ass!



Remove the comma and you have a reality show that both hollywood and the evangelicals would love.
posted by lalochezia at 12:26 PM on November 3, 2007 [5 favorites]


Dear Confusingly Similar User Name,
I wish to object in the strongest possible terms to your vicious and unprovoked slander against the noble pancreas. I insist that you watch this educational short film at once.
posted by Horace Rumpole at 12:33 PM on November 3, 2007 [2 favorites]


Great find, interesting post. Thanks.
posted by nickyskye at 12:35 PM on November 3, 2007


Wanting to "fix" aggression is amazingly short-sighted; it's foolishly optimistic to assume that none of us will ever be placed in a predicament outside our little modern lap of luxury where it would be necessary to draw on aggression for survival. And what happens in the post-apocalyptic wasteland? The entire species would die out. Other than that, a really interesting article; I would love to see an illustration diagramming exactly how he would rearrange the reproductive systems (female and male) to correct the problems he lists.
posted by frobozz at 12:49 PM on November 3, 2007


I think I'd get rid of the stiltskin.
posted by Reggie Digest at 12:51 PM on November 3, 2007


I would redesign you to be more resilient. I'd suggest a titanium alloy shell to protect you from attacks.
posted by Weighted Companion Cube at 12:53 PM on November 3, 2007 [2 favorites]


Two words: x-ray eyes.
posted by cog_nate at 12:56 PM on November 3, 2007


I think I'd get rid of the stiltskin.

And the foreskin? Never forego the foreskin.

Dear craven copycatting username guy: nice organ playing there.
posted by Rumple at 1:07 PM on November 3, 2007


I'm pretty pissed off about the whole transplant-rejection thing. I agree, putting islets in the pancreas makes no goddamn sense. Also, your major nerves should run inside your bones where possible. The virus situation is sucky if you consider that as an inducible error rather than an outside organism. The blood supply to the brain is hilariously fragile.
posted by a robot made out of meat at 1:09 PM on November 3, 2007 [1 favorite]


Most of our 'healing' ability seems put together on a budget the night before.

I'd definitely go for the ability to regrow fingers and such, and our immune system would probably work better if it were set up in a friend/foe manner, as opposed to the current self/other model (my white blood cells are trying to kill this transplanted heart? I need a heart to live!). That should also get rid of cancer, which would be a good help if my regenerative abilities started a budding process or something.

And seriously, aging??
posted by Orange Pamplemousse at 1:11 PM on November 3, 2007


Now if we could harness evolution to change ourselves, that would be another matter entirely....

It's called Eugenics.

And how is it that the article doesn't make sense? The point is clearly how you would redesign the human body for user experience, rather then evolutionary fitness.
posted by delmoi at 1:28 PM on November 3, 2007


Wanting to "fix" aggression is amazingly short-sighted; it's foolishly optimistic to assume that none of us will ever be placed in a predicament outside our little modern lap of luxury where it would be necessary to draw on aggression for survival.

I can't agree with this in the slightest. There is nothing aggression can achieve that cold, hard rationality can't; in fact, relying on aggression will encourage mistakes and possibly put your life at risk. I suppose it might be useful if it prevents fear, but it's generally an adaptation exclusively for sexual and social rivalry between males.
posted by mek at 1:28 PM on November 3, 2007 [1 favorite]


Not quite sure why the bronchial passages are capable of constricting. Given that gases are only diffusing by the time they get to the alveoli, what's the physiological advantage of decreasing the diameter of the bronchi and bronchioles? It sure gives a lot of people some major problems.
posted by cyclopticgaze at 1:29 PM on November 3, 2007


Interesting that you should ask that. I wrote this a long time ago: a design review of the Human Eye.

