Toward Perfection—Purity vs. Diversity

November 11th, ©2016 Marcus Brooks | Link
Red fox lying on gravel looking into camera.

Domesticated fox with classic red coloration. (By Kayfedewa via Wikimedia)

There has been some discussion of late about racial and behavioral diversity, and how they affect society.

I, for one, am not “normal.” I have severe attention deficit disorder. I’m told I’ve had ADD all my life, though it wasn’t spotted until I was 40. It can make life hard. Try getting through school if your brain punishes you for doing things it doesn’t like, like algebra.

But ADD also gives me singular focus when the topic grabs me. I once passed a calculus exam I hadn’t prepared for at all—it took six intense hours in the testing center to work up the proofs, but  I got an A. So clearly there are situations in which ADD isn’t so bad after all.

ADD can degrade situational awareness, which might seem like a an odd defect to survive in nature.  On the other hand, I gather persons suffering from autism can be overwhelmed by events around them. I think of ADD and autism as extremes on a scale of external awareness, though I’m sure that’s an oversimplification. Somewhere in the middle lies “normal” awareness, optimal for the given environment.

There are other instances in nature where species behavior falls on a scale. Famously, Russian scientists selectively bred red foxes for tameness, domesticating a wild animal in only six generations. This experiment strikes me in two ways: first, you cannot select for behaviors that don’t vary among individuals, and second, this change seems too rapid to be explained by genetic mutations alone.

Silver fox with black points, side view, with rocks, grass, and plants

Domesticated fox with silver/black coloration. (By Zefram via Wikimedia)

This sort of rapid “evolutionary” change is sometimes cited as countering the basic theory of evolution, but that’s not the case. It only counters the usual understanding of genetics.

Consider: the cells of your liver have the exact same genes as your heart, or skin, or stomach. It’s clear if you think about it that these organs are not genetic mutations of each other. So your DNA must be configurable to work differently in different organs without actually changing the genes. This ability is called epigenetics.

You may know genes code for the proteins that drive your body’s chemistry. It shouldn’t surprise you that genes aren’t on/off switches—they don’t always just make a protein or not—although some traits do seem to work that way. The production of a protein can be varied with extremely subtle and complex controls. Indeed science may have only scratched the surface of how a cell’s DNA configuration is fine-tuned to suit a particular role or environment.

As you might expect, a growing liver’s cells beget liver cells. The epigenetic markers that make them so are heritable. More surprisingly, it turns out some acquired epigenetic markers (not just genes) can be inherited by a creature’s offspring as well. In other words, the long-discredited scientist Lamarck was only mostly wrong. Some acquired traits can be passed on!

Say you are a wild fox who meets a human, do you run away or not? If you don’t run she might kill you, but instead maybe she’ll drop a tasty bone you can steal. You decide, and either die or don’t. That’s natural selection.

White fox with black ears and nose, right quarter view, sitting, submissive, on wild grass.

Domesticated fox with “Georgian White” coloration. (By Kayfedewa via Wikimedia)

Now I will speculate. The more often you are rewarded by the decision not to run, the more your brain’s DNA is configured to favor that decision, and some of that “soft” epigenetic configuration might be passed to your offspring. If the humans consistently reward tameness (according to their own brain chemistry, or whim), then your sixth generation of offspring might be pampered pets!

Particularly interesting is that the tamer generations of fox exhibit more varied coloration and body shape (as dogs do). As if rewarding variable behavior makes a genome more willing to try other kinds of variation. This last bit is gross speculation, but it might make an interesting hypothesis for research.

Nature exhibits an amazing ability to adapt creatures to highly specific environments. For example, there are hummingbird and flower species that are specialized to exclusively feed and pollinate each other. On the other hand, Galapagos finches have rapidly adapted to lifestyles ranging from vegan to vampire.

What some might call “normal,” or even “righteous” behavior; or what they might call “racial purity”; is itself a sort of adaptation. It fine-tunes a species to optimally exploit a stable environment. But this seeming perfection carries with it the risk that a change in their world can wipe out the species if no individuals happen to be “weird” (or disordered?) enough to survive the change.

If history teaches us anything, it’s that change happens. Racial and behavioral diversity are how nature has perfectly adapted us to deal with change. Whatever makes you different might seem strange, or even wrong. It might feel like a burden. It might even kill you. But it helps keep humanity strong in the long run.

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