In Evolution's Orchestra, Soloists Aren't the Fittest

A chorus of new science is showing that evolution has orchestrated life to leave no room for solos. A grander view of life is revealing higher-level, need-centric relational logic patterns (as in David Haskell’s The Songs of Trees).


1. “The fundamental unit of biology is... not the ‘self’ but the network,” says David Haskell in his mind-quaking book The Songs of TreesHe’s right. That other basic unit of biology, the selfish gene, gets too much glory. All life needs relationships.

2. Trees show that life’s seeming individuality is “a temporary manifestation of relationship.” A tree “is not an individual made of plant cells, but a community of cells” from many species, “fungus, bacteria, protist, alga, nematode, and plant.”

3. Many ocean-going microbes have evolved so that "their DNA cannot meet basic needs… The smallest viable genetic unit… is… the networked community" (separation means death).  

4. Such relationship dependence is not rare, it’s the rule: “Microbe-free plants... would quickly die.” And microbe-lacking animals don’t thrive.

5. These life-enabling collectives are called holobionts. “Every natural animal and plant is a holobiont consisting of the host and diverse symbiotic microbes and viruses.”  

6. Genome gaps, and holobionts, show that evolution has discovered the joys (and woes) of specialization and division of labor — and its resulting interdependence (life teems with unseen teamwork).  

7. That a “smallest viable genetic unit” often isn’t all contained in a single genome complicates the idea of evolutionary fitness. We’ve long known about beyond-your-body genetic interests in “inclusive fitness”: Kinship alters “selfish gene” calculus (loosely, it’s worth risking your life ”to save two brothers or eight cousins”).

8. But holobionts and Haskell’s networks suggest further kinds of inclusive (or collective) fitness, based on degree of dependence (not kinship). Somehow the logic of genes must embody and enact relational fitness (or collective survival knowhow) to handle extra-genomic relationships essential to survival (see extended “survival vehicles”).

9. At these higher or networked levels of life organization, collections of relationships sink or swim together (see bacterial social contracts in “Survival of the Friendliest”).

10. These networked communities exhibit intelligence and behavioral responses at individual and collective levels (at nodes, and in relationships, and systemically). Nodes that damage their networks, harm themselves (see needism).

11. Haskell says "to claim that forests think is not an anthropomorphism" (they collectively take in, process, and react to environmental information).

12. Gene-centric views have struck too selfish a note, and other perspectives can reveal richer patterns. For example, a gene’s-eye view casts bodies as short-lived ways for (“immortal”) genes to replicate. But Haskell’s networks of relationships also outlast bodies. And the logic of extra-genomic relationships constrains the “immortality” of genes (see unnamed natural laws that constrain evolution).

13. Haskell’s grander view of life helps reveal new need-centric relational logic patterns (see extending Turing to the logic of “universal survivors”).

14. Every “self” is a society. No lone life can last long. Evolution has orchestrated life to be relational. And don’t forget Orgel's 2nd rule: Evolution is cleverer than you.

PS Even physics is getting relational.

 

-- 

Illustration by Julia SuitsThe New Yorker cartoonist & author of The Extraordinary Catalog of Peculiar Inventions

3D printing might save your life one day. It's transforming medicine and health care.

What can 3D printing do for medicine? The "sky is the limit," says Northwell Health researcher Dr. Todd Goldstein.

Northwell Health
Sponsored by Northwell Health
  • Medical professionals are currently using 3D printers to create prosthetics and patient-specific organ models that doctors can use to prepare for surgery.
  • Eventually, scientists hope to print patient-specific organs that can be transplanted safely into the human body.
  • Northwell Health, New York State's largest health care provider, is pioneering 3D printing in medicine in three key ways.
Keep reading Show less
Big Think Edge
  • The word "creative" is sometimes waved around like a badge of honor. We speak of creativity in hushed tones, as the special province of the "talented". In reality, the creative process is messy, open, and vulnerable.
  • For this reason, creativity is often at its best in a group setting like brainstorming. But in order to work, the group creative process needs to be led by someone who understands it.
  • This sense of deep trust—that no idea is too silly, that every creative impulse is worth voicing and considering—is essential to producing great work.

Has a black hole made of sound confirmed Hawking radiation?

One of Stephen Hawking's predictions seems to have been borne out in a man-made "black hole".

Image source: NASA/JPL-Caltech
Surprising Science
  • Stephen Hawking predicted virtual particles splitting in two from the gravitational pull of black holes.
  • Black holes, he also said, would eventually evaporate due to the absorption of negatively charged virtual particles.
  • A scientist has built a black hole analogue based on sound instead of light.
Keep reading Show less

Greenland loses 4 trillion pounds of ice in one day

Normally, the landscape in this photo would be a white ice sheet.

Surprising Science
  • Climate scientists say that Greenland is experiencing ice losses that are unusually early and heavy.
  • Two main weather factors are fueling the losses: a high-pressure system and the resulting low cloud cover.
  • Greenland is a major contributor to sea-level rise.
Keep reading Show less