By the way, while there are a lot of things in our bodies that are sub-optimal, the kidney design is elegant. When I studied physiology in college I was amazed.
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 1:34 PM on November 3, 2007


If I could change one single thing, it would be this: move the female birth canal so it doesn't have to pass through a constricted ring of bone. That is the single most stupid design in the human body. No original engineer of any competence would have done it that way.
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 1:36 PM on November 3, 2007


As soon as we can transfer our brain contents to solid-state devices this is all meaningless anyway.
posted by mr_crash_davis at 1:39 PM on November 3, 2007


I always thought a system of fluid filled bladders would make a fine alternative to a skeletile structure.
posted by mrzarquon at 1:44 PM on November 3, 2007 [2 favorites]


Little hearts in the legs! A doctor who was about to take out my saphenous vein (ugh!) told me that if we had a pumping source in the legs, we'd be better off.
posted by potsmokinghippieoverlord at 1:59 PM on November 3, 2007


mr_crash_davis: As soon as we can transfer our brain contents to solid-state devices this is all meaningless anyway.

Hate to be the one to break it to you, but that already happened -- 16,000 years ago.
posted by LordSludge at 2:04 PM on November 3, 2007 [3 favorites]


The whole "I would give the pancreas X" approach to redesign is pretty dumb, though. We may know what results we'd like to see, but the hard part is working out how to create chains of chemicals that will produce them consistently. It's not redesign to say "I wish we didn't age." You have to come up with an alternate way to encode necessary information in such a way that every individual born has the capacity to pass the information along, not just to develop their own kids but to their great-grandchildren - that design for your kid's kid's kid's pancreas has to somehow be chinese-boxed into that sperm or egg, in a way (presumably in a way that is more like directions to "copy (half of) yourself" when creating reproductive cells or something, but still.)

Basically my point is, it's way easier to critique than to create. And of course, if/when we ever do recreate certain organs or redesign aspects of life, it will all be by rearranging nature, not creating anything ex nihilo, so as flawed as the world may be for our purposes, it's not as if we'll ever really get ahead of nature - we can hope to gain enough understanding to tweak things to further our interests, but nature can always claim that's ultimately just part of nature, too... (i.e., nature may have designed a crappy pancreas, but she designed a smart enough human to redesign the crappy pancreas, kinda thing) (not claiming nature is actually thinking, just using metaphorical language)
posted by mdn at 2:06 PM on November 3, 2007 [1 favorite]


The ears, definitely. The more you use them, the less efficient they become. Unlike the eyes, which have a couple of protective mechanisms against bright light, ears can't close or otherwise limit the impact of loud sounds.
posted by tommasz at 2:07 PM on November 3, 2007


MRZarquon, inflated structures (the term is "monocoque") have good tensile strength but not good compressive strength. Which also means they bend easily, by kinking.

It turns out that the wider they are the stronger they are. They work really badly for long, very narrow structures like the human femur unless they're inflated to ridiculous pressures. And any kind of puncture or leak is catastrophic.

There's a good reason why there's only one such structure in humans.
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 2:09 PM on November 3, 2007


No original engineer of any competence would have done it that way.

God, you fail, go back and study more!

Issac Asimov was asked a similar question and I always liked his answer (paraphrasing from memory) "My body has served me so well, I'd be insulting it by asking for modifications." Despite all odd ass designs humans have, the body is pretty impressive piece of machinery as a whole.





but yeah, ok, gills and telekinesis would be nice.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 2:17 PM on November 3, 2007


Incompetent Design.
posted by plinth at 2:20 PM on November 3, 2007


It's unfortunate we can't digest cellulose, like some organisms. That would greatly expand our diet and make vegetarianism more efficient.

Fuck that — if we're going for a ground-up do-over here, I want photosynthesis. That's some engineering.
posted by enn at 2:21 PM on November 3, 2007


dammit mdn, actually solving these problems would forever and a day! I want snappy comments now.

Although, say every cell produced say 4 friend signals, the coding regions of which are immediately beside cancer suppression genes. (we've got a bunch of them identified, right?)

The FOF signals can congregate into a protein complex on the cell surface, and if a white blood cell doesn't see all four it devours the cell. So long as there's multiple interface points it will be pretty hard for a bacteria/virus to mimic (though not impossible of course).

Cancer cells will have suppressed these signals, therefore death. Hook the proteins up to the normal antibody/WBC pathway (probably fitting in randomizing mutations during embryo development, though that's not vital) and you're in business. It still doesn't solve transplant issues, but maybe you'll need to have HIV before you need to worry about cells running amok.


