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Top 10 Evolutionary Adaptations 716

Posted by Zonk
from the don't-make-me-choose-between-my-brain-and-sex dept.
oneill40 writes "The New Scientist has an interesting article up listing the Top 10 most amazing things to have evolved, including sex, death, the eye, language and parasites!" From the article:"Sponges are a key example of multicellular life, an innovation that transformed living things from solitary cells into fantastically complex bodies. It was such a great move, it evolved at least 16 different times. Animals, land plants, fungi and algae all joined in." J adds: Number four, Language, got a careful look from Carl Zimmer a while back. It's Pinker vs. Chomsky, winner take all, pass the popcorn!
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Top 10 Evolutionary Adaptations

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  • language (Score:4, Funny)

    by Coneasfast (690509) on Friday April 08, 2005 @03:40PM (#12179347)
    AS FAR as humans are concerned, language has got to be the ultimate evolutionary innovation.

    really? by reading slashdot, it feels more like devolution to me! :)
    • Re:language (Score:5, Funny)

      by Have Blue (616) on Friday April 08, 2005 @03:46PM (#12179432) Homepage
      Don't worry- most of the population of /. is very unlikely to reproduce.
    • OMG n0 w4y!!111 (Score:4, Insightful)

      by sczimme (603413) on Friday April 08, 2005 @03:48PM (#12179461)

      really? by reading slashdot, it feels more like devolution to me! :)

      OMG u R teh st00p1D!!11!eleventy-leven!!WTFBBQQED!!111!

      Gah - how can people actually communicate that way? That sentence alone (such as it was) made me feel icky.

      Perhaps Coneasfast is correct...
  • by pizzaman100 (588500) on Friday April 08, 2005 @03:40PM (#12179348) Journal
    How about DNA? It's contains all genetic information that determines how cells are formed and how they behave. It's what allows cells to copy the essence of themselves from one generation to the next, and allows them to continue on the platform from where the last generation left off. If our cells weren't packing around little mini protein 'storage devices', not a whole lot would be happening.
  • Bad News (Score:5, Funny)

    by A Boy and His Blob (772370) on Friday April 08, 2005 @03:40PM (#12179350)
    Sex may even be responsible for keeping life itself going: species that give it up almost always go extinct within a few hundred generations.
    Bad news for geeks everywhere. The best I can figure is that at some point in the future my genetic material will double and I will split in half.

    And talk about missing options sheesh! Best evolutionary adaptation? I vote breasts!
    • Re:Bad News (Score:5, Interesting)

      by ajs (35943) <<moc.sja> <ta> <sja>> on Friday April 08, 2005 @05:04PM (#12180532) Homepage Journal
      "And talk about missing options sheesh! Best evolutionary adaptation? I vote breasts!"

      Are you referring to the original development of the lactating teat or the exaggerated secondary sexual characteristic in adult human females?

      The latter is just a display trait, and other than the interesting matter of being tied to human females being effectively in a permanent state of heat (not sure if this is unique among mammals, but I know it's at least quite rare), it's fairly uninteresting.

      The lactating teat on the other hand is quite a remarkable development, and while I'm not sure I'd put it up there with language, you could make the argument that things like language are possible BECAUSE of the developments (like this one) which allow the young to experience a prolonged development stage outside of the womb. This prolonged development in turn makes the development of a more complex brain far more practical.

      So, I half agree with you, they're pretty darned important, though I consider the reduced number of young and proportionally reduced number of teats on primates to be a bit of a step backward...
  • by Anonymous Coward
    The single most amazing evolutionary adaptation is undoubtedly YOU. That a mouth breathing dolt, such as yourself, has been able to survive at all, let alone this long, defies all logic and brings the entire theory of evolution into question.

