Lectures on Physics has been derived from Benjamin Crowell's Light and Matter series of free introductory textbooks on physics. See the editorial for more information....

Eyes and Sight

Economists normally consider free markets to be the natural way of judging the monetary value of something, but social scientists also use questionnaires to gauge the relative value of privileges, disadvantages, or possessions that cannot be bought or sold. They ask people to imagine that they could trade one thing for another and ask which they would choose. One interesting result is that the average light-skinned person in the U.S. would rather lose an arm than suffer the racist treatment routinely endured by African-Americans. Even more impressive is the value of sight. Many prospective parents can imagine without too much fear having a deaf child, but would have a far more difficult time coping with raising a blind one.

So great is the value attached to sight that some have imbued it with mystical aspects. Moses "had vision," George Bush did not. Christian fundamentalists who perceive a conflict between evolution and their religion have claimed that the eye is such a perfect device that it could never have arisen through a process as helter-skelter as evolution, or that it could not have evolved because half of an eye would be useless. In fact, the structure of an eye is fundamentally dictated by physics, and it has arisen separately by evolution somewhere between eight and 40 times, depending on which biologist you ask. We humans have a version of the eye that can be traced back to the evolution of a light-sensitive "eye spot" on the head of an ancient invertebrate. A sunken pit then developed so that the eye would only receive light from one direction, allowing the organism to tell where the light was coming from. (Modern flatworms have this type of eye.) The top of the pit then became partially covered, leaving a hole, for even greater directionality (as in the nautilus). At some point the cavity became filled with jelly, and this jelly finally became a lens, resulting in the general type of eye that we share with the bony fishes and other vertebrates. Far from being a perfect device, the vertebrate eye is marred by a serious design flaw due to the lack of planning or intelligent design in evolution: the nerve cells of the retina and the blood vessels that serve them are all in front of the lightsensitive cells, blocking part of the light. Squids and other molluscs, whose eyes evolved on a separate branch of the evolutionary tree, have a more sensible arrangement, with the light-sensitive cells out in front.

Last Update: 2009-06-21