Made up on the spot, but would it work?
posted by Orange Pamplemousse at 2:28 PM on November 3, 2007


The brain could be improved. It's insanely powerful, but the lower-level functions are so well sealed off that you still have to learn math. Setting aside an area the size of a grain of rice for that kind of processing would probably be enough to shame autistic savants.

Obesity is basically the body's failure to cope with too much input. It would be trivial to get the body to simply throw away extra calories. Same with exercise - if your body knew you wanted those muscles strong, it could just make them so - exercise tells it that, but a few simple modifications could probably make it happen for free.

A few more cellular reproduction control mechanisms would probably reduce the incidence of cancer by a huge amount.
posted by Mitrovarr at 2:38 PM on November 3, 2007 [3 favorites]


Steven C. Den Beste-

I should have tagged it with the relevant youtube link from futurama (Kiff Kroker, the green guy, has to remind people that he doesn't have any bones for them to break, as he has a system of fluid filled bladders...) etc.
posted by mrzarquon at 2:41 PM on November 3, 2007


It would be trivial to get the body to simply throw away extra calories

What if there's a famine?
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 2:42 PM on November 3, 2007


What if there's a famine?

Exactly so. The mechanism of building up fat is a defense against irregular food supply.

That's the reason that Hawaiians have a high rate of type II diabetes. Type I diabetes tends to promote obesity, and for hunter-gatherers living on an island where the food supply can be very undependable, that's a survival advantage.
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 2:57 PM on November 3, 2007


The Japanese anime series Crest of the Stars/Banner of the Stars has a genetically engineered human subspecies called the Abh. The most important change made to them was to add a third eye in the middle of their foreheads.

It's a compound eye, like an insect eye, and it was designed in tandem with a computer system. It connects to an entirely new brain center.

Abh flying spaceships wear a special head piece which places a computer display right on top of the third eye, and using that, plus the proper computer programs, it gives them 360 degree awareness of the ship position. They can pilot better than "grounders" (unmodifed humans) and can pilot with their other two eyes shut.

I use that as an example of a much larger concept: technology and genetic changes designed together. For instance, humans now control big machines (e.g. back hoes) using hands and feet. But why not give someone the opposite of the Abh eye -- a compact organ which could push against a large array of switches to be used to control complex machinery, without having to use hands and feet?
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 3:07 PM on November 3, 2007


Oy. The problem with human ingenuity designing organisms is that it can only take into account those design challenges we recognize, when the world is a system of variables so complex that it borders on randomness. The advantage of evolution is that, as the culling factor in its (literally) genetic algorithm to solve the problem of survival in the world, it uses survival in the world, itself.

To respond to some of you, it is not true that evolution does not care what happens to people after they reproduce. If it didn't, we'd all die after reproduction like insects. Older individuals can, and have, done real work that benefits us as a species. It is a mistake to think that evolution is somehow limited to only seeing base survival and reproduction percentages. Otherwise, how could human beings have ever gotten to the point where we could be having this conversation at all?
posted by JHarris at 3:37 PM on November 3, 2007


Brandon Blatcher: What if there's a famine?

In the US? I'll take my chances. If civilization falls I'm pretty unlikely to survive in any event, being a nice cushy sciency type and not a violent, gun-toting survivalist.
posted by Mitrovarr at 3:39 PM on November 3, 2007


Having just arrived at this thread upon returning from a root canal, I ask: why do teeth have nerves?

(I did ask a dentist this once and he said the nerves were need to cause the teeth to form in the first place.)
posted by StickyCarpet at 3:51 PM on November 3, 2007


Speaking as the owner of a pancreas that is failing, I have no choice but to endorse this article. (Caught it in time to be able to control my blood sugar by diet, but it looks like I'll be doing the radical atkins thing until somebody figures out how to fix this.)
posted by localroger at 3:52 PM on November 3, 2007



That's the reason that Hawaiians have a high rate of type II diabetes. Type I diabetes tends to promote obesity, and for hunter-gatherers living on an island where the food supply can be very undependable, that's a survival advantage.