    In fact, if ever there was evidence of an omnipotent diety, YOU are it! Obviously, God exists and in your case, he had a terrible accident!
  • Without reading one of the supplementary articles...
    I am not buying language as an object of biological evolution at all. At best, it seems to be an expressed meme, rather than a genetic advancement, or a trait that can be selected for. Also, I am not buying the facts expressed in the article abotu language. Haven't we taught chimps and apes sign language? Aren't there example of such creatures telling us things spontaneously (the most recent example was when the chimp told some scientists that it had
    • by michaeltoe (651785) on Friday April 08, 2005 @03:50PM (#12179489) Journal
      The capacity to develop and understand evolution is something biological. Otherwise, every animal could learn a language just as complex.
      • Definitely. I guess I didn't say what I was getting at well. Let's try it again, differently.

        The capacity for language is genetic. However, the actual use of that capacity is a learned trait (something like a meme).
        More than likely, the use developed several generations after the capacity came about in the gene pool.
        Why then, would the linguistic phenotype be selected for when it is not being utilized by those first few generations?
    • by lgw (121541) on Friday April 08, 2005 @03:55PM (#12179555) Journal
      I find it amusing that profanity is apparantly universal. Chimps/gorillas are never taught sign language for any profanity, but they regularly invent a sign for "shit" and use it as profanity. This is usually translated as "dirty" in scientific publication. ;)
    • Try again (Score:5, Insightful)

      by Alaren (682568) on Friday April 08, 2005 @04:04PM (#12179640)

      "It doesn't seem that language is merely confined to humans, but it further seems like a learned trait rather than a biological trait.

      False dichotomy.

      "For instance, even if we had the biological capacity for language..."

      I seem to have the biological capacity for language. So do chimps, at least at some rudimentary level (though it is worth noting that while they can acquire something like human speech, they do not seem biologically inclined to pass this ability on, and the human speech (i.e. sign language) disappears completely within two generations or so).

      "...an organism may have the capacity to express a meme-like trait, but may never actually express it."

      This is like saying that birds could evolve wings without ever using them. Such an organism would consequently gain no advantage from such a trait, and said trait would never become strengthened and propagated--gliding would never become flying, for instance, and memes would never become speech. Part of the theory of evolution is that beneficial traits preserve survival and in turn improve the species. It's gradual.

      "...but the language usage itself is a socially learned trait."

      Well sure, but it can also be argued that we are biologically inclined to perpetuate a social structure wherein language is learned.

      "...but if the utility of that capacity is never expressed, then why is the gene for that capacity being selected for?"

      Best answer is, it wouldn't be. So obviously at some point, the utility of that capacity was expressed, and that gene was selected for. Seems pretty straightforward. You're trying to do an either/or with biology and environment. Evolution doesn't work that way; you have to have both.

    • by Capt'n Hector (650760) on Friday April 08, 2005 @04:07PM (#12179688)
      Language requires very specific parts of the brain to work correctly. This has been seen in brain damaged people and children with certain birth defects. It may be very difficult if not impossible for them to learn a language, understand or speak it. This indicates that we have language-specific hardware built in. The abilities of the chimps is no surprise here - in fact, it supports the idea that we are evolved to use language, considering chimps are our closest genetic relatives. Other animals can learn human language to some degree too, and do in fact communicate amongst themselves. But really, it's a huge advantage for a group to be able to communicate within its ranks. From the altruistic warning cry to, oh I don't know, mating songs, language has had very good reasons to evolve.
    • I'm only going to respond to part of your post, but I have some small expertise in this area.

      The fact that other animals learn language is completely irrelevant. Two different machines can perform the same task, and do it in completely different ways. Animal language appears to be one example of this concept. The animals MAY be proficient with language (my opinion is that they are) but their brains don't have the same mechanisms that humans have. Animals also have problems with syntax, because humans h
  • by TheBrownShow (454945) on Friday April 08, 2005 @03:40PM (#12179361)
    "It's true that many species, including insects, lizards and plants, do fine without sex, at least for a while." ... don't forget about Slashdot readers... ZING!
  • by Arctic Dragon (647151) on Friday April 08, 2005 @03:40PM (#12179368)
    How could they omit the female human breast?
  • by Jason_D_Berg (745832) on Friday April 08, 2005 @03:40PM (#12179370)
    Weird. I would have expected to see an opposable thumb on that list. I mean, isn't that kind of important for us? Or maybe I'm just being too human-centric.
  • by Silverlancer (786390) on Friday April 08, 2005 @03:41PM (#12179375)
    Creationists.

