Skip to comments.Evolution's Poker Hand
Posted on 05/31/2005 4:48:54 PM PDT by RightWingAtheist
As I type these words, my fingers fly across the keyboard -- albeit not as efficiently as I would like. For one thing, I have never really been a 10-finger typist. For another, I have only 10 fingers. Surely, I could get this piece written and emailed to TCS Headquarters faster if I had, say, 12 or 14 fingers. Why don't I?
Although it might sound like I'm on drugs, the question I am raising is one that is of interest in evolutionary biology. Humans and numerous other species have five (or fewer) digits per appendage. Why? And moreover, why have selection pressures not given rise to appendages with more digits? A few extra fingers, after all, would allow more detailed grasping and other operations, and thus a mutation that provided them would seem like a good bet to spread through the gene pool.
The explanation, it turns out, tells us something not only about the evolutionary past but also about humanity's future -- about the potential and limitations of genetic engineering. In one scene in the 1997 sci-fi film Gattaca, a close shot of a pianist's hands reveals that he has six fingers on each (and thus he gives a virtuoso performance of "Impromptu for Twelve Fingers"). Just what would be involved in making such a concert possible?
Some 360 million years ago, at the end of the Devonian era, an evolutionary experiment was underway. Fish, which had long been the only vertebrates on the planet, were giving rise to tetrapods, animals with four limbs. The evolutionary link consisted of fish with two pairs of fins that gave them a survival advantage in shallow water (they could push themselves off if stranded, for instance). Some tetrapods had more than five digits on their appendages. One such animal, Aconthostega (a fossil of which was found in Greenland in 1987), had eight digits on each appendage (and had lungs as well as gills).
By 340 million years ago, there were tetrapods that spent much of their time on land, such as a small, lizard-like animal called Casineria (a fossil of which was found in Scotland in 1992). Casineria had five digits on each limb. Having relatively few digits may have been an advantage in making a land animal better suited for walking rather than aquatic paddling. Casineria also had more flexible digits (the fossil bones have furrows that once held ligaments) and a stronger backbone, key adaptations to land life.
A basic pattern of having five digits thus was set early in the history of land vertebrates. It seems to have taken hold before the evolutionary break between amphibians and amniotes (a broad category that ultimately would include dinosaurs, birds, reptiles and mammals). Many land animals today have fewer than five digits, but there is a notable absence of species that have more than five. This is not entirely surprising; in evolution, losing a feature that is not needed is relatively easy, compared to gaining (or regaining) a potentially useful feature.
Still, in the sweep of evolutionary time, one would expect some species to have found a survival advantage in having extra digits -- for example, in becoming better at tree-climbing or, in the case of more recent human ancestors, tool-making. The fact that this did not happen suggests that there are genetic constraints involved. Clifford J. Tabin of Harvard Medical School has suggested that the genes that control digit formation are structured so as to produce five basic patterns (thumbs, pinkies, etc., in the case of a human hand). Thus, additional digits that arise through genetic abnormalities merely duplicate an existing digit, and thus offer little survival benefit.
An even more daunting constraint appears to arise from pleiotropy, the capacity of genes to influence multiple physical characteristics. A rare genetic disease called Hand-Foot-Genital Syndrome involves malformations of the genito-urinary system as well as limbs; the cause seems to lie in incorrect coding across the same set of genes that handle digit formation. Thus, in the course of evolution, whatever advantage arose from having more digits may have come alongside the disastrous disadvantage of having malformed reproductive organs.
Vocal proponents and critics of genetic engineering both tend to assume that the technology is on the verge of transforming humanity. But the practical difficulties of achieving the hoped-for or feared transformation are too often overlooked. Perhaps, future genetic engineers will be able to create a 12-fingered pianist without unwanted side effects. Yet the complex evolutionary and genetic history behind having five fingers on each hand suggests that such virtuosity, scientific and musical, may be a long time in coming.
For the list?
What did plants evolve from?
Oh, do tell.