Hawaiians weren't hunter-gatherers. If anything, they had a very rich diet based on sweet potatos and pigs. They may have been selected for cyclical food supply, but not because they were hunting-gathering.
posted by Rumple at 3:54 PM on November 3, 2007


tommasz: Ears do have some protection mechanisms, its just that we regularly overwhelm them. Presumably there were fewer loud concerts and jet aircraft in our evolutionary past than there were lakes or snowfields at noon.

(Also, you're confusing "using your ears" with "listening to extremely loud noises". I can listen carefully to quiet noises all ay long without, as far as I know, damaging my ears.)
posted by hattifattener at 4:35 PM on November 3, 2007


I would add a separate, specialised digestive system specifically for digesting cake. Maybe some sort of cake-detecting sensory organ, for more efficient cake locating. Finally, I would do away with the need for sleep, meaning that humans could spend 24 hours a day locating and consuming cake.
posted by GLaDOS at 4:35 PM on November 3, 2007 [11 favorites]


“Evolution doesn't care what we think. Evolution only cares that we live long enough to breed and that our offspring can do the same. Thats it.”

Other people have pounded on Avenger, so I'll make it brief, but that was the main point of the beginning of the link. You're not saying anything the author didn't say and saying it as if it's a criticism of the blog post or that you're telling the rest of us something we need to know is really damn annoying.

“Older individuals can, and have, done real work that benefits us as a species.”

Natural Selection and thus Evolution doesn't act on the “benefits the species” level. That's a very wrong idea that about fifty years out-of-date. There are some limited example of group selection, but almost all group selection theories are bogus.

However, it's obviously the case that there's usually (but not always) selective pressure for parents to look after the welfare of offspring until the offspring reach reproductive age and that this is probably also true, though less so, for very closely related individuals, such as aunts and uncles. Basically, a niece or nephew shares so many genes with an aunt or uncle, that it's in the aunt or uncle's genetic self-interest to help the niece or nephews survive to reproduce. But this selective pressure is small relative to the individual's own reproduction.

You also write:

“The advantage of evolution is that, as the culling factor in its (literally) genetic algorithm to solve the problem of survival in the world, it uses survival in the world, itself.”

No, it's survival till reproduction in a very specific environment within that world. That environment is relatively limited, and surviving until reproduction is also relatively limited.

It's only because of the time scales involved that the systems end up being as robust as they are. And some of that robustness is wasted complexity when the environment no longer requires it.

People wrongly believe that evolution steadily reduces inefficiencies, and that's true when those inefficiencies are selected against in the same way that anything is selected for or against. But that last bit is important: inefficiencies aren't selected against per se, but only when they are at a sufficient level to interfere with survival to reproductive age. A lot of inefficiencies are below that threshold.

You need to keep in mind that there's basically something like a “noise” threshold, underneath of which inefficiencies and other problems are not “seen” by selective pressures.

Also, evolutionary systems are notoriously interdependent and this becomes a serious problem when one system has a negative selection pressure which is overwhelmed by the negative pressure of interfering with the functioning of a interdependent system. In other words, you can't get completely rid of male nipples without screwing up the whole developmental mammary system, which is still important.

Put another way, if you think about ideal systems as valleys on a plain, and “misdesigned” systems as hills, sometimes you can't get from one low valley to a nearby lower valley because there's a hill in the way. Evolution has to get from one valley to the next by passing through the intervening territory—something that human technological intervention is not burdened with in this context.

So, lots of inefficient and obviously inelegant, imperfect systems remain.

“the kidney design is elegant”

The kidney's function may be elegant, but that we need them in the first place is a quirk of the mammalian evolutionary heritage and is very sub-optimal. We go to a lot of unnecessary trouble to keep our Ph correct.

Evolutionary systems can be amazingly elegant and ingenious and robust, but that's not really their nature. They are, by nature, hacks. Ad hoc, half-assed attempts to solve problems in the most easy and immediate way possible. They are short-sighted—they only solve the obvious short-term problem, never with a look to future complications and risks.

The only reason that the evolutionary systems we see quite often are amazingly elegant, ingenious, and robust, is because they've had a billion or so years of tinkering to get some things right. Millions for most things. If you gave George Bush a million years to get the invasion of Iraq right, he'd probably have it done to a perfectly functioning machine in about 750,000 years. That doesn't make him any less of an idiot.