    *ducks*
    • Yeah, I find ducks to be pretty amazing, too...
    • When you mentioned creationists, I just had to bring this up. Creationists frequently talk about the Eye being proof of "intelligent design", or the evidence of God's Hand. They actually fail to realize the flaws in the human eye. For example:
      1. Photoreceptors are backward
      2. Images formed upside down
      3. Blind spot, causing deficiencies (although the brain adapts) in vision.

      You don't see any of these deficiencies in an octopuses' eye. So God's supposed "crowning creation" has worse vision than the lowly

      • The common practice of creationists citing the eye as a challenge to evolution reveals how abysmally primitive their knowledge of science is. To be sure, in Darwin's time the eye seemed miraculous enough that Darwin felt obliged to devote a special discussion to how it might have evolved by selection.

        But we know a lot more today that Darwin knew. In particular, our knowledge of biochemistry is more advanced. We now know that all sorts of biochemical reactions are sensitive to light. It is almost inevitable
      • Images formed upside down

        Why does it matter where the photo-receptors are physically if they can be logically connected in any way?
        • Why does it matter where the photo-receptors are physically if they can be logically connected in any way?

          First, you quoted a different sentence than the one that stated that the photoreceptors are backwards.

          I think that what he means are that the photoreceptors are positioned BEHIND the ganglion and bipolar cells, which seems a very poor choice for cells allegedly 'designed' to receive light coming in from the pupil. It would make more sense to have the photoreceptors right up front, where the light ca
      • by Javagator (679604) on Friday April 08, 2005 @07:50PM (#12182318)
        God's supposed "crowning creation" has worse vision than the lowly octopus?


        Uh Oh. What if the octopus is the crown of creation and humans are just here for their amusment. That would explain a lot.

      • by mikael (484) on Friday April 08, 2005 @08:01PM (#12182421)
        Not forgetting

        4. Lost the ability to see in ultra-violet.

        From a study of 'opsins', the chemical molecules that convert light into electrons, and enable vision to work, many small animals and insects have the ability see these wavelengths. Humans seem to have lost this ability, due to the increased refraction at short wavelengths caused by larger eyes.

        5. To be able to visualize magnetic field lines.

        Magnetically sensitive molecules have been found in avian retinas. The theory is that these could appear as some sort of overhead display in the bird's mind (although, nothing more than lines running across the field of view, or maybe a pair of light/dark spots).

        6. To be able to visualize polarised light (as used by the octopus). Underwater, light is polarized by the reflection of light reflected off fish scales. Many fish try and camouflage themselves by trying to match the optical intensity of their surroundings. For simple predators this works, but more complex creatures
        such as the octopus are not fooled.

        Also, polarized light can be used to signal to other members of the species without attracting undue attention.

        7. Or having 16 visual pigments like the Stomatopod [berkeley.edu], which is also known to use polarised light to signal to others of the same species (And which also has stereo vision using one eye).

    • If you consider that "groupthink" has an advantage in natural selection (grouping people with common traits, greater numbers are more defensible), then, yes, Creationism really is an amazing evolutionary adaptation. Any tendency for humans to form cliques is an example of this.
      • Creationism, and religion is just a side effect of children unquestioningly believing everything their parents tell them. There is an obvious evolutionary benefit when a child stays put because the "monster will get them". There is not an obvious benefit in adult life for believing nonsense put about by someone else.
    • by TurretMaster (779398) on Friday April 08, 2005 @05:57PM (#12181132)
      Anybody else ever considered regigions as some kind of parasistic idea, living and propagating on the human mind, and subjected to the same kind of natural selection as living beings ?

