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WTF, Evolution?!

A Theory of Unintelligible Design

Mara Grunbaum

(Scientific American)

The intelligent design crowd likes to point to the elegance of the human body and the complex logic of vertebrate eyes as proof that a master “designer” (that is, God) conceived of and created all organisms. But proponents of this idea need only look at some of the creatures on Mara Grunbaum’s blog WTF, Evolution? for proof that not all of Earth’s organisms seem to have been intelligently thought out. Features on animals such as the babirusa, the pignose frog and the flannel moth “puss” caterpillar are so silly and unwieldy that they could not have been designed with efficiency, logic or aesthetics in mind. They remind us that natural selection preserves useful adaptations from random mutations, some of which are positively bizarre.

To celebrate the some of the more questionable products of evolution, Grunbaum collected some of her favorite animals from the blog into the new book, WTF, Evolution?! A Theory of Unintelligible Design (Workman Publishing, September 2014). Scientific American spoke to Grunbaum about her hunt for the strangest nature has to offer—and why unicorns aren’t real.

How did you get started doing this?

One of the primary things that kicked off the blog was that I had come across this picture of a chameleon’s face, and I printed it out and put it on my desk and I kept looking at it and thinking, “What is this? It has a ridiculous shape and it looks like someone sprinkled paint all over it in a weird way.” It was so bizarre and clear to me that nobody thought of this. Things only get that weird when everything is completely random.

I had this collection of things like that in my head and I don’t know quite what led me to decide to start putting them on the Internet. I thought it would amuse me and my friends, and it turned out it amused some other people, too, and it took off from there.

Does the blog tend to ruffle the feathers of the antievolution crowd?

I haven’t heard a whole lot from them at this point. I do think it’s a statement about that. If you’re paying attention, it becomes pretty clear [that I’m anti–intelligent design]. I try to weave in more of how evolution actually works. It’s a weird, random, not well-thought-out process.

If there had been a thought process, the blog is what that thought process might have been. It sort of proves that there wasn’t one.

I’ve gotten comments that this shows that God has a sense of humor. If people want to read it that way, it’s cool with me, too. That’s just not my way of looking at things.

It’s definitely clear that no intelligent designer would have created some of these creatures. Isn’t it hard to believe that many of these organisms ever evolved?

It is. We tend to think about evolution as adaptations - everything has evolved in a particular way because that is the way that it works best. To some extent that’s true, things do get more suited to their environment over time. But it’s also true that things happen randomly and are not necessarily the best way to do something if you were going to design it from scratch. It’s just a way. Or it happened to be connected to some other gene. Things just happen.

And then isn’t it weird to think that some of these really bizarre creatures are real, but things like unicorns, which seem pretty reasonable by comparison, are pure fantasy?

Right? When you see some of these things, you realize unicorns aren’t that crazy. Really, that’s the best imaginary fantasy creature we could come up with? It’s just a horse with a horn. We don’t even need those when we have all these real animals that are way crazier.

How many of the animals you profile are endangered?

A lot of them are. We have a section at the end that gives more information on conservation. That was a bit of a bummer to compile. A lot are listed as endangered, and a lot are also just not well known enough that they’ve been assessed yet. It definitely made me very aware of the troubles that a lot of these species are facing. It’s great to know that all these cool, crazy species and probably more are out there but it’s upsetting that we’re losing so many. There’s probably weird stuff that we’re killing off without ever knowing it existed.

Do you think your humor allows you to reach audiences that don’t typically engage with science?

I think so. I think science is very important and very interesting and sometimes very technical, but a lot about it is very funny, too, and we should get to enjoy those parts.

I’ve heard from a lot of scientists who read the blog, as well as science writers, students and all sorts of other people. That’s pretty gratifying. The comments that make me the most happy are the people who say, “Oh this blog makes me laugh and then I learned something, too.” I’m like, “Yes!” So I’m going to keep writing the blog—and we’ll see if I ever run out of weird animals. Every time I think I’m going to run out, there’s always more.

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