Posts Tagged Natural Selection

Unnatural Selection

As a veterinarian, atheist and scientist I have championed the cause of natural selection all my life. It is a magnificent device that has driven evolution for eons, constantly upgrading and improving species to better allow them to adapt to their environments. Through natural selection we have moved from unicellular animals to multicellular ones to the incredibly complex array of species we have today, species that run, fly and swim, enabling them to find homes in every possible niche on the planet.

There is, however, one species that appears to stand above natural selection, and that species is our own. I have been short sighted and wearing glasses since I was seven years old. If natural selection had had its way with me I would surely have missed seeing that truck, bear or crevasse and perished long ago. I certainly would not have lived long enough to produce my own pair of myopic humans. Now I have a dicky heart and sleep apnoea. However, our ability to overrule natural selection once again affords me the opportunity to live on.

Every day we try our best to cancel out the effects of natural selection. From vaccinating ourselves to prevent diseases that might otherwise kill us, to treating ourselves with antibiotics when we are sick. From artificial insemination and embryo transfer when we can’t conceive naturally, to Caesarean sections when we can’t deliver the fruits of those conceptions. And it is not just ourselves that reap these benefits. We make sure that our friends do too. Many are the cows that I saved from almost certain death (at least long enough to make it to the dinner table) by assisting in the delivery of their calves. Ease of delivery (at least in humans and domestic animals) has been virtually removed from the selection process.

Will the fact that large numbers of short sighted, infirm, sub-fertile humans that can’t give birth, are passing their genetic material on for generations come back to bite us? We must surely be weakening our species as a whole, but who would refuse the artificial fixes that are available to us? Certainly not I. It does seem a tad hypocritical, however, to laud the marvels of natural selection while studiously stepping around it ourselves wherever possible.

Dr. F. Bunny

 

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I Am Sorry, I Have Forgotten Your Name

Recently I watched a video by comedian Bill Bailey in which he championed the cause of Alfred Russel Wallace. Wallace conceived the theory of natural selection and evolution independently of Charles Darwin. While the two did correspond and the theory was originally published as the Darwin-Wallace Theory, Wallace has since faded into relative obscurity whereas Darwin went on to fame and fortune having a city (Darwin Australia), birds (Darwin’s finches) and a cartoon chimpanzee (in the Wild Thornberrys) named after him. All Wallace got was a Line (the Wallace Line which separates the ecozones of Australia and Asia and runs between Borneo and Sulawesi in Indonesia).

Unfortunately Wallace’s descent into oblivion is not unique. History is littered with characters whose contributions were at least as significant as those of their more famous colleagues but who, for whatever reason, have been forgotten.

Take Watson and Crick for example. While we all know that Francis Crick and James Watson were the first to describe the double helix structure of DNA and received the Nobel Prize for their efforts, who knew that Maurice Wilkins was part of this discovery and received the Nobel Prize along with them? Never mind the fact that Rosalind Franklin also played a key role in this discovery. She was not nominated for the Nobel Prize because she died before the Prize was awarded and it is not given posthumously.

Burke and Wills were two famous explorers who decided to cross Australia from Melbourne in the south to the Gulf of Carpentaria in the north, a journey of 3250 km. While they successfully completed the trip north they both died on the return leg, John King being the only member of the expedition to make it back to Melbourne alive. But who has heard of John King? Australians do seem to prefer their heroic failures. Look at the Gallipoli campaign.

While James Cook is credited as having “discovered” Australia in 1770 (despite the fact that Aborigines had been living here for up to 60,000 years) Dutchman Willem Janszoon arrived here in 1606. He was followed by further Dutchmen, including Abel Tasman who bumped into Tasmania in 1642. Cook was not even the first Englishman to reach Australia. That honour belongs to William Dampier who arrived in 1688. Presumably Cook got the credit because no one had bothered to claim the place until after his arrival.

However, it is not just the worlds of history and science that are littered with the forgotten. Stuart Sutcliffe was one of the original members of the Beatles but left to pursue a career in painting. Now there was a good career move. A similar situation occurred with Syd Barrett and Pink Floyd, except he left the band to go insane.

History, it seems, takes a very subjective view of those who grace its pages, some awarded lasting fame and notoriety, others drifting quietly into anonymity. Unfortunately the category you end up in seems to have very little to do with your actual contribution and a lot more to do with your ability to sell yourself and capture the public’s imagination (VHS v Betamax, IBM v Apple). In the current era where we can all achieve our fifteen minutes of fame and saturate the airwaves with our photos, opinions and antics it will be interesting to see who is remembered in a century from now and who has faded away. Hopefully those who generate lasting achievements will still be lauded while those who clutter up my inbox with cute kitten photos will burn in hell.

Dr. F. Bunny

 

 

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