Thursday, December 3, 2009

Charles Darwin, Social Networking & Punctuated Equilibrium

After some articles are put to bed here, they get a Posthumous Long-tail Aperitif - links to related articles published after my post:

Posthumous Long-tail Aperitif, July 30, 2010, from the Utne Reader

"What Darwin Didn't Mean

We’re so proud of our dog-eat-dog world that we fail to notice that it’s not"

..originally published in Democracy: A Journal of Ideas, Issue #16, Spring 2010:

"Cachet of the Cutthroat
Social Darwinism isn't only morally wrong; it doesn't even perform the function it claims to perform: fostering real competition.
by J. Wes Ulm"

Posthumous Long-tail Aperitif, March 15, 2010:

"Ideas" from CBC Radio One, broadcast from February 15th (part 1) & 16th (part 2) 2010, "KING SOLOMON’S RING". Podcast is available at the links.

"Konrad Lorenz spent a lifetime watching animals, figuring out how they live together, how they communicate, and - most important - how their worlds touch ours. Philip Coulter traveled to Austria to follow the trail of Konrad Lorenz today."

Last night I listened to CBC Radio's "Ideas" program which presented the conclusion of a 'radio essay' entitled "The Evolution of Charles Darwin". The entire show is available in podcast now. (New Link Works! - Fall 2010, CBC re-newed ALL their links with-out re-directs! Grrr..., said the Blogger.)

This last hour was most interesting to me because it dealt with The theory of Evolution going forward, it's intertwining with biology, genetics and social psychology.

The main thread was an idea called 'Punctuated Equilibrium', which is a beautiful refinement of Darwin's Evolution. The concept was foreshadowed by Ernst W. Mayr the father of the philosophy of Naturalism, who in trying to precisely define what species are - and how they evolve - arrived at Peripatric Speciation (1954). In the era before computer assisted genetic mapping his ideas were based on observation of birds using the tecniques of the day; anatomical homology (the study of form and function) and observations of embryonic development. According to Wikipedia, Mayr's ideas are the theoretical underpinnings for Niles Eldredge and Stephen Jay Gould's 'Punctuated Equilibrium'.

Punctuated Equilibrium was published in 1972. Gould was studying anthropods, those thingys that you were introduced to as fossils in eighth grade science class - relatives of those soft bodied, dark brown, multi legged bugs with the armadillo like horizontal striations along their backs, that you find under rocks.

Punctuated Equilibrium according to Wikipedia, is a theory in evolutionary biology which proposes that most sexually reproducing species will experience little evolutionary change for most of their geological history (in an extended state called stasis). When evolution occurs, it is localized in rare, rapid events of branching speciation (called cladogenesis).

Drawing of a Phylogenetic tree with branching speciation.

The success from year to year of plants with different seed-shell-thickness and in turn the success of birds with different kinds of beaks, is evidence of the honing of the potential with-in species. Those potentials in the genome are called frequencies of variation and a species ability to switch-on odd specifications that appear with a particular frequency in the genome, determine whether that species will survive a particular set of changes.

So in a period of global warming, plants that produce hard shells may prosper - thusly birds with bigger beaks flourish and birds with smaller beaks do not. In these extraordinary periods, birds that specialized in cracking soft seed shells die out all together; but that does not mean the DNA sequencing that reflects the specialization - towards smaller beaks - disappears, it just becomes less frequent in the surviving species. Small beak genealogy remains in this case as the 'dead sequences' genetic biologists are finding, gene sequences that don't seem to do anything.

In my opinion, these seemingly 'useless' sequences are the legacy of adaptation that allow species to adapt through extraordinary epochs and return over time, if necessary, to survival tools adopted earlier in radically different circumstances.

As well, our social adaptability seems to be able to be communicated across generations. In the 1970's an experiment was preformed with worms:
  • One group of worms were taught to run a maze to get to food. Another group were simply feed. The two groups were separately ground up for meal.
  • Two new groups of worms were tested for they're ability to negotiate the same maze; they scored equally.
  • Then one group was feed the meal of worms that were trained to negotiate the maze and the other was feed a meal of ground worms that was not trained.
  • Both groups were then tested in the original maze.

  • The group that was feed the generation of worms that learned the maze did statistically better at learning the same maze than the group that was feed the meal of worms that did not learn the maze.

I couldn't find a reference to this experiment on the web - but but my source is a good one, my father, who kept up with this sort of thing through the American Association for the Advancement of Science's journal "Science".

But what the experiment reveals is that there are electro-chemical metrics formed through socialization that can be passed on to the next generation. We're talking here about only the core, or as I like to call them, hard-wired instincts: fight or flight, the smell/taste of poisons, the sound of 'incoming' or falling objects, the sound of a crying baby, the sense that the 'other' is about to be agressive.

The potential for adaptability in humans is many levelled and extraordinary.

I see characteristics in humans that also appear in squirrels and other mammals, all the time. I choose the squirrel here, because there's a lot of them eating compost in my back yard.

I've written on the human-like behaviours of Raccoon families in earlier posts here.

Squirrels are close relatives to humans based on the embryonic development classification system (see image) and, really interestingly, when hemoglobins in the blood are compared, only 27 out of 146 amino acids differ between squirrels and humans (gorillas differ from us by 1, lamprey eel by 125 [see table]).

Watching the squirrels in my back yard there are squirrels who spend all their time searching for food and those who spend as much time socializing as they do collecting nuts. While it's impossible to know which strategy is more successful for squirrels, without sitting with them for some years (al a Jane Goodall), one would suppose the balanced individuals' gene sequence would be more successful than the loner, 'geeky' behaviour. But in this year where all the squirrels are putting on huge layers of fat (presumably in advance of a deep snow pack - how do they know??), perhaps the geeky individual who's focused on building the biggest store will be better positioned to procreate come spring and thus, in this particular cycle, the one to pass on his peculiar gene sequence frequency.

The Canadian Farmers Almanac predicts a colder than normal winter here in Toronto Canada (how do they know??), and the squirrels here agree, they say it's gonna freeze four feet down and not melt till May.

Now, hyperbole and mixed squirrel metaphor soup. My social networking weather report for the (hopefully) catastrophic fall/winter 2009-2010:

This coming winter of economic uncertainty is one where 'geeky' behaviour may have a better chance at surviving the deep freeze - and thus be better positioned to attract. But of coarse the 'geeky' behaving females of the species will prosper as well, meaning that success may send them looking for princes once again come May.

Ah, the winners and losers mythos; not even localized, brief, quasi-punctuated equilibrium can kill it off.



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