Saturday, October 17, 2020

Evolving


There are lots of things no one has quite figured out about evolution. Is it gradual, or not? Why is there a relative lack of intermediate forms in the fossil record? Some species is happily cavorting or barking or ruminating away and then it's gone, and evidence of a later form pokes out of the stone, something smaller or pointier or more burrowy. What happened in between? I believe it was Stephen Jay Gould who observed a caterpillar that looks like bird poop and wondered how that particular adaptation gradually evolved: sure, it keeps predators from wanting to eat it, but where is the percentage in looking just a little bit like a turd?

It was Gould and friends who postulated something he called "punctuated equilibrium," in which a species could be expected to remain pretty much the same for a very long time, and only an abrupt change in environment or circumstance would cause the various mutations rumbling away in the margins of the population to surge. Dog-sized critters didn't gradually inch up into horses. In this scenario, mutations are happening all along, but in a large population well-adapted to its environment, those little accidental genetic ideas are overwhelmed by the sheer abundance of standard-issue traits. One creature might show up with an adorable little horn between her ears and say "Look! I can drill holes with this thing!" and everyone else is all Yeah, that's just weird. And that's it for the horn until something happens in the environment that makes hole-drilling really handy.

It's suggested that these little developments lead to species changes only in the edges of the population, where a group might break off from the main herd and get isolated geographically, and at that point some of those accidental ideas get more of a hearing. Things could then change in a hurry, in a matter of generations. And if the diverging population meets up with the original species again, they don't even recognize each other anymore. "Ew, horns," they hear. "Gross."

"Yeah? Drill you," they say back.

Some events are more consequential than others. You get a lot of tectonic mayhem happening and all of a sudden you've got the isthmus of Panama, and everything changes. Marine species discover themselves in separate oceans. Llamas move into South America. Porcupines pass them going north. Warm Caribbean waters can't play with the Pacific anymore and now there's a serviceable Gulf Stream gyre affecting things in Northern Europe. It's a big deal.

That's what I think happens in politics, too. Things don't change too much and then there's a big event, or a series of them, and minds change, and things that weren't possible before are suddenly inevitable. Gay people are persecuted and killed in one decade, fighting unsuccessfully for basic civil rights in the next, daring to demand the right to marry in the one after that; it's too soon, they're told; it's too much; some county allows marriage on a Wednesday and yanks back the licenses by Friday. But the push is on. And more and more people are willing to come out to their family and friends. And they talk to other people. It's a cascade of truth. And all of a sudden gay marriage is legal. "Ew, horns," some people still say, but nobody reallly cares what those people think anymore.

We are now in a very unusual time. A formerly well-regarded nation can't keep its people healthy, or housed, or even fed, and we're on a fast track toward an unlivable planet, yet nothing seems to change. Billionaires are still isolated in their own country called Money and we're caught in the same gyre of power and greed that has dominated the world for centuries. On the edges of the population, ideas emerge: the rise of the commons, the rejection of racism, the deliberate restructuring of a world economy toward a just and sustainable future. The ideas are shouted down. Too radical. Too soon.

But a global pandemic reveals the fault lines in the system. Hurricanes and fire and drought lay their fingers on ever more people. Women speak up about their mistreatment at the hands of men and are heard. Cell phone video reveals how much Black lives still don't matter, and citizens finally listen, and learn, and march, and keep marching. Facing disasters all around, Americans begin to imagine life with adequate health care, with livable wages, with compassion toward each other and the stranger.

The ground is quaking. We're poised to tumble toward a more sustainable existence. It's a Panama moment.

33 comments:

  1. "citizens finally listen and learn.."
    let's hope that continues, on and on, until the "money" crowd begin to feel uncomfortable and look toward change also.

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    1. I have my pitchfork all shiny and ready to go.

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    2. Have you read The Unwinding by George Packer? I highly recommend it. How we have 'evolved' is a scary mess.

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    3. I've polished my pitchfork too but what we really need is things like music and poetry. Haha! Like that's going to happen. They (dupes to the "money" crowd, in service to Their Lord The Orange One) have guns and can't wait to use them on us who look down on them with contempt.
      Have you read The Selfish Gene? Evolution favors the Fecund. People think it favors the Improved, but the more efficiently you spread your genes, the more of your genes will be out there (I hope you, Murr, have had a lot of children and grandchildren but I suspect not). If that horn on your head makes you look hot to a potential mate, there will be more horns even if they don't actually do anything useful, good or wise.

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    4. No kids. Nieces. Nephews. Dave and I consulted a geneticist and found out our kids were too likely to turn out like us.

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  2. I still have hope, but never forget the final scene in Planet of the Apes.

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    1. Hey, Jono! I went to Chatham Park this morning. Saw the creek (which was so small it didn't appear on Google Maps), the rocks (which did), and the basketball court. There were lots of big dark rocks ( I checked them ALL) and some of them MAY have had three-toed footprints back in the day, but unfortunately -- and undoubtedly -- due to either acid rain or someone jackhammering it out, there was no longer any indication of it. It's a shame; I was more excited about seeing the footprints than about garage-saling (which was pretty meh today.) But when you figure that hundred year old tombstones lose their engravings to acid rain, a fairly soft rock exposed to the same -- and millions of years old, to boot, would, too. Anyway, it was a small adventure, despite the outcome.

