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We Fit Nature to Us: Evolution’s 2-Way Street

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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It is in our nature to fit nature to us. We are best at it, but other species do it. This obvious but overlooked factor contradicts the dominant one-way-street gene-centric view of adaptation. A better framework for evolution is needed. Its shape isn’t clear, but it must incorporate: extracorporeal gene effects, “gene-culture coevolution,” “niche construction,” reduced randomness, and intelligent influences.

George Williams, a founder of the gene-centric school, claimed “Adaptation is always asymmetrical; organisms adapt to their environment, never vice versa.” He was wrong.

Richard Dawkins proposed the idea of “extended phenotypes”—a phenotype is the subset of an organism’s genetic traits that develop— to describe environmental changes caused by organisms. Derek Bickerton says, for Dawkins a “beaver’s dam [is] just as much an expression of beaver genes” as its tail. But that’s far from the whole tale of gene-environment interactions.

Organisms, and their genes, can face selective pressures from created elements in their environments. Intelligently created nonrandom factors have substantially altered human genes; for example, after only a few thousand years of dairying, adult lactose tolerance has spread to 98% of Swedes but just 7% of Chinese. Protocultural tool use in Galapagos finches has led to their beaks being adapted for using cactus spikes to extract grubs. Unlike Dawkins’s extended phenotypes, this “gene-culture coevolution,” as E. O. Wilson calls it, incorporates more than is in an organism’s genes, accounting for nongenetically transmitted factors like tools, rules, and socially acquired second nature skills.

Niche construction adds to genes and culture a third inheritance process: persisting ecological engineering. Many species inherit niches much modified by their ancestors. To biologists, niches aren’t just physical nooks, they’re entire ways of life. Bickerton defines three elements: habitat, nourishment, and sustaining behaviors, and says “changes in behavior trigger changes in genes at least as often” as the other way around. Evolution’s fitting and matching processes can work both ways, with complex feedback

In Niche Construction: The Neglected Process in Evolution F. John Odling-Smee and colleagues give “hundreds of examples of animal niche construction.” They say it adds nonrandom “directedness to the evolutionary process,” and that neither culture nor intelligence are needed. For example, earthworms “utilize various kinds of niche-construction” to compensate for “bad structural adaptation.” Originally water-worms, they retain ancestral traits by modifying soil to mimic features of their ancestral aquatic conditions. Even changes as radical as moving habitats from water to land can be mitigated by counteractive niche construction.

Darwin said natural selection was “not the exclusive means of modification” in evolution. Ignoring other modifying mechanisms is unnaturally selective. We artificially select factors to which we adapt. As Shakespeare put it “that art Which you say adds to Nature, is an art That Nature makes.” And many creatures are coactive partners in their dance with destiny.

Illustration by Julia Suits, The New Yorker Cartoonist & author of The Extraordinary Catalog of Peculiar Inventions.

Previously in this series:

It Is in Our Nature to Be Self-Deficient
Inheriting Second Natures
Our Ruly Nature
It Is in Our Nature to Need Stories
Tools Are in Our Nature

Jag Bhalla About the Author: Jag Bhalla is an entrepreneur and writer. His current project is Errors We Live By, a series of short exoteric essays exposing errors in the big ideas running our lives, details at www.errorsweliveby.comwww.errorsweliveby.com. His last book was I'm Not Hanging Noodles On Your Ears, a surreptitious science gift book from National Geographic Books, details at www.hangingnoodles.comwww.hangingnoodles.com. It explains his twitter handle @hangingnoodles Follow on Twitter @hangingnoodles.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. Scienceisnotagenda 4:05 pm 05/22/2013

    Way off the mark. The ability to use tools, etc. to alter the environment is all genetically based. This is another back door article that attempts to put some ‘special’ significance on life.

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  2. 2. Bora Zivkovic 4:23 pm 05/22/2013

    @Scienceisnotagenda – actually, they are not genetically based. I know people like the oversimplistic genetic determinism, but niche-construction is a serious element of evolutionary theory and one is advised to actually read more about it, get a better understanding of evolution beyond the gene-centric, Dawkins-style, oversimplification. There is nothing “special” about it, it is a mechanism, well developed, modeled and explained, as well as studied in nature and in the lab. It is assigning genes the “special” status that is worrisome.

