Survival of the fittest

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Why did you step all over that guy? ‘Well, it’s survival of the fittest isn’t it!’

Why have children? ‘You’ve got to pass on your genes, right?!’

What’s the point of life? ‘No one knows, so just enjoy it now because your time could be up at any moment’

We can all recognise these answers, and we’ve probably all used them as a basis for a decision at some point in time. I’ll be the first to put my hands up and say that the reason these three came so quickly to mind is because they are etched in my memory as previously being essential ‘mantras’ for my understanding of the world.

Now, let’s be good scientists and try to understand, ‘what is the basis of truth for these tenets?’ In this post we’ll go into ‘survival of the fittest’.

Survival of the fittest

This is the classical Darwinian evolution notion that only those organisms with the attributes (phenotypes) most adapted to a specific environment will survive in that environment. The phenomenon whereby organisms who do not cut the mustard are wiped out is referred to as natural selection…but in fact, if we consider the modern theory that nature is ‘blind’, acting without intention, then a better description of this destructive force would be natural elimination.

Example: A bacterial population may be wiped out by application of an antibiotic, however those bacteria who are resistant to the antibiotic proliferate, giving rise to a generation of antibiotic-resistant bacteria

It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change – Darwin

The way I understand this, is that we as humans especially, have a remarkable capacity to be flexible and open-minded. This is an incredible opportunity. The flip side, as we see often, is that we can become dogmatic and fixed in our beliefs, even if they don’t hold up to scrutiny.

Logically, what I’m about to say shouldn’t be a revolutionary concept, yet for the past hundred years it has remained so…

Natural elimination (leading to survival of the fittest) is not the only game in town.

Stop the press! ‘What did he say, and how dare he go against the core principle of evolutionary biology!’

Yes, two years ago I would have felt exactly the same. But here’s the issue…

…Now, I don’t expect anyone to drop all their current beliefs in nature as a cruel eliminating machine, because clearly this is part of the way the world works…but honestly, aside from being very cute, where in the programming (or genes, or whatever we think might constitute ‘programming’) of a chimpanzee is there the flexibility to have a loving hug with such a ferocious predator (well, perhaps it isn’t at this point)? In university I would have been marked down for saying ‘loving hug’ because this is referred to as anthropocentric language (ie. how can I know that the animal feels love). However, I know what a loving hug looks like, and I know what a robot is like, and I would hedge an educated guess that this is the former.

We could go into this all day, throwing out examples and even more cute pictures, however my feeling is that this ruins all the fun. Part of the joy of life isn’t just in thinking about unconscious processes such as gene regulation and ridiculously complex neural pathways, which undoubtedly exist within our bodies, but rather to embrace the natural wonders in the world around us, and to be awestruck. Allowing ourselves to be amazed at the sheer scale of organisation in this universe, or even at the level of harmony in a bee hive or ant colony, we must become humbled if we are really appreciating what we are experiencing.

In science we are digging deep into the mysteries of the nano-universe, for example in the fields of molecular biology and particle physics. And let’s also look at the big picture; what have we discovered? Particle physicists are being exposed to a particle zoo, and molecular biologists are witnessing the most exquisite sub-cellular factories one could imagine. Yet when we look into nature, it all appears seamless and wonderful. Even our clunky and sometimes undesirable behaviours come about as if by magic, yet we know that the vast super-computer that is our body is operating in the background, working silently and efficiently to permit us as the end-user to squeeze the juice out of life, in whichever way we wish.

And those who were seen dancing were thought to be insane by those who couldn’t hear the music — Nietzsche

Ryan’s a scientist with an interest in explaining the unexplainable. After all, that’s what gets scientists going. He loves talking about the mysterious nature of the universe, and how it is that life ‘just works!’ Isn’t it amazing that you don’t have to bark orders at your leg to move every time you walk, or that you need not constantly panic that you haven’t made your heart beat for a while? His writings delve into the question of ‘what is consciousness’, from scientific and philosophical perspectives, and get everyone’s brain buds jumping around with excitement at the possibility of a future science that knows no bounds.

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