Tuesday, November 26, 2002

Evolution of the Reaper - November 26th, 2002

This is the first critical thinking bio-related essay I ever wrote. It wasn't assigned, it was just the product of a few lectures on evolution and whatnot. This marks the beginning of my biology career - after this point, there just wasn't any question about what i wanted to do with my life.

I'll probably re-write this later with some more fleshed-out ideas, based on everything I've learned in the ~4.5 years since I wrote this, and commentary on the modifications I intend to write can be found in the footnotes. I'll point out from the get-go that I wrote this very early in my first real introduction to biology, so there are a lot of subtley innaccurate concepts I use. These will be corrected in a later draft. (In other words, take this with a grain of salt, and give me the benefit of the doubt.)

Species survive by evolving to fit their environments. In general, this is done via survival of the fittest - there is a general degree of genetic variation within a species, and the individuals which are best suited to their environment are the ones who live the longest, and are therefore able to pass down their genes the most by reproduction. If there is a disadvantageous defect in the structure of an individual, that individual is less able to survive in the environment and is likely to die early on, or at least not pass its genes off to offspring. If there is a variation in another individual that enables it to be better suited to its environment, then its chances of reproducing more and living longer are increased. That gene is then passed down to subsequent generations, and so on. This is the basic mechanism for evolution.

Now take a look at humans. We are one of the youngest species of the planet, and look at us! We have defects coming out of our ears! Due to the structure of women's hips, they are very likely to develop knee problems. The vertebrate in our backs can get out of alignment very easily, and many of us have to get this checked often. This all makes sense; we've only been walking on our hind legs for a few thousand years! We souldn't expect ourselves to be perfect yet. We've had only the evolutionary blink of an eye to evolve to our new mode of transportation.

However, we have evolved something else extremely rapidly. We somehow evolved intelligence, and soon our life spans increased dramatically (1). We created technology and are able to cure the ailments that would kill off other species. We have lost almost all evolutionary mechanisms! Ugly people have kids, slow people have kids, disabled people have kids, and people who have gotten sick have kids. All the genetic material we have is passed on - the good the bad, and the ugly. As a result, our population is going through the roof. We have an entire industry for the purpose of keeping people alive - health care. We have taken it upon ourselves to combat mechanisms of evolution, which would normally kill us off, keep the population down, and maintain a balanced ecosystem. (2)

Humans also combat evolution as a society. It takes us years to adjust to any sort of variation in our population. Progression is a very slow process. Of course, evolution itself is also a very slow process, but it's designed to keep up with the rate of population growth (3). Our social evolution is unbelievably slower than our population growth rate. But as a result, we don't need evolution to keep us in check. Billions of years of evolution have given us the "survival of the fittest" mentality, so we compete for everything - this is the evolulionary psychological basis of capitalism (4). If you think about it, the most conservative political viewpoints are the most reasonable, evolutionarily speaking - they are very "survival of the fittest" (SOTF) based. Screw the welfare system - if you're predestined to starve to death, great. You'll be cleaning up the gene pool for the rest of us (5). The more progressive viewpoints are the ones which will most likely serve us best in the long run, and which will probably ensure a better quality of life, and a better world for future generations - in other words, one that will actually be there, since we're currently tearing our environment apart (6). Ironically, these ideas go very much against the SOTF grain - they say that if you're living in a shack, the rest of society w ill help you get back on your feet, and then anything is possible for what you do after that point. The word "progressive" indicates the value of the ideals - if you look in any thesaurus, you'll see "evolve" as a synonym for "progress"; as species are constantly evolving to survive in their environments and situations, one would think that progression would lead us to a continuous survival, and a better quality of life at that. The point is that the schools of thought that contradict evolutionary psychology - the most basic foundation of human psychology - are the ones that are most likely to save us in the long run, whereas the SOTF mentality is going to kill us, because it isn't allowing for adaptation (7). And since that's what's still running our world, that's what's going to be the end of us if we don't do something about it.

