The Riddled Chain --
Chance, Coincidence and Chaos
in Human Evolution
Jeffrey K. McKee
FAQs and OGAs
(Frequently Asked Questions and Often Given Answers)
Q: Why did you write The
A: People are curious about human evolution and the scientific study of our origins. A book is an effective and enjoyable means of communicating to fellow scientists and the lay public alike. This book was an opportunity to combine my responsibilities as a researcher and an educator into one work.
Q: When did you begin to formulate your hypotheses about human evolution? What sparked your interest?
A: I began thinking about evolution when I was 13 years old. After watching Louis Leakey on the television, walking down the side of Olduvai Gorge past layer after layer of our past, I was hooked. My current hypotheses have grown from a lifetime interest, which took new directions once I started reading about chaos theory. I am still formulating new hypotheses, and will continue to do so. Science is a dynamic process. Thus my book is merely a step toward better ideas, not an end product of a particular research trajectory.
Q: You write, "The evolution of life is subject to fates wantonly dictated by three ubiquitous and mischievous forces: chance, coincidence, and chaos." Why do you focus this book on "wanton" fates, when other principles of evolution have been so thoroughly established?
A: Chance plays an important role at every level of biological evolution, from genetic recombination to lifetime encounters, and even to the origins of species. Genetic mutation, the mother of invention, occurs where regular biological processes meet chance. Should a mutation successfully spread throughout a population, it is a coincidence that chance met satisfactorily with survival and propagation. Chance and coincidence, along with a host of interacting biological forces including natural selection, set an unpredictable trajectory for the future of a species. The unpredictability wrought by such dynamics is the signature of chaos. Biological evolution may have vague trends, but there was nothing inevitable about human evolution. In the world of chaos, an infinite array of creatures could have evolved from our earliest ancestors - or our ancestors could have gone quietly extinct. There are many biological principles upon which life was built. We must recognize that chance, coincidence, and chaos are among the key principles that created and shaped life as we know it.
Q: You propose that theories of natural selection get more credit than they deserve: why?
A: There is no doubt among biologists and paleontologists that the Darwinian notion of evolution through natural selection is very important. I have no qualms about that. But we cannot invoke natural selection as an explanation for every nuance of human biology, or for the biology of any organism. Things are not so ordered, for natural selection has limited powers. That is why I devote a chapter to what is wrong with the human body. The exigencies of chance, coincidence, and chaos have played huge roles in shaping us into the odd beings we are. My aim is to expose those roles, and balance our perspective of human evolution. Once we meld traditional selection theory with chaos theory, we are closer to understanding the nature of life and its origins.
Q: Throughout the book, you write about research you did in South Africa. Why did you choose this location for your research? What type of research did you do? How did your work there influence this book?
A: My academic placement in South Africa was largely a product of chance, like so many things in evolution. I happened to be in the right place at the right time, and was offered a position there by the renowned paleoanthropologist, Phillip Tobias. A very important part of the story of human origins played itself out in southern Africa, leaving fossil clues in numerous cave deposits. I've been privileged to help elucidate that segment of human evolution through both excavation and fossil studies. Oddly enough, my misfortune in not finding any hominid fossils during my excavations probably turned to my advantage - it made me focus more on the context and process of human evolution.
Q: What are your thoughts on creationist views of evolution?
A: Any scientist must be open to any and all ideas and test them against the evidence. You find me one creationist, young earth or old earth, who can give a cogent explanation of the sequences in the fossil record, and I'll listen. Meanwhile, science has a better explanation that fits all the data. I've made an extensive study of creationist/Intelligent Design literature, and have yet to find any testable hypotheses or scientifically valid arguments against evolution. Despite thinly veiled attempts at "creation science" or "intelligent design theory," creationism is a belief system, not a science.
There is no doubt that my portrayal of the roles of chance, coincidence, and chaos will be disquieting to some of the more fundamentalist creationists who oppose science. But many creationists accept the role of evolution in human origins. In my view, religion and science are not antithetical views of life; they are complementary.
Q: In the book you discuss computer simulations you ran to imitate the evolutionary process. Please describe your experiments and results.
A: The computer simulations are an approximation of life as we know it. We cannot recreate life's evolution, but we can create expectations of how life acts under various theoretical models. Computer simulations are thus an effective tool for looking at models of the pace of mammalian evolution, or the relative importance of chaos versus natural selection in evolution at a genetic level. Where the empirical data fit the hypothetical scenarios, we must take note. Where the data do not fit the simulated scenarios, we must rethink our notions of the evolutionary process.
Q: What is autocatalytic evolution?
A: This is the hypothesis that evolution is self-driving. In other words, evolution does not need outside catalysts such as climate change in order to continue. Evolutionary success breeds more success by creating large variable populations from which natural selection can filter out the best variants for any environment.
Q: Can I see your simian fold?
A: Oddly enough, this IS an FAQ! Click here to see it!
Q: What is your next book about?
A: It's just been
released! It is called Sparing
Nature -- The conflict between human population growth and earth's
biodiversity. Click on the title to learn more.
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