Nature is a complete moron with a lot of time on her hands.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 4:45 PM on November 3, 2007 [8 favorites]


“why do teeth have nerves?”

Possibly, for example, so you don't break your jaw when you bite down on very hard things.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 4:47 PM on November 3, 2007


"Not quite sure why the bronchial passages are capable of constricting. Given that gases are only diffusing by the time they get to the alveoli, what's the physiological advantage of decreasing the diameter of the bronchi and bronchioles? "

It increases the velocity of the air that passes through them and allows trapped particles to expelled more easily.

"Type I diabetes tends to promote obesity..."

No type 1 tends to kill you very very fat, unless you get some nice insulin shots, so I'll take it that that was a typo. Having type II diabetes doesn't confer any advantage, it just makes you die faster. Having a certain set of cellular characteristics that predispose one to type II diabetes on the other hand, could also confer some advantages that allow a person to make more fat from calories.
posted by 517 at 4:48 PM on November 3, 2007


Gentlemen, we can rebuild him. We have the technology. We have the capability to build the world's first bionic man. Steve Austin will be that man. Better than he was before. Better, stronger, faster.
posted by kirkaracha at 5:00 PM on November 3, 2007


Oh, and that goddamn "wrong tube" thing sucks.
posted by kirkaracha at 5:01 PM on November 3, 2007


Kirkaracha: it also lets you make fine motor grunting sounds which you modulate through your laughably short tongue and lips to communicate ideas to your fellow hominids.

Or so I'm told.

Fat lot of good it does me when I try to walk and eat a hotdog at the same time though.
posted by abulafa at 5:17 PM on November 3, 2007


"The kidney's function may be elegant, but that we need them in the first place is a quirk of the mammalian evolutionary heritage and is very sub-optimal. We go to a lot of unnecessary trouble to keep our Ph correct."

I'd love an explanation of this one. How do you propose the blood be filtered in way that allows for the retention of certain solutes but not other?
posted by 517 at 5:18 PM on November 3, 2007


There is nothing aggression can achieve that cold, hard rationality can't ... relying on aggression will encourage mistakes and possibly put your life at risk.

Personally, I'm at my most effective when I couple cold, hard rationality with a cold, hard aggression; it can be the driving force behind putting logical, but difficult decisions into play. Relying on blind aggression on a day-to-day basis to deal with normal problems can certainly lead to mistakes, but who said anything about that? It's a useful tool in extreme situations and could just as easily provide the bold fearlessness that saves life when one is faced with a split-second decision, as something that risks it.

but it's generally an adaptation exclusively for sexual and social rivalry between males.


What about defensive aggression (half of "fight or flight" is fight)? Territorial aggression (as useful for securing natural resources as females of the species)? Maternal aggression on behalf of progeny? I agree that males are more physically aggressive, but aggression isn't only physical, and I suspect that part of the assumption of males being overwhelmingly more aggressive comes from female aggression being studied far less often.
posted by frobozz at 5:21 PM on November 3, 2007


eye teeth should end in srewdriver bits, a #2 phillips and a straight slot. also women should have an extra vagina, say on their left arm or hip, that they wouldn't mind you diddling with while waiting for a bus.
posted by kitchenrat at 5:42 PM on November 3, 2007


Relying on blind aggression on a day-to-day basis to deal with normal problems can certainly lead to mistakes, but who said anything about that? It's a useful tool in extreme situations and could just as easily provide the bold fearlessness that saves life when one is faced with a split-second decision, as something that risks it.

Two cheers for the human capacity for aggression.

Make that one and a half. Yeah, one and a half cheers for the human capacity for aggression.
posted by jason's_planet at 6:26 PM on November 3, 2007


GLaDOS,
"This is not why I've sent you guys into hard vacuum!
This is not why you are mining caesium!
This is not getting me any closer to cake!"
http://www.vexxarr.com/Index.php
posted by sebastienbailard at 6:59 PM on November 3, 2007


Belly buttons are gross. Just thought I'd mention that.
posted by HotPatatta at 7:40 PM on November 3, 2007


"Fix" our aggression? Don't you know that's how them Reavers started?!

