Thursday, April 15, 2010

Have humans peaked as a species?

Having recently refreshed some Natural Selection theory, I started wondering about how humans fitted into the whole big picture. You see there are basic rules to the process of natural selection. Let me summarize:

Natural selection is effectively the recognized process by which living organisms on a species level are able to improve and optimize traits they posses to allow them to be more competitive both with other species and their own kind. This kind of specialization and adaptation doesn’t simply happen; it requires a particular set of circumstances to initiate and develop into something that translates into a physical/behavioural change that increases an individual’s fitness. I’ve listed the particular set of circumstances below:

  1. Variation – change cannot happen unless there is some sort of background variation between individuals (outliers kick ass…)
  2. Fitness consequences - that background variation needs to give some individuals the edge over others (never complain about life being unfair).
  3. Inheritance - a favourable trait must be passed on to the next generation to be of any use (don’t keep secrets).
  4. Limiting resources – basically you can’t win if you don’t have anything to fight for (so the ideal world is one where we are running out of everything… who’d have thought).

We often perceive ourselves (humans) as the most influential living force on the planet. Quite a naïve view considering the only real power we have is an amazing ability to wipe out all life on Earth in the space of a few hours... It doesn’t take a genius to realize that our lifestyles at the moment are not sustainable. In order to restore some form of balance we could use a healthy shot of natural selection…

…Or couldn’t we?

Let us see how humans fare under those ideal natural selection circumstances mentioned above:

  1. Variation - I think it’s fair to say that humans are quite diverse. As long as there is room on this planet for people like Steven Hawking and Julius Malema or Sarah McLachlan and Lady Gaga… I’ll give this a YES, MOST DEFINITELY (consider them opposite sides of the scale).
  2. Fitness consequences – Hmmm, a tricky one considering basic human rights and upholding those rights (ahaha!)… Theoretically we should all be on par with regards to fitness consequences. Of course in an equal society some are always more equal than others. Then again, there is always the pattern suggesting that lower class society tend to have more children compared to middle/upper class society. In terms of natural selection, these should be the individuals with lower fitness that should be weeded out. In fact modern advances in health care have provided our unfit individuals ample opportunities to continue existing (it would be rather immoral to castrate all men before administering diabetes treatment or having mandatory hormone replacement therapy for women without 20/20 vision). Fitness consequences could theoretically work in human populations, I’m not too sure the whole “live your life but don’t have kids” idea will appeal to the flawed masses. Of course we could just as easily create a super race by starting an Olympian breeding program…just a thought.
  3. Inheritance – I’m pretty sure we can once again blame modern health care for giving flawed humans more opportunities to breed than are absolutely necessary. This unfortunately leads to a future wherein the majority of humans rely more and more on artificial means of survival. Are we cultivating a future society of medicated wieners? Perhaps, we are already at that stage…
  4. Limiting resources – I don’t think we have a problem here. Humans will fight over something as trivial as a rugby ball. We are so trigger happy that we will even go to war over petty meaningless speculation. People are rarely happy with what they have these days so the successful pursuit of wealth and material could be an excellent way to develop traits. Wait they have a word for that, it’s called capitalism.

The Verdict!!!

Humans are nature’s rebels. We are perfectly aware of and acknowledge the existence of natural selection yet we do all in our power to avoid the process. One could argue that if we want to do what is best for our species in terms of sustainability and improvement over generations, we would need to do quite a lot of unethical weeding or immoral rule implementation w.r.t. breeding. On the other hand, if we continue down the path we are currently on, we will more than likely end up a society constructed from a bunch of materialistic, capitalist, idiot druggies…

…so there

Monday, April 12, 2010

The quest for flawless science

As a junior scientist
studying living organisms I am constantly in pursuit of the holy grail of our field.

A perfect study!

The one where you’ve considered all the factors, taken every precaution, sifted out all the nonsense and analyzed every ounce of information from your precious data. All of your hard work and effort pay off after you handed in that manuscript and it returned just as clean. Finding out that your best effort was not good enough is quite possibly the scariest thing that can happen to our kind. We’d sooner give up entirely and become bartenders in the UK (or pack fish in Alaska…that’s quite a popular one) than continue down a path where we were certain we’d be dishonoured.

Why all the talk of uncertainty you ask? Well today I read through some old text books and realised something. It seemed little at the time but after some thought the significance of what I had come to realise seemed quite epic. In my pursuit of perfection I had forgotten about one of our most sacred rules in biology.

Don’t be an idiot!

Let me explain. I started thinking about how flawed my motives and study could potentially be after reading this sentence “If one attempted to study adaptation simply by measuring survival and reproductive success, one would reach the vacuous conclusion that those that survive and reproduce are those that survive and reproduce” (Scriven, 1959). GASP! I was so obsessed about eliminating external factors to find out about sugar preferences in avian frugivores that I had inadvertently shot myself in the foot. My theoretical approach to the question I had asked had focused solely on isolating and studying a single factor. It would have been more appropriate for me to try mimicking my test subject’s natural environment to learn something more useful and applicable to the real world. Now (3 years on) all I can do is predict vague trends, much too shallow and universally applicable to actually be meaningful and contribute significantly to my field of study.

Oh, FishSTicks!