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  3. 3. hangingnoodles 5:15 pm 05/22/2013

    @Scienceisnotagenda please refer to the post “Inheriting Second Natures” in the list above. Your ability to use text is only one of the things you do that has “no direct genetic program passing it on…” A great deal of behavior is non-genetically acquired.

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  4. 4. Bill_Crofut 6:49 pm 05/23/2013

    Re: “Protocultural tool use in Galapagos finches has led to their beaks being adapted for using cactus spikes to extract grubs.”

    What is the evidence that certain Galapagos finches did not use cactus spikes to extract grubs from the beginning of their existence?

    Link to this
  5. 5. hangingnoodles 1:26 pm 05/24/2013

    @Bill_Crofut Thanks for you question. My statement is based on Odling-Smee in Niche Construction, on page 21/22 “This behavior [using cactus spines to extract grubs] probably created a stable selection pressure favoring a bill able to manipulate tools rather than the sharp pointed bill… characteristic of woodpeckers.”

    Link to this
  6. 6. Bill_Crofut 7:38 am 05/25/2013

    hangingnoodles,

    Re: “Cultural traits such as the use of tools, weapons, Ære, cooking, symbols, language and trade may also have played important roles in driving hominid evolution in general, and the evolution of the human mind in particular…”

    Cultural niche construction and human evolution
    K. N. LALAND, J. ODLING-SMEE & M.W.FELDMAN
    PAGE 22
    http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1046/j.1420-9101.2001.00262.x/pdf

    The phrase, “may also have” seems to have put the paper on a speculative basis. For example, what is the origin of language, one of the cultural traits that allegedly drove the “evolution” of the human mind?

    Link to this
  7. 7. greylander 3:14 pm 05/27/2013

    To the extent that this article is correct, it is already well understood and established in evolutionary biology.

    Here is where you are completely wrong:

    “This obvious but overlooked factor contradicts the dominant one-way-street gene-centric view of adaptation. A better framework for evolution is needed. ”

    Have you even read The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins, published almost 50 years ago? In which the concept of ‘meme’ (elements of cultural evolution) is introduced?
    And long before Dawkins, biologists understood the feedback between organisms modifying the environment, which in turn applies new and different selective pressure on the organism. How do you think oxygen respiration came about? It was the result of carbon-dioxide respiration filling the atmosphere with oxygen, thus creating the need for organism to adapt to an oxygen rich atmosphere.

    Setting aside culture (i.e., memes) for the moment, the other forms of environmental feedback (say, beaver damns) are *not* self-replicating. It is for this reason that biologists may sometimes say things like “genes are what matters” — because ultimately it is genes which are replicated and carry information on into future generations. Beaver damns can be washed away, but beavers retain the ability and instinct driven behaviors to create new damns.

    And while you may still be able to mine quotes from biologists about the supremacy of genes, the idea of cultural evolution has existed long before Dawkins coined the term ‘meme’. Memes are the ‘replicators’ of cultural evolution, and the field of evolutionary biology has been considering the importance of memes and their interaction with genes for at least the past five decades.

    In other words, this “obvious bu overlooked factor” is not overlooked. And the “better framework” you think is missing has been around for decades. It is *replicators* (properly understood) which matter in evolution. Environmental feedback matters only in as much as it enhances or hinders the success of replicators in reproducing themselves. Genes are the only clearly identified, quantifiable replicators in nature. Memes are recognized but less well defined or understood in quantifiable terms. It is clear, however, that outside of humans, memes have played a very minor role, as other species do not have the ability to *efficiently* transmit leaned or synthesized ideas to one another.

    Before accusing an entire field of needing a major paradigm shift or of overlooking something “obvious”, you might want to actually apprehend at least a basic understanding or current thought in the field.

    TO THE SCI-AM EDITORS: Allowing unqualified persons to blog on scientific subjects, backed by the prestige of you publication can only degrade your brand.

    Link to this
  8. 8. Bill_Crofut 9:41 am 05/28/2013

    Unqualified is a relative term. It’s my understanding that a Ph.D. is not a requirement for posting a comment or comments on SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN web pages (which fits well with my status as an unlettered layman).

