Mitochondrial EveThinking about Evolution & Economics and Some Notes on the Natural Selection of Ideas

Part 2 - Decision Making - the strange tale of Mitochondrial Eve and the arrogance of intelligent design

The plausible rational purposeful intentional planning process is a mirage - we learn from outcomes but we can't design them

'the evolutionary watchmaker is blind'

Now God said, and I agree with him, ‘let there be light ...'

Once upon a time deep in the African bush there were all sorts of hairy & brawny folk and all sorts of agile & brainy folk with different aptitudes, different behaviours, different ideas and worshipping different Gods. This massive diversity & complexity had resulted from the process of evolution as more & more niches in the environment were filled.

The environment appeared hostile, the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics saw to that, and folk found themselves having to run faster & faster just to stand still ... and then, one by one, generation after generation, the less responsive lineages died out and the more successful lineages prospered and filled even more niches with more diversity and more complexity as survival tricks from the past were accumulated and new tricks were generated & tested in an unstoppable process of evolution. This was 'inheritance with modification' and 'differential survival', Darwin called it 'natural selection'.

Some poor girls from that African community didn’t have any surviving daughters at all, so, in slow time, it came to pass that all but one maternal lineage died out. ‘Our’ lineage, all living human folk, can be traced back through mothers and daughters to just one of those agile brainy girls in Africa - Mitochondrial Eve.

Darwin suggested that on the tree of life any group, at any time, sprang from one historical entity. Later mitochondria was identified as one of many DNA survival tricks exploited by everybody living today. This bit of DNA just happened to be passed on only via the female line.

Darwin had stumbled across something that was difficult to get your head around. Evolution involved the death, or non-survival, of most mutations ... but a successful few lived and thus adapted, building yet more diversity & complexity into the changing genetic population. The giraffe's long neck was not the result of omnipotent design, but rather, the result of the death of short necked giraffes.

Now, don’t get me wrong, all the bush girls were remarkable successes. Over time, back to the dim distant past, as surviving daughters of surviving mothers they had accumulated survival tricks and generated new ones to fight off parasites & predators. For certain they were helped along the way by propitious impregnations from various horny boy friends. However Eve had not only acquired this abundance from her ancestors, but also ... some of her descendants, in the course of more time and with a modicum of luck, discovered some new survival tricks which eluded the descendants of her friends. The remarkable Eve was to secure survival tricks twice.

At the time, of course, Eve was just a beautiful girl indistinguishable from the rest of her friends, some said she was even rather plain. The Soothsayers exhausted their powers trying to identify survival tricks and discover which of the many girls was the famous Eve. Their misery was acute, there was only one Eve but she had many many friends, the search was for a needle in a needlestack, a double whammy. Clearly evolution produced new species and new tricks all the time but they were impossible to identify early in time ... only time helped, the truth was in the future …

No wonder the grape vine was full of abject news about failures, success was very rare indeed. The successful ripples were not only rare but to add insult to injury they could have consequences for the whole of the human race, the stakes couldn’t be higher. It was Eve who energised everybody living today. Mitochondria produced the bio-chemical energy in eukaryotic cells.

But remember mitochondria was only one of many evolved survival tricks, it just happened to be traceable back to Eve with the benefit of hindsight ... and modern genetic science!

It seemed as if all the boys wanted to marry Eve, she was the only girl to have ongoing surviving daughters and every one wanted their daughters to survive ... after all, all the boys had mothers with genes that had survived the rigours of history ... and everyone wanted to become an ancestor, because those that didn't died out ... didn't they?

There's more ... it seemed the boys knew that those who failed to mate failed to become ancestors ... and more ... the survival chances of the genes of the boys depended 50% on their sex mate  ...  no one could figure a way round that!  ... so the boys couldn't possibly want any girl other than Eve ... could they?

The difficulty of understanding was that these were emotional mechanisms at work, deep down in the skull, there was no awareness of the adaptive problems that were being solved, self conscious behaviour came very late in the evolutionary day.

As the boys searched for Eve the only clues they could think of to identify her were her radiant assets which suggested to most folk that she was in rude reproductive health ... young, fit & beautiful? ... blue eyes, blonde hair & big boobs? ... perhaps?

