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Are there really any “primitive” animals?

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Our philosopher and photographer friend Laszlo Bencze proposes a cultural reason why Darwinism sounds believable. He points out that Charles Darwin lived in an era of continuous mechanical improvements. Did that shape his — and others’ — optimism about things that “just sort of happen” in nature? He writes,

I have argued on this site that Darwin would have been heavily influenced by the advances in steam technology that occurred during his lifetime. The engines prevalent during his youth in the 1830s would have been superseded by far more advanced and more efficient engines during his maturity in the 1870s. Being an intelligent and well read gentleman who probably subscribed to several popular and scientific journals, he would have encountered articles touting such improvements as high pressure steam, the compound beam engine, and its successor, the horizontal reciprocating steam engine. Each step in this cascade of improvement gained greater efficiency, power, and safety. And of course there would have been countless minor improvements, each one displaying engineering cleverness and adding a little bit of refinement. By the end of the 19th century steam technology was a world away from the primitive machines of 1830.

We can call the early steam engines primitive based on objective criteria. The early Newcomen engines of the 18th century had an efficiency of 0.5% to 1.0%. These engines operated by condensing steam drawn into the cylinder with an injection of cold water. This created a partial vacuum which allowed the atmospheric pressure to push the piston into the cylinder. We might ask how such poor performance could possibly have been accepted. The answer is that despite the low efficiency, the Newcomen engines were much better than using horses. Also, they were well suited to the poor machining technology of the times. The piston did not have to fit perfectly into the cylinder. A leather piston ring would make it tight enough to function well. The Watt steam engine (based on Newcomen’s design) doubled the efficiency to 2%. Further advances by Oliver Evans and other engineers incrementally improved efficiency until it had attained 17% by 1900, an 850% improvement.

So now I must ask whether there is a biological equivalent to the Newcomen engine. Has there ever been a plant or animal which functioned at such a low level of efficiency that it was barely getting along? The fossil record certainly does not reveal any such living thing. We find vast populations of trilobites that seem to have thrived over wide areas of the oceans. There’s no sign that they were on the knife edge of extinction. The same is true for the immense forests of ferns of the Carboniferous era. Everywhere we look, we find beautifully adapted biology that persists robustly for millions of years. There really are no primitive sharks, dinosaurs, or mammals. They all seem to have been exquisitely well suited to their environments.

When we call anything primitive we are merely revealing our prejudices. The amoeba which Darwin would have characterized as a primitive life form consisting of a simple cell wall and protoplasm turns out to be an astonishingly complicated chemical factory equipped with sophisticated feedback systems that allow it to chase prey and maneuver to safety. Being small and unicellular is not the same as being primitive in terms of technology.

I propose that the concept of “primitive” which applies very well to technology—think of your first computer with its puny 40 MB of memory—does not at all apply to living things. By allowing the analogy with technology to inform his understanding of biology Darwin made a major error. Unfortunately, this error has not been noticed among scientists because they are so committed to the fundamental notion of incremental improvement. They see Newcomen engines everywhere.

Not that the industrial transformations just sort of happened, of course. But perhaps we can count on a gentleman not to have noticed all those nobodies toiling away…

See also: How can life forms show intelligence with no brain? A Wall Street Journal piece points to the flatworm as an example.