Ain't logical. Cuttin' on his own face, rapin' and murdering - Hell, I'll kill a man in a fair fight... or if I think he's gonna start a fair fight, or if he bothers me, or if there's a woman, or if I'm gettin' paid - mostly only when I'm gettin' paid. But these Reavers... last ten years they show up like the bogeyman from stories. Eating people alive? Where's that get fun?
posted by deborah at 8:01 PM on November 3, 2007 [1 favorite]


All these pacifists are damagin' my calm. And belly buttons are sexy, dammit.
posted by frobozz at 8:58 PM on November 3, 2007


This man decided to improve his arm by adding an ear to it.

Sounds strange, indeed.
posted by salishsea at 9:52 PM on November 3, 2007


it also lets you make fine motor grunting sounds which you modulate through your laughably short tongue and lips to communicate ideas to your fellow hominids

You had me at "fine motor grunting sounds."
posted by kirkaracha at 10:33 PM on November 3, 2007


Comments to arm/ear article:

This is one of the stupidist things I have seen!

posted by TheOnlyCoolTim at 10:42 PM on November 3, 2007


Etherial Bligh:
No, it's survival till reproduction in a very specific environment within that world. That environment is relatively limited, and surviving until reproduction is also relatively limited.

But that environment is also part of the world. We're talking about things like organ design, not tracking down and devouring titmice. The laws of physics are generally the same regardless of where on Earth you are.

And even if you take a specific environment instead of the world, my statement still makes sense if you just call that environment "the world." And the earth doesn't lay down biome markers for creatures to use. You could in fact continue to narrow "the world" down to the experiences of individual creatures, it would not matter.


You need to keep in mind that there's basically something like a “noise” threshold, underneath of which inefficiencies and other problems are not “seen” by selective pressures.

We don't necessarily know if this is the case at all. Again, you're looking at evolution as a kind of process that has a structure and strategy, when it has nothing of the kind. Actually, evolution must logically make a great many wrong turns too, and some of those turns, because of the actions of chance, will persist. Or are they wrong? The only yardsticks we have to measure them is our opinion, which the universe doesn't care much about, and actual success, which matters greatly but we would sometimes think to be inaccurate.


The only reason that the evolutionary systems we see quite often are amazingly elegant, ingenious, and robust, is because they've had a billion or so years of tinkering to get some things right. Millions for most things.

Who are "they?"

My real problem with your argument is that, by describing evolution in terms that suggest design, it shows persistent mental debris from the days when science thought the world was created by someone. (Either that, or you are anthropomorphizing to talk down to me. If that's the case, then again I say "oy.")


Nature is a complete moron with a lot of time on her hands.

Your statement is subtly wrong, because it doesn't go far enough. Nature isn't even as smart as a moron for she literally has no intelligence, and she has a vast amount of time on her hands. Because of this she does not produce the errors that intelligent minds produce, which relate to lack of foresight. Of course she produces her own errors too, but those errors don't relate to logic, and thus some of them are free to be "correct" in ways we would not suspect.

People using genetic algorithms in circuit design experiments have found that sometimes there are produced circuits that work extremely well for the selected-for purpose, but they have no idea how. I very strongly suspect that evolution produces this kind of thing all the time.

I've not replied to your comments about group selection, since you obviously have some specific research on it. I'll look into that on my own, but somehow I get the feeling that they miss the point. But anyway, thanks for the response; I get the feeling we're having a real conversation here.
posted by JHarris at 3:06 AM on November 4, 2007 [3 favorites]


Speaking in defense of the pancreas, recent research has revealed the possibility that stem cells that can turn into insulin producing islets may migrate from the spleen. If anything should be faulted for Type I diabetes it is the design of the immune system rather than the pancreas. As for Type II diabetes, I'd blame visceral rather than subcutaneous fat.
posted by BrotherCaine at 3:41 AM on November 4, 2007


JHarris:

“But that environment is also part of the world. We're talking about things like organ design, not tracking down and devouring titmice. The laws of physics are generally the same regardless of where on Earth you are.”

