Saturday, March 14, 2009

Introduction to The Mermaid's Tale

We are Ken Weiss and Anne Buchanan, researchers in evolutionary biology, anthropology, and developmental and human genetics in the Department of Anthropology at Penn State University. We are frequent co-authors, and maintain our own web pages at Many of the ideas we'll discuss here are from our recent book, The Mermaid's Tale: Four Billion Years of Cooperation in the Making of Living Things (Harvard University Press, 2009).

We'll be exploring the way that genes and genomes affect life on all its dimensions; the ecological, developmental, and evolutionary. The history of biology, and in particular the discovery of evolution by Darwin and Wallace, and the discovery of genes by Mendel, has led to our current understanding of life. It allowed research strategies to develop that led to the greatest explosion of knowledge ever produced by science.

Yet, it's been restrictive. This history has led to an understanding of genes that reflects only a slice of the whole story. A simpler and, more specifically, deterministic understanding than the truth. For example, history has encouraged the notion of genes as codes for proteins, but DNA does much, much more than that and its other functions are largely ignored (even though they are understood to be important). Adding to this complexity, recent research has made it apparent that it's no longer clear what a gene even is.

Likewise, in explaining how traits arise, the usual view has been a simpler, probably simplistic, view of genetic determinism and natural selection than is the whole truth. It's easy to suggest scenarios of adaptive selection as if they were testable (which they rarely are) by implying that the adaptive traits are precisely “genetic” (or natural selection couldn't have produced them). But, when we try to identify the genetic causal basis of traits, we usually can't account for more than a fraction. This and other evidence suggest that selection is typically far weaker and less specific than its reputation.

The creation of evolutionary stories has had a strong pull on biology and other areas of modern society, because oversimplified explanations can be so appealing and easy to understand. These stories can seem so plausible that they are offered as if they must be true. This owes in part, we think, to the collapse of the understanding of deep time when thinking about evolution, that takes place when one compares ancestors or contemporary living species, and to treating them as though they in effect arose quickly, systematically, and as if driven by a continuous, fine tuning force (natural selection). That was in essence Darwin's view, but it is not actually accurate in most cases.

We think that a key fact to a broader and more accurate view of life is to see the interaction of a huge number of components. We refer to this as “cooperation” as a counter-weight to the usual theme of “competition” that is usual in strict Darwinian perspectives. It is because of many interacting components – within cells, between cells, within and between tissues and organisms -- each of them subject to mutation-driven change and chance, and each of them tolerant of variation, that life on all of its time scales, the unimaginably long evolutionary dimension, the short dimension of development, and the simultaneous one of ecology, has been possible.

So, we'll post our thoughts our reactions to papers in journals, books, and other triggers, as we hope to generate some discussion on these issues. We believe they're important to understanding life generally, as well as to understanding the genetic prediction of traits, disease risk, improving agriculture and biomedicine, concepts such as “race”, and to the use of darwinian concepts that are applied to other areas of life such as markets, social inequality, religion and others.

We hope this interests you much as it does us!

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