Kluge: Hallmark of the Blind Watchmaker

Perhaps it would help to pause and define a kluge (often spelled as kludge). Let me quote from Gary Marcus, who defines it as follows:

A kluge is a clumsy or inelegant solution to a problem that gets the job done, but not necessarily in the best way possible.

Good definition. And note the vital ingredient as far as the blind watchmaker is concerned – “gets the job done.” That is all that is needed. As long as a solution gets the job done (and getting the job done is simply about reproductive success), it gets selected. The blind watchmaker is blind because it cannot see if a solution is clumsy, inelegant or entails an immediate payoff at a future cost; it only sees whether or the not the immediate job is done. This is why we expect kluges from the blind watchmaker.

But let’s add more.

Marcus is told, “But we tend to think of evolution as something that produces the best possible solution to a problem.” Note his reply:

And that’s just not true. Darwin didn’t actually say “survival of the fittest”; I think that was Huxley, but people take that as their crude approximation to evolution. They think that must mean that the fittest thing that could possibly be will survive, but really it means the fittest of the available options. Evolution can’t take a step back and ask what the best option would be; it just works with what it has. And that’s what leads to tinkering and ultimately the kluges.

The blind watchmaker is about tinkering and kluges. Peter Chen puts it this way:

Natural selection is the process by which less fit phenotypes are culled from the population (e.g., by predation events, competition, or failure to reproduce). Thus, only organisms possessing traits that aid in survival and reproductive success are able to contribute to future generations. Natural selection can operate only on existing variability, which may have arisen through any number of mutations, genetic recombination, or migration of new phenotypes (and their underlying genotypes) into the population. Just as a tinkerer is restricted to the parts he has in his workshop, so too is natural selection limited to the variability that exists in nature. Furthermore, just as a tinkerer’s creations seem jury-rigged, so too do the products of natural selection. This is because certain pieces that the tinkerer might like to use may only be available to him at certain times, and the same holds true for the process of natural selection. The tinkerer and natural selection alike produce a product that is well designed, but not necessarily aesthetically pleasing.

This is why Jacob accurately noted that natural selection works like a bricoleur rather than a cunning engineer and Massimo Pigliucci endorsed this view. This is why Ken Miller sees the blind watchmaker at work when he sees “ nothing so much as a hodgepodge of borrowed, copied, mutated, and discarded sequences and commands that has been cobbled together by millions of years of trial and error against the relentless test of survival.””

We don’t expect rational, elegant, aesthetically pleasing results from a non-rational process that behaves like a tinkering, jury-rigging, bricoleur.

This topic gets even more interesting once we begin to couple irreducible complexity (IC) with rationality. As I explain in The Design Matrix, the non-telic explanations for IC ultimately reach for exaptation at the base of it all. How do we define that? According to one site, “The utilization of a structure or feature for a function other than that for which it was developed through natural selection.” Unless foresight is involved, there is no reason to think a fortuitous ouput such as exaptation is going spawn rational solutions.

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