Evolutionary biology

News from biology, and its implications for engineering

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Poor Focus, or Improved Focus?

The NBC News short features on the brain, "Mind Matters"
just featured a claim by researcher Adam Gazzaley that older people lose focus, because they are not able to "multi-task" or "filter" as well as young people.

Of course, this is only a claim. I'm sure in the lab, there's a lot of heated discussion about this young researcher's announcement and subsequent press. It's such a shame that this discussion will never reach the height of dissemination that the original story achieved. But, that's the nature of modern flashy, cliche-ridden sound-byte media, which makes it increasingly difficult, for people of any age, to find deep discussion amid the chaos.

And that's the problem with the study, or at least the sound-byte about the study we saw on NBC. In our scatter-shot media-dominated lives, older people are learning not to react too quickly to multiple stimuli, because there is rarely a good reason to do so. Instinct is kicking in, insisting upon a holistic focus, in order to keep an eye out for what is truly important.

There were some interesting assumptions in Gazzaley's study: 1) that what a person consciously expressed as important, or told the researcher was important, or was told by the researcher was most important, somehow was the most important thing. Clearly there are more layers of prioritization, including those in the subjects history, which cannot possibly be obscured in a laboratory. 2) That there is a problem with not being an obedient multi-tasker in a work or school environment ... this might be a problem for a boss that wants a robot or pet, but is not a problem for an independent person, or a boss who wants independent, clear-thinking people around.

The problems with the study and its claims go to the very heart of modern hyper-stimulation, and one could reasonably infer that this is yet another example of a scientific study effected by social goals perceived by the research team.

Thursday, December 22, 2005

Life itself

The forces and mechanisms that comprise evolution are typically described as 1) selective pressures upon populations 2) reproduction with discrete genetic inheritance and 3) genetic mutation and recombination.

This list is inadequate.

The most glaring omission is probably life itself: a reliable, coherent physical system of morphological unfolding, based upon differentiating steps under the guidance of genetic information. This stunningly robust developmental physiology, essentially always creates a functioning life. That is extraordinary, yet it is not investigated in proportion to its extraordinariness.

Life's doggedness is quite tangible, yet the nature of its force, and the source of its robustness is still a mystery. The issue is so overarching it is barely ever mentioned, except by specialists working on the origins of life, and then only occasionally. Without this force of life, natural selection could not take place, genetic information would have nothing to guide, and genetic mutation & recombination would be moot.

There's some scientific cultural artifact that makes discussion of a "life force" somehow sound religious. I'm not religious, but I get funny looks when I say "life force". One of the most basic biological mysteries is regularly ignored by the scientific establishment, much to the impoverishment of scientific discussion.

Wednesday, March 30, 2005

Power, profit, evolution

The new political power, and the new marketing power, of anti-evolutionary punditry has burst into the US media lately. Although the scientific community is perfectly capable of arguing for common sense, I believe they don't really understand who they are arguing with. Scientists seem to think they're arguing with 'religious nuts'. It's not true. They are arguing with hired guns from the marketing & public relations industry.

The majority of people in the country do not give a whoop about this battle. Nor do the majority of very religious people. Religion is being used in a media war for certain power interests.

Why? Ever since the 60's, when 'people power' began to really topple 'elite power', there has been a massive reaction in the halls of power. The elite have used every means at their disposal -- publicity, religion, covert action and massive violence -- to push the world as far away from democracy as possible. Seizing religion is a major item on their agenda, because reactionary religious policy is superb for keeping people complacent about the real world.

To conquer the 'religious market', the elites picked battles on inconsequential ideological fronts. Note that they never quote the bible and work to eliminate hypocrisy, greed, poverty, etc. They are rich as croesus, and they don't want anyone to know it. Instead, they'll concentrate on schoolteachers, the terminally ill, and poor pregnant women. Easy targets that keep pro-democracy organizers on their toes.

Why are they against democracy? Because it cuts into their profits, by definition. If everyone had equal political power, they would have relatively equal financial power. Which means that it would be difficult to pay people minimum wage, and fire them at will, when you're making record profit. We saw this a bit in the Internet boom, when employees had employers over a barrel, and so workers were getting unprecedented stock options. This, by itself, made those in power work to prick the Internet bubble as soon as possible.

The role of science is to serve profit. When it does not serve those interests, or works against them, scientists have a battle on their hands. In this case, they need to form coalition with other workers, not against religion. It's a giant social chasm to cross, because of science's role as courtier to power. But it's getting increasingly critical to stop arguing with power, and start forming a popular constituency for equality & common sense.

Thursday, December 23, 2004

Selective Pressure Initiates Change

I remember a scary building, now long since demolished, in the sciences complex at the University of Oregon in Eugene. This must have been the late 1970's -- I had a key to most of the science buildings, and would explore the nooks and crannies in my off hours, to clear my head. The scary one was abandoned, and had a "danger: radiation" sign on almost every door from the outside all the way through to the bathrooms. It was filled with sinks and tables that made a Geiger counter sing.

This was a biology laboratory. What on earth was all this unnaturally concentrated radiation for? What did it have to do with biology? The answer, as it turns out, is "nothing".

These labs were for drosophila research. Generations of fruit flies were bred with different artificial levels of background radiation in order to 1) quantify the genetic damage induced by the different levels and 2) track the journeys of mutations over generations.

Although much was learned about the structure of the genetic transmission, the impetus for the research was a theory, which is now discredited, but which is still found in the "background dogma". It asserts that the genetic variation which fuels natural selection emerges through x-ray induced genetic mutation. This was, with hindsight, a convenient interpretation of Darwinism in the Age of the Atom. In much the same way "Social Darwinism" -- more-or-less preaching the survival of the strong individual -- was a convenient interpretation of Darwin in the age of the Robber Barons.

The idea that "hopeful monsters provide this necessary variation" flew in the face of a basic observation: living things tend to be quite healthy, but genetic damage tends to kill or maim. The mutated drosophila certainly confirmed this observation.

I saw the answer to this conundrum presented quite clearly, although not generalized, on a NOVA program the other day, about dogs. Under selective pressures -- for example "friendliness towards humans" -- foxes undergo changes in metabolic and hormonal pathways, and developmental timing, that radically change their morphology. They look like domesticated dogs in the subsequent generation. [From experiments by Dmitri Belyaev]

Although the specific change in visible morphology may not be 'shaped' by selective pressures, the change itself is still the direct result of selective pressures.  This doesn't require a separate mechanism, such as random mutation introduced by x-rays. The selective pressure itself creates the change, and hence the subsequent variation, simply by 'recruiting' the existing variation and the manifold indirect combinatoric effects of the mechanisms of genetic and epigenetic inheritance.

As is often the case, our cognition tends to separate "roles" in nature before recognizing that they are not so separate. Externally-mutated DNA is not required to act in the role of 'variation fuel' for evolution. I don't mean that DNA mutation doesn't exist. It's just not as fundamental as previously imagined. In some sense, it's a perfect human semantic mistake, emerging from the capture of the broad idea 'genetic variation' by the specific notion of 'randomly mutated DNA'.

Note that much of 'genetic programming' in computer science is based on this superceded notion of random mutation's role. It will need to evolve -- to a newer theory -- if the goal of this technique is to cultivate adaptive power equivalent to that found by evolutionary biologists.