    My “accusation” is, in fact, the accusation of the authors to whom hangingnoodles referred me. By extension, the charge of “quote mining” has all the earmarks of a sour grapes response to my use of material provided by those authors.

    It seems to me, any accusation concerning a paradigm shift should be directed to the authors who have provided the material quoted. Here’s another “mined quote” from a pair of evolutionary biologists who have critiqued the evolutionary paradigm far better than any creationist could:

    “Our theory of evolution has become, as [philosopher of science, Karl R.] Popper described, one which cannot be refuted by any possible observations. Every conceivable observation can be fitted into it. It is thus ‘outside of empirical science’ but not necessarily false. No one can think of ways in which to test it. Ideas either without basis or based on a few laboratory experiments carried out in extremely simplified systems have attained currency far beyond their validity. They have become part of an evolutionary dogma accepted by most of us as part of our training. The cure seems to us not to be a discarding of the modern synthesis of evolutionary theory, but more skepticism about many of its tenets.”

    [Profs. L. C. Birch and Paul Ehrlich. 1967. Evolutionary History and Population Biology. NATURE, vol. 214, p. 352]

    The phrase, “not necessarily false” does not seem to be one expressing a particularly high level of confidence. When did the terms “dogma” and “tenets” become part of scientific discourse?

    As for Prof. Dawkins, he also wrote a rather revealing admission:

    “Biology is the study of complicated things that give the appearance of having been designed for a purpose.”

    [1986. The Blind Watchmaker. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, p. 1]

    Is that statement not a simple case of, “Don’t confuse me with facts, I’ve already made up my mind?”

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  9. 9. greylander 12:48 pm 05/28/2013

    @Bill_Crofut My comment was a response to the original blog post, not to your comment. I would think that would be clear since I quoted the blog, and not you.

    I would like to point out that you clearly do not understand the context of the Ehrlich & Birch quote. They certainly do not question evolutionary theory in a a fundamental way. The quote is part of a larger critique about how *some* biologists misapply evolutionary theory, particularly when they construct hypotheses about the specific historical causes of specific traits in specific species.

    You also fail to apprehend the poetry and irony (let alone the larger context) of your Dawkins quote.

    Organisms, including humans, “appear to be designed” only superficially. If we were ‘designed’, then the designer was an imbecile. The ridiculous path taken by the laryngeal nerve is a prime example (but far, far from the only example) — it is particularly egregious in the giraffe. Try googling: giraffe laryngeal nerve.

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  10. 10. hangingnoodles 4:33 pm 05/28/2013

    @greylander I’m glad you feel there is nothing new in “gene-culture co-evolution” or “niche-construction theory.” But many, including folks within the field of evolutionary biology, are not as fortunate. Which is why Odling-Smee et al, in the source I quote from, call for an updated framework for evolution and a richer set of models. And why I hope posts like this can be useful in popularizing under-appreciated ideas.

    Regarding The Selfish Gene, posts on errors in Dawkins logic are in preparation. His excellently written but oversimplified views have led many to misunderstand important features of evolution’s complexity.

    Link to this
  11. 11. greylander 6:00 pm 05/28/2013

    @hangingnoodles,

    Niche-construction is implicit in natural select plus reproduction with random variation. It follows from the premises, unless one is so naive as to assume organisms don’t modify their environment. What do you think happened when early photosynthesizers poison the world with oxygen? How long have biologists known about this?

    “Niche-construction” is just a fancy new term for something long understood. It may be the case the some, or even most, biologist/ecologist may have ignored this *implication* of basic evolutionary principles. But it is not “something new” and is not something “in addition to” natural selection, it is *part* of natural selection.

    I cannot speak for biologists who can read The Selfish Gene and not understand such an obvious point. Perhaps they lack mathematical intuition.

    The basic concepts and principles underlying evolution *are* extremely simple: replicators, reproduction with variation, differential reproductive success (‘natural selection’). That’s it. From these concepts, all the vast complexities of evolution follow, including, but not limited to:
    niche-construction
    kin-selection
    sexual-selection
    extended pheno-types
    competition&cooperation
    “arms races”
    predator-prey relationships
    ‘memes’ or ‘culture’

    Claiming that some new ‘framework’ is needed is either sensationalist invented controversy, or else stems from a failure to comprehend the implications of the existing (and long established) framework for evolution.

