Four years of college and all I got was this lousy Darwin Award

(2014)

I wonder how many of the people making smarmy Darwin Award comments understand that there is nothing Darwinian about the Darwin Awards at all? Because Darwin Awards based on strict Darwinian theory would have nothing to do with being stupid. They would be about not having children. Or, childless, having never assisted in the upbringing of blood nephews or nieces who themselves have children. That’s who’d get the Darwin Award. It’s not about brains, it’s about progeny.

Which means, whoops, I win a Darwin Award.

Well, not really. I have some nephews, though I haven’t exactly been an attentive uncle. But same genes, so I am disqualified on a technicality. Had I dropped my brother from a third story window or better yet talked him into joining the priesthood, then I’d scoop up my Darwin Award.

But I didn’t. I have those four nephews. Great kids, all of them. And therein lies the future of my genetic heritage. Or some of it. Me and my brother don’t have exactly the same genes. Same parents, but not the exact same genes in the exact same order. Who knows what bits of junk DNA I have that he doesn’t. And impossible to explain (or even pronounce) heterochronous traits like me being so damn hypermorphotic I can’t find shoes that fit. My brother can find shoes. His kids can find shoes. It’s possible that my huge frame will lie recessed waiting to pop up in some huge baby somewhere in the future. But I think probably not. Something went a little amiss with me. Junk DNA maybe. A Hox gene that went rogue. Odds are that those are a one time only deal. But there’s genetically enough of the same between us, as siblings, to make sure that some of what is in me was also passed on to my brother’s own sons and into their children and on down the line for a few generations (after a few generations it gets so divided up and scrambled it’s not anything recognizably me anymore). And in Darwinian terms shared genes are all you need to succeed. A brother isn’t perfect, gene wise, but he’ll do in a pinch.

Now what about Jose Canseco, butt of a zillion Darwin Award jokes this week for blowing off his own finger? Yeah, that was stupid, blowing off his own finger while cleaning one of his handguns. Really stupid, actually. The middle finger, too, my favorite. But stuff like this doesn’t matter, no matter how dumb it is. What does matter is that Jose Canseco has a daughter. So no Darwin Award for him. Much as you all want to give him one, he doesn’t qualify.

In fact, even if Jose Canseco had no children and shot his middle finger off cleaning a loaded handgun, he still wouldn’t qualify for a Darwin Award. Because Jose Canseco has an identical twin brother, and an identical twin brother, gene wise, is perfect. If that brother has children it’s the same thing as Jose Canseco having children. Identical twins pass on identical genes, or as close as you can get to identical this side of parthenogenesis (i.e., cloning). So even with nine fingers, it’s a Darwinian win/win situation for Jose Canseco. The Jose Cansecos of the world don’t receive Darwin Awards. They hand them out. They call you Double Income No Kid dinks up on stage and hand you a shiny statuette of Charles Darwin. People laugh. You shake Jose’s bandaged hand. He yelps in pain. His identical twin brother leaps up and decks you. You fall backward. The audience, every one of them the spitting image of Jose Canseco, is in hysterics. Then you wake up.

Meanwhile I type this last line with ten fingers and the realization that some fool with nine fingers will have an impact on the coming evolution of the species that I will never have. Because as natural selection goes–and that is the core of Darwin–the winners pass on their genes. And the losers, well, don’t. We’re dead ends. We die, and our individual genetic traits–the blend of our parents that developed, in my case, into me, the guy writing this–will die with us. Disappear. Poof.

Oh well, no use crying over spilled milt.

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Charles Darwin had ten children, sparing him the ignominy of a Darwin Award.

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Eusocial insects

“Great point about insects. Spooky levels of selflessness.”

Not all insects. Social insects. Or eusocial insects, in the parlance of the trade. I am not sure if there has been altruism observed among other insects, but among social insects a selfless sort of altruism, to the point of suicide, makes perfect sense because  reproduction is typically done via parthenogenesis. That is, reproduction is asexual, so the offspring–the workers–are genetically identical with the queen, and thus a worker’s exact genes are passed on–via reproduction with males–when new queens leave the colony. The various castes in a colony are developed heterochronistically, where hox genes change the rate of development. You can see that in the various sizes of ants boiling out of a nest. Big ones with huge mandibles are soldiers, most workers are medium sized, while smaller ants and even tiny ants all have their roles in the colony. Everyone has the same genes, but alterations in the growth rates within those genes time their development. Just like in human beings. Heterochrony even assigns us our roles at times. Hypermorphosis creates big tall guys who become professional basketball players. Neoteny creates jockeys. But where male hypermorphosis among us is driven in large part by sexual selection, that is not a factor in ant parthenogenesis. Everyone in an ant colony is genetically identical, and almost none of them will ever have sex anyway. That is left to the queens and males. The rest are just there for the gig, workers mostly, some soldiers. There is actually a lot more variation in individual ant behavior than we might assume–some ants just hang around inside the colony, doing as little as possible–but their roles are decided for them. A worker can no more be a soldier than a basketball player can be a jockey. Yet its that immutable caste system that gives the ants their staying power. Their colonies are not machines, not computer programs, but are what E.O. Wilson calls super-organisms, a whole bunch of tiny little organisms that together act nearly as one. Taken to its furthest extent, the power of an ant colony can be extraordinary.  

The Argentine ant supercolony, the ants that drive Californians nuts with their endless invasions, stretches along the California coast, the southeastern coast of Australia and along vast stretches of the western Mediterranean. It is estimated to number billions of individuals, as as many ants as there are human beings–except that every single ant within it, from San Diego to Sidney to Marseilles, is genetically identical. Obviously we human beings are not. Our very development as a species was dependent on the fact that we are not identical. It’s hard to imagine how homo sapiens could ever have survived without genetic variation. Disease itself would have annihilated us. But a single colony of genetically identical Argentine ants seems to be taking over the world…or the parts within climate zones it can survive, and it has increased its population to as many individual ants as there are people and it is genetically identical. Somehow, it works for them. That is the beauty of the eusocial ant business model. Then again, it seems inevitable that something will eventually exploit that lack of genetic variation throughout the entire Argentine mega colony and tear into its impregnability the way the Roman Empire was gutted by Goths, Vandals, Persians and plague in its Crisis of the Third Century. And if this could happen before the Argentine Ant Empire permanently conquers the kitchen in our own household version of the Crisis of the Third Century, I wouldn’t mind.

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Argentine ants, working.