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Mother Nature, Design Engineer

Evolution is the process of periodically making changes to the design of an organism. Most of these changes don’t work out well and so aren’t passed down to progeny. Of those that do work, many work well sometimes, but not all the time and/or only when linked to other changes.

Reflecting that, I imagine Mother Nature as a design engineer sitting over a drafting table in some other-dimensional forest glade, tweaking DNA and anything else that carries inheritable properties. If the new specifications she tests work, the organism has children who have children and spread those design specs. If they don’t, it’s a dead-end with no successful grandchildren and Mother Nature tries again.

Expanding from that image, I further imagine how she thinks about solving specific problems. For example, Mother Nature might think, “Mankind needs a better way to communicate over long distances. Hmm …

“I could give them a throat sac like some of their relatives. That works to amplify their calls for howler monkeys and siamangs and all. And make the sacs bright colors so they attract the opposite sex. But I think I’ve had about as much fun with that idea as I want to.

“Lower frequencies carry further on hot afternoons. Suppose I give humans deeper voices instead of throat sacs to amplify high notes. But there are other times when high notes are easier to hear! How about I leave the high range for the women and give the lower range to the men, the sex that spreads out for hunting while their women stick together foraging and watching the kids … men are already bigger on average, so it’ll be easy to evolve them bigger larynxes … which’ll go faster if I also change women’s thinking so they think deep voices are sexy.

“That’ll also give males louder voices, so they can address big crowds of people more easily than women. Of course that won’t matter until I get around to inventing orators and politicians.”

Now, let me stress that this is a false image of real world evolution in a couple of ways! First, real world evolution impacts dozens, maybe thousands, of an organism’s problems simultaneously, not just one at a time; in computer terms, it is a massively parallel process. Second, all the solutions proposed by evolution are random changes to genes; in layman’s terms, it is a massively stupid process.

Solving the Unsolvable

It’s interesting that evolution can solve “unsolvable” problems in human development—problems so complex or so dynamic that they’re hard to even formulate as questions, much less find any logical way to solve. Here’s an example I noticed as a boy.

When I was young we had pet cats. Some had kittens and I watched them suckle off their mothers. But momcats’ teats aren’t all equal: The ones at the back are bigger, and I suspect they give more milk. What I saw was that the kittens definitely did not treat the teats equally. They quickly developed a pecking—or milking!—order and got used to getting their own teats.

So if you are a young kitten competing against brothers and sisters for the best teat, size and strength are valuable traits.

However … those same kittens would often contract an eye fungus disease just as their eyes opened. If this disease progressed, they would go blind. So kittens must balance how much milk energy goes into size and strength and how much into disease resistance. (In this instance, treatment procured by their human “owners” short-circuited this, and none of our kittens were actually blinded.)

And there is an additional feedback loop in this tradeoff: If a young kitten is big and strong it gets more milk, so it has more to invest in additional size and strength and in its immune system.

The question facing Mother Nature is, how do you balance these competing investments of limited energy?

The answer is …

I, as a human, don’t know! I can hardly formulate the parameters for such a messy problem, much less solve it. But Mother Nature has experimented millions and billions of times trying to come up with the solution, and she’s still working on it with each new litter of kittens! A more-or-less right way gets encoded in the DNA that’s passed down to future generations of kittens, while all the wrong ways don’t.

This is how she solves all the interlocking problems of life: Try, try again.

Sufficient Design

One other thing to keep in mind about Mother Nature: She favors quick and dirty solutions. She’s not looking for perfect, she’s not looking for elegant, she’s looking for sufficient. Elegant design comes about because elegant uses less resource than clunky and so in the long run elegant is a better choice. But if clunky can get the job done, Mother Nature will happily take a clunky solution and use it until chance offers her a more elegant solution.

This means that many workable solutions have odd surprises attached to them. If those don’t get in the way of solving the basic problem or cause too much other grief, so that the person who has a solution built into their DNA has many children who have many children, she considers that solution satisfactory. But the surprises have a lot to do with what makes the human condition an interesting conversation topic.

Here are some examples of sufficient designs and some associated surprises.

Human Language Drift

There are perhaps six thousand human languages spoken today.

