Saturday, March 20, 2004

Finding Your Niche

Evolutionary theory continues to develop far from the noise of irrelevant public controversies about intelligent design. Recent thinking not only departs from the so-called Neo-Darwinian synthesis of the 40s and 50s, but has already gone beyond more recent, but already long-in-the-tooth enthusiasms such as punctuated equilibrium, selfish genes, and sociobiology. Much of what’s new is largely inaudible, not because it is impossibly complicated but simply because it has yet to find its Huxley, Gould, or Dawkins. Nobody has figured out how to glamorize what may turn out to be a slow revolution in how we think about evolution. I don’t know if I can solve this public relation’s problem, but perhaps I can provide a useful oversimplification of what’s going on. After all, though I was inspired to write this little piece by a recent book, Niche Construction: the Neglected Process in Evolution by F. John Odling-Smee, Kevin N. Laland, and Marcus W. Feldman, I’ve been thinking down these lines myself for decades and can perhaps offer, if not new ideas, at least some new ways of explaining the new ideas.

The usual account maintains that the environment of organisms guides their evolution by establishing the rules of the game. Natural selection tends to favor individuals better suited to existing conditions, and these better-adapted organisms produce more offspring. What the organisms themselves do or experience is irrelevant to the process because acquired characteristics are not passed on to the next generation. What’s becoming obvious is that this very general picture is quite misleading, not because Lamarck was right and Weismann wrong, but because the activities of living things change their environment and therefore change the selection pressures that govern subsequent natural selection. To paraphrase Marx, and not accidentally, environments make organisms; but organisms make environments. Or, to quote Odling-Smee, et. al, “Rather than acting as an ‘enforcer’ of natural selection through the standard physically static elements of, for example, temperature, humidity, or salinity, because of the actions of organisms, the environment [can be] viewed as changing and coevolving with the organisms on which it acts selectively.”

Let’s begin simply. Many organisms move purposively; even bacteria can and do choose their environments to some degree. The planktonic species that rise and sink in the water column on a daily basis are not adapted to the ocean in general. They’re adapted to a narrow spatial and temporal zone inside the ocean. Many simple organisms pick their poison in more active ways. The bacteria that rot your teeth are not adapted to your mouth. They cultivate a much narrower plantation whose chemical and mechanical properties are maintained by their own collective activities. On a larger scale, innumerable species of animals burrow and have accordingly developed physiological and behavioral characteristics that make sense in a protected subterranean world but not outside of it. Or consider us. Distinctly human characters such as extended infancy and jumbo brains only make adaptive sense in a human world where vulnerable babies can be protected for many years and surpluses of food make it possible to maintain an energetically expensive nervous system.

It would be exceedingly easy to multiple examples. Indeed, once the principle is recognized, the relevant database is essentially coextensive with natural history. Charts in the Niche Construction list page after page of examples from every kingdom and phylum. What’s involved is not so much a discovery as a gestalt switch, seeing vases instead of faces. That sort of mutation has happened before in the history of the sciences. Thus the equations in Einstein’s 1905 relativity paper would have seemed quite familiar to many of the physicists of his time because the originality of the work did not lie in the discovery of any novel physical phenomena but in a reversal of perspective that suddenly made sense of a whole series of earlier results. Einstein didn’t invent the Lorentz transformations, which already, among many other things, implied that e = mc2 to anybody who passed Intermediate Algebra. Einstein looked at something old in a new way. But the Einsteinian eureka moment wasn’t just edifying: new science, including new discoveries flowed from it. Even granting the conceptual validity of the perspective, does rethinking evolution with an emphasis on the initiative of the organism and the evolution of environments change anything? In particular, will it allow biologists to solve existing puzzles in evolution and ecology; manage the environment; improve public health; or, crucially, attract grant money, the crankshaft and sine qua non of the scientific juggernaut?

Let me suggest two areas where the notion of niche construction seems to me to have immediate explanatory value: explaining the pace of evolution and explaining the evolution of complicated nervous systems:

1. Niche construction can result in positive feedback, thus drastically accelerating genotypic as well as phenotypic change. It’s likely that the practice of herding cattle greatly increased the adaptive value of tolerance to milk sugars for pastoral people, for example; but as a larger percentage of the population became lactose tolerant, dairy farming became more valuable. Or consider what may be the most sumptuous niche construction project on the planet, human language—The House of Being, according to Martin Heidegger. Absent language and the ability to accumulate knowledge that it makes possible, it’s hard to see how the enormous energetic cost of the human brain could have been amortized, not to mention the many physiological and behavioral alterations required by an oversized head and an interminable childhood. A smart animal without words is very like the proverbial Michelangelo without hands. The appearance of even rudimentary language surely had a significant multiplier effect on the adaptive value of intelligence.

