Two seemingly unconnected events: (i) I am writing about Emperor Penguins, and (ii) I am listening to an interview on the radio about applying quantum mechanics to evolutionary biology.
I know the story of the Emperors well, but every time I read it, or repeat it, it makes my spine tingle. It is not just the thought of these creatures alone against the elements in the harsh Antarctic winter that intrigues me, it is that such a specialized extreme existence demands an explanation. How did it come about? How could it come about? By what possible mechanism could you take a normal penguin and convert it into a penguin that breeds in the Antarctic winter? The conundrum is that the Emperor can only exist as it does because it has the myriad adaptations that enable it to withstand cold and deprivation on a scale that we cannot even imagine let alone have a hope in hell of surviving. There can be no middle ground: half an Emperor – or rather, an Emperor with half of its capabilities – would be a dead Emperor.
And then the voice on the radio telling me that the probability of life evolving on Earth was equivalent to that of a hurricane going through a junkyard and assembling a 747. Which sounded an awful lot like something the Creationists might say. Of course, whether propellor-head physicist or critical Creationist, such a position does not take into account that evolution does not assemble things in that way: it does things slowly, in small steps. Which is okay I guess, if you are talking about longer necks or running faster: incremental steps bring small gains that over time make for major differences. Look at the very slight modifications for small gains that occur in Formula One in a team like Ferrari: but compare Michael Schumacher’s current car with one driven by Juan Manuel Fangio exactly 50 years ago – they are so different they could be different species.
On the face of it, that would seem to be a pretty good metaphor for how Darwin’s evolution by natural selection might work. But where does that leave us with the Emperor? Was there a major saltation? Did climate change alter the Antarctic so slowly that before they knew it penguins found themselves breeding in the winter? Or, and this brings me back to the radio, can quantum mechanics explain non-randomness and directionality in evolution? It’s not so much the unseen hand of God as it is the unseen hand of evolution: go down to the subatomic level and the way matter behaves does not follow the ways of our so-called classical world. But when the voice started talking about being in two places at the same time, about passing through solid objects and about anti-matter, well, I started to turn off, didn’t I. Sometimes just thinking about evolution can seem too hard.