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If Evolution Isn't Directed, Why Is Life Now More Complex Than in Ancient History?

A common misconception about evolution is that it has a goal, that organisms evolve from lower to higher forms. This is sometimes referred to as the Ladder or Progress, with primitive forms at the bottom and more advanced forms towards the top of the ladder (and commonly, being the self centered species that we are, with humans on the top rung). This isn't true. Evolution has no direction. Organisms adapt to fit their local environment in whatever way works best. But if evolution has no direction, why is it that life now is more complex* than life from billions of years ago?

This really is pretty easy to understand once you give it a little thought. Let's use distance as an analogy. There's an old saying, that the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. You can't walk from Los Angeles to New York instantly. It takes many, many small steps (literally in this example) to get there. If we consider Los Angeles to be simple, and New York to be complex, then at any point on your journey, as you've increased your distance from LA, you've increased your complexity. And it's obvious that you can't get to a certain point of complexity until you've already taken all the previous steps leading up to it. You can't just instantly go from simple to complex.

But a journey still implies direction, and I've said evolution doesn't work that way. Evolution is more like a drunkard's stagger. If you have a drunk that starts out in LA, and let him wander aimlessly with no particular destination in mind, he may eventually end up in New York, but it definitely wouldn't be a straight line. He may just as likely never make it to New York, and never even leave LA. To extend the analogy further, he may end up in Seattle. He'd still be a long way from LA, but in a completely different direction. Squids, for example, are remarkably complex, but they took a different path to their complexity than us vertebrates, and their resulting complexity is different from ours.

Below is a graph that roughly illustrates this in an evolutionary context. It starts off at zero, and for every step, it goes up or down by a random amount** between -0.5 and 0.5. After every 10 steps, it splits, and each new 'lineage' then varies in that same manner. This was carried on for 40 steps, resulting in 8 lineages by the end.

Random Distribution Simulating Evolution of Complexity

Remember, this is all random variation from a starting point at zero, going in small steps. After 40 steps, one lineage had varied to more than 3.4 away from zero, while other lineages didn't vary very much away from zero at all. If this was representing complexity, and if the steps were assumed to be thousands or millions of generations, it demonstrates how complexity can evolve slowly from simple beginnings, without any conscious aim toward increased complexity. (As I said, this is only a rough illustration of evolution. Evolution is driven by more than just random variation, and the divergence of lineages isn't as predictable as that.)

Evolution really does sometimes decrease complexity. For an intimate example, consider what you're sitting on - a nice smooth posterior. Some time millions of years ago, our ancestors lost their tails, a complex feature with muscles, bones, and tendons. Their lifestyles were probably such that a tail just didn't really do that much good, so there was no reason for natural selection to maintain it. And now, we have backsides that are less complex than our simian ancestors.

*'Complex' is actually a little hard to define. How exactly do we mean complex? Number of genes? Number of specialized cell types? How do we even differentiate specialized cell types? (more info) This seems like one of those problems where we know it when we see it. I think most people would agree that a mammal is more complex than an earthworm, even without a quantitative definition of that complexity.

**Technically, a pseudo random number generator was used (Visual Basic). For this application, that's close enough to truly random.

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