That number has increased as single languages fork into several. Latin isn’t exactly dead, it’s just changed into Portuguese, Spanish, French, Italian, Romanian (and those are only the daughters you’ve probably heard of) because human languages change from generation to generation, even those that are written.

Take the line from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, penned a bit before 1600: “O Romeo, Romeo! wherefore art thou Romeo?” In modern English of the 2010s, the “O” means something like “I’m talking to you”, which we don’t usually express in words, the “wherefore” means “why”, “art” means “are”, and “thou” means “you”, with an implied “dear” carried by the last two of those. So the equivalent sentence might be, “Romeo, dear Romeo, why are you Romeo?” (Meaning, as Juliet goes on to say, why not drop your name and forget you’re on the other side of the feud between our families?)

That’s pretty extensive change.

On the other hand, the number of languages has decreased as languages die out, often abetted now by writing, global trade, the telegraph, TV, and the other factors that have shrunk our cultural world.

Human language is an example of sufficient engineering. It’s not permanent, but it usually changes slowly enough that a centenarian can be understood without having to adjust her language very much from when she was a child. The differences are at the level of calling her refrigerator an icebox half the time and thinking that “They may have been killed if the bomb had exploded” is a crazy mistake for “They might have been …” instead of the grammar-change juggernaut it actually is (but which this aging man and his editor are nevertheless resisting).

The surprise advantage to this mutable semi-permanency is the ability of language to adapt to changing circumstances without losing much intelligibility. If humans need half a dozen different words for kinds of television (flat-screen, wide-screen, HD, black-&-white, …), or a way of talking about a new activity such as twittering, human language can accommodate quickly and easily. The disadvantage is that a well-educated, well-traveled person must devote lots of learning resource to becoming multilingual and/or to understanding different dialects and registers of a language, and keeping up with changes.

Mankind’s First Contraceptive

When humans are transitioning from children to adults they become sexually mature as part of the same process that makes them taller and eventually stronger and more coordinated, able to do adult hunting, gathering, or whatever. But in most cultures adolescents old enough to bear or sire children are usually not ready to raise them until a few years later. So Mother Nature’s challenge is, “How do I delay procreative sex?”

Part of her solution is to make the onset of sexual maturity produce an appearance of serious disease, a strong signal that someone is not desirable: Namely, acne, another sufficient solution.

This is also an example of a situation we humans notice a lot—something that is a puzzle when looked at from one point of view and a solution when viewed another way. The Moral: If you see a mysteriously enduring problem, see if it also looks like a solution to some other problem.


Even aging and dying have a practical reason for being part of our experience.

In some ways it seems like such a waste. We multi-cellular organisms go through all the trouble and hazard of getting born and growing up; why blow away all that hard-earned resource investment by getting old and dying?

The answer is that the conditions organisms live in on Earth are constantly changing, so experimenting stays valuable for Mother Nature. Even after the four billion years that Earth’s been suitable for life so far, she’s not ready to wipe her hands and say, “I’m done, can’t do any better than this,” and make immortal beings.

What changes are involved? Many, on many time scales.

In the short term there are cyclic changes, between day and night, and (on most of the planet) changes in seasons.

In the medium term we have the random changes that are better known as natural disasters—fires, floods, droughts, and many others—as well as diseases, new foods, and new competitors, either arriving from outside our ecosystem (the living community that surrounds us) or evolving in it. Or we may migrate out of our ecosystem into a new one.

These shade into the long-term and very long-term changes: Naturally occurring climate changes, changes in the mixes of gases in the atmosphere and salts in the oceans, oceans rising and falling, continents drifting.

It pays for Mother Nature to constantly experiment, determining, “Is this mix of organisms living in this particular place at this particular time the best I can do?” If the organisms have lots of grandchildren—passing Mother Nature’s basic test—the experiment is successful.

Dying opens the way for that Great Experiment to continue. But the aging process before death isn’t random, it’s also part of the experiment. One of the simplest indicators of this is the correlation between size and aging in mammals: Big mammals live longer and reproduce later than small ones. There’s an inverse correlation between the time and energy investment required to grow to full size and how often that should be done.