      Imagine that : religions appear and mutate randomly, and only the liveliest branches, the ones most able to hold out against reality and other religions gain followers and thus multiply...
  • by zappepcs (820751) on Friday April 08, 2005 @03:41PM (#12179378) Journal
    Didn't that happen in the 60's?

    "However useful sex may be now that we've got it, that doesn't tell us anything about how it got started"

    Are they kidding? I'm sure it was a 'double dog dare' on a Tuesday afternoon in the garden of eden.
  • by tuxette (731067) * <tuxette&gmail,com> on Friday April 08, 2005 @03:42PM (#12179383) Homepage Journal
    Time for another beer...
  • by Japong (793982) on Friday April 08, 2005 @03:42PM (#12179388)

    I really wish one of those researchers would spend some time responding to this guy, the owner of a website called Evolution, a Fairytale for Grownups! [evolutionfairytale.com] A lot of the features mentioned in the article come up on his site, although argued against in an un-proffesional manner (for more adult discussion he also posts debates that he's won.

    For all the evidence presented by popular media and through the education system, there seem to be a lot of people, including scientists, who can't accept evolutionary theory, and dismiss it as propaganda. [darwinism-watch.com]

    Considering the recent "Just a theory" textbook-sticker fiasco, there are a lot of big divides going on in America right now. Now, since this is Slashdot, the responses are going to be quite biased, but do you Americans find that a lot of friends, co-workers and family don't accept evolutionary theory?

    • by lgw (121541) on Friday April 08, 2005 @03:51PM (#12179500) Journal
      Popular presentation of evoltuion, including what I was taugt in high-school biology, are so dumbed down as to be incorrect. The creationists have an easy time attacking what's commonly presented as "evolution". I don't think evolution is really that hard to teach (aside from the controversy), and the actual beliefs of scientists about evolution are far, far more credible. How did we go so wrong here?
    • The difficulty with the folks who do not accept evolutionary ideas is that they tend to be extremely narrow in their perspective and logic is simply not part of their thought process. What the Bible says is right, and they will justify that righteousness regardless of the number of mental hoops through which they have to jump. Add to that the notion that your neighbor's sins affect you as well and the current situation is easy to understand.

      The solution? Likely not to happen while Christian Conservatives still hold popular sway in politics, nor until science figures out how to convey its teachings to the lowest common denominator.

    • "Since Evolution Fairytale is a Christian-based ministry, only Christians will be accepted as Moderators and Admins for the forum."

      Wake me up when the creationists debate in an unbiased forum.

    • One of the problems with explaining evolution is that the strongest evidence for it requires a fair degree of education. I could go on at length about various chemicals and proteins, with lots of acronyms to show all this powerful evidence. But the result will be the glassy-eyed stare most of us are familiar with when talking about computers to non-/.ers.

      Darwin's observations are pretty easily accessable, so most pre-college biology classes don't really go any deeper than that. Unfortunately, they're re
  • Photosynthesis (Score:4, Insightful)

    by jestill (656510) on Friday April 08, 2005 @03:44PM (#12179410) Journal
    Photosynthesis is definitely the top for me. It changed the chemistry of the entire planet. Of course the human brain has done the same, but we will soon be extinct and out impact rather small compared to photosynthesis.
  • T and A.

    I must say, though, leaving out the evolution of the opposable thumb is pretty shocking. Without an opposable thumb, how do I press the button on my digital watch?!
  • Correction (Score:2, Funny)

    by 0kComputer (872064)
    Sponges are a key example of multicellular life

    No, its not called a sponge, its called a falafel thing.
    http://www.thesmokinggun.com/archive/1013043mackri s16.html [thesmokinggun.com]

    -Bill
  • Somewhat along the same lines, Carl Zimmer also talked about "resurrecting the genome" of a mammalian ancestor from about 80 million years ago. Snippets of the genome are present in all mammals today. By comparing the genomes of various mammals, they were able to come up with a pretty good approximate of the genome. This chart [nytimes.com] shows how much of the original genome different mammals have. Surprisingly, humans have lost only 25% of the original genome, whereas rats and mice have lost more than twice that. I would have thought otherwise since the earliest mammals were shrewlike... but I'm not a biologist/geneticist/whoever studies these things.

