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The evolution of a spider (or not) experiment – demonstrating Darwin’s Theory of Evolution using cardboard spiders.

The diversity of spiders

The Theory of Evolution

Being a prominent (ahem) member of the scientific community, Geek Slop has a lot of scientist friends.  Geek Slop knows that the thing that bugs scientists more than anything, is when people don’t believe their theories (well, that and burning lab coats). And when it comes to Darwin’s Theory of Evolution, scientists treat it almost like a religion.

On the flip side, some religions have a big problem with the scientists’ Theory of Evolution making the whole subject of “natural selection” a huge, heated debate between scientists and religious groups. Scientists theorize that humans evolved from single cells to fish to monkeys. Some religious groups, called creationists, take offense at this proposal saying it’s silly to think that people magically grew, over time, from monkeys.

The March of Progress (The Road to Homo Sapiens)

So how do scientists think humans evolved from monkeys? The Theory of Evolution proposes that our DNA, the internal map that tells the body of an animal how to grow, can accidentally change itself about once every 10 gazillion years. When the DNA accidentally changes (mutates), the animal grows in a different way. For instance, a fish could be born with mutated DNA and grow an extra fin. When these accidents happen, the change in the animal will either help the animal survive or make it harder for it to survive. Maybe the fish’s extra fin helps it swim further so it can get to a better supply of food. Or maybe the lady fish finds the extra fin attractive (woo hoo, look at the extra fin on that one!). If the accidental mutation helps the fish survive (and propagate), the fish lives a long life and has baby fish, some of which might be born with an extra fin, just like their parent. Then those baby fish grow up and have baby fish of their own, each with an extra fin. But if the accidental mutilation makes it harder for the fish to survive (maybe the mutated fish is born with unusually small fins) then it dies out and the mutated DNA dies with it.

Why do some people disagree with this theory?

The kicker is that this whole process takes gazillions of years to happen. It’s kind of like attaching a hammer to a dog’s tail, putting him in a yard full of wood, and waiting millions of years until his randomly swinging tail accidentally builds a house. Yeah, it’s that rare a thing. But the Theory of Evolution proposes that it has been such a long time since Earth was created that all sorts of random mutations have taken place and sprouted all kinds of new creatures (boo spiders!).

Could Dad evolve into a sponge?

Do they propose that this evolutionary process is still happening today? Yep. And that means kids will evolve to have little bitty thumbs and an eye on the top of their forehead so they can see while texting and driving. Teachers will evolve to have megaphone-like mouths and pinholes for ears. Mothers will grow eyes in the back of their heads and one extra-long arm that can reach across the room while Dads will evolve into round blobs with one eye and a funnel sticking out of the top where their head used to be (that way you can sit them on a coach, angle them towards a television set, and every couple of hours stop by and pour a beer down the funnel).

The Theory of Evolution Spider Experiment

Yeah, this is a pretty complicated (and touchy) subject. This experiment, which plays out like a story, should help clear things up for you. We start with a “spider” that needs to crawl up a surface to reach its food. Then we’ll engineer different spiders, some with better abilities to climb and some with not so good abilities to climb and show how the spider could evolve over time. In the process we will create some creepy toy spider bodies that you can save and scare your friends with afterward.

  1. Take a large piece of sandpaper, about the size of a sheet of paper, and tape it to a piece of cardboard. Make sure the rough side of the sandpaper faces away from the cardboard and that the cardboard is stiff enough to make a rough “ramp”, with a rough surface, for our spider to climb up.
  2. Cut a spider shape out of a piece of cardboard. Make it about 3 inches long by 1-2 inches wide. You can paint creepy eyes and draw legs on it if you’d like (and if you choose to make this extra effort, please do NOT send pictures of it to Geek Slop).
  3. Lay the cardboard spider over another piece of cardboard and cut out a few identical cardboard spiders.
  4. Next, lay the first cardboard spider on a piece of paper towel and cut out the same shape again. Make several “paper towel” spiders (which we will refer to later as our “sissy spiders”).
  5. Take a piece of aluminum foil and fold it over five times so it is pretty thick and stiff. Using the first cardboard spider, cut out one or two aluminum foil spiders (which we will refer to as our “robot spiders”).
  6. You should now have a few cardboard, aluminum, and paper towel spiders.
  7. Now lean the sandpaper platform against a wall. Lean it at just the right angle so that when you lay the cardboard spider flat on the surface, it just barely begins to slide down. Once you find the right angle, tape the sandpaper platform to a wall or other object so it stays steady, and at the same angle, during the remainder of our experiment.
  8. Take three index cards and write “Extinction” on one card, “Living species” on another card, and “No, I will not eat my vegetables” on the last card.
  9. Place the “extinction” and “living species” cards on opposite sides of your ramp. Put the “No, I will not eat my vegetables” card in your pocket for use at the dinner table tonight.
  10. Place all the cardboard spiders in one pile, the paper towel spiders (sissy spiders) in another pile, and the aluminum foil spiders (robot spiders) in a third pile.

