The Irony of Our Site Statistics

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One thing you may notice toward the bottom of the lefthand sidebar is something that reads:

Some explanation is probably a good idea. This is a ranking system for blogs developed by N.Z. Bear, the owner of the Truth Laid Bear website, based upon the number of other blogs that are linking to that blog or to articles found on it. The more incoming links from other blogs a given page gets, the higher it ranks. Ah, but here comes the irony...

The TLLB ecosystem divides the rankings into taxonomic categories, just like biology does with plants and animals. The categories go as follows:

Higher Beings
Mortal Humans
Playful Primates
Large Mammals
Marauding Marsupials
Adorable Rodents
Flappy Birds
Slithering Reptiles
Crawly Amphibians
Flippery Fish
Slimy Molluscs
Lowly Insects
Crunchy Crustaceans
Wiggly Worms
Multicellular Microorganisms
Insignificant Microbes

Anyone familiar with biology will of course recognize that this is, roughly, the order of appearance of these various life forms on the planet. Every blog begins as an "insignificant microbe" and progresses up the scale to "higher beings" (if they become extraordinarily popular). The irony, for a blog that focuses on evolution, is that this ranking system is based upon a popular but nonetheless false conception of evolution as an inexorably progressive march toward some goal. In reality, a reptile is no more "advanced" or "evolved" than an amphibian, both are well adapted to their environments. Evolution deals with fitness for a local environment, not with some overall state of "more evolved" or "less evolved". Indeed, one could make the case that those insignificant microbes - bacteria - are "more evolved" than humans. After all, they've survived far longer, occupy a far more diverse set of environments, and evolve at a rate that often exceeds the ability of humans to combat them through antibiotics.

Another irony is that if one accepts this "great chain of being" concept of evolutionary progress, this blog seems to be moving rapidly up the scale. At this point, The Panda's Thumb is listed as an "insignificant microbe", but the number of incoming links and the number of daily visits, after only 2 days, actually places us in the middle of the "adorable rodents" taxon. Talk about rapid speciation! Even in Gould and Eldredge's wildest imaginations, they could not have foreseen the equilibrium being punctuated at a rate of 10 major saltational leaps in a mere 2 days. Perhaps The Panda's Thumb is really a hopeful monster after all.

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I'm now A Wiggly Worm. Woohoo! There's some interesting back and forth at The Panda's Thumb about the TTLB ecosystem rankings, and whether the "progress" that higher rankings in TTLB represent is antithetical to the proper understanding of the evolutio... Read More

21 Comments

I am glad to push this site up the evolutionary ladder through my mouse clicks. The emergence of threats to science from the religious right should be a concern to every American who believes in human reason, and the Enlightenment crucible this nation was forged in.

I will be back soon, and frequently.

It’s only a hierarchy if you assign values, though. The taxonomy still makes sense if you just look at as being about audience size and number, with the inverse relationship between two. There are as many more “small” blogs than big ones as there are more microbes than mammals.

Of course, the fact that the ones at the top of the list are called “higher beings” does lend a slight hierarchical tone to the whole enterprise, so maybe I’m wrong. But what do I know? I’m a mere mollusc.

You could choose to look at it as a scale for fitness to the environment of the blogosphere link array.

I for one don’t accept the Great Chain of Being and think the concept expressed on the TTLB ought to be one we educate people against. I know it’s all in fun, but it is indicative of a popular misconception; rather like the echoes of the biogenetic law you can still find in pop psychology, believe it or not.

Besides, if there is any “ruling” taxon, or “most evolved” taxon (whatever those terms might mean), it’s the Prokarya. We ought to revel in our current residence in the most important group on the metaphorical TTLB planet, and regret our eventual demotion to the lesser clades.

“Indeed, one could make the case that those insignificant microbes - bacteria - are “more evolved” than humans. After all, they’ve survived far longer …”

Really? I thought every lineage on earth has the same deep background in evolutionary time, and so, in that sense, has “survived” as long as every other. In that sense, today’s bacteria are no older (or younger) than today’s human being.

Not that I should be criticizing the guy who does the rankings, but if you’re is going to defy Darwin and go in for the Great Chain of Being concept, you should at least do it right. “Adorable rodents” should be above “Marauding Marsupials.” Rodents are placental mammals and millions of years “closer to being humans” than marsupials, which of course is the conceit upon which the whole Great Chain of Being is about.

Slimy Molluscs, Lowly Insects, Crunchy Crustaceans are all protostomes and thus equidistant from Vertebrata, too…[walks off, muttering taxonomy].

I agree with Mike that “it’s only a hierarchy if you assign values, though.” If we have an inverse relationship between complexity and audience size, the hierarchy works. This seems like a bit of a shame though, because you might want to measure a blog’s complexity as well–this is already a very complex blog.

Insignificant microbe…bah! Try digesting something without them! Like cheese? yogurt? beer? (yeasts are microbes too, you know) Enjoy living a relatively infection free life? Like plants much (utterly dependent on microbes for N fixation). I know, I rail on this constantly, but microbes are by far the most significant, successful life forms on the planet (and no, present company is not excepted!)

Brayton says: After all, they’ve survived far longer, occupy a far more diverse set of environments, and evolve at a rate that often exceeds the ability of humans to combat them through antibiotics.

