The X-Men character Cyclops has to wear ruby quartz glasses at all times to control his mutant power; consequently, his whole world is tinted red. Lately, I’ve been wondering if he isn’t alone in that respect; maybe a lot of people see the world tinted red, as in ‘nature, red in tooth and claw.’
Take this report on the genetics of why some fruit flies have more predictable behavior than others. The research itself seems sound and has intriguing implications. The discussion of possible evolutionary pathways then goes immediately to selection via predator-prey dynamics based solely on speculation. Maybe it’s confirmation bias, but I’ve noticed the same narrow take evolution, particularly in popular science domains like TED talks. Science fiction often follows suit; for example, X-Men comics and films often discuss evolution as if it is all about selection within direct, violent encounters.
Yet the picture evolutionary biologists are painting is much more complex. The variety we see in organisms can sometimes be explained by neutral drift or other mechanisms that don’t involve selection at all. And even when there is selection, it needn’t involve direct physical confrontation or predation. I can’t help but wonder if evolutionary biology would be more palatable to some if it weren’t so strongly linked to images of bloody violence and death.
Why the emphasis on predator-prey dynamics then? It’s a compelling pattern, and we humans love our patterns (a tendency which, of course, is often explained as an adaptation to avoid being eaten by predators). It provides a simple, compact explanation which is easy to comprehend and repeat, giving it a fitness advantage in the world of ideas — a world, it should be noted, where there is no violence or death and yet selection still occurs. And, as yesterday’s post on expectations suggests, once you start looking for the predation pattern, it can be hard to not see it.
When you think about evolution, do you immediately picture predators and prey?
About the author:
Andy has worn many hats in his life. He knows this is a dreadfully clichéd notion, but since it is also literally true he uses it anyway. Among his current metaphorical hats: husband of one wife, father of two teenagers, reader of science fiction and science fact, enthusiast of contemporary symphonic music, and chief science officer. Previous metaphorical hats include: comp bio postdoc, molecular biology grad student, InterVarsity chapter president (that one came with a literal hat), music store clerk, house painter, and mosquito trapper. Among his more unique literal hats: British bobby, captain's hats (of varying levels of authenticity) of several specific vessels, a deerstalker from 221B Baker St, and a railroad engineer's cap. His monthly Science in Review is drawn from his weekly Science Corner posts -- Wednesdays, 8am (Eastern) on the Emerging Scholars Network Blog. His book Faith across the Multiverse is available from Hendrickson.