I expect that evolution as a whole has been accelerated—if not simply made possible, period—by the niche construction mechanism. Over and beyond what specific adaptations become feasible in a partly controlled environment, the activities of living things make their surroundings generally more predictable and thus focus natural selection in much the same way a judge makes a trial manageable by narrowing down what is at issue in each case. In a safer world, the right ones are more likely to die without reproducing, the trap door spider who isn’t good making a trap rather than the spider who just happened to get stepped on. There are relatively few truly random deaths in the human world, for example, so that the deaths that do occur are likely to have biological significance while in a postulated state of nature, the signal provided by differential mortality would be largely swamped by the background noise. Civilization may indeed allow some of the weak and sick to survive and even reproduce, but it also spares many healthy and strong individuals who would otherwise have died of irresistible illnesses or accidents.

Odling-Smee, et. al. point out that niche construction can also retard evolutionary change. The Galapagos woodpecker finch has adopted a life style similar to woodpeckers, for example, but without the developing a similarly sharp, pointed bill or long tongue. The culturally transmitted use of a cactus spine as a tool to peck for insects has apparently rendered these anatomical adaptations unnecessary much as knives, forks, and fire allow people to eat meat without fangs or claws.

2. The learning that organisms do in their lifetimes can have an effect on subsequent generations by providing offspring with a better environment or by the cultural transmission of useful information. The value of learning, however, depends crucially on the regularity of the environment. In a chaotic world, drawing conclusions is risky or pointless since there is literally nothing to learn. Where fine-grained knowledge of the world doesn’t avail, the most adaptive strategy may be learn to slowly so that only the big, coarse lessons are absorbed after many trials. In a world that makes sense, the fastest learners have a huge advantage. One of the general consequences of niche construction, therefore, may be to make greater intelligence more adaptive by ensuring that animals grow up in a simplified, if not positively dumbed-down world.

Wednesday, March 17, 2004

Protecting a Trademark

Taken together, the deceptions of the Bush administration are like one of those ten dollar chocolate decadence desserts that features chocolate chip chocolate ice cream on top of a brownie swimming in fudge sauce with semi-sweet chocolate shavings on top. Though a little monotonous, the stylistic unity of the confection is impressive. Under the circumstances it’s easy to be distracted by the small lies that garnish the big ones. If you look carefully, however, you can see that the claim that the administration favors democracy is the largest item on the plate and easily dwarfs items like the bit about the African uranium or Bush’s military record or even the comprehensive and continuing misrepresentation about tax policy and the budget. At the very least, when an administration spokesperson writes about democracy, they should print the word as Democracy™ since we can be sure that the product in question has nothing to do with the consent of the governed and has about as much similarity to its notional referent as non-fat lard has to pig blubber. True, if the people of a weak and despised state vote as we wish them to, we may not invade or bankroll a coup. In this respect, we are exactly as fervent in our support of the popular franchise as the Soviets who, after all, also steadfastly supported the people’s inalienable right to vote for the government candidate.
Wonderful Life 3 — Direct to Tape

The first “It’s a Wonderful Life” was a sentimental but inevitable movie much loved by my reactionary but good-hearted nephew. The second was Stephen Jay Gould’s paleontological romance about the weird critters in the Burgess Shale. The third, should it ever appear, would be a memoir about my career as an Epicurean god. There’s no getting around it. Here’s the shit pool and there’s the sign, “The Pig is In.”

Between the Big Bang and the Long Whimper, there will have been only the briefest instant of awareness in cosmic history. It’s almost too good to find yourself not only in the general vicinity of the only action in town, but with a front row seat. Even inside human history, the late 20th/ early 21st Century are surely privileged since, to speak of the sciences anyway, very little was understood before 1900 and the stuff that will get figured out after 2050 is likely to be small potatoes. The secrets of nature, like fossil hydrocarbons, are a wasting asset; but for the time being we get to drive SUVs.

Tuesday, March 16, 2004

The Pornographic Theater of Morality

Nobody’s in jail for smoking cigarettes, but hundreds of thousands are incarcerated for illegal drug use. Meanwhile, the use of tobacco has declined drastically with 40% fewer smokers and half as many cigarettes smoked per capita than 1960. Anti-drug efforts have not had anything like this success despite the obvious human suffering they inflict on drug users and their families. No mystery here: the anti-tobacco people want to improve public health while the anti-drug forces have allowed morality to get in the way of doing the right thing. If you’re in the business of putting on passion plays, the last thing you want to do is actually convert the devil. As Augustine almost said, “Save them, but not yet!”

