On Threespine Sticklebacks and Other Reversals
The threespine stickleback, a tiny freshwater fish native to Lake Washington, has gone retro.
In what researchers at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center are labeling a case of “reverse evolution,” the species has reinstated a bony plated armor it once utilized to survive attacks from predators – and it has accomplished this reversal in an unusually fast period of time and in response to dramatic changes in its environment.
While evolutionary biology is not a linear process from “lesser” to “greater,” (as it is often conveyed, even in some scientific circles), the threespine stickleback’s reintroduction of a feature it once deployed against predatory threats should likely be celebrated instead for its agile adaptation to a rapidly changing environment.
Less can be said of the polar bear, for example, having very recently joined the endangered species list due in large part to the narrow scope of icy habitat it requires.
The plight of the polar bear is uniformly tethered to climate change, a macro-topic that has experienced a notable reversal of its own. Tom Knutson, a renowned meteorologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s fluid dynamics lab in Princeton, New Jersey, has long held that the number of Atlantic hurricanes correlates to global warming through the amplified effect of an increasingly warmer ocean. His new study, published today in the journal Nature Geoscience, argues “against the notion that we’ve already seen a dramatic increase in Atlantic hurricane activity resulting from greenhouse warming.” In fact, his computer models now predict that by the end of the century Atlantic hurricanes will decrease by 18 percent.
Knutson cited the variable beyond the linear equation of warmer = more as “wind factors.”
There has been a good deal of intellectual investment on the part of the meteorological community around the warmer = more equation – and others have come out to dispute the new Knutson report. And while Knutson said his new computer model provides merely a “coarse overview,” it is a reversal nonetheless in his earlier predictive confidence.
The creation and deletion of equations and of truths defines the uncertain nature of science – and reversals, while sometimes painful, usually offer rewards in terms of meaningful insights. This is found often in the objective study of economics or of warfare – where the most disorderly retreats yield intellectual treasures that can be applied for future advancements.
It is a common misperception to equate a reversal to a loss. This is particularly true while one is in the midst of a struggle. Ask an oncologist about the cruelty of a prior “win” being overturned by an enigmatic foe – the reversal is experienced in the eyes of the consumed patient, and the emotion that is inevitably attached to that reversal colors it a most dark loss.
But follow the study of martial arts and reversals are raw opportunity.
We should likely thank the threespine stickleback for having taught us something. It has become less desirable for the predators that would happily devour it. In this regard, it has successfully gone from “greater” to “lesser.” It is an opportunist, but one that does not discard its prior lessons. And it is an antihero – a cunning collector of seemingly perishable losses for the greater and more sustainable wins, reversals for the bolder move forward.
Tags: Evolution , Science , Cancer , Environment , Climate , Global Warming , Polar Bear , Hurricanes , Biology , Oncology
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