    He also wrote this article some time ago that talked about Resurrecting the Genome [corante.com]. Here [corante.com] is another article (by him) on the same topic, that appeared on NY Times.
    • Remember that natural selection works on a generational basis, not an individual basis.

      When you consider that rodents breed far, far faster than primates, it makes sense that they would also evolve far, far faster.

      It would take a lot less time for non-essential code to get worked out of the system through random mutation.

      I'm not a biologist either, but I remember my classes. :-)
      m-
    • by shirai (42309) on Friday April 08, 2005 @04:27PM (#12179999) Homepage
      I've been trying to find the "Last Stop" for an argument for evolution for quite some time. I finally found this amazing article: 29+ Evidences for Macroevolution [talkorigins.org].

      I'm sure many of you (who wanted to know anyways) have come across this but this is the cat's meow for evolutionary arguments. It is designed to be easy to read, but it does not pander to the lowest common denominator (in fact far from it).

      If you haven't read it, you WILL learn something new.
  • Evolution is Blind (Score:5, Insightful)

    by ParadoxicalPostulate (729766) <saapad@@@gmail...com> on Friday April 08, 2005 @03:53PM (#12179529) Journal
    Please, for the love of God (or Darwin if you're so inclined), Stop anthropromorphizing evolution!

    I'm not accusing the people who anthropromorphize as being bad scientists - I'm sure that they have the proper understanding of evolution and natural selection and similar concepts within their mind. However, what you have to realize is that your audience may not. Making consistent use of words like innovation and discovery, and general verbs associated with multicellular life makes the article sound more like journalism than science.

    I realize that it's probably convenient to not have to worry about portraying modern evolutionary theory in the right manner, but it's also responsible. I wouldn't be bringing this up if I didn't run into it every single day - we anthropromorphize to such a degree that eventually we ourselves begin to believe that evolution really is a deliberate mechanism that acts towards creating the "perfect" life form.

    • Different species do not "discover" new and better ways to hunt down their prey, or to conduct photosynthesis.
    • Natural selection is "differential success in reproduction."
    • If you are going to characterize evolutionary progress as a group of 12 monkeys on a typewriter and infinite time, then they would not produce Shakespeare as a final product because they wouldn't know when they had it!
    • You say "Stop anthropromorphizing evolution" but that's just a demand. You don't actually give reasons beyond hinting that it's "wrong" and I don't buy the "we ourselves begin to believe that evolution really is a deliberate mechanism". I'm perfectly capable of using this metaphor without being confused by it just as I talk quite happily talk about my optimisation code "discovering" an optimal solution without being confused about my computer's status as a person. I find these metaphors very powerful (becau
      • "I'm perfectly capable of using this metaphor without being confused by it just as I talk quite happily talk about my optimisation code "discovering" an optimal solution without being confused about my computer's status as a person."

        Aha, but that's because you are fully aware it's a program. Metaphors are indeed both powerful and efficient, I'm not arguing that. But in order that they may be used, people have to know what parts of the metaphor reflect the subject, and which parts are superfluous.

        The p
    • Stop anthropromorphizing evolution!

      Yeah, evolution doesn't like it when you do that.
  • I can't believe Linux isn't on there!!

