Kluges All The Way Down

Kluges may be common in the human mind, but they sure as heck are not unique to the human mind, or even the human species. Instead, you can find pockets of biological inelegance wherever you look.

PZ Myers of the fabulous science blog
Pharyngula has a great example in this month's Seed Magazine: the formation of the basic body plan of a fruit fly.

Fruit flies, as you may know, are one of the so-called model organisms that biologists most often study, prized for their simple diets and fast breeding times. (I always think of the title of that Errol Morris film, Fast, Cheap, and Out of Control.)

If you look at the larva of a growing fruit fly, what you see is a set of alternating stripes; the question that biologists are interested in is: where do the stripes come from? As Myers notes, there are lots of ways one could imagine doing this, many of them elegant, but nature stumbled on an incredibly inelegant way of making stripes: one at a time, each using a different combinations of genes.

As Myers puts it

Life is a collection of kludges taped together by chance and filtered by selection for functionality; it all works magnificently well, but if you look under the hood you are simultaneously appalled by the sheer inelegance of the molecular gemisch and impressed with the accumulation of complexity.
The complexity of [developmental biology] isn't a product of design at all, and it's the antithesis of what human designers would consider good planning or an elegant algorithm. It is, however, exactly what you'd expect as the result of cobbling together fortuitous accidents, stringing together helpful scraps into an outcome that may not be pretty, but it works.


If you'd like to find out more about the sometimes clumsy way in which nature assembles its organisms, have a look at Myers' article, or if you are mathematically inclined, take a look at Ian Stewart's Life's Other Secret: The New Mathematics of the Living Word.