Thursday, December 29, 2016

Playing around to survive

It's perhaps a not-so-well-known fact that evolution is a game, putting together diverse components to make survival happen. The fancy word is "bricolage" and I ran across it the other day while researching explanations for the origin of life on earth. How I will bring this particular idea back to my students is still not clear. The "RNA world" hypothesis is not an easy one to explain. But the concept of bricolage, or tinkering, something that I expect we will do every week this semester in lab, is a driving factor in evolution as well as a central practice of the course in bioinspiration that I'm developing. 

I think even among scientists we may not spend enough time thinking about the playful aspect of evolution. We should consider it more. Visualize photosynthesis. The random walk of a photon along an array of chlorophyll molecules in a photosystem is emblematic of a kind of physical "play" that results in very real physical benefit to the plant. Certainly in evolutionary biology, the randomness of phenotypic variations in a population and the randomness of environmental conditions the population experiences is part of a  random walk through time, space, physical characteristics, and speciation. In another example, yesterday I wrote about electron clouds, a stochastic phenomenon with very real implications for how life functions. These phenomena point to a perhaps unsettling uncertainty that underlies all biological processes. 

This came home to me after a short discussion with a young man, just a little older than my students, whom I've known for many years. He's just finishing up his undergraduate studies at a large Ivy League university and he is busy launching himself into a budding career that will make him a high power attorney, same as his parents. He was groomed for this kind of "success" but if you ask me it's all a little bit dismal. A young person of 20 or so has to do some experimenting. Or maybe a lot. There needs to be healthy uncertainty, not just about which law firm you'll end up in, but about life itself. What are you cut out to be? Who will you become? In contrast, this highly directed march toward a career goal precludes the kind of "getting lost" that teaches us so much. He's a nice enough kid and he'll end up making a lot of money, and there's nothing wrong with that, but it all seems like a strange expenditure of a life, a kind of one way track. It's as if his parents, who brought him up to be this person somehow didn't trust their child's ability to direct his own intellectual and career development. He does seem to have been produced in a cookie cutter. I'm much prouder of my own adult children who have pursued work that is far off the conveyor belt but at the same time productive and positive. They make life better for people-what can I say? They had to play around to figure out what they'd do in life. They ran into some disappointments, some dead ends, but they made their own way in an original, self-defined way. 

What is this all has to do with evolution? I think at its core the human spirit is a diverse and creative environment. At the same time, we humans tend to crave order, hierarchy, and predictability. How do we strike a balance between these conflicting impulses? I think whether we study the random walk of photons, population ecology, or electron clouds we can detect a kind of "order" that keeps things together. These underlying patterns that science can elucidate have a lot to offer us. They represent a kind of serious play, high stakes (survival) but high-yielding (innovation). At the same time they can direct our thoughts about evolution. In particular they may be able to encourage us to play around just a little bit as we move forward in life. 

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