… only time helped, the truth was in the future …

How were the successful  boys behaving? The boys had learned a lot from their Mums about how to compete with the other boys for the affections of the girls ... but they learned most from the other lads, their peers ... it was the other boys who were devilishly cunning when it came to securing mates and this mating game was ferociously competitive ... the boys that were mating didn't all have dark quiffs and square shoulders ... in fact they came in all shapes and sizes ... but nearly all seemed to be older than their girls ... and also they seemed to have skills and 'know how' about things like hunting and fighting ... what was going on?

… only time helped, the truth was in the future …

The boys knew about the Peacock's tail and knew it was a very costly investment unless the Peahens all loved it ... it seemed there were two sides to this mating business ... and the Peahen had the biggest investment!

It was easy enough to see that the boys wanted young blued eyed blondes but what did the girls want? ... maybe they were different ... after all they did dance backwards ...

... and there was more ... the girls were in the driving seat ... for sure ... think about it ? ... sperm was plentiful, billions several times a night ... but eggs were very very scarce ... one a month ... and then nothing for nine months ... and longer ... it seemed access to the eggs was denied during pregnancy ... and lactation ... it seemed the girls were the investing sex ... they held the aces ... and the truth dawned on the hapless boys ... not only were the girls different ... but the girls took all the decisions!

But the boys weren't completely hapless! The girls were born with a lifetime supply of precious eggs, but the boys were producing a multitude of new sperm through cell division, billions five time a nite! And crucially copying errors in this process produced random mutations. And passing on mutations to the girls was big progress because very occasionally they proved beneficial ... but as they were random they were usually useless and even harmful ... wot a pain for the boys. But was there a silver lining? The older dads tended to pass on more mutations as their copying efficiency declines; and older men tended to become attractive to the girls ... every year of age results in about two extra mutations ... and you never know they may hit the jackpot!

The girls knew about investing, they knew this was a long term business ... not only did they invest in scarce eggs but their babies were helpless and dependent ... at least until they used razors and lipstick ... and most girls suspected help would be needed a long time after that ...

Maybe there was an economic deal ... in return for access to the scarce eggs the girls demanded long term commitment and help with sustenance and protection for their babies?

The boys grasped the message ... no resources, no commitment, no eggs ... as Richard Dawkins was to explain much later - genes do cost/benefit analysis!

In this way the boys were driven to learn the skills for resource accumulation and this was a highly competitive long term process of hard work, honesty & thrift ... it seemed it was no longer just the brute force of the pecking order ... economic capacity was a distinguishing gender trait ... sheer hard work and risk taking increased the chances of securing a mate ... fighting, hunting, social interaction, cooperation, technological innovation ... skills and 'know how' ... acquiring all these skills needed to compete in the mating race was risky ... innovation was always risky ... and it was innovation that gave the boys a competitive edge  ... nobody seemed to want a 'me too' ... so the boys had to take risks otherwise there was no access to the eggs ... the pretty girls didn't want to marry an inadequate wimp ... no wonder the boys tended to die young ...

Evolution had no agenda ... if all the boys were the same, the girls would have no preference? ... by choosing the girls were actively driving the competitive social economic status of the boys ... and all they had to do was look pretty ... how unfair was this? ... but how else were the babies to survive and pass on their genes? ... mate selection was a determining feature of evolution because fitness involved not just survival but also reproductive success.

A real problem was emerging here for those aspiring lads. How did they get themselves into a position to be chosen by their girl?

… only time helped, the truth was in the future …

Of course it was no better for the girls ... although they always had plenty to say as well ... they were in a quandary ... Eve had to speculate about the future ... which of the boys would have the 'know how' and commitment to help with the babies?

… only time helped, the truth was in the future …

Remember ... these were subconscious emotional mechanisms at work ... the boys and the girls were not aware of the adaptive problems that were being solved ... they didn't consciously think these thinks ... and for sure the boys seemed to be more interested in the ball games and the leg overs. In fact these thinks were not thinks at all until way way into the future … until 1859 ... when Darwin wrote 'Origin of Species'. Read that paragraph again!

