from the world's big
The formula that predicts every animal’s life story
Life forms on Earth are wildly varied, but scientists discover a single formula that predicts every one's life cycle.
- Earth's species diversity is stunning, but there are a couple of battles we all face.
- Our response to these challenges set the course of our lives.
- Plug in a couple of variables, and a new formula predicts how we live, reproduce, and die.
The diversity of life on Earth is mind-boggling. What could humans, octopuses, birds, and plankton possibly have in common? Well, the truth is that all of us/them have evolved to overcome some of the same biophysical constraints. As a result, says a study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, certain universal rules can be derived that encompass all of our life histories.
"If you impose these constraints on the mathematical model, then certain unifying patterns fall out," says ecology and evolutionary biology postdoctoral fellow Joseph "Robbie" Burger, of the Institute of the Environment and the Bridging Biodiversity and Conservation Science program at the University of Arizona.
Our common struggles
Image source: Budimir Jevtic/Shutterstock
"The life histories of animals reflect the allocation of metabolic energy to traits that determine fitness and the pace of living. Here, we extend metabolic theories to address how demography and mass–energy balance constrain allocation of biomass to survival, growth, and reproduction over a life cycle of one generation." — Burger, et al
These challenges present themselves in different ways in different habitats, and so our responses vary. Nonetheless, we all aspire to survive for a while, reproduce, and get out of the way of our offspring. Whether one is a turtle laying millions of eggs on a beach or an elephant giving birth to one calf at a time, our goals are essentially the same.
The study begins with an axiom: "Energy is the staff of life." The sustainable allocation of energy is therefore something all species need to establish in order to survive. According to the study, there are two areas in which workable tradeoffs have to be found for any creatures:
- A "mass–energy balance. . . so that over a lifespan in each generation, all of the energy acquired. . . is expended on respiration and production, and energy allocated to production exactly matches energy lost to mortality."
- A "constraint on mortality so that, regardless of the number of offspring produced, only two survive to complete a life cycle of one generation."
Predicting a species’ life cycle
Image source: Ihnatovich Maryia/Shutterstock
Burger and his colleagues derived a predictive formula informed by a species' response to the two constraints.
"What's so cool about these equations," says Burger, "is that to solve it, all you have to know are two values — the size of the offspring at independence and the adult size. If you plug that into the equation, you get the number of offspring an organism will produce in a lifetime [as well as] myriad other life history characteristics."
Assembling and analyzing a database of 36 animals' life histories, Burger and his colleagues were able to create a formula that can accurately predict a number of things about any species' life story:
- the length of a species' single generation
- the species' mortality rate
- the number of offspring the species reproduces and the size of the offspring
- the type and extent of parental care common to the species
Prior to the new study, the only widely used formula had been the notion that the smaller the offspring the more of them there were, and vice versa. Burger's finding indicate that things are not quite that simple.
The new formula is of more than academic importance. As we work to understand habitat changes caused by humankind and the species they impact, and as we seek to help those species survive, knowledge of their natural life cycles is invaluable, particularly given the incredible variety of life forms involved, many of whose life stories remain largely hidden from us.
"We now need to put these equations to practice," asserts Burger, "by developing user-friendly programming tools, collaborating with field scientists refine ecosystem models and informing management decisions."
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From "if-by-whiskey" to the McNamara fallacy, being able to spot logical missteps is an invaluable skill.
- A fallacy is the use of invalid or faulty reasoning in an argument.
- There are two broad types of logical fallacies: formal and informal.
- A formal fallacy describes a flaw in the construction of a deductive argument, while an informal fallacy describes an error in reasoning.
