Thursday, July 15, 2010

Capture the flag...or, the slipperly slope of selection?

On Bastille Day, we were in the arty town of Honfleur, at the estuary of the Seine. A crowd was assembled to watch a contest in which various young men attempted to walk up a greased bowsprit-like pole, to see who would be the first to grab the flag positioned at the end (see image). A large hushed crowd, of all ages, eating gourmet ice cream or sitting at harbor-side cafes drinking beer in the hot afternoon, watched with anticipation.

Each contestant went as far as he could before wiggling, writhing, grappling, and finally slipping into the harbor water below the pole. Here's a link we found on the web to a video of this little holiday contest (the web is amazing).

One by one, however, either the grease was worn off the pole or the lads got better at running out without falling. Eventually, they got closer and closer to the flag until one contestant got all the way to the end, grabbed the flag, and jumped into the water to the cheers and approval of the crowd.

Then the contest was over. No more chances, no more improvement on the pole-walking method.

Since we're always looking for a link from real life to science, we thought that this episode of Capture the Flag seemed somewhat analogous to many views expressed about evolution. Adaptive selection is said to refine (fine-tune) organisms until they are tightly fit to their environment. In this model, in each generation there is one best genotype and it leaves more offspring than the rest. Every other genotype is, by comparison, 'deleterious' and, by definition, viewed as selected against. When the organisms are adapted, the process is over.

This is a sightly--but only slightly--oversimplified version of the common hyper-darwinian view of life. But life is not a slippery-bowsprit contest. In real life, there are many chances, many ways to succeed, the process is never over. Adaptation is not a constantly intensified struggle (an ever-narrowing pole) as is often suggested in popular media, Discover and Nova, or even by many scientists. It is less precise--by analogy, a less narrow and slippery path to success.

The contest on Bastille Day was fun for all and a cooling dip in the sea even for the 'losers', as at the end it was for the winner. In reality, the life of every organism ends in the permanent tragedy of death. But that doesn't imply that all but one are losers.

And now it's time for an espresso under the awning of a nice waterfront cafe....


amie said...

Hey, I have another argument in favor of your complexity theories:
if Survival of the Fittest worked so strictly, how could French coffee have survived alongside Italian and Spanish coffee??

Anne Buchanan said...

Very good question! Though, I suppose the argument would be that as these separate coffee species were evolving, Natural Selection in France (the drinker) wasn't aware of what it was missing elsewhere and so encouraged the local variety to proliferate. (In fairness to French coffee, though -- since I've had much less experience with Italian -- I do like a cup of cafe au lait in France in the morning!)