The hysteria and confusion were immense as the boys fought amongst themselves as they tried to hitch a ride on Eve's genetic gravy train. Alas it was quite impossible to find the viable amongst the trivia, better microscopes did not help, no pen detailed the required specification, there was no user manual, the kids were alone in the universe, nothing but time would be able to help.

Slowly it became clear that evolution worked 'as if' purposefully pursuing survival value … today we only 'see' the survivors, the failures are dead ... so it 'seemed' 'as if' surviving was a purpose, an intent … but these were statistical tendencies not certainties ... the only certainty was the process of chemistry ... the 2nd law of thermodynamics … think about it?

Some began to think that conscious thinks could be a problem. Although some of the boys drew up a detailed specification for the girl of their dreams, and they ticked all the right boxes and evaluated the pros and the cons and smiled ... it seemed when push came to shove they just fell hook line and sinker for their very own 'Eve' ... everybody believed they had chosen the 'real Eve'! Perhaps they forgot to check the boxes or perhaps only checked them later to post rationalise their choice ... could it really be that these enterprising boys chose first and then decided afterwards ... ? Some neural Darwinists suggested that consciousness was a result of brain activity, consciousness did not control brain activity ... for sure embryonic brain activity was a reality long before consciousness ... 

The mystery was to be compounded as crucially more and more of the Soothsayers began to suspect that it was Eve’s behaviour and her ideas that determined her reproductive success rather than her interesting shape. And that was another quite intractable ball game for the boys because they still itched every time lips pouted and deep blue eyes ogled.

Perhaps evolution produced gradual changes in populations without discontinuity; genes, organisms, brains, behaviour, language, ideas and culture which all interacted and influenced survival chances ... oh my ... wot a complex mess ...

And there's more still, some of the Soothsayers also realised that although Eve was blessed with radiant physical assets, her behaviour and ideas were somewhat less reliable. They changed quite frequently ... during her lifetime, during her monthlies and sometimes each day, particularly early in the morning after a late night! And strangely they changed as she learned …so who was the real Eve? None of the available cheating detection systems were up to such intriguing deception, not only was Eve different from her friends she was different from herself! The feedstock of evolution was differences ... diversity ... so it made sense?

Here's the rub ... unknown to the boys ... the girls were wrestling with their own intractable problem - which of all the sex crazed boys was the one they should choose to share the incredibly valuable egg? ... how did the girls decide which boy would commit resources and 'know how' long enough into the future to ensure protection and education of the babies? ...  and the babies seemed to take long years to learn ... no wonder the girls were inscrutable ... no wonder they were different and danced backwards ...

So perhaps the boys had always chosen girls with sexy smiles and perhaps the girls had always chosen boys with skills which protected them from predators and found meat for them … so, in due course, their daughters would likely have similar sexy smiles and their sons similar behavioural skills ... so interesting smiles and interesting behaviour were connected … not alternatives … genes didn't evolve in isolation, remember, the genes 'for' the Peacock's tail co-evolved with the genes 'for' the Peahen's admiration … and the Peahen held all the aces? ... more confusion ... it really was a problem …

… only time helped, the truth was in the future …

And there's more, the boys may have realised that they still had a chance to impact on the future as their sons & sons, and their daughters & daughters may have sons who would one day fall in love with one of Eve's female descendants. Genes tended to move down the generations in complementary 'teams'  so hitching a ride with mitochondria was a good survival strategy. It seemed there were many ways to create ripples which would reverberate around the future of folk apart from Eve's energising contribution … but, of course, there was a snag ... Eve's daughters were also invisible to the boy's sons …

And there's more more ... in small populations or long intervals between speciation, lineages were lost through chance genetic drift ... the boys may have guessed that an element of pure chance was involved in their survival quest … random crumbling of the cookie ... now that really really was a problem ... if it was random, why bother?

So there we have it, there was no way to identify which ripples waxed and there were many many more ways in which great ripples waned, that wretched 2nd Law again … so striking while the iron was hot seemed propitious … and in the end, it came to pass, that unable to cope with the endless introspection, navel contemplation and analysis paralysis the boys often succumbed to the ancient testosterone rush. An age old technique of visceral guidance which took on a life of its own as frenetic bouts of testing occupied many many late nights after the bars had shut ... enthusiastically testing the girls against an unknown specification in the vain hope of discovering why they danced backwards ... groping blindly for understanding and trying to recognise the tell tale glint that would identify the real delectable Eve ... all the time blissfully unaware that it was the girls who were doing the choosing anyway ... 