Appeal to privacy<p>When someone behaves in a way that negatively affects (or could affect) others, but then gets upset when others criticize their behavior, they're likely engaging in the appeal to privacy — or "mind your own business" — fallacy. Examples:<br></p><ul><li>Someone who speeds excessively on the highway, considering his driving to be his own business.</li><li>Someone who doesn't see a reason to bathe or wear deodorant, but then boards a packed 10-hour flight.</li></ul><p>Language to watch out for: "You're not the boss of me." "Worry about yourself."</p>
Sunk cost fallacy<p>When someone argues for continuing a course of action despite evidence showing it's a mistake, it's often a sunk cost fallacy. The flawed logic here is something like: "We've already invested so much in this plan, we can't give up now." Examples:<br></p><ul><li>Someone who intentionally overeats at an all-you-can-eat buffet just to get their "money's worth"</li><li>A scientist who won't admit his theory is incorrect because it would be too painful or costly</li></ul><p>Language to watch out for: "We must stay the course." "I've already invested so much...." "We've always done it this way, so we'll keep doing it this way."</p>
If-by-whiskey<p>This fallacy is named after a speech given in 1952 by <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Noah_S._Sweat" target="_blank">Noah S. "Soggy" Sweat, Jr.</a>, a state representative for <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mississippi" target="_blank">Mississippi</a>, on the subject of whether the state should legalize alcohol. Sweat's argument on prohibition was (to paraphrase):<br></p><p><em>If, by whiskey, you mean the devil's brew that causes so many problems in society, then I'm against it. But if whiskey means the oil of conversation, the philosopher's wine, "</em><em>the stimulating drink that puts the spring in the old gentleman's step on a frosty, crispy morning;" then I am certainly for it.</em></p>
Slippery slope<p>This fallacy involves arguing against a position because you think choosing it would start a chain reaction of bad things, even though there's little evidence to support your claim. Example:<br></p><ul><li>"We can't allow abortion because then society will lose its general respect for life, and it'll become harder to punish people for committing violent acts like murder."</li><li>"We can't legalize gay marriage. If we do, what's next? Allowing people to marry cats and dogs?" (Some people actually made this <a href="https://www.daytondailynews.com/news/national/cats-marrying-dogs-and-five-other-things-same-sex-marriage-won-mean/dLV9jKqkJOWUFZrSBETWkK/" target="_blank">argument</a> before same-sex marriage was legalized in the U.S.)</li></ul><p>Of course, sometimes decisions <em>do </em>start a chain reaction, which could be bad. The slippery slope device only becomes a fallacy when there's no evidence to suggest that chain reaction would actually occur.</p><p>Language to watch out for: "If we do that, then what's next?"</p>
"There is no alternative"<p><span style="background-color: initial;">A modification of the </span><a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/False_dilemma" target="_blank" style="background-color: initial;">false dilemma</a><span style="background-color: initial;">, this fallacy (often abbreviated to TINA) argues for a specific position because there are no realistic alternatives. Former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher used this exact line as a slogan to defend capitalism, and it's still used today to that same end: Sure, capitalism has its problems, but we've seen the horrors that occur when we try anything else, so there is no alternative.</span><br></p><p>Language to watch out for: "If I had a magic wand…" "What <em>else</em> are we going to do?!"</p>
Ad hoc arguments<p>An ad hoc argument isn't really a logical fallacy, but it is a fallacious rhetorical strategy that's common and often hard to spot. It occurs when someone's claim is threatened with counterevidence, so they come up with a rationale to dismiss the counterevidence, hoping to protect their original claim. Ad hoc claims aren't designed to be generalizable. Instead, they're typically invented in the moment. <a href="https://rationalwiki.org/wiki/Ad_hoc" target="_blank">RationalWiki</a> provides an example:<br></p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">Alice: "It is clearly said in the Bible that the Ark was 450 feet long, 75 feet wide and 45 feet high."</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">Bob: "A purely wooden vessel of that size could not be constructed; the largest real wooden vessels were Chinese treasure ships which required iron hoops to build their keels. Even the <em>Wyoming</em> which was built in 1909 and had iron braces had problems with her hull flexing and opening up and needed constant mechanical pumping to stop her hold flooding."</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">Alice: "It's possible that God intervened and allowed the Ark to float, and since we don't know what gopher wood is, it is possible that it is a much stronger form of wood than any that comes from a modern tree."</p>
Snow job<p><span style="background-color: initial;">This fallacy occurs when someone doesn't really have a strong argument, so they just throw a bunch of irrelevant facts, numbers, anecdotes and other information at the audience to confuse the issue, making it harder to refute the original claim. Example:</span><br></p><ul><li>A tobacco company spokesperson who is confronted about the health risks of smoking, but then proceeds to show graph after graph depicting many of the other ways people develop cancer, and how cancer metastasizes in the body, etc.</li></ul><p>Watch out for long-winded, data-heavy arguments that seem confusing by design.</p>
McNamara fallacy<p>Named after <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robert_McNamara" target="_blank">Robert McNamara</a>, the <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/United_States_Secretary_of_Defense" target="_blank">U.S. secretary of defense</a> from 1961 to 1968, this fallacy occurs when decisions are made based solely on <em>quantitative metrics or observations,</em> ignoring other factors. It stems from the Vietnam War, in which McNamara sought to develop a formula to measure progress in the war. He decided on bodycount. But this "objective" formula didn't account for other important factors, such as the possibility that the Vietnamese people would never surrender.<br></p><p>You could also imagine this fallacy playing out in a medical situation. Imagine a terminal cancer patient has a tumor, and a certain procedure helps to reduce the size of the tumor, but also causes a lot of pain. Ignoring quality of life would be an example of the McNamara fallacy.</p><p>Language to watch out for: "You can't measure that, so it's not important."</p>
A new study looks at what would happen to human language on a long journey to other star systems.
- A new study proposes that language could change dramatically on long space voyages.
- Spacefaring people might lose the ability to understand the people of Earth.
- This scenario is of particular concern for potential "generation ships".
Generation Ships<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="a1e6445c7168d293a6da3f9600f534a2"><iframe type="lazy-iframe" data-runner-src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/H2f0Wd3zNj0?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span>
Many of the most popular apps are about self-improvement.
Emotions are the newest hot commodity, and we can't get enough.