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Wednesday, Nov. 14, 2007

NATURAL SELECTIONS

EVOLUTION AND PROGRESS

In vino veritas — or not


I was drinking a beer and eating sashimi in a tiny bar in Tokyo's trendy Shibuya district last week when one of the office workers there wondered aloud, "Is evolution the same as progress?"

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I thought for a minute and said "No, it's different." But as for any further explanation in Japanese, I couldn't get it out in time, and the conversation moved on.

The starting point for this week's column is the answer I would have given had I had a dictionary and a bilingual assistant with me. And had the customers really wanted a lecture rather than an after-work drink!

Progress is change "for the better" — in other words, something changes in a way that, from a certain point of view, improves things. Cheaper and improved healthcare for all can be seen as an example of progress that most people would readily agree on.

The difference from evolution is a very basic one: Progress is a cultural change that is directed to some goal (in the healthcare example, toward improving the wellbeing of society). Evolution, on the other hand, is genetic change that is blind to any goal, and sometimes the change that comes about as a result of evolution can result in something less complex than there was before.

It's a simple point, but what was illuminating for me was that it was being discussed at all in the bar.

In the United States, surveys have found that only 40 percent of adults accept that humans evolved from earlier species of animals. In Japan, that figure is 78 percent. But in contrast to the U.S., no major political party in Japan uses opposition to evolution as a positive selling point.

In Japan, as in other countries, there are worries about what science is doing, and where it will take us. There are legitimate questions that should be asked about such things as artificial intelligence and stem-cell research. The difference is that in the U.S. those worries are religious in nature.

However, a recent poll found that support for biotechnology in Japan is declining. Public support still remains higher than in the U.S. or Europe, but doubt seems to have crept in. Perhaps it is the fear that the progress that biotechnology will bring will come at too great a cost.

Just this week, there has been a good example of how technology — admittedly not biotechnology — may have benefited our early ancestors on the African savanna.

The soil of the savannas contains underground storage organs — tubers, roots and bulbs of plants of various types. Scientists think that our early ancestors' ability to access such resources — by using tools to dig them up — was a critical innovation that helped power human adaptation to savanna environments.

What has now been found is that savanna chimps use bark and stick tools to exploit the underground food source. It is yet another example of a behavior now found in chimps that was once thought to be exclusively human. (There are major differences between the species, of course: Humans argue about progress, though I can't imagine some of the chimps refusing to eat food dug up by their "progressive," improvising comrades.)

"The understanding and capability to exploit these resources were very likely to have been within the grasp of the first chimplike hominids," says Travis Pickering, an anthropologist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, who led the study.

"It was widely believed that it is a uniquely human adaptation to use tools to dig these things up."

The team found evidence of digging activity by the chimps at 11 different sites in Ugalla Forest Reserve in western Tanzania. Ten of the sites were directly beneath chimpanzee nests. Because the savanna is a tough habitat to live in, finding additional food sources could make all the difference to the success or failure of a community — be it early human ancestors, or present-day chimps.

"Progress" is a double-edged sword. On one hand, it gives us plentiful energy and cars and aircraft and all that; on the other, it has led to spiraling levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, and to climate change.

Can technological progress rescue us? Well, it may have done so once before.

Five million years ago, the forebears of the modern human lineage in Africa were forced to adapt to savanna-living, as major climate change dramatically reduced the continent's forests.

"Savanna chimps, we would contend, are dealing with environmental constraints and problems — evolutionary pressures — that our earliest relatives would have dealt with as well in similar environments," Pickering says.

The Shibuya bar where the conversation about evolution and progress was going on, incidentally, is in "Drunkards' Alley" (Nonbei Yokocho) in Shibuya, where wooden shacks seemingly from times long past line the side of the railway tracks.

With their red lanterns floating above, their wooden doors and delicious home-cooked food, the romantics among us can almost believe we are in a period drama. But this is Japan after all, and evolution has come to Drunkards' Alley. The bar where I was eating, Enoki, now even has a Web page (www.enoki.cc).

Why do I say this is evolution and not progress?

Well, I suppose I can't, just yet. But when I see offspring bars of Enoki around Tokyo, selling the same recipe foods, then I can.

The second volume of Natural Selections columns translated into Japanese is published by Shinchosha at ¥1,500. The title is "Hito wa ima mo shinka shiteru (The Evolving Human: How new biology explains your journey through life)."


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