There was no escape, evolution was a trial & error, generate & test process.

Even some of the soothsayers began to realise that this strange trial & error, generate & test process was doing them out of a job as they contemplated the difficult questions -

Why sex in the first place? - was it to generate more chromosomal diversity? Was it a compromise between the genetic strategies of boys and the girls? Or was it synergistic cooperation?

Why differences between boys & girls? - were boys cashing on the sheer quantity of genetic material they tried to pass on? And were the girls trying to raise the rich quality of the material they passed on?

Why the large investment in eggs? - was it to help with sustenance in the vulnerable first few weeks of embryo growth?

Why only one egg a month? - was it a cost / benefit balance between investment costs and chances of fertilisation?

Why internal fertilisation? - did it offer some protection from unreliable sperm?

Why hidden ovulation? - was it a device to keep the boys at it?

... and on and on it went ...

So how to choose? - there seems to be no answer to this stupendous puzzle which generations of Soothsayers have arrogantly tried to solve.

But we do have some clues, remember Eve won twice. Her first win was to have survived in the first place, but she had many girlfriends who had also survived, her first win was special but not very special. Her second win was more important, she alone was to have daughters and grand daughters and … descendants who survived ... who proved able to accumulate new tricks which others missed ...

Some of Eve’s descendants adapted to a hostile environment better than their competitors.

This second win was in the future ... what magic was this?

But wait … Eve won twice but tomorrow will be different … continuing survival success is fickle … and it could be chance in any case … and mitochondrial energy isn't everything there were many other girls and many other tricks … evolution led to adaptation through the process of the differential survival of new tricks within populations of inherited successes ... the inscrutable Gods did not reveal the future …

Today the Soothsayers are megalomaniacs and continue to delude themselves and argue amongst themselves as they endlessly try to filter the good ideas from the bad ... seldom admitting that the Gods did not give them the foresight necessary for such intricate design work …… but, perhaps, the Gods did give everyone the freedom to choose and thus adapt to the hostile environment?

So rejoice, all is not lost, even though the future is a fickle mist there are ways of enhancing our survival chances, we can learn from Eve’s experience. It seems patterns do exist but they are complex, changing, conflicting and scarce … it seems the giraffe’s long neck was not designed by a brilliant Soothsayer with 'sound judgment' who decided it was a 'good thing', it was a simple age old process – short necked giraffes died out.

In 1978 one Nobel Prize winning economist, Herbert Simon, suggested a behavioural strategy which loaded the statistical dice of life in favour of faster adaptation - 

build on proven inherited success, don't reinvent the wheel, freely choose between options available at the time and the place, unhindered by Bishops, Princes, Generals or bureaucratic majorities … or any Soothsayer … because nobody knows ...

experiment and generate diversity to increase the chances of discovering new tricks

cooperate with others to discover many more and better tricks from specialisation, scale and synergy, tricks which are not available to individuals, 2 + 2 = 5

retaliate to defend your tricks from the inevitable parasites and predators who will try to steal them

learn from the successful outcomes of differential survival and start again

No more endless inspection of the mass of daily trivia in the hope of finding the remarkable but utterly invisible Eve, and remember there are many alternative success routes which don't depend on such a fortuitous coupling.

Beware of the knee jerk design hysteria of the Soothsayers who think they know ... after all, only a few million years ago they were apes, and only a few hundred years ago they were burning witches.

Experiment and start beavering with your mates.

Speed up evolution in the certain knowledge that new tricks are there to be discovered … but nobody knows where or when … do I go left? … or do I go right?

… only time helped, the truth was in the future …

So generate & test, generate & test, generate & test … ‘Jesus is coming, quick look busy’ !

Economics is the science of choices, long long term choices ... the iterative mathematics of choices … and inexorably, day by day, the evidence supporting blind evolution mounts… it’s the only game in town … it works whether we understand it or not … it works whether we try to 'help' it or not … we can't stop it … but we can speed it up that's why we have brains !

john p birchall

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