Monday, September 28, 2009

The "Theorum" of Evolution

By Kristopher Hite

Within the first pages of Richard Dawkins' newest book - The Greatest Show on Earth; the evidence for evolution the author continues on his life-long spree of neologisms by coining a new term for expressing the concept of evolution. Dawkins proposes a change from calling it the "theory of evolution" to the "theorum of evolution." This is not to be confused with a mathematical THEOREM spelled with an e but is chosen to give a more specific slant and weight to a particular meaning of the word "theory" in the context of evolution. This particular meaning being a systematic set of ideas that account for a body of facts. Dawkins is trying to provide the lexicon with a word that differentiates the meaning provided in the last sentence from the secondary definition of the word "theory" which is a "speculative conjecture, or idea" giving the impression that, used in this sense, an idea is merely a concept or "only a theory." This second definition is often used by intelligent design proponents to basically give the false impression that the concept of evolution has not been proven.

Well it has, and the most stark evidence for descent with modification driven by natural selection that chemical biology can currently provide lies in the genetic code. Comparing sequences of DNA we are able to see that certain sequences match and others partially match in mammoths and mice, frogs and dogs, and in some genes even humans and plants. We can see in the code what is known as molecular phylogeny. We see in matching strings of As Ts Gs and Cs that every organism is living at the tip of a theoretical branch in an ancient tree of life with a central trunk from which we all descended through countless generations of successfully prolific ancestors. To give an example, the genes that dictate the human body plan (Hox genes) are also present in all major branches in the "animal" part of the tree. It has been shown by comparative molecular phylogenetic analysis that these genes arose before the Cambrian explosion about 530 million years before any kind of hominid creature roamed the earth.

Great, but why should we care? Why should anyone not making their living in a biologically inclined academic setting need to understand the "theorum" of evolution?

Humans are uniquely positioned in the animal kingdom to predict and outmaneuver the inherent screening process that normally facilitates natural selection among all other organisms. On a single person scale, I myself would not be alive today were it not for the maneuvering of medical technology. When I was born I inhaled part of the afterbirth and had to have my lungs pumped right away. On a global scale, the natural selection screen of limited fossil fuels is rapidly approaching and regardless of your thoughts on the evidence for global climate change, survival in the face of resource depletion requires that we understand how evolution by natural selection works if we hope to overcome and outsmart the brutality of resource wars.

In the above movie when I talk of a "peaceful survival strategy" being the most successful. I should qualify that further by saying a cooperative and empathetic strategy will out-compete a selfish and aggressive strategy. This is demonstrated by the algorithms of Robert Axelrod explained in great detail in the later chapters the Selfish Gene while the parameters of those strategies are further explored in this paper.

Serendipitously, in a review (which I had not read until after composing this post) of the new book The Age of Empathy by Frans De Waal some of the concepts that I just mentioned are fleshed out even more. The review was aptly titled Survival of the Kindest and apperaerd in SEED magazine last week.  Check it out for yourself.

This post has been submitted to the NESCent competition for a travel award for the ScienceOnline 2010 un-conference in Durham, NC, January 14‐17th, 2010.

To the Judges. I realize that this post is less than the 750 word minimum set as a standard by the competition, but I would argue that because of the video the post actually far exceeds 750 words. there is no specification in the rules that the 750 words had to be all in written format.

Axelrod, R., & Dion, D. (1988). The Further Evolution of Cooperation Science, 242 (4884), 1385-1390 DOI: 10.1126/science.242.4884.1385
Gehring WJ, Kloter U, & Suga H (2009). Evolution of the Hox gene complex from an evolutionary ground state. Current topics in developmental biology, 88, 35-61 PMID: 19651301


Anonymous said...

"a cooperative and empathetic strategy will out-compete a selfish and aggressive strategy."

Within the in-group. Relations between groups can be quite nasty no matter the theoretical perspective.

That is something that game theorists, kin selectionists and group selectionists agree on. In fact, there might be a correlation between in-group altruism/cooperation and out-group enmity. A individual who is not particularly loyal to any one group would be expected to be less discriminating between those belonging to different groups.

Altruism at one level of biological organization -> selfishness at another.

Sure, the in-group can be expanded - perhaps through trade, intermarriage or some other form of exchange.

In any case it's a fallacy to attempt to derive ethical imperatives from nature.

Anonymous said...


I meant a cooperative and empathetic strategy within the in-group.

Tom Paine's Ghost said...

"In any case it's a fallacy to attempt to derive ethical imperatives from nature."

Hmmmm. I can't say that I am trying to derive an ethical imperative from the lessons of the prisoner's dilemma or other game theory results but rather I am trying to provide a reason for non-scientists to take warning from the fossil record. Rather than trying to delude ourselves with the false assumption that the very genetic constitution that represents "human" follows a Plato-style ideal form humans should understand that our genetic constitution is actually transmutable. If we as individuals wish to reduce suffering among other humans (and yes, selfishly this means other machines carrying our own genes) and indeed other organisms as well then it would behoove us to have a deep understanding of evolution particularly the succession of ephemeral forms coming into and going out of existence in the fossil record (as Ken Miller so keenly describes in his opening at this debate at Seton Hall If we can come up with some testable hypotheses as to what characteristics give the 1% of all organisms that have survived through the most generations this unique ability we might find some applications for our own human behavior. As we have the unique ability to control our phenotypes of behavior in real time.

Tom Paine's Ghost said...

I read your comment again and have further rebuttal.

"Sure, the in-group can be expanded - perhaps through trade, intermarriage or some other form of exchange"

When you say the word individual you are speaking of a single organism? But this is not the individual the single genetic unit of information is the individual - the gene.
And on this level everything alive is in one group based on genetic homology. That is why I talk about the trunk of the grand molecular phylogenetic tree.

Anonymous said...

That seems a useful addition to the language but...

"[T]he most stark evidence for descent with modification driven by natural selection that chemical biology can currently provide lays in the genetic code."

As my mother would say, Is it a chicken? "Lays" is a transitive verb. I think you meant "lies". (Sorry:)

And the review of de Waal's book on Seed (not the book itself) was ably critiqued by David Sloan Wilson. When I read the review on Friday, I was appalled by the reviewer's misunderstanding of Darwin and Dawkin's stated views on the evolutionary roots of altruism.

Tom Paine's Ghost said...

Don't be sorry at all! I appreciate the editing help. I need all I can get. Thanks or the keen eye.

Do you hapen to have the link to the critique by Wilson. As a SUNY system alum I also like to see what my fellow New Yorkers have to say about these things.

SoreLoser said...

I was Anonymous-Teh-Grammar-Critic above.

The link to Wilson's review of the review is in Seed's header/link to the review but can be reached at Altruism vs. Selfishness: Case Closed.

Also of interest is the series of blog posts DS Wilson has done on the need for Truth and Reconciliation for Group Selection on HuffPo. I have only read the first 3 entries and, being a layman, I am probably missing much of the background but they are interesting anyway.

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