If you have been following along, you have learned two important things about the blind watchmaker behaving as a designer-mimic.
1. Since designers are limited by their building material; the blind watchmaker (as designer-mimic) is likewise limited by its building material.
2. The blind watchmaker makes things that are simply “good enough” – kluges – a clumsy or inelegant solution to a problem that gets the job done, but not necessarily in the best way possible.
The latter point is has been driven home by recent research on a very simple system:
Genetic mutations create the raw material that natural selection acts upon. The short-term fate of a mutation is often quite clear. Mutations that make organisms more fit tend to persist through generations, while harmful mutations tend to die off with the organisms that possess them. The long-term consequences of mutations, however, are not well understood by evolutionary biologists. The researchers have shown that what may be good in the short run, may hinder evolution in the long run.
The team developed computer models of RNA molecules evolving by mutation and natural selection. RNA molecules, which are very similar to DNA, play key roles in essential life processes and serve as the genetic material for some of our deadliest viruses, including influenza and HIV. Their computer models show that the evolution of optimal organisms often requires a long sequence of interacting mutations, each arising by chance and surviving natural selection. As Cowperthwaite explains, “Some traits are easy to evolve — formed by many different combinations of mutations. Others are hard to evolve — made from an unlikely genetic recipe. Evolution gives us the easy ones, even when they are not the best.” The group’s analysis of RNA molecules from a wide variety of species suggests that life is indeed dominated by the “easy” traits, perhaps at the expense of the best ones.
Later I will show how such research fits seamlessly with the hypothesis of front-loading evolution, but for now, it is sufficient to note “Evolution gives us the easy ones, even when they are not the best.” This is why the kluge is a hallmark of the blind watchmaker.