Monday, March 15, 2004

Un Petit Combination…

is a little gimmick in a game of chess that secures a tiny but significant advantage without the flash and noise of some complicated strategem. Such elegance finesses characterized the style of the former world champion, J.R. Capablanca. They are impressive because everybody can understand them, but very few can find them during a game. I ran across something like a petit combination in an early chapter of Probability Theory: The Logic of Science, the posthumous masterpiece of E.T. Jaynes, a book which has finally been published after a long and almost legendary career in manuscript. Jaynes manages to duplicate in a couple of paragraphs the famous Kurt Godel finding that no mathematical system can prove its own consistency. Since, fraud that I am, page 45 of this tome is probably as far into the work as I’m going to get with any detectable level of understanding, I take this opportunity to boil the argument down still further for the benefit of anybody whose aptitude for higher math is even more fraudulent than mine:

It is a well known that any conclusion whatsoever can be validly drawn from contradictory premises. In particular, the conclusion, “This system is consistent” can easily be derived from inconsistent premises.

Worked out example:

If Ernie is a drunken sot and Ernie is not a drunken sot, then Ernie is a drunken sot. But if it’s true that Ernie is a drunken sot, it’s also true that either Ernie is a drunken sot or these premises are consistent. But if Ernie is a drunken sot and Ernie is not a drunken sot, then Ernie is not a drunken sot. And if Ernie is not a drunken sot and it’s true that either Ernie is a drunken sot or these premises are consistent, these premises are consistent. QED. Repeat until you are a drunken sot.

Sunday, March 14, 2004

Reducing the Sauce

The Hegelian Encyclopedia begins with Being but immediately asserts that “this mere Being, as it is mere abstraction, is therefore the absolutely negative: which, in a similarly immediate aspect, is just Nothing.” J.N. Findley, a grand old Hegel scholar whose voice, stately and sonorous, could easily be taken for the voice of the Absolute Spirit itself or, alternatively, the reverberating echoes of the Malabar Caves, strictly forbid graduate students from writing papers about this particular dialectical move. It was too easy. Thinking the ALL may impress a certain sort of suburban mystic; but it is, after all, a piece of cake. You want to see me think the ALL? I can do it again if you weren’t watching—six times before lunch if necessary. Extremely general theories of history can also amount to a similarly grandiose nullity since, from a long way off, everything looks like a fly.

David Christian’s Maps of Time: An Introduction to Big History is not that empty, though anybody who has spent a fair amount of the last thirty years reading attempts to think what happened in history will recognize that what is synthesized in its pages is not human history with all the trimmings but the arguments of perhaps two dozen books. That’s not a small labor in itself. The books that seem to matter for the author—Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel; William McNeill’s Plagues and Peoples; Braudel’s Civilization and Capitalism; Janet Abu-Lughod’s Before European Hegemony; K.N. Chaudhuri’s Asia Before Europe; Gordon Child’s Man Makes Himself; Carlo Chipolla’s Before the Industrial Revolution; Alfred Crosby’s Ecological Imperialism; Terrance Deacon’s the Symbolic Species; Norbert Elias, The Civilizing Process; Ernest Gellner’s Plough, Sword, and Book; Marvin Harris’ Culture, People, Nature; E.J. Hobsbawm’s Age of Extremes; Karl Jasper’s Origin and Goal of History; Michael Mann’s The Sources of Social Power; Joseph Needham’s Science and Civilization in China; Geoffrey Parker’s The Military Revolution; Steven Shapin’s The Scientific Revolution; E.P. Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class; Charles Tilly’s Coercion, Capital, and European States; Immanuel Wallerstein’s The Modern World System; Eric Wolfe’s Europe and the People without History; and a couple of oldies but goodies like works by Marx and Weber—comprise a pretty formidable Freshman reading list, from which, incidentally, I’ve omitted most of the cosmic and evolutionary material. Not bad for the view from down under in 2003. And Christian’s distilling does leave a residue: no matter how much you’d like to avoid admitting it, human history really is about how minority groups have gone about exploiting majorities.

I have adapted my own boiled down version of history from Hegel. According to Hegel, there have been three ages of history that correspond to the successive recognitions that one person is free (Asiatic despotism), some people are free (Greek city states); and everybody is free (Germanic modernity). I’ve improved on that outline by adding a dialectical next stage in which the moderns, disappointed by the largely formal freedoms of the contemporary state, insist that everybody ought to be as free as an ancient tyrant.