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Natural Selection as a Creative Process

Critics have sometimes alleged as evidence against Darwin's theory of evolution examples showing that random processes cannot yield meaningful, organized outcomes. It is thus pointed out that a series of monkeys randomly striking letters on a typewriter would never write The Origin of Species, even if we allow for millions of years and many generations of monkeys pounding at typewriters.

This criticism would be valid if evolution would depend only on random processes. But natural selection is a nonrandom process that promotes adaptation by selecting combinations that "make sense," i.e., that are useful to the organisms. The analogy of the monkeys would be more appropriate if a process existed by which, first, meaningful words would be chosen every time they appeared on the typewriter; and then we would also have typewriters with previously selected words rather than just letters in the keys, and again there would be a process to select meaningful sentences every time they appeared in this second typewriter. If every time words such as "the," "origin," "species," and so on, appeared in the first kind of typewriter, they each became a key in the second kind of typewriter, meaningful sentences would occasionally be produced in this second typewriter. If such sentences became incorporated into keys of a third type of typewriter, in which meaningful paragraphs were selected whenever they appeared, it is clear that pages and even chapters "making sense" would eventually be produced.

We need not carry the analogy too far, since the analogy is not fully satisfactory, but the point is clear. Evolution is not the outcome of purely random processes, but rather there is a "selecting" process, which picks up adaptive combinations because these reproduce more effectively and thus become established in populations. These adaptive combinations constitute, in turn, new levels of organization upon which the mutation (random) plus selection (nonrandom or directional) process again operates.

The manner in which natural selection can generate novelty in the form of accumulated hereditary information may be illustrated by the following example. Some strains of the colon bacterium, Escherichia coli, in order to be able to reproduce in a culture medium, require that a certain substance, the amino acid histidine, be provided in the medium. When a few such bacteria are added to a cubic centimeter of liquid culture medium, they multiply rapidly and produce between two and three billion bacteria in a few hours. Spontaneous mutations to streptomycin resistance occur in normal (i.e., sensitive) bacteria at rates of the order of one in one hundred million (1 x 10-8) cells. In our bacterial culture we expect between twenty and thirty bacteria to be resistant to streptomycin due to spontaneous mutation. If a proper concentration of the antibiotic is added to the culture, only the resistant cells survive. The twenty or thirty surviving bacteria will start reproducing, however, and allowing a few hours for the necessary number of cell divisions, several billion bacteria are produced, all resistant to streptomycin. Among cells requiring histidine as a growth factor, spontaneous mutants able to reproduce in the absence of histidine arise at rates of about four in one hundred million (4 x 10-8) bacteria. The streptomycin resistant cells may now be transferred to a culture with streptomycin but with no histidine. Most of them will not be able to reproduce, but about a hundred will start reproducing until the available medium is saturated.

Natural selection has produced in two steps bacterial cells resistant to streptomycin and not requiring histidine for growth. The probability of the two mutational events happening in the same bacterium is of about four in ten million billion (1 x 10-8 x 4 x 10-8 = 4 x 10-16) cells. An event of such low probability is unlikely to occur even in a large laboratory culture of bacterial cells. With natural selection, cells having both properties are the common result.

As illustrated by the bacterial example, natural selection produces combinations of genes that would otherwise be highly improbable because natural selection proceeds stepwise. The vertebrate eye did not appear suddenly in all its present perfection. Its formation requires the appropriate integration of many genetic units, and thus the eye could not have resulted from random processes alone. The ancestors of today's vertebrates had for more than half a billion years some kind of organs sensitive to light. Perception of light, and later vision, were important for these organisms' survival and reproductive success. Accordingly, natural selection favored genes and gene combinations increasing the functional efficiency of the eye. Such genetic units gradually accumulated, eventually leading to the highly complex and efficient vertebrate eye. Natural selection can account for the rise and spread of genetic constitutions, and therefore of types of organisms, that would never have existed under the uncontrolled action of random mutation. In this sense, natural selection is a creative process, although it does not create the raw materials—the genes—upon which it acts.A common objection posed to the account I have sketched of how natural selection gives rise to otherwise improbable features, is that some postulated transitions, for example from a leg to a wing, cannot...

Email link | Printer-friendly | Feedback | Contributed by: Dr. Francisco Ayala

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