Nature has rolled the dice trillions and trillions of times and has learned to pick diversity as the best long-term bet. It would have been far less complicated to go with one species, but nature has consistently been willing to pay a hefty price to keep its options open. You never know what’s coming down the pike and which genetic potential will be most needed to meet the next challenge.
evolution doesn't always proceed steadily
Have you ever wondered why one of the most difficult things to teach a robot to do is to walk on two legs?
It turns out there's a reason. Apparently, the simple act of walking turns out not to be so simple after all.
Professor Florentin Worgotter of the University of Gottingen in Germany explains why teaching a robot to walk on bumpy terrains like cobblestones is so challenging: "Releasing the spring-like movement at the right moment in time—calculated in milliseconds—and to get the dampening right so that the robot does not fall forward and crash. These parameters are very difficult to handle."
Worgotter elaborates further on the challenge a simple change in surfaces presents: "When it comes to more difficult things—such as a change of terrain—that's when the brain steps in and says "now we are moving from the ice to sand and I have to change something."
Whereas the human brain interprets surface changes and adjusts the body in rapid fire, it is extremely difficult for a robot to make these same lightning-speed calculations without toppling over. That's because walking upright on irregular surfaces is a cognitively intense task. Our eyes have to visually assess the height and depth of the ground before taking every step and then make lightning-speed adjustments such as lifting our foot to the right height, shifting our weight forward, changing our center of gravity and gait, and determining the force required to launch off of one foot and successfully land on the other. Every step requires a fast collection of data followed by fast processing, rapid problem-solving, and quick-fire action, followed by another round of data collection, processing. problem-solving, and adjustment, and so on. Incredibly, ou>ur brains do all of these calculations without ever once stopping to consciciousjsly think about it.
It's a wonder we don't require two full minutes between steps.
From an evolutionary standpoint, walking on uneven surfaces^s activates a closed loop system in the human brain that developed when we became bipedal, around five million years ago. With this 6 evolutionary leap, our brains began evolving at an unprecedented speedd. So it follows that over millions of years, we've developed the appanratus necessary to process the colossal amount of data required to make us highly skilled bipedal organisms. We have been perfecting this talalent for a long time and at a very high price.
Even today, the benefits we receive from walking on an uneven terrain are astonishing: improvements in equilibrium, spatial orientation, memory, focus, reaction time, and overall cognitive fitness. Real time sensory input from our feet and eyes force the brain to make billions of calculations in milliseconds, and this turns out to be similar to exercising every area of the brain all at once.
So, one of the best workouts we can give our brains is walking rapidly on uneven surfafaces. It's the equivalent of taking our brains to th gym to lift weights all day long.
In a controversial study. Dr. Arthur Kramer, a professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana, studied the effects walking had on the cognitive abilities of senior citizens. After six months of walking foi short periods each day, Kramer measured significant improvements in both memory and attention. Though uneven surfaces are more ideal than even ones, there is now evidence that walking on any surface has cognitive benefits beyond just encouraging blood flow to the body and )rain. According to Dr. Michael Merzenich, the relationship between
movement and cognition cannot be separated because "movement is inextricably controlled on the basis of 'feedback' from our bodies and brains." This simply means that our brains turn into expeditious ca culators as we quickly move over uneven surfaces.
The link between the locomotion of our bodies and how we perceive and process data is undeniable. Although this connection may lave been forged millions of years ago when man stood upright, the ognitive benefits of walking are still as real today as they were for our eadiest ancestors. Today, we know that walking not only leads to wellless, but it offers a wellspring of wisdom as well.