The main idea is that our society has turned the SOTF psychology that we were born with into something that inhibits evolution, and also gets us stuck in a place where we are constantly getting around the things that would normally kill off some portion of the population, thereby causing physical evolution and the like. Another interesting point is that as our society and industry continue to evolve in this direction, we continue to move away from the more natural sources of life, and stuff our selves silly on things we've created that you would never find in nature. Many of these things cause cancer - of course, because of that, most of them don't get out on the market, and it takes ages for the FDA to find something that isn't carcinogenic. I have a warning label on my shampoo that says that continued use might cause cancer. They had to stop making red M&M's for a while because they found the food dye to be carcinogenic. All these things we create that we inhale, consume, put on our skin, and in any way are exposed to are almost completely unnatural. We have put ourselves into a plastic world, where the synthetic products heal our ailments and make us fat from over-consumption of things that we aren't built to consume. But here's the catch: We don't die from it. We have everything we need to keep ourselves alive under nearly any circumstances. So where's the evolutionary mechanism?

Cancer is the epitome of an evolutionary mechanism. Something happens that causes a gene to slightly mutate - to evolve - and then that mutaiton takes over the body and kills it. How strange that a fundamental mechanism of evolution is the thing that kills us. We have created our own means of evolution - a plastic, carcinogenic world. How sad that we fix the result of this world by the plastic which killed us in the first place. When we are so set against the natural world and the ebb and flow of nature around us, the ebb and flow comes out to get us. (8)

I was just told a story this evening about a woman who tested positive for the gene that tends to lead to breast cancer. It wa horribly common in her family and as a result, the women typically died young. She saw everyone else who had died from it, or was suffering from it, take every step they could to fight it, but to no avail. She decided to try a completely different strategy - she changed her lifestyle, became a deeply spiritual person, and lived as close to the earth as possible. She went in again to get tested for the presence of the same cancer gene years later. It was gone. (9)

I'm not completely sure what to make of that story. I'm not going to continue this essay at this moment because I recognize that I need to let this sit. Now that I have it all written down, I'll be able to process it more. Something tells me that I'll be exploring this for the rest of my life. (10)

(1) More accurately, we evolved knowlege as a means of adapting to an environment in which we had to innovate new strategies of survival. I've got The Symbolic Species by Terrence Deacon sitting on my bookshelf waiting for me, and once I start reading it, I anticipate a huge pile of essays similar to this one (granted, of better quality) on that topic. Stay tuned.
(2) My AP Biology teacher, Mr. Delp, pointed out that all the things I reference in this paragraph are in essence "our evolution - it's how we make our living." He has a point, and I'll probably modify that section later.
(3) I'm cringing at my use of the words "progress" and "design" in reference to evolution. It's a trend I see in a lot of my writing from back then, not because I was even remotely inclinded to believe any model of "intelligent design" but because my understanding of evolution was relatively immature and very plastic. I'm willing to forgive such faux pas, despite the fact that such misguided ideas were what fueled a few similar pieces of writing, because the thing I'm most interested in is the fact that I was writing these things at all in the first place, and not their accuracy as judged by my current college-level understanding of the concepts.
(4) Note the reference to evolutionary psychology. This tickles me for two reasons: first off, my stepmother (who married my father only a few months before I wrote this), as a cultural anthropologist, schooled me very early on the evolutionary psychology, especially in reference to dating - which had bizarre and lasting effects on my strategies therein. But about a year later, I stumbled across Edward O. Wilson, the guy who not only pioneered the field that led to evolutionary psychology, but also came up with theories of biological, social, and intellectual evolution that would later lead me to view him as my role model. Seeing the reference in this early essay tickles me, since I had no idea at the time where that particular set of ideals would lead me.
(5) Insert commentary about the Darwin awards. :)
(6) Yes, I was raised in Berkeley. Get over it.
(7) Mr. Delp points out here, "no, it will kill the 'unfit' while the 'fit' (i.e. rich people) do just fine." He has a point, but the thing I was more particularly referring to (I think) was resource depletion, and the devastating impact a large-scale competition therefor could make.
(8) It's funny how little my values and perspectives have changed.
(9) Turns out this is very common with epigenetics, one of my favorite applications of genetics. There are environmental factors, primarily having to do with diet, that can influence the expression of genes on a semi-permenant level. Most notably, a bad diet can expose detrimental genes to transcription factors, while a good diet can silence those same genes, sometimes for several generations. I'll probably write an entire thing on it at some point.
(10) OK, it's a bad way to end an essay. But this wasn't done in seriousness anyway. Stay posted for a new version!

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