The Evolution of a Spider Story

Clynotis severus, Female, Austin's Ferry spider

Now we begin our story. Your cardboard spider is hungry and needs food to survive. It must climb up the sandpaper platform in order to reach imaginary food that can be found at the top of the platform. In our story, we’ll assume the imaginary food is your little brother or sister. If the spider can climb to the top and reach the food, it gets to live. If the spider cannot climb to the top, it starves, and dies (let’s hear a chorus of hurrahs for the dead spider!) Now let’s say that this spider lives in a house (yep, it’s a creepy house spider) where it rains all the time (hey, this is only a theory so it’s ok to assume it is raining inside the house). The rain makes the spider wet and affects the spider’s grip on the platform making it easier, or harder, to reach the top and get its food. Remember, we built our ramp so that a cardboard spider just slides down it. This spider will likely end up dying because it cannot reach the food at the top of the ramp. But wait, we’re getting ahead of ourselves…

  1. Wet one of the cardboard spiders and place it on the platform. It sticks very well and hence, we can assume it gets a good grip and is able to reach the food. In a rainy house, this spider has an advantage. This spider lives (booo!!!!). Wet some of the cardboard spiders and throw them in the “living species” pile.
  2. Place the second dry cardboard spider on the platform. Assuming we got the angle of the platform right, it should slowly slide to the bottom of the platform. The dry cardboard spider cannot climb the platform and reach the food, so it dies. Stomp it, eat it, shed a few tears, whatever. It’s a dead critter. Push all the dry cardboard spiders into the “extinction” pile.

Actually, if we were really going to mimic the Theory of Evolution we’d flip a coin about, oh, 1 million times, and if it landed on its edge then the dry spider actually gets to live but that type of experiment would take much too long. So long in fact, your grandchildren would have to finish the experiment for you.

The wet spider lives

Fantasy wet spider crawling up a slanted ramp

So let’s review. In a rainy house, the wet spider lives. This wet spider has more baby spiders, and they inherit the DNA from their parents, so they are born wet too. But the dry spider cannot climb the platform and reach the food, so it eventually dies of starvation. It never has a chance to have any dry baby spiders so pretty soon it dies out and our entire house is infested with hundreds of wet spiders.

Again, if this were the real Theory of Evolution, every once in a while, the web spider’s DNA would hiccup and the wet spider would have a strange mutant little dry baby spider but that dry spider would end up dying anyway so, well, like we said, it gets complicated.

Oh no, Robot Spiders!!!

Fantasy robot spider

Now let’s assume that the wet spider’s DNA mutates. It’s random, doesn’t happen very often, but sometimes, just sometimes, it has a baby spider made out of aluminum foil. For our purposes we’ll pretend that a mutation happens even though in the real Theory of Evolution, it would take millions of years for it to happen (if it ever happens at all).

  1. Take the baby aluminum spider and see if it is able to climb the platform to the food. It’s stiff and slippery and speeds right to the bottom of the platform. Nope, this one’s not going to make it (yay dead spider!) and again, we have a species of spider that cannot reproduce and hence, dies before it ever gets a chance to have a ton of baby aluminum spiders capable of taking over the earth (yay Earth!).

Meanwhile, the wet spiders are still able to climb the platform and they keep having more web baby spiders. Push the aluminum spiders to the “extinction” side and add a few more wet spiders to our wet spider pile.

Make way for the sissy spiders

A sissy (cute) spider

And finally, just as with the weird aluminum spider mutation, the wet spider’s DNA freaks out and this time, gives birth to a sissy spider made of wet paper towels.

  1. Take one of the paper towel spiders and wet it with water.
  2. Try the wet paper towel spider on the platform. It sits there quite well and has a very easy time sticking to the platform and hence, making it to the top to get the food. The sissy spider lives and has more sissy spider babies. Put a few of the wet sissy spiders in the “living species” pile. Now we have a lot of wet spiders and a few paper towel spiders sharing the same food source. It’s going to be a battle to see who gets to the food first.

But wait, the environment suddenly changes

Fantasy cute spider with 14 legs

Now let’s assume there was a climate change, and it suddenly stops raining. Both spiders, cardboard and paper towel, become dry (oh how we hope you didn’t throw away the dry cardboard paper spiders yet).