I believe God spoke and BANG! it happened.
What was the natural enemy of the first cell to ever exist?
Genetically engineered humans crosses so many moral boundaries I'm glad I won't live to see it.
"Genetic constraints". "Structured". Almost sounds like it was designed that way.
I'll bet this guy was really born with 6 fingers, but born without a brain.
Evolution is a fairy tale. This guy sounds serious!
You think scientific literature reads like a fairy tale, but Genesis doesn't.
Sure. It's not really news, but it's a good article. Cranking up the ping machine ...
Why Elizabeth didn't inherit her mother's "abnormality" is a question for history.
"Genetic constraints" means you die before birth (or technically anytime before you reproduce with viable offspring). That's it.
I just read that North Korea is experimenting with cloning, with the goal of cloning a human.
I've wondered the same thing about having more than two eyes. It sure would seem to give the advantage to those with eyes in the backs of their heads (like my mom!).
However, it's not just survival - it's survival in order to procreate. Not sure I would want to invite into my bed a 12-fingered-four-eyed gal!
Intelligent design is on it's way. Get used to it. Science is catching up - finally!
Do you have an actual response to my statement, or can I please ignore you now?
I think my mom must have had motion sensors. I couldn't get away with anything.
Not bad for a theory that predicts nothing...
Do what ever you want. I don't hold grudges. It's not worth it.
Six fingers can make for an impressive swordsman; though perhaps not good enough.
Garde la Foi, mes amis! Nous nous sommes les sauveurs de la République! Maintenant et Toujours!
(Keep the Faith, my friends! We are the saviors of the Republic! Now and Forever!)
LonePalm, le Républicain du verre cassé (The Broken Glass Republican)
Me neither. I relent and say good day!
In fact, I've known two people who exhibit this "defect," although one had the finger cut off at birth. Both were born in the Dominican Republican, where cousin marriage isn't uncommon.
What is it about evolution that is so difficult to comprehend, and what is it about evolution that people turn aside all reason to deny it?
There are things in this world that point to a Creator. Those who don't believe in The Creator have not seen enough.
It's thought that plants and the green algae charophyceans share a common ancestor.
The only poker hand evolution holds is a "busted flush".
How could its environment be its natural enemy when it was its environment that laid the groundwork for its life?
Heh, heh. Let me guess -- the ape.
Because we have ape-type animal remains (no human DNA), and then "Poof!", we have man. There is no link between the two. It's just the way the Bible describes it. Man was created.
I'm no saint, but the Bible's description of man is more logical.
There must have been some type of serious tinkering going on around here!!! The complexity of it all is no accident. Everything is preprogrammed and deliberate. That's why intelligent design is becoming more and more logical as scientific technology "evolves".
I can buy that (and do, actually), but intelligent design, or divine purpose, doesn't preclude the process being a reality.
Oh, okay, so you're not really interested.
Enjoy your 'willful ignorance.'
You were serious?
Sure it does. Man DNA appeared out of no where. "Poof!"
If a Chimpanzee was a man, it would have human DNA. It does not. It's still a monkey.
Let's move down about 8" (they always leave this part out).
So why does a monkey have a spinal column that attaches to the skull like that of a monkey, but a human has a spinal column that attaches to it's skull like a bear? Where's the "missing link"? Where's the "evolutionary jump"?
Ok. I have to go out and feed our critters (Animal chores. Ack!)
My 16 year old will steal the computer. She always does. She's already begging for it.
I hope to engage in further debate sometime. The Evolution theory is easy to crack.
Who put the constraint there? In your example, why doesn't evolution favor humans who live 150 years and are able to reproduce for 135 of those years? You would think that after millions of years that evolution would have figured this out.
Why did it need to change?
The old "everybody else does it. Why shouldn't I?" excuse
Disclaimer: Opinions posted on Free Republic are those of the individual posters and do not necessarily represent the opinion of Free Republic or its management. All materials posted herein are protected by copyright law and the exemption for fair use of copyrighted works.