Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Dinosaurs to scientists: “Think fast!”

(A dispatch from Scott Carroll.)

I suppose few people grow up thinking much about evolution, though for decades kids have had dinosaurs, pterosaurs, wooly mammoths and saber-toothed cats actively released into the refuges of their imaginations. And imagine the thrill of early naturalists like Darwin, raised on different tales, who stumbled upon fossil skeletons of ancient titans and knew at once that the world has at times been a very different place from what the present otherwise suggests.

Fossil discoveries highlight ancient denizens of the evolutionary tree, but there is more immediate information at hand among the living: evolution-in-action. For a century, the blind spot of gradualism has led us to segregate evolution too neatly. Yes, air pollution can influence moth color frequencies, but we assume that’s a freak observation, and things quickly get back to normal. Sure, pathogens evolve to survive antimicrobial assault, but we assume they are a shifty peripheral class of small invisible things with their own rules.

But now we know, to the contrary, that the history of life is still being written, and that an evolutionary perspective is as relevant to our future as it is to our past.

Like a meteor gaining self-awareness at the moment of its impact, it is dawning within the collective consciousness of contemporary naturalists that industrial melanism was but the smoking gun of industrial selection, that microbes indeed ‘are us’, and that even the mighty trees may be light on their evolutionary feet. Anthropogenic evolution has left the farm (and the station), and accepted permanent positions in bathrooms, bus seats and hospitals around the world, near you, and on you (e.g., MRSA).

From equator to pole, metropolis to wilderness, 'refugee taxa' that are not disappearing altogether are persisting by adapting, and much of that adaptation is genetic. Other organisms too are evolving quickly to take advantage of new opportunities created by habitat disturbance, mass agriculture, increased human density, climate change, and other forces. Agricultural, medical and environmental systems thus consist of many 'moving targets' that are evolving their own 'solutions’, sometimes to the detriment of what we value, and sometimes quite the opposite. Meanwhile, what of species that are increasingly mismatched to their changing environments– what can evolutionary analyses tell us about the well-being and future of these adaptive laggards, including ourselves?

Just how widespread and important rapid anthropogenic evolution and maladaptation are in practice was unmistakable at a recent international summit of leading Darwinian ecologists, agriculturists and medicos at Heron Island on Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. Entitled ‘Interdisciplinary Solutions to Evolutionary Challenges in Food, Health and the Environment’, the goal was to both overcome and take advantage of the largely independent histories of evolutionary perspectives in these fields, and to build a common dialog of applied evolution. Interspersed, of course, with inspirