Exploring mouse trap history

Evolution Education and Outreach 4 (3):397-414 (2011)
Since intelligent design (ID) advocates claimed the ubiquitous mouse trap as an example of systems that cannot have evolved, mouse trap history is doubly relevant to studying material culture. On the one hand, debunking ID claims about mouse traps and, by implication, also about other irreducibly complex systems has a high educational value. On the other hand, a case study of mouse trap history may contribute insights to the academic discussion about material culture evolution. Michael Behe argued that mouse traps cannot trap mice with any part missing; therefore, they cannot have a precursor with one part less, therefore, cannot have a continuous history, and therefore, cannot have evolved. The patented and seminal precursor of current flat snap traps, however, had one part less, because spring and striker were formed of one wire. Secondly, historical records that reach back into the Bronze Age suggest that its history continued for a very long time. Thirdly, all prerequisites for evolution (variation, transmission, and selection) abound in mouse trap populations. Hence, Behe’s triple-jump conclusion about mouse traps is false each step. There is no, in principle, impossibility for mouse traps to evolve. An evolutionary account of mouse trap history also has academic merits beyond its educational value. Three important conclusions can be drawn: (1) reticulate phylogenies of artifact systems may be resolvable as overlapping, but branching, phylogenies of parts; (2) homologous ideas may be realized by analogous material, that is, phylogenies of information do not necessarily coincide with those of material parts; (3) recombination of parts between different artifact systems increases the cumulative nature of cultural evolution.
Keywords Cultural evolution  Irreducible complexity  Lateral transfer  Ancient mouse traps  Medieval mouse traps
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