If bacteria are “more evolved” than humans, how did anything else came to exist in the first place? By the theory of natural selection, organisms are selected if, and only if, they are superior at surviving and/or reproducing. But bacteria were here first, and they are more widespread and adaptive than anything else, and they reproduce like rabbits. (You know what I mean …) In Dawkins’s terms, it is as if the very first organism was already at the top of Mount Improbable. So by what process did bacteria evolve into organisms that are inferior at surviving and/or reproducing? What am I missing?

Stuart-

You’re missing sarcasm. :)

Well, it’s a serious question that’s occurred to me before. In terms of survival and reproduction and rapid-fire adaptability, not much beats bacteria. But then why should anything else have ever come to exist?

The answer to that is obvious: there’s much more to evolution than just relative rates of reproduction. It isn’t all about adaptation.

I put a link to your site at both my blogs; the one above and http://rogueanalyst.blogspot.com/. This is definitely a subject that resonates w/ anyone who believes in science.

And, it really resonates w/ an atheist like myself, who has been stuck living in the South, and has dealt w/ the ubiquitous question you get when you meet someone down here, “What church to you belong to?” Hell, even the army wouldn’t let me put down atheist on my official dog tags. I later bought my own w/ pagan druid on them. Let find a chaplain for that.

The point, Stuart, is that “more evolved” is silly and anthropocentric. Now, it is certainly useful in our lives to be anthropocentric, but in evolutionary biology, it is worse than useless, it is demonstrably misleading. For example, how would you define “successful”? Biomass? Humans are poor choices there- bacteria far outweigh other kingdoms. Numbers? There are more E. coli in your gut than there are people that have ever lived, and E. coli is not your most numerous companion. Adaptability? Try eating PCBs, like pseudomonas does, or living in a pile of radioactive waste, like Deinococcus radiodurans. Now, you ask an interesting question, why did anything else come into existence. An important answer, I think, is that for a very long time, nothing else did come into existence. In other words, for at least 2-3 billion years, bacteria (and Archaea) were the only things around. The origin of multicellularity is, I think, still a fundamental mystery (numerous proposals have been made, but no one stands out as obviously likely), but, like diploidy, the advantages of multicellular life are somewhat clear. Living as a group spreads risk, allows for emergent group properties, allows for genetic variation to increase, and supplies the individual cell with an advantage. In fact, most bacteria also live in large, multi-species communities (biofilms). I’ve rambled enough here, but the point is that while bacteria have been extremely successful, that doesn’t mean multicellular, eukaryotic life can’t compete as well.

Or, the simple answer, “They occupy different niches” ;)

I disagree that multicellularity is fundamentally a mystery. It can easily start off as being colonial, and that can start off from cells not separating when they divide.

From being colonial to being differentiated requires some cell-to-cell communication, some way of organizing the specializaiton of cells in different directions. And mechanisms of communication can be outgrowths of mechanisms of cellular internal communication.

Sorry, I was a bit unclear. I don’t mean that that there aren’t good reasons for multicellularity at all, but rather that the actual likely steps aren’t clear. As we learn more about how bacteria “stick together” and form consortia, biofilms, and the like, the gap, if you like, becomes smaller. You are quite right to point out cell-cell communication (a major topic in microbiology right now!) as a key, and differentiation in bacteria is being studied more and more (Myxobacterial fruiting bodies, studied by Marty Dworkin at my alma mater, and Caulobacter crescentus, with stalked cells that bud off swarmers). What I was trying to say is not that multicellularity is a mystery, but what is the immediate ancestor to the first multicellular organism? Or, to be more precise, what ancestral system developed in to the first successful multicellular lineage? That, I think, is somewhat more mysterious.

The Great Chain of Being is not founded on evolutionary relatedness. It was derived from Aristotle’s implicit rankings of organisms from simple to complex. Moreover, many of the “groups” used in the Great Chain are not natural groups. “Worms” for example, are a diverse and heterogenous group according to modern biology. They were defined subjectively and culturally.

Here is a representation of the Great Chain, from the late middle ages.

Peter Suber lists the ideas and later thinkers who held this view. It died out around the end of the 18th century, but not before Bonnet had ranked living things in an explicit scale, which influenced Lamarck, and through him, all of us.

PZ Myers said: The answer to that is obvious: there’s much more to evolution than just relative rates of reproduction. It isn’t all about adaptation.

Could you elaborate? What you see as obvious, I’m afraid I don’t see at all. You seem to dismiss reproduction and adaptation as explanations for how bacteria, which seem to be superior to any other organism at those tasks, evolved into other things. Perhaps I’m betraying my ignorance, but what else is there? Neutral mutations?

Neutral mutations. Drift, which can fix mutations that aren’t neutral. Intrinsic properties of complex systems. See Wilkins’ recent post, which mentions niche creation.

I don’t dismiss adaptation at all. I’m just saying that there is much more to evolution than just that, and if all that mattered were maximally efficient replication rates, bacteria are all we would be.

Why not eukaryotes forever? Darn near was. Lasted what, almost a couple billion years?

Didn’t multicellular forms take advantage of cellular specialization and use that to exploit new niches?

Them little buggers were pretty good at what they do, but there is always someone a little hungrier and a little faster. Or complex in this particular case.

About this Entry

This page contains a single entry by Ed Brayton published on March 25, 2004 8:13 AM.

To Calculate or Not to Calculate, That is the Question-Begging was the previous entry in this blog.

Origin of “junk” DNA is the next entry in this blog.

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