09 June 2009

Deep homology and design: common design and its implications

Consider these not-so-random samples from the animal world: a cockroach, a zebrafish, a mouse. What do these creatures have in common?

Left to right: American cockroach (Periplaneta americana), zebrafish (Danio rerio), house mouse (Mus musculus). Cockroach image from Wikimedia Commons, zebrafish and mouse from Wellcome Images.

Well, they're all animals and that means they're all eukaryotes, for example. They all have DNA-based genomes. They all like water to some extent. They all have muscles that cause them to move. And so on.

But let's think of them in a different way. Let's think of them as things that exhibit design. (Not Design. Just design.) We see similarities like the ones we just listed, and we see some dramatic differences. Insect, exoskeleton, open circulatory system. Fish, gills, egg-laying. Mammal, milk, hair, live birth, temperature control. We can see elements of common design (limbs and joints, eyes, nerves) and elements of specialized design (lungs, fins, antennae).

Now let's forget everything we know about common descent and adopt an Intelligent Design perspective. This isn't hard to do: just think of each animal as a machine that was designed to be the way it is. The machines have some common design elements and some specialized design elements. Now this is important: let's assume that each machine was designed separately, such that design decisions were made on a case-by-case basis (for each type of machine, not for each individual machine). In other words, let's think of the cockroach as designed from the ground up to be a cockroach, and the fish and the mouse likewise. Simple, right? I think so.

Now, let's look under the hood of each machine and ask detailed questions about how it's built, again with the assumption that it was designed. Not just its overall structure, but also the procedures used for its assembly. Let's look, in other words, at its molecular machinery – machinery for signaling between cells and tissues, machinery for signaling within individual cells, machinery for directing gene function during development and normal function. And let's focus specifically on the signaling systems in these creatures and in their developmental stages. What would we expect to see? Well, let's consider some basic scenarios.

1. Maybe the signaling systems will be roughly the same – or even largely the same – in all three animals. This would imply that such systems are hard to assemble and perhaps even harder to tune and maintain, and therefore we would conclude that there are very few ways to make a working system. The only other explanation would refer to preferences on the part of the designer, who was unconstrained by design limitations but nevertheless insisted on doing things a certain way.

2. Maybe the signaling systems will differ between the three animals, to such an extent that it is clear that the choice of a system is somewhat arbitrary, arbitrary in the sense that the choice of a particular system is largely independent of the context or the function that is specified. The implication is that there are plenty of ways in which cells and molecules can communicate, and no strong constraints on the designer's choices.

Now of course we may find examples of both scenarios in our analysis. Perhaps some signaling systems will appear to be highly constrained while others will be largely different among the three species. The point, though, is this: when examining machines that were separately designed, common design implies either design constraint or designer preference. Divergent design implies a lack of design constraint. There are no further options: either the designer was constrained, or she wasn't; if unconstrained, she could nevertheless choose a favorite scheme and leave the impression that she was somehow constrained.

Designer constraint could arise in various ways. It could be that a particular signaling system is uniquely suited to a particular purpose. It could be that a particular signaling system is highly robust to damage or other challenges. It could be that there are only a handful of different possibilities due to limitations in the raw materials. One variation of that last possibility would look a lot like how evolution is known to work: the designer tweaks the system a little at a time, working with the materials supplied by each generation and therefore constrained by common descent.

Design proponents can be stunningly cavalier about all this. "Common elements in animal biology? Well of course! Common design!" But wait: common design implies either design constraint (that was the best way to do it – or the only way to do it) or designer preference (she just happens to like it that way), and those are dramatically different from an explanatory standpoint.

It turns out that signaling systems in animal development are so universally conserved that they require an extraordinary explanation. The commonality of the elements is so striking that it took most biologists by surprise when it first became evident, and remains one of the most remarkable facts of developmental biology today. We'll look at some recent advances in this area of evo-devo in posts to come.

But one last thing: I'd like to try a thought experiment to illustrate how we might approach questions of signaling in animal cells and embryos. Consider a group of 50 people who have agreed to help with your experiment. You divide them into pairs and tell each pair to send one person out of the room. Then you tell the remaining people to greet their partners upon their return, using a single word of their choosing that is certain to convey the greeting. You observe that all of the people employ either "hello" or "hi" for this purpose.

Question: would you conclude that "hello" and "hi" are uniquely suited for the task, and that no other word could possibly have worked? I hope you would seek another explanation and perhaps consider trying the experiment in, say, Shanghai or Guadalajara. You would conclude, I wager, that the word itself is of little explanatory value. In other words, the choice of a word was constrained, but not by anything specific to the word itself. In Shanghai, it's "ni hao." Maybe somewhere it's "duuuuuuude." And in a matter of minutes, you could change it to "ahoy" or "blorp" or anything you want.

And if you really wanted to probe the notion of constraint in human conversation, you would ask your 25 pairs of subjects to come up with an identifying word or phrase that they could call out to find each other in the dark. You would find, of course, that the choice of that word or phrase would be almost completely unconstrained.

What does all this have to do with signaling systems and design? That's for next time. Till then, blorp.

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