Q & A with Stanley Rice, author of "Life of Earth, Portrait of a Beautiful, Middle-Aged, St
- June 6, 2011
In this portrait of Planet Earth, biologist Stanley A. Rice discusses the evolution of the global network of life and the crucial role played by humans in determining the future of our world.
I thought the book would be more about “Mother Earth,” the planet, but you tell us the story of the mother through her children. Why?
I introduce the concept of the Earth as a single integrated system, which could be called Mother Earth, in Chapter 1. But everything that has happened on Earth, throughout its history, has resulted from the activities of the “children,” that is, the organisms that make up the network of life. The two cannot be separated.
Do you think evolution is cyclical? How and why would we speciate? Or is it respeciate? Could it be caused by some man made disaster – like Chernobyl. One human population evolves into survivors of a nuclear polluted homeland, others, further away, that don’t have such concentrated pollutants in their diets and environment would evolve differently?
Evolution is not cyclical. It has no predetermined direction, cyclical or otherwise. However, “convergence” can occur, in which a similar adaptation evolves over and over. The reason that the human species evolved into separate races was isolation: humans in each part of the world adapted to different climates and had different standards of beauty for sexual selection. Today, there is such widespread travel and communication that it is possible that all races will blend together, the way they are doing in Hawaii. Only a collapse of society, causing isolation to occur again, could lead to a new divergence of races or even species of humans. A nuclear disaster could cause this, but it would have to be worldwide.
Is man a replica of the planet earth, an amazing system of symbiotically working organisms?
Humans, as well as the whole Earth, are symbiotic—each human body carries with it whole ecosystems of different microbial species. This has occurred because symbiosis is a proven pathway of success, not because humans are a replica of the whole planet.
Why are humans so programmed toward destruction – would the aim really be for renewal? That is, if we looked at it from the bright side. Renewal as in hope for survival of a stronger, “better” population?
Natural selection favors whatever behavior patterns lead to an individual’s success in reproduction. One person’s success could mean another person’s destruction. However, the evolution of altruism has been so successful in our species because each individual benefits from cooperating with others. That is, we can do well by doing good. Evolution has given humans the ability to be destructive and to be altruistic. My book calls for people to focus on the altruistic possibilities.
Trees do it, sacrifice themselves for the future of their progeny? Maybe human destruction is being motivated by an invisible gene, humans don’t know why they are being driven to such acts? It’s in their DNA.
We humans do sacrifice ourselves for our offspring, and it is largely subconscious. When I think about what I would do to help my daughter, it is instinctive, not a result of calculation. Biologically, we humans grow old in part because our DNA makes us sacrifice ourselves for our offspring while we are young. There is no single gene that causes us to grow old or to have self-sacrificial behavior.
Are there still surprises in genetic combinations and/or instructions?
We cannot predict what new genetic opportunities may await the human species.
In so many ways, your descriptions of symbiosis sound like plain old good luck. How can we accept this as our reason for being?
Symbiosis, like everything else about our planet, has resulted from good luck. Whether there is a deeper reason for our being is a religious question that scientists are no better able to answer than anyone else.
In other examples you explain that an organism by fluke or perhaps because of the environmental danger moves away from an original habitat (for instance, from the sea to the earth) only to be rewarded by change in the form of a more diverse environment with better possibilities for survival? Aren’t we right back to luck?
A lot of evolutionary innovation began as luck. For example, large land animals have bones. Bones apparently evolved as a way for fish to store calcium, and then they turned out to be useful for walking on land. However, natural selection is not luck. Once the adaptation has its lucky beginning, natural selection refines the adaptation. Evolution is both luck and selection.
Is homosexuality an evolving form of population control that is being thrown off by the cultural evolution of a meme that has decided that everyone can and should have a baby?
There is no consensus about the origin and function of homosexuality. I included it in my chapter about altruism, not about sex. It did not originate as a way for a population to control itself. Evolution favors individuals, not populations, with useful traits.
Is altruism really a byproduct of symbiosis? It is hard to imagine altruism wouldn’t be naturally selected as an aid to survival which then should have rid the human population of its opposite for the good of the whole. You say altruism is in danger but shouldn’t all creatures be naturally selected towards what is best? Does it mean there is no intrinsic value in evolving?
Altruism and symbiosis are separate concepts: altruism occurs within species, symbiosis occurs between species. Natural selection favors individuals who are successful at reproducing. This can occur either from violence or from altruism. Evolution has given us both choices. I think altruism is in danger not because of evolution per se but because many humans are abandoning the altruistic conventions we inherited from our ancestors. Altruistic feelings have a genetic basis but altruistic behavior patterns must be learned.
If there is no singular reason for evolution and it means that perfection does not exist or simply that with constant change there is no reason for it, no goal, then evolution becomes a kind of an inevitable flow without positive value – just movement? Could this be true?
It is true that evolution has no goal. Humans, uniquely among species (as far as we know) have the ability to recognize what is good and to choose to build societies that are good. Biological evolution cannot do this; only social evolution, led by the choices of individuals, can do this.
You put forth the transmittal of ideas “memes” as an example of cultural evolution and that ideas evolve the same as all organisms. The ones that survive are not necessarily the best but the ones that most resonate with a larger audience. This describes a pattern true in organisms, man and man made things – does it mean that we’ll always be in one aspect or another in the same muddle of forces?
We will always have a muddle of memes in our cultural smorgasbord. It is up to us to choose which ones we transmit.
As for memes, shouldn’t there be something else after all this time that has the same scope, width and depth as religion? Some other idea that is so integrated into the population that it is a constant source of perhaps not battle but maybe “peace”? Could it be in our future?
There is a biological basis for religious feelings but religious doctrines are memes. We will always have religious feelings, but we can and should choose memes that allow our religious feelings to pour into peace rather than destruction.