A reasonably good argument. Goes hand-in-hand with my question: How is it that human beings (for instance) became capable of living to 70+ years of age routinely, when for the all the previous years, few lived beyond 35 or so? In just the last 100 years, human life spans have nearly doubled, by taking in better nutrients (as one factor), which most human bodies never had exposure to. How the heck did such a capability evolve, in the near total absence of such ideal nutrition? EDTA
Bob O'H/5
Pah! Try 1k. With a 16k expansion pack that would wobble.
Luxury. We used to have to get out of the lake at three o'clock in the morning, clean the lake, eat a handful of hot gravel, go to work at the mill every day for tuppence a month, come home, and Dad would beat us around the head and neck with a broken bottle, if we were LUCKY!
But you try and tell the young people today that... and they won't believe ya'.
This whole post is mystifying - isn't it more likely that any sens of progression would have come from the scala naturae (the Great Chain of Being)? And we have Darwin's diaries and a lot of other writings from him, so if he was influenced by technological advancements, we would know because he would have written about it. Bob O'H
Try 48 KB. I didn’t get to 40MB until I was on my sixth computer.
Pah! Try 1k. With a 16k expansion pack that would wobble. Bob O'H
“Change is easy. Improvement is far more difficult.” - Ferdinand Porsche Your Motor/Generators Are 100% Efficient – October 2011 Excerpt: ATP synthase astounds again. The molecular machine that generates almost all the ATP (molecular “energy pellets”) for all life was examined by Japanese scientists for its thermodynamic efficiency. By applying and measuring load on the top part that synthesizes ATP, they were able to determine that one cannot do better at getting work out of a motor,,, The article was edited by noted Harvard expert on the bacterial flagellum, Howard Berg. http://crev.info/content/111014-your_motor_generators Thermodynamic efficiency and mechanochemical coupling of F1-ATPase - 2011 Excerpt: F1-ATPase is a nanosized biological energy transducer working as part of FoF1-ATP synthase. Its rotary machinery transduces energy between chemical free energy and mechanical work and plays a central role in the cellular energy transduction by synthesizing most ATP in virtually all organisms.,, Our results suggested a 100% free-energy transduction efficiency and a tight mechanochemical coupling of F1-ATPase. http://www.pnas.org/content/early/2011/10/12/1106787108.short?rss=1 also see: Davies et al., “Macromolecular organization of ATP synthase and complex I in whole mitochondria,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and: Tamás Beke-Somfai, Per Lincoln, and Bengt Nordén, “Double-lock ratchet mechanism revealing the role of [alpha]SER-344 in F0F1 ATP synthase,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences The Puzzle of Perfection, Thirty Years On - July 31, 2015 Excerpt: The authors of the first paper, published in PNAS, seem hesitant to use the word "perfect" in their description of ATP synthase, the machine that generates energy currency for most cellular processes in all living things (see our animation of this amazing machine here). They use "near-perfect" in the title and throughout the paper: "ATP synthase produces most of the ATP in respiratory and photosynthetic cells. It is a rotary motor enzyme and its catalytic portion F1-ATPase hydrolyzes ATP to drive rotation of the central ? subunit. Efficiency of chemomechanical energy conversion by this motor is always near-perfect under different ATP hydrolysis energy (?GATP) conditions." Any deviation from perfection, however, could be due to experimental error. In their graph, the error bars transverse the slope for 100 percent efficiency (that is, for conversion of chemical energy to mechanical work). It may well be as close to perfect as is physically possible. What's even more striking is that this "near-perfect" level of efficiency is maintained throughout a "broad range" of operation conditions. http://www.evolutionnews.org/2015/07/the_puzzle_of_p098171.html William Bialek: More Perfect Than We Imagined - March 23, 2013 Excerpt: photoreceptor cells that carpet the retinal tissue of the eye and respond to light, are not just good or great or phabulous at their job. They are not merely exceptionally impressive by the standards of biology, with whatever slop and wiggle room the animate category implies. Photoreceptors operate at the outermost boundary allowed by the laws of physics, which means they are as good as they can be, period. Each one is designed to detect and respond to single photons of light — the smallest possible packages in which light comes wrapped. “Light is quantized, and you can’t count half a photon,” said William Bialek, a professor of physics and integrative genomics at Princeton University. “This is as far as it goes.” … Scientists have identified and mathematically anatomized an array of cases where optimization has left its fastidious mark, among them;,, the precision response in a fruit fly embryo to contouring molecules that help distinguish tail from head;,,, In each instance, biophysicists have calculated, the system couldn’t get faster, more sensitive or more efficient without first relocating to an alternate universe with alternate physical constants. http://darwins-god.blogspot.com/2013/03/william-bialek-more-perfect-than-we.html What's quantum physics got to do with biology? - June 2012 Excerpt: certain bacteria can capture 95% of the light that hits them and turn it into useful energy. Solar panels also convert light from the Sun into energy—but they aren't nearly as good at it. The very best solar panels ever tested in a lab (i.e., not the ones actually available for sale and installation on your house) were able to convert about 34% of the light that hit them into electricity.,, Why can't we use the Sun's energy as effectively as bacteria can? The secret may be that the bacteria are using quantum physics to transmit energy. ?http://boingboing.net/2012/06/01/quantum-biology.html Unlocking nature's quantum engineering for efficient solar energy - January 7, 2013 Excerpt: Certain biological systems living in low light environments have unique protein structures for photosynthesis that use quantum dynamics to convert 100% of absorbed light into electrical charge,,, "Some of the key issues in current solar cell technologies appear to have been elegantly and rigorously solved by the molecular architecture of these PPCs – namely the rapid, lossless transfer of excitons to reaction centres.",,, These biological systems can direct a quantum process, in this case energy transport, in astoundingly subtle and controlled ways – showing remarkable resistance to the aggressive, random background noise of biology and extreme environments. "This new understanding of how to maintain coherence in excitons, and even regenerate it through molecular vibrations, provides a fascinating glimpse into the intricate design solutions – seemingly including quantum engineering – ,,, and which could provide the inspiration for new types of room temperature quantum devices." http://phys.org/news/2013-01-nature-quantum-efficient-solar-energy.html
I don't know what Darwin was thinking, but the real history of invention is more like the 'Behe' version of genetics. Inventors are trying to implement a complete dream of purpose (a gene), which is usually innate and thus part of the actual genome. Sometimes the first implementation is too simple, sometimes the first is too complicated. There's no automatic preference in one direction. Each later implementation depends on external factors like materials and manufacturing techniques, not on a gradual improvement of the IDEA or PURPOSE itself. Inventors know how this goes. I'd say that the myth of randomness and random improvements was a 1700s idea which infected our thinking ABOUT inventions along with our thinking ABOUT life. polistra
[T]hink of your first computer with its puny 40 MB of memory...
Try 48 KB. I didn't get to 40MB until I was on my sixth computer. EvilSnack
While I believe Darwin himself modeled his theory on his experiences in breeding pigeons and then speculating that nature acts as a breeder, I don't think the age of machinery influenced him beyond reinforcing the arrogance of European racial supremacy, which led him to write the racially condescending passages in The Descent of Man in 1871. According to Darwinism, the most advanced organisms on the planet would be bacteria (followed by insects). This is why it's logical for a Darwinist to assume that "higher" animals evolved as a type of bacterial exoskeleton, continually being improved by innovations from gut flora. While Darwin believed humans evolved recently when compared to other primates, his theory would indicate that humans are far more primitive as a result. He was at a loss to explain the moral sense that humans exhibit beyond that it musta evolved and separates humans from (other) animals. If that were true, then bacteria--at least collectively--must be the most moral and philosophical organisms on the planet. -Q Querius

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