  1. In the “living species” pile, replace each of the wet cardboard spiders with a dry cardboard spider.
  2. In the “living species” pile, replace each of the wet paper towel spiders with a dry paper towel spider.
  3. Compare how well the dry cardboard spider sticks to the platform versus the dry paper towel spider. The dry cardboard spider will slide down the platform while the dry paper towel spider is able to stick. This means the cardboard spider dies and the sissy paper towel spider lives (I guess the paper towel spider is tougher than we thought). As before, the paper towel spider has more paper towel spider babies while the cardboard spider dies out and goes the way of the dinosaur (where a whole new set of controversial theories abound).

Again, with the change in the environment, the cardboard spider, which originally was the tough guy on the block, loses its advantage. It cannot grip the ramp’s surface very well and cannot get up the ramp to the food. Hence, it slowly dies out. The paper towel spider, however, sticks very well and will be able to climb the ramp and reach the food. The dying of the cardboard spider and the propagation of the paper towel spider will take place over a period of time. You can take a few cardboard spiders out of the “living species” pile and put them in the “extinction” pile while adding a few paper towel spiders to the “living species’ pile. Do this a few times and the cardboard spider becomes extinct.

A quick review

As you can see, we began with a dry paper spider, evolved to a wet paper spider, had one aluminum spider that just couldn’t cut it, and ended with a species of ruling tough-guy paper towel spiders. This is the way scientists think evolution might work. Yes, there’s a lot of random stuff happening and it’s hard to know when, if ever, the mutations will occur but still, that’s their theory and they’re sticking to it.

There have been a few probable occurrences of animals evolving into a different state so the theory just might hold water. That doesn’t necessarily mean people, dogs, cats, or whatever evolved from monkeys though. Then again, maybe they did.

What do some religions think is wrong with the Theory of Evolution?

What do some religions think is wrong with this theory? Some religions feel the Theory of Evolution goes against their religious beliefs. Christians believe that God created humans, but some Christians still believe in the Theory of Evolution and consider it nothing more than the means that God used to create humans. Other Christians believe that the Theory of Evolution is flat wrong though and they have some pretty valid points too (see the Parent Notes below).

Parent/Teacher/Advanced Notes

Other reasons debunkers discount the Theory of Evolution

Debunkers of the Theory of Evolution, called creationists, believe the Theory of Evolution is wrong. Or maybe they think some of it is right but not all of it. Debunkers will point out that bacteria mutate all the time. In some bacteria, new generations of new bacteria are born every 20 minutes. They mutate all the time, but they never mutate into something new. They just stay plain old bacteria.

A man evolved to have a fish head and three legs

Debunkers point out the complexity of the genetic code and the high number of permeations we’d have to go through before a change would be realized relative to the length of time the Earth has existed. The math just doesn’t add up. Yeah, maybe a million monkeys typing random letters for millions of years would eventually type one of Shakespeare’s sonnets, but would they ever type the exact same sonnet twice or more? They say that a beaver would have a better chance of accidentally building an exact replica of the Hoover Dam.

Debunkers also point out that evolutionists cannot satisfactorily explain how life came from “non-life”. In other words, even if the Theory of Evolution is correct, where did it all begin? The closest evolutionists have come to explaining is a pretty far out “primordial soup” explanation which in and of itself relies on pure chance that a bunch of chemicals came together to form some sort of living creature.

Debunkers also point to fossil records which have yet to show any sort of “gradual” change in organisms but rather, just the opposite. In certain periods of time, fossil records show an abrupt change in life, and not any of the many intermediate changes that must have occurred for the Theory of Evolution to be valid. The “missing link”, or transitional life form, has not been found in the fossil record. This gradual morphing of any creature has yet to be found when it should, in theory, be very widespread.

And finally, Theory of Evolution debunkers will scratch their heads and say, “no way this all happened by chance.” They feel that something as complicated as human life could never arise from random chance. Human life had to come from a well-planned design by a higher being than us.

Evolutionists Counter

Persons who support the Theory of Evolution will point out that everything in science is theory.  If it’s a “law” then it’s used to explain other theories.  This debate could go on forever (or more likely, evolve into another topic altogether).

Experiment Supplies

Supplies: Tape, Index card, Paper towels, Cardboard, Aluminum foil, Sandpaper

Image Credits

In-Article Image Credits

The diversity of spiders via Wikimedia Commons with usage type - Creative Commons License. January 30, 2013
Clynotis severus, Female, Austin's Ferry spider via Wikimedia Commons by J. J. Harrison with usage type - GNU Free. September 7, 2009
The March of Progress (The Road to Homo Sapiens) via Standford Library by Rudolph Zallinger with usage type - Editorial use (Fair Use). From the Early Man volume of the Life Nature Library 1965

Featured Image Credit

The diversity of spiders via Wikimedia Commons with usage type - Creative Commons License. January 30, 2013


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