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If I had thought about it, I wouldn't have done the experiment. The literature was full of examples that said you can't do this. Spencer Silver on the work that led to the unique adhesives for 3M "Post-It" Notepads

9. DEATH Previous | Next

Evolution’s problem with self-destruction

WHY do living things die? Obviously, things kill each other – that’s part of the natural order. But what causes “natural” death? It is a question that splits biologists. It has become like a game of ping pong – over the years, theories have been batted back and forth as new evidence comes to light.

One answer is that death is simply necessary – to avoid overcrowding, for instance. But evolution doesn’t – can’t – select for a “death switch” because evolution is supposed to be all about the individual. And yet there does seem to be a death switch – researchers have managed to locate genetic switches that massively extend the lifespan of some nematode worms.

That might seem a long way removed from where we’re at, but there are vertebrates that live a very, very long time. Blandings Turtles, just don’t seem to get old and decrepit, for example. Teasing out why that might be is a tricky job – but potentially worth it.

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Location:Lewes, UK

#1 - Posted: 25/07/2008 06:54

Confession time: when I started writing about the anomalies in death, I had to learn a lot of biology. I’m a quantum physicist – what do I know about the cutting edge of biological thinking? And then I reached the conclusion that solving the anomaly with death might have a lot to do with group selection, the idea that animals can do things for the benefit of their social group. This is anathema to mainstream biology: the standard line is kin selection: that everything is controlled by a desire to benefit your own genes.

Thankfully, after I’d finished the book, an argument blew up between EO Wilson and Richard Dawkins. Wilson was arguing that his research pointed to group selection as a powerful force. Dawkins has built his career on the selfish gene idea (he has called group selection “sheer, wanton perversity” and was having none of it.

The issue remains unresolved, and I can’t help thinking both of these giants of biology are too entrenched in their positions to be able to resolve it. It will have to wait for the next generation of biologists, if they can come at it without prejudice. I am just glad that there was an argument – it made me feel a lot better about my suggestions!

New Scientist reports on the argument were interesting, though. They talked about it producing a “revolution in evolution” – a classic Kuhnian moment. “We are almost certainly in for a thorough re-examination of group and kin selection.” Well, hooray for that. 

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