17 June, 2009

Not The Origin Of Species

And now for somethng completely weird.   Monty Python, eat your heart out.  (And liver, and fish heads if you like, yes. Wait, fish heads?)

It turns out that breeding programs for endangered/low population species may be doing harm.  What's amazing me here is that this development seems on the face of it to make a mockery of genetics and natural selection.  For a start, read this article. If the researchers haven't made a major stuff-up in their data, and they all check out, then that brings up  a few questions.

In brief, the article states that researchers have found that if you take wild trout and breed them in a hatchery, (or in fact taking wild hatchlings and just raising them in a hatchery,) their offspring are less effective at reproducing or surviving in the wild.  Furthermore, if they do produce offspring, whether with other hatchlings or wild trout, those offspring in turn are also less fit at reproducing or surviving.

See, the problem is, (and yeah I can see you've already leapt past me here but bear with me) you're taking species A and breeding them, you will still get Species A.  If you take Species A infants and raise them in captivity, they are still Species A.  Yet the research seems to indicate that when you release them into the wild or they breed with wild Species A, they somehow produce Species B type offspring with wildly different survival capabilities.

There are two alternative theories for this, neither of them is hugely palatable to me, actually.  Because they point to some ineffable metaphysical properties of Life that we haven't isolated yet.

The first theory, which would to some extent be borne out by a longer study and by examining and studying the successive generations of those hatchery-raised trout, is that there is some way that genetics works which doesn't rely on the usual mechanisms of selection.  Because, of course, you can see the problem here:  What the study has in effect found is that if you take an identical batch of hatchlings produced in the wild, and raise half of them in the lap of luxury and the other half in the wild, then they inexplicably start producing different offspring when you put them back into identical breeding conditions.  That's like saying that the spoiled effete trout can somehow choose which DNA sequences they release into their eggs and sperm.

That would make genetics and selection a lot different than we've found them to be, for sure.  And it means that we humans should see clear breaks in various sections of our own genotype due to things like wars and famines, versus surpluses and wealthy times.  While no real study has been done of this that I know, I very much doubt any such strata of genetic traits versus time or events will be found.

The second theory is just as scary because it gets into the whole nature versus nurture thing, and implies that there may be some equivalent of a "culture" passed on between trout.  The farm-raised trout would thus have less knowledge of the tough ole world out there, be a lot less reproductive because they've not been in a situation where there's constant pressure to reproduce (after all, you're swimming fin to fin with your fellow fishes) and so they don't perform well, and also don't pass on the same "story" to their offspring, leading to the natural "tradition" to be diluted.

That means that all creatures have cultures, and those cultures are important to their remaining a species.  Change the story, change the creature.  Want fatter pigs?  Don't waste generations painstakingly breeding for the fatter pigs, just provide them with treadmills and exercise equipment so they can eat more but burn the calories - then take the equipment away from the next generation...

The whole study seems to  imply that species react to their environment not by natural selection but by somehow choosing which traits they wish to pass on to their offspring out of the DNA junk in their genome.  That means that we should expect to find that if you open the coop doors, the chicks that were born before the door was opened will be different to the chicks that are born afterwards, despite having the same parentage.

And of course it raises the question that if we have trout that grow up differently in the farm than in the wild, why their offspring in turn don't grow up differently back in the wild.  You'd expect that changing the conditions for tame trout would result in recirpocal changes, yet the study seems to imply that this doesn't happen.

I'm therefore leaning towards calling some kind of flaw in the study's base data, because the study produced results at odds with almost everything we know about genetics.  If it waddles like a duck, quacks like a duck, and swims like a duck, then it must be a duck.  Unless of course it was born in the wild and raised in a chicken house with a working TV, when apparently we can expect it to grow up into a gryphon or a turkey or a Jurassic hadrosaur.

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1 comment:

jennyv said...

Ted, You obviously have too much thinking time available ... ; )

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