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Vestigial organs, moth-erflies, and bad engineering.

November 6, 2009 by lolkitty: Kaela

I frequently mull over the internet taking in new information.  With Chris being a Wikipedia junkie, it’s needless to say, we have a lot to talk about.  The other day I was hit hard by the concept of “vestigial.”  Organs, genes, or whatever, I think understanding the concept of vestigial parts of our bodies is in some ways consoling and in other ways infuriating.  It sunk in the other day when I heard it referring to some odd genes and to our appendix.  Since I was in maybe first grade, I remember hearing that “the appendix is just a useless organ, it’s just there, sometimes it ruptures and kills people and that’s just the way it is.”  I was always bothered by the idea of an appendix, sort of like how we just accept that the way cats pur is just a mystery.  Then when I suppose the idea of vestigial organs and the appendix mixed, I thought, “why didn’t they just tell us school kids that it was a vestigial organ and that’s why it’s so useless.”

But as I said, it’s only half consoling.  I have to think that if that’s the way it is, it’s easy to accept, since that’s how most things are.  That’s why we have such terrible genetic diseases and why we are susceptible in ways that are unfortunate.

Nature is like that, it’s a beautiful disaster.

We have a hoard of moths around our house that are crowding the town right now.  They do that every few years, making clouds in front of your headlights at night, and for a very brief season before going the way of the may flies.
These moths are really charming little things that look just like butterflies but without the colourful patterns.  Their wings stand straight up like little sails, just like a monarch would,  pointing their foreboding mock-eyes to the world.  When I see them, I say to myself, “oh, another moth-er-fly.”  After hearing Richard Dawkins once talk about “sloths” pronouncing it with a long “o” sound, I make myself laugh by calling them “moth-er-flies” with a long “o” like some sarcastic biologist.  They are the sort of things that make me think Nature is lovely, even dull grey moth-er-flies.

But then I still have nagging frustrations with genetic disorders.  Even just one or two genes that do the wrong thing, and you can suffer all your life.  Even with mild genetic problems, there is nothing we can do but treat the symptoms.  Why is there childhood cancer?  Why is birth so traumatic?  Why do so many things have to die, just for there to be life?  Unfortunately for the natural world, survival is really the framework of the old joke: You don’t have to run faster than the bear, just faster than your friends.   And it’s true.

This video is a good example of how clunky life is.  Select for one specific task and give the critter some basic building blocks for it’s body and look how absurd these virtual critters can be, but still be technically successful.

Unfortunately for humans, we can sit there and think about how crazy this is.  Being self-aware is also a mixed blessing.  Just looking at those little creatures, they look like they’re suffering. Look at how much they struggle to be best at the one assigned task.  This makes me want to rant and rave about how cool I think it would be for humans to be cyberized. I’ll probably never see the day.  Though there are some cool things happening in science right now, I would still reserve this for another post.

My main reason for focusing on this is the burden just women have with respect to bad design from evolution.  I’m the kind of person who’s a bit like a hot house flower when it comes to being fragile and temperamental.  I always seem to be getting sick with something, and it can all be chalked up to bad engineering.

But Nature doesn’t have it all wrong, I think it went right making a cute peanut powered companion of mine, Artie.  But I do think that the philosophies we have, the way we live life, and our outlook on everything is based on our understanding that we have to struggle to find success.  There is no other way to be successful on this planet, because it’s the foundations of our reality.

Nobody can win without making others fail, and it’s all we can do to make it so that we aren’t the ones doing the failing.


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