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    2. Thanks for checking. I guess 50 or 60 years is plenty of time to have it worn away. I remember it being on one of a pair. Even the claws were discernible back in the day.

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    3. I don't know what kind of rock y'all are talking about, except sedimentary, but anywhere I've seen dinosaur tracks they're pretty evident and out in the open and haven't deteriorated a bit. You ARE talking big three-toed tracks, right?

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    4. Yeah... Jono mentioned 3-toed tracks, and I got excited, but after so many years and so much acid rain, well. I checked all the rocks in the park (and fell over into a boggy area, but that was part of the adventure). There were marks that could have been remnants of these marks, but it just wasn't evident enough to say "Yes! Dinosaurs!"

      Paul offered to take me to the Franklin Institute to see stuff like that, but it's just not the same as seeing it in a local park across from your usual shopping center.

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    5. It was a good sized print, maybe 18" or so. Sad that it is gone, but nice that they made a nice park there. If it was dinosaur poop Murr would have gotten Really excited. :)

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  3. Another example: Andrew Yang's proposal for universal basic income seems as far off as capturing Pluto. But then a lot of people get $1200 from the government,and the possibility of a very different world seems not just do-able, but necessary.

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    1. Right? People thought he was flat nuts and now there's a different context. I love the idea of UBI.

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  4. I, Mary Ann, think this is one of your best posts, ever! Have already shared it with several friends. Well said, my friend!

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  5. I hope. How I hope. Just the same my impatient self feels a lot of worry/anger/despair. Our horned bird poop moment can't come soon enough for me.

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    1. I love sentences that have never been expressed before, ever.

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  6. "But a global pandemic reveals the fault lines in the system." BINGO! Thank you for helping me conceptualize what I've been feeling and experiencing for the past 7 months. I think we're in the middle of getting the Reset Button activated.....

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    1. Let's push it together, darlin'! I just mailed in my ballot today. MAILED IN. I trust.

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  7. Your musings are generally true, except for the statement about horse evolution,"Dog-sized critters didn't gradually inch up into horses." The evolution of the horse over some 60 million years is reasonably well accepted at least in scientific circles and has been for at least a century. And it was pretty gradual. https://www.tes.com/teaching-resource/evolution-of-the-horse-flash-cards-6325710

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    1. A really good book to read about evolution is The Beak of the Finch by Jonathan Weiner. It tells of scientists on the Galapagos Islands studying Darwin's finches and the changes in them that took place over single generations in adapting to abundancies and scarcities of food. Evolution can sometimes happen faster than one thinks.

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    2. It can, and the Galapagos "finches" (I gather they're not really finches) are the big famous example of them. But I believe Bruce because he's a dang expert. And I love that someone is always around to larn me something new. One must never assume!

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  8. I hope you are correct and not just an optimist. I saw way too many Trump signs in North Georgia today.

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    1. But really, this is pretty much a perfect post.

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    2. I'm in a bubble. If there's a Trump sign around here I haven't seen it. Here, we all fight over who is the most progressive candidate in the local races, and excoriate the fans of the only-somewhat-lefty ones. I regret this, by the way. Liberals, given any opportunity, will eat their own, and not imagine that they will run out of food.

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  9. This is my first time commenting, although I am a longtime reader. As usual the column is pithy and on point. This comment is for the science nerds wrt to evolution. To understand how genetic research is changing the understanding of evolution, I highly recommend David Quammen's book "The Tangled Tree: A Radical New History of Life." In it he lays out how gene analysis has led to the discovery of horizontal gene transfer, which has been an unknown driver of evolution - eg we have organs that only exist because of genetic transfers from other organisms. The most amazing to me, is that the existence of the placenta, on which all mammals rely for their very existence, is the result of a viral transfer of genetic material. Here is a link to a recent article about this particular finding - but the book gives a much more complete history of gene transfers among all living things has been discovered, and where it is leading - https://whyy.org/segments/the-placenta-went-viral-and-protomammals-were-born/

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    1. Wow! Thanks! I haven't read anything recently except for snippets off the web. I'll check it out.

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    2. They have the audiobook at the library (probably a paper copy as well, but I didn't look for that). Thanks Anonymous! Have you read "Gathering Moss: A Natural and Cultural History of Mosses" by Robin Wall Kimmerer? A stunningly beautiful book (and that's the audio version, read by the author), and I knew nothing about moss before picking it up. It just had such great reviews. Mosses are the amphibians of the plant world.

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  10. Dear Murr, you are sooo darn clever..my sister has gone over to the dark side..very strange times..but the Donald will soon be gone ...first things first......don't forget to see "MY OCTOPUS TEACHER" best film in 20 years..love you..Peg

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    1. Oh no, I'm sorry to hear that! Dave and I watched the octopus the other night. The octopus was beautiful and that fellow didn't have a bad chest on him, either.

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  11. the second wave is starting and in a pandemic it is usually the 2nd wave that kills the majority of people. You baby boomers are all going to die of corona-virus and finally the world will be able to make progress when you boomers are all dead

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