Author Topic: Science of Success (Superadaptive Instinct?)  (Read 3757 times)

Matt Koeske

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Science of Success (Superadaptive Instinct?)
« on: February 12, 2010, 02:58:32 PM »
An interesting Article from The Atlantic: The Science of Success by David Dobbs

Most of us have genes that make us as hardy as dandelions: able to take root and survive almost anywhere. A few of us, however, are more like the orchid: fragile and fickle, but capable of blooming spectacularly if given greenhouse care. So holds a provocative new theory of genetics, which asserts that the very genes that give us the most trouble as a species, causing behaviors that are self-destructive and antisocial, also underlie humankind’s phenomenal adaptability and evolutionary success. With a bad environment and poor parenting, orchid children can end up depressed, drug-addicted, or in jail—but with the right environment and good parenting, they can grow up to be society’s most creative, successful, and happy people.

Well worth reading, but what really hit me was on the last page:

Suomi gathered plenty of that evidence himself in the years after his 2002 study. He found, for example, that monkeys who carried the supposedly risky serotonin-transporter allele, and who had nurturing mothers and secure social positions, did better at many key tasks—creating playmates as youths, making and drawing on alliances later on, and sensing and responding to conflicts and other dangerous situations—than similarly blessed monkeys who held the supposedly protective allele. They also rose higher in their respective dominance hierarchies. They were more successful.

Suomi made another remarkable discovery. He and others assayed the serotonin-transporter genes of seven of the 22 species of macaque, the primate genus to which the rhesus monkey belongs. None of these species had the serotonin-transporter polymorphism that Suomi was beginning to see as a key to rhesus monkeys’ flexibility. Studies of other key behavioral genes in primates produced similar results; according to Suomi, assays of the SERT gene in other primates studied to date, including chimps, baboons, and gorillas, turned up “nothing, nothing, nothing.” The science is young, and not all the data is in. But so far, among all primates, only rhesus monkeys and human beings seem to have multiple polymorphisms in genes heavily associated with behavior. “It’s just us and the rhesus,” Suomi says.

This discovery got Suomi thinking about another distinction we share with rhesus monkeys. Most primates can thrive only in their specific environments. Move them and they perish. But two kinds, often called “weed” species, are able to live almost anywhere and to readily adapt to new, changing, or disturbed environments: human beings and rhesus monkeys. The key to our success may be our weediness. And the key to our weediness may be the many ways in which our behavioral genes can vary.

About a year (?) ago I had pretty much abandoned a theory and term I had coined: "super-adaptive instinct".  I was never happy with it, and I came to feel the usage of the word instinct could be seen as an artificial attempt to imbue the concept with biology (i.e. it was a fraudulent biologism).  Well, reading this article now it seems my abandonment of the super-adaptive instinct might have been premature.  I'm still not satisfied with the term (or with my own conception of what I am intuiting) . . . but it does seem that there is a biological factor (or factors) in this phenomenon.

Throughout this article I was also thinking of shamanism and the fairly common attribute of shamans in at least some cultures (I don't have the data on this at hand) to be people who suffered from psychological or physical deformities or early childhood injuries that prevented them from being fully "normal" members of their tribes.

There is also an interesting anecdote about tribal splintering and Dunbar Numbers . . . and this quote, which also struck me:
To survive and evolve, every society needs some individuals who are more aggressive, restless, stubborn, submissive, social, hyperactive, flexible, solitary, anxious, introspective, vigilant—and even more morose, irritable, or outright violent—than the norm.

How then, might a society make the best use of this kind of potentially problematic diversity?

All of this helps answer that fundamental evolutionary question about how risk alleles have endured. We have survived not despite these alleles but becauseof them. And those alleles haven’t merely managed to slip through the selection process; they have been actively selected for. Recent analyses, in fact, suggest that many orchid-gene alleles, including those mentioned in this story, have emerged in humans only during the past 50,000 or so years. Each of these alleles, it seems, arose via chance mutation in one person or a few people, and began rapidly proliferating. Rhesus monkeys and human beings split from their common lineage about 25 million to 30 million years ago, so these polymorphisms must have mutated and spread on separate tracks in the two species. Yet in both species, these new alleles proved so valuable that they spread far and wide.

As the evolutionary anthropologists Gregory Cochran and Henry Harpending have pointed out, in The 10,000 Year Explosion (2009), the past 50,000 years—the period in which orchid genes seem to have emerged and expanded—is also the period during which Homo sapiens started to get seriously human, and during which sparse populations in Africa expanded to cover the globe in great numbers. Though Cochran and Harpending don’t explicitly incorporate the orchid-gene hypothesis into their argument, they make the case that human beings have come to dominate the planet because certain key mutations allowed human evolution to accelerate—a process that the orchid-dandelion hypothesis certainly helps explain.

« Last Edit: February 12, 2010, 03:05:07 PM by Matt Koeske »
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Re: Science of Success (Superadaptive Instinct?)
« Reply #1 on: June 16, 2011, 06:07:21 PM »
I would still say that the properties of a complex adaptive system take care of this...furthermore a democracy, by permitting individualistic approaches to life, gives room for deviant behavior that leads to generally adoptable innovation that was not foreseen by the median attitude.  An overly rigid system is one that is prone to catastrophic failure, while a constantly failing system can hardly be thrown off by catastrophe!

But in explaining why homo sapiens out lasted other hominids, these genetic features might be significant.  I am currently reading Clan of the Cave Bear which contrasts a neanderthal species with bigger brain capacity but more rigid thinking and cultural attitudes against a homo sapien species which lacks the inherited, rigid encyclopedia of knowledge neanderthal's have but more than make up for it in uncanny intelligence and mental agility.

It may be our weediness is the source of our greatest strength (adaptable intelligence) and our greatest weakness (the abuse of power we gain from our difference).  With the development of nuclear weapons we have reached the Marxian point of having matured from seed the means of our own destruction.