    It's an adaptation in response to commercial software companies, and it was(is) evolutionary!!
  • by dreadlocks (637491) on Friday April 08, 2005 @04:17PM (#12179825)
    Here goes:

    1. tonsils - create more problems than they're worth. F*cking swelling, soreness and sleep apnea.
    2. appendix - that's a winner.
    3. coccyx - I had to look this up to spell this useless thing right.
    4. funny bone - this has never made me laugh. It has helped with new curse words though.
    5. needing sleep - 8 hours-c'mon, can't we evolve down to 2 or so.
    6. the knee - there has got to be a better way- stretched ligaments, torn ACL's etc.
    7. religion - nuff said.
    8. ingrown toenails - trim trim trim
    9. ingrown hair - great fun digging them out
    10. balding - (or hair migration to the back) what is the point of this "evolutionary advance"?

    I'm sure I missed many

    • 1-3 are vestigial (Score:5, Insightful)

      by Thu25245 (801369) on Friday April 08, 2005 @04:40PM (#12180183)
      With regards to the first three items on the list, these are best described as "vestigial" stuctures. That is, they're body parts that evolution forgot--they once served a useful purpose, but no longer have any value or function.

      The same thing can be said of wisdom teeth, for example. Or paralell ports.

      Presumably, as these structures continue to cause problems for some members of the species, while providing no advantages, evolutionary processes would eventually eliminate them.
    • by YetAnotherAnonymousC (594097) on Friday April 08, 2005 @05:33PM (#12180848)
      6. the knee - there has got to be a better way- stretched ligaments, torn ACL's etc.

      Interestingly, atheletes about 100 years ago almost never had knee problems. But they had a lot more sprained ankles. Shoes have improved to provide significantly more ankle protection. But at what cost? Knee problems often become more serious/chronic than ankle problems. It seems that the body may be better suited to naturally handle ankle wear than knee wear. And we may have circumvented this.
  • by Quirk (36086) on Friday April 08, 2005 @04:31PM (#12180052) Homepage Journal
    Language is better viewed as a co-evolutionary adaptation. Language requires not only a speaker but a listener. The signs/symbols of language are a co-evolutionay process. Gregory Bateson [edge.org] touched upon this in his book Mind & Nature [oikos.org].Adaptation, starvation and poisioning are also players in what we view as the evolutionary game. Of course sexual reproduction leads to the meme of the Selfish Gene [amazon.com] as promulgated by R. Dawkins, and leads to viewing us, you and I and everyone of us, as so much packaging shunting genes about. Thinking about the soma as no more than packaging moving genes about via sexual reproduction doesn't seem to take into consideration the generation of negentropy, or, information. The generation and transmission of information via language is the creation of negative entropy and manifests an emergent property that is in a strange way the universe on a course of self discovery.
  • by AmericanInKiev (453362) on Friday April 08, 2005 @04:42PM (#12180221) Homepage
    I recently thought that Virii might be a means for - in place evolution.

    In other words - who is to say Virii are anti-evolutionary. Since virii are produced by the living and capable of carrying DNA and implanting it between living orgs.

    It seems possible that virii could be used to communicate survival strategies between living orgs in real time rather than over generational time.

    By merely surviving and exuding my DNA in the form of Virii, it stands that the population of DNA floating around in the air contains segments of info which belong exclusively to the surviving set, and if I can implement their codes, my chances of surviving are increased - moreover if i can incorporate the codes of my entire tribe into my child, then my offspring will bear the marks of all the living members of my community.

    Thus the argument that virii are - hypersexual genetic hints used to inform genetic variation in real time.

    AIK

  • sponges (Score:4, Interesting)

    by bcrowell (177657) on Friday April 08, 2005 @04:42PM (#12180229) Homepage
    Sponges are very cool -- you can put one through a sieve so fine that it's broken down into individual cells, and it will then reassemble itself into a complete sponge, but with every cell rearranged into a new position! Apparently the scientist who first did this (ca. 1900) then tried doing it with two separate sponges of different species at once, and was disappointed when they didn't reassemble into a hyrbid. Shows how little they knew about the microscopic basis of genetics at that time.

I'd rather just believe that it's done by little elves running around.

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