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Discussion 17 to Talk Back 88
Evolution considered as a kluge

by: Will Petillo

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I'd like to expand on JT's answer to how a species can be successful despite imperfections. Key to understanding this aspect of evolutionary theory is the concept of the kluge. This is a term mainly used in the context of computer programming, but it can be applied to other situations as well.

Imagine a high school senior in Michigan who is buying a car. He wants buy the cheapest car he can get that has all of the features he needs. One optional feature is an air-conditioner. Since it is cold outside, the student decides not to pay the extra money for the AC. After graduation, he takes his car with him to start college in Southern Florida. When he gets there he finds that it is extremely hot and he really needs AC. Trading in his car for a new one with AC would cost too much, so he improvises a solution: buy a small air-conditioning unit, cut a hole in the roof of his car, and duct-tape the AC on top.

The car-with-a-duct-taped-AC is a clear example of a kluge. Every decision made sense at the time—indeed, was the best solution at that particular moment in time—and the end result worked. However, it was a terribly inelegant solution because the student could have gotten the same effect by simply buying a car with AC built in if he employed a little foresight. Indeed, doing so would have been better in all sorts of ways, including being cheaper overall.

Evolution works in a similar manner. Every adaptation that proliferates is one that was an improvement at the time but with no foresight whatsoever as to what would be advantageous a thousand years later. Evolution necessarily works this way, for if a line of organisms developed a trait that was disadvantageous at the time but would become very useful many generations later, that branch of the tree would die out before it acquired those advantages. Understanding the concept of the kluge is essential not only to understanding evolutionary theory, but also to determining whether or not the theory is likely to be true. But before I explain why, let's take a step back again and look at why, in general, one would choose to believe one theory over another.

The almost-wise method is to look at all theories, side by side, as objectively as possible, weighing their pros and cons, and decide which "makes sense." If everyone did this, we would have a much wiser society, but it is not the ideal. The more effective method of comparing theories is to ask something along the lines of: "Suppose I were to imagine there were two worlds very much like this one. The only difference is that on one of the worlds, life was created through an intelligent designer, like in the Bible. On the other world, life was created through evolution, working through a combination of genetic mutation and natural selection. What would those worlds look like? How would they be different? And which of those worlds is more similar to the one in which I am living?"

It is not necessary to answer such a question in detail; the point is to draw some distinctions between what the two theories predict. In the case of evolution vs. intelligent design, evolution predicts the existence of kluges whereas an intelligent designer would have employed some foresight and created something more perfect. Unless, that is, that designer chose to work through evolution, thus eliminating the predictive distinction between the theories. And if both theories predict exactly the same outcome, you can fall back on things like an intuitive sense of what "makes sense," employ Occam's Razor, or whatever else floats your boat because the question is beyond the scope of science and into the realm of pure speculation.