Well, I don't really understand what you're saying here. My point was that it seemed to me that your claim was that adaptation to conditions in “the world” meant that the relevant systems are necessarily far more robust than would be a designed system. My point was that this isn't the case because the adaptations are just as specialized and “short-sighted” as a designed system. And it's a weird comparison to make, anyway, as the quality of a designed system is entirely dependent upon the quality of the intelligence which designs it. An ultimately intelligent designer would always create the perfect design.

“Again, you're looking at evolution as a kind of process that has a structure and strategy, when it has nothing of the kind.”

I am doing no such thing. I'm not sure where you're seeing either language or implication that I am, but I am extremely aware that evolution isn't teleological and I try to avoid teleogical language and implications as much as possible. It's hard for humans to avoid teleological language or thinking, however, and some almost always sneaks in, even in the writings of the most rigorous evolutionists.

Anyway, I also am having trouble seeing how you are responding to my point. My point, insofar as it was a response to what you wrote, was again a criticism of your claim that evolved systems in the real world are necessarily superior to a designed system. Naturally evolved systems are often quite flawed because the flaws are either not “seen” by the selective pressures because they are below an environmental and procedural “noise” threshold, or, as I say, because an obviously superior adaptation isn't available because it would require an interim maladaptation.

First quoting me:

“'The only reason that the evolutionary systems we see quite often are amazingly elegant, ingenious, and robust, is because they've had a billion or so years of tinkering to get some things right. Millions for most things.’

Who are ‘they?’

My real problem with your argument is that, by describing evolution in terms that suggest design, it shows persistent mental debris from the days when science thought the world was created by someone. (Either that, or you are anthropomorphizing to talk down to me. If that's the case, then again I say ‘oy.’)”


“They” are the systems, not “designers”, as you've inferred. Therefore there's no anthropomorphisizing in what I wrote. I'm puzzled as to why you insist on inferring it.

“Your statement is subtly wrong, because it doesn't go far enough. Nature isn't even as smart as a moron for she literally has no intelligence, and she has a vast amount of time on her hands.”

Well, here I am anthropomorphizing, but for rhetorical purposes, which I thought was obvious. Note also that I began these comments with “a lot of people...” after I had directly quoted and answered something you had written, implying that I was making general comments about how people misunderstand evolution, not directed at you.

“Because of this she does not produce the errors that intelligent minds produce, which relate to lack of foresight.”

That's an extraordinarily odd thing to say. Surely evolution has no foresight at all, which would be worse than the flawed foresight of designers. I think you've really got this exactly the wrong way around, and it's the basis of your misconception that naturally evolved systems are superior to designed systems inherently. But they're not—they're generally superior because they've had enormous amounts of time to work.

This is why, for example, evolved electronic circuitry—like those to which you refer—are not robust, but are, instead, remarkably fragile. Researchers found that they could move one of these circuits to a different room and they'd fail. But if you allowed these circuits to evolve for a million years in the environment in which they'd be actually utilized, they'd be pretty damn robust. But they'd have a hell of a lot of failures along the way, which users would never tolerate. :) This is why there's probably not much of a future for artificially evolved systems, except in specialized applications.

“I've not replied to your comments about group selection, since you obviously have some specific research on it. I'll look into that on my own, but somehow I get the feeling that they miss the point.”

They don't miss the point, they are the basis for the modern understanding of evolutionary theory. Your “benefit of the species” comment shows a deep misunderstanding of contemporary evolutionary theory, which is understandable because it's the case for most people, including many scientists who are not evolutionists. I suggest you read George C. Williams's 1967 book Adaptation and Natural Selection, which lays the foundation for the contemporary understanding of evolutionary theory.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 8:33 AM on November 4, 2007


I would design the brain to be able to release various neurotransmitters, precursors, and inhibitors at the whim of conscious command. Free drugs.
posted by tehloki at 9:11 AM on November 4, 2007


I would redesign my husband's gastrointestinal system. No one should fart as intensely to the point of chasing me and the animals out of the room.

Trust me, the world would be a better place. I blame all global warming on his butt.
posted by dasheekeejones at 4:52 PM on November 4, 2007 [1 favorite]


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