Monday, January 02, 2006


Dr. Tatiana Explains It All For You

Further thoughts on the New Year . . .

Olivia Judson, an evolutionary biologist at Imperial College in London and author of Dr. Tatiana's Sex Advice to All Creation: The Definitive Guide to the Evolutionary Biology of Sex, has a wonderful New Years Day editorial, "Why I'm Happy I Evolved," in the New York Times:

After recounting some of the independently fascinating facts that are rife in biology (for example, that the malaria-causing single-celled parasite is actually a descendant of algae or that the sea slug Elysia chlorotica extracts chloroplasts from algae to use to manufacture energy from sunlight), she then explains how the theory of evolution illuminates these seemingly random factoids:

It's not that I have a fetish for obscure facts. It's that small facts add up to big pictures. For although Mother Nature's infinite variety seems incomprehensible at first, it is not. The forces of nature are not random; often, they are strongly predictable.

For example, if you were to discover a new species and you told me that the male is much bigger than the female, I would tell you what the mating system is likely to be: males fight each other for access to females.

Or if you discover that the male's testicles make up a large part of his weight, I can tell you that the females in his species consort with several males at a time.

Suppose you find that a particular bacterium lives exclusively in the gullets of leeches and helps them digest blood. Then I can tell you how that bacterium's genome is likely to differ from those of its free-living cousins; among other changes, the genome will be smaller, and it will have lost sets of genes that are helpful for living free but useless for living inside another being.

Because a cell is a kind of factory that produces proteins, and because proteins can have a variety of components, some of which are cheaper to synthesize than others, you might expect that proteins that are mass produced are made from cheaper components than proteins that are constructed only occasionally. And you'd be right.

The patterns are everywhere. ...

As Ms. Judson shows, echoing Theodosius Dobzhansky, it is evolutionary theory that transforms that mass of unconnected facts, no matter how interesting (or not) on their own, "into a magnificent tapestry, a tapestry we can contemplate and begin to understand."

Then comes her "take home message" that puts the lie to the fears of creationists and those who view religion as both the opiate of the masses and a good thing, that knowledge of our ancestry will somehow lower our self-worth and lead us to act in ways more appropriate to "beasts":

I find that in viewing ourselves as one species out of hundreds of millions, we become more remarkable, not less so. No other animal that I have heard of can live so peaceably in such close quarters with so many individuals that are unrelated. No other animal routinely bothers to help the sick and the dying, or tries to save those hurt in an earthquake or flood.

Which is not to say that we are all we might wish to be. But in putting ourselves into our place in nature, in comparing ourselves with other species, we have a real hope of reaching a better understanding, and appreciation, of ourselves.
Now that’s a consummation devoutly to be wished.

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