It's important to remember that arguments over evolutionary mechanisms often depend on the deeply held convictions of evolutionary biologists—after all, biologists are people, too! Almost everyone is reluctant to let go of deeply held convictions. Many biologists, in particular, are still attracted to teleological accounts of evolution. Teleology is the idea that all activities tend toward the achievement of some sort of goal. "Everything as to its purpose" is the undercurrent of teleology, a philosophical worldview championed by the ancient Greeks. From this perspective, t^ the goal of a species is to reach the hilltops in the fitness landscape I described earlier. If a species does not attain this ideal, then must be fixed by natural selection or eliminated lest it suffer i suboptimal life. Many biologists assume that most of the variation seen in a given species is maladaptive and that only a small subset of a population attains optimality. But this is the opposite of what we see in nature. Variation dominates in all species. If all traits were optimized by an ever-watchful natural selection, variation would quickly be eliminated in nature. For example, plant breeders have removed almost all of the variation in most of the fruits and vegetables we eat, which has resulted in predictable, market-ready (and often tasteless) food. But natural populations have none of the uniformity of conventional products.
he moment a biologist opens the discussion to optimality. all of the seemingly maladaptive, anarchic, and random features of life stand as stark counterexamples. Biologists committed to the supremacy of natural selection seem to want to replace God the designer with Nature the designer. And, in that case, why can't Nature, in its wisdom, simply be a manifestation of God? In that regard, teleology (and its handmaiden optimality) plays right into the hands of intelligent design creationists. An optimum is an ideal, an abstraction, just like the theological explanation of God's purpose for everything in the universe. If we aren't performing to our potential, we are committing a sin against God, or a sin against natural selection.
Evolutionary biology historically has focused on a particular kind of change in heritable traits. Some traits enable an organism to have more offspring than other organisms in a population. In this way, a heritable trait can become more abundant in the next generation. It's a simiple numbers game. New traits appear first in a single organism (like the debut songs on a pioneering punk album). But they can appear in increasing numbers of organisms with each :h new generation if they help organisms have more offspring than others in the same population (as those songs inspired other songwriters to form bands of their own). After enough generations, a trait can become so widespread that it is essentially universal within a population of organisms (as when punk became mainstream and punk songs were heard, as they are today, on commercial radio). By the same token, if a new trait causes an organism to have fewer offspring, that trait is unlikely to persist (like so many failed experiments in punk music, such as Bad Religion's "lost album" Into the Unknown).
In the previous paragraph, I was drawing analogies between biological evolution and the history of punk music. But again it's important to note that the two processes are quite different. The most widely accepted view of biological evolution is that the gradual accumulation of traits is due to some organisms in a population leaving more viable offspring than other organisms. In this way, populations of organisms gradually become more adapted to the environments in which they live. The punk scene evolved not from heritable variation but rather from cultural innovations that struck a nerve with willing groups of misfits. Still, it's hard for me not to draw evolutionary parallels. I used to envision each Bad Religion concert as a unique environmental opportunity. We could try to increase our popularity trait by singing better songs and giving better performances, in which case our popularity would grow. Or we could suck and lose fans, causing eventual extinction. Either way, the similarities seemed obvious to me.
If a single cell, under appropriate conditions, becomes a man in the space of a few years, there can surely be no difficulty in understanding how, under appropriate conditions, a cell may, in the course of untold millions of years, give origin to the human race.
Plasticity is a double-edged sword; the more flexible an organism is the greater the variety of maladaptive, as well as adaptive, behaviors it can develop; the more teachable it is the more fully it can profit from the experiences of its ancestors and associates and the more it risks being exploited by its ancestors and associates.
If sleeping and dreaming do not perform vital biological functions, then they must represent nature's most stupid blunder and most colossal waste of time.
[T]here are some common animal behaviors that seem to favor the development of intelligence, behaviors that might lead to brainy beasts on many worlds. Social interaction is one of them. If you're an animal that hangs out with others, then there's clearly an advantage in being smart enough to work out the intentions of the guy sitting next to you (before he takes your mate or your meal). And if you're clever enough to outwit the other members of your social circle, you'll probably have enhanced opportunity to breed..., thus passing on your superior intelligence. ... Nature—whether on our planet or some alien world—will stumble into increased IQ sooner or later.
Man is no new-begot child of the ape, bred of a struggle for existence upon brutish lines—nor should the belief that such is his origin, oft dinned into his ears by scientists, influence his conduct. Were he to regard himself as an extremely ancient type, distinguished chiefly by the qualities of his mind, and to look upon the existing Primates as the failures of his line, as his misguided and brutish collaterals, rather than as his ancestors, I think it would be something gained for the ethical outlook of Homo—and also it would be consistent with present knowledge.