the improbability of an eye

Because I seem to have very little time on my hands at the moment, I thought I would re-post something I wrote very early on in my blogging career – it hasn’t dated & in fact is quite relevant to a more recent post on ‘intelligent design’ creationism

The camera-type eye of humans (& in fact all vertebrates) is often held up as a classic example of what ‘intelligent design’ (ID) proponentsists (& no, that’s not a slip of the keyboard) call irreducible complexity. The argument goes like this: a) the camera-type eye needs all its parts to function. b) It couldn’t possibly be assembled randomly as Darwinian theory claims. c) The eye thus supports the concept of intelligent design. After all, Darwin himself commented that "To suppose that the eye, with all its inimitable contrivances for adjusting the focus to different distances, for admitting different amounts of light, and for the correction of spherical and chromatic aberration, could have been formed by natural selection, seems, I freely confess, absurd in the highest possible degree" (1859, "On the origin of species").

 For starters, that comment about evolution occurring through random processes couldn’t be further from the truth, as regular readers will be well aware. But for now – if the ID hypothesis were true, then intermediate stages in eye development would be useless. Darwin recognised this possibility, and countered it by going on to say** that, "if numerous gradations from a perfect and complex eye to one very imperfect and simple, each grade being useful to its possessor, can be shown to exist; if further, the eye does vary ever so slightly, and the variations can be inherited, which is certainly the case; and if any variation or modification in the organ be ever useful to an animal under changing conditions of life, then the difficulty of believing that a perfect and complex eye could be formed by natural selection, though inwuperable to our imagination, can hardly be considered real" (1859, "On the origin of species").

The eye is a structure that can detect the difference between light & dark (& in many cases colour as well); determine the direction that the light’s coming from; and focus the light to get a sharp image (for people with 20:20 vision, anyway). In other words, it’s a structure that helps us to gather information about our environment. And natural selection can favour an improved ability to gather this information, even in tiny increments, in comparison with other alternatives available at that point in time.

For example, a very basic eye would consist of a few light-sensitive cells, allowing the animal to distinguish light from dark. An individual with a slightly curved ‘eye’, rather than a flat one, could gain some selective adviantage as it would be able to tell what direction the light was coming from. Such functional intermediates do exist in nature: there is a complete series in molluscs, from a flat light-sensitive surface to the complex camera eye of cephalopods. What’s more, eyes have evolved independently in at least 5 other phyla. The lens proteins are the same as, or similar to, existing proteins with other functions, but have been co-opted for a role in vision. (In other words, a key structure in the eye did not have to evolve ‘from scratch’.)

And how long would this take? In a 1994 paper, Nilson & Pelger modelled the eye’s evolution through the continuous small improvements that would be expected, if possession of even the simplest light-sensing organ had a selective advantage. Their most pessimistic estimate for the time it would take to move from a light-sensitive patch to a focussing lens? Less than half a million years. A camera-type eye is indeed an impressively complex structure – but its complexity is certainly not irreducible.

** in the next breath – but creationist quote-miners always leave out the second part of the paragraph, preferring to use how Darwin described a problem but not his solution to it.

D-E.Nilsson & S.Pelger (1994) A pessimistic estimate of the time required for an eye to evolve. Proceedings: Biological Sciences 256(1345): 53-58


PS one of my readers has provided a link to a nice piece of satire on the subject of intelligent design…

3 thoughts on “the improbability of an eye”

  • Jim Thomerson says:

    You can go simpler than that. The stigmata of Euglena is a light receptor. What is needed is some photosensitive molecules and a light interceptor (the red stigmata) so that light from one direction stimulates the molecules. So Euglena, with its rotating swimming mode, and figure out where the light is coming from and go that way to photosynthesize.
    If you think about it, an invisible man, of fictional existence, would be blind, because he could not focus or tell which direction light was coming from. A sighted invisible man would exhibit two dark eyeballs, and thus not be completely invisible.

  • herr doktor bimler says:

    What you forget with these calculations is that if it takes half a million years to evolve one eye, then it will take twice as long to evolve two eyes. And think how long it will take to evolve enough facets for a compound eye.

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