    Link to this
  12. 12. Bill_Crofut 11:01 am 05/29/2013

    greylander,

    Please accept my apology for misinterpreting your comment; my paranoia is a burden.

    You are, however, incorrect regarding my understanding of the Birch/Ehrlich quote; in all likelihood because of my failure to explain my motivation. They were identified as evolutionary biologists and the final sentence of the quote makes it clear they had no intention of embracing the Creation Model of Origins. My only point in quoting them was to illustrate that even militant evolutionists will occasionally be honest in print, even if inadvertently.

    Regarding the Dawkins quote, if by poetry and irony, you do not mean self- contradictory, then you are correct; my failure to apprehend (comprehend?) is manifest.

    Regarding the allegedly ridiculous path taken by the laryngeal nerve of the giraffe, how does one explain the survival of the giraffe, given such disability? Should not the ridiculous path have long since caused the extermination of the giraffe? Or, at the very least, should not “natural selection” have “intervened” (Dawkins would certainly take me to task for that one) to eliminate the disability, replacing it with one that is not ridiculous?

    Link to this
  13. 13. Dov Henis 2:41 pm 10/20/2014

    Re-comprehension of gravity and of the universe/life evolution

    Evolution Derives From Gravity, in Hebrew and in plain English, not in academEnglish verbiage

    אבולוציה היא תולדת כח המשיכה

    כל כמות החומר ביקום קבועה מאז החל היקום להשתחזר בפעם האחרונה, מאז ה”אחדיות”האחרונה שלו, מאז גרעין הלידה האחרון של היקום טרום המפץ הגדול האחרון.

    כל תחומי המדע (“דיסציפלינות”) נובעים מן, מתחילים ונגמרים, מתפתחים ונמשכים בהכוונת ובמסגרת כח המשיכה. הכל בכל מכל כל ביקום הוא עקב כח המשיכה.

    כל תצורת חומר ביקום קיימת, בגלל וכמו היקום עצמו, בשני מצבים: במצב אינרטי כגון החומר (כנראה הגרוויטונים, החלקיקים היסודיים של היקום) המאוחסן בחורים השחורים ו/או במצב אנרגטי, בתנועה,המסוגל לכן לבצע עבודה. בגלל שניות זו של חומר-אנרגיה קבועה ביקום גם כל כמות האנרגיה.

    מאז המפץ הגדול האחרון מתחולל בכל תצורות החומר ביקום אותו תהליך החוזר ונשנה אשר מתחולל במכלול היקום עצמו : לידה-התפתחות-הישרדות-שיחזור עצמי . על מנת לשרוד ולעבור את כל התהליך חייבת כל תצורת חומר להישמר במתכונת אנרגטית. היות וכמות החומר/אנרגיה ביקום קבועה מתחרות ביניהן כל תצורות החומר על השגת חומר/אנרגיה כי כל תצורת חומר שורדת, פעילה, רק אם הצליחה “לבלוע” אנרגיה. אם אינה “מצליחה” להשיג אנרגיה היא נבלעת ע”י תצורת חומר אחרת ומשמשת לה אנרגיה. אכול או היאכל.

    Evolution Derives From Gravity

    The quantity of mass in the universe is constant since the universe started its last self-replication, since its last singularity, its last pre-big bang re-birth conception.

    All Science Disciplines derive from, start and end, evolve and survive in the direction and manner set by the framework of gravity, the monotheism of the universe. All things, everything in the universe, derive from the gravity of the universe. Every mass format exists, like the universe itself, in one of two states: in an inert state like the material (most probably the gravitons, the elementary particles of the universe) stored in black holes, and in an energetic state, in motion therefore capable of performing work. Due to this mass-energy dualism also the quantity of energy in the universe is constant.

    Since the last big-bang all mass formats undergo the same cyclic sequence like the universe itself i.e. birth – evolution – survival – replication. In order to survive and to repeat this sequence every mass format must remain in an energetic state. And since the universe mass/energy quantity is constant there is a melee for it by all mass formats, and the unlucky formats are swallowed and digested by the luckier mass formats.
    It’s indeed, in fact, an eat or be eaten universe…

    Dov Henis (comments from 22nd century)
    http://universe-life.com/

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