Friday, 2 February 2007

Beware Roving Packs of Rat Sperm

This week's World Science download was replete with wonders. You might have seen this on the evening news, but we found the probable village of the creators of Stonehedge. Scientists are urging robots to dig deeper for life on Mars, as it's more likely to be found where exposure to radiation hasn't damaged spores over the last billion years. Vomiting is found to be the most horrible sound (but in a horribly flawed study of online users self-evaluating what sounds they dislike the most). Gastric cancer probably killed Napoleon. And really cool- an early dinosaur probably didn't fly like a dragonfly, but rather like a biplane- with four wings!

And packs of rat sperm might work together to compete against sperm from other males. That's just a beautiful sentence. Because mice and rats reproduce so much, often more than one male's sperm can be found in the vaginal canal of the female. And because their sperm have a hook on the head they can link up together in giant balls, which allows them to swim faster and stronger. Then one individual spermatozoa in the sperm ball will reach the egg first, and his brother sperm die off, sacrificing themselves for the sake of their brother, and winning against the sperm of another male rat.

Altruism is always a sticky point for evolution. If the foundation is that you compete to carry on your genes, then why sacrifice your life for another? If there is a sacrifice, then often we try to find out why, explaining it away as trying to continue on your genes. So every ant in a colony is more closely related to it's sister ant than to the queen, and so they are more likely to fight to defend each other, as that will carry on their genes.

Is altruism really so amazing though? In most cases, in the animal kingdom and among humans, altruism occurs firstly to those within your family, and then to those further afield. It is almost always only expressed towards one's own species. In the case of humans, there is the added dimension of a mind, capable of reformatting the definition of family to include those in a community, the entire species, or even those like dogs and cats, of other species.

Lions therefore have been known to sacrifice their opportunities to reproduce for the sake of others in their pride. But again, they are at least distantly related to those in the pride (and usually as close as brother and sister), allowing for part of their genes to continue. But is it really so surprising that an evolutionary mechanism could have developed to continue on offspring that are not directly your own? Imagine for a moment where a mother produces offspring that are inherently sterile, but who assist the reproductively viable offspring. Would not the viable offspring be more likely to live, thereby continuing on the genes to produce some offspring that are viable, and some that are sterile?

For a long time biology has been focused on competition- and rightfully so. But what about the amount of cooperation that also occurs? Could not this also be guided by evolutionary mechanisms of natural selection? Joan Roughgarden asks these questions in Evolution and Christian Faith, an excellent look at the relationships between Christianity and evolution. He suggests that evolution is indeed an imperfect theory (as all scientists would agree), but that it could be drastically improved by focusing on cooperation.

Would it be heretical to say that perhaps biology has been too masculine in orientation? Of course there is no way to state how men and women are- we can only speak in generalizations. But science has long been a strongly male domain. I found in my experience the only exception to that was in marine biology. Although a generalization, it does seem many psychological studies indicate that human males like to compete. And although there are certainly exceptions, and new studies have been looking at the prevelance of female bullies, it does seem like human females tend towards cooperation. Could it be that scientists have simply ignored data because of a general predeliction towards certain values? It wouldn't be the first time. Those of us who are racist saw the data indicating that whites were superior, because we wanted it to be there, ignoring contrary data that didn't fit with our desires. Lynn Margulis was finally able to prove that mitochondira developed from endosymbiosis, a cooperation between two very different species- but she had to fight for years before she was accepted, and for a long time was laughed at in the biology world for the idea that organisms could cooperate like that.

Dr. Roughgarden points out that one of the biggest reasons Literal Creationists have a knee-jerk reaction to evolution is because of the idea of competition, in that it goes so much against the grain of Christ's teachings. And indeed it does, unless we expand and redefine genetic similarity to all those within the Church, and all humans. We certainly wouldn't want to change biological facts to fit the belief systems of a particular religion. But what if there actually is more of a fit than we normally credit? What if, in addition to competition, cooperation also rules the biological world? Our own bodies not only harbor numerous parasites, but also symbiotic bacteria. Again, the very mitochondria of our cells were once separate prokaryotes. However multicellularity arose, it involved the merging of various cells. Today the cells of our bodies cooperate with each other. When they don't, we have a word for it. We call it cancer.

These rat cells may be only a more overt demonstration of how individuals work together. It may be that the ethic of evolution involves not only "red in blood, tooth and claw", but also profound cooperation, and self-sacrifice. If so, the research has only begun.

We learn in Sesame Street the value of cooperation. We also learn that in the nature of God, who has always been eternal Love. Love requires a lover and a lovee, and we see the explanation of this in the doctrine of the Trinity, wherein God loved the other of Himself for all preternity. He taught us the value of this through community in the early Church, where all gave up what they had and shared it in common, so no one was in need- but everyone had houses, lands, brothers, and sisters 100-fold. In the same way I grew up with limited private property, sharing all in common with 80 others, and with 20 houses and cars and countless brothers and sisters. Self-sacrifice through cooperation is an enduring ethic of God. And it would seem that He placed at least some of the ethic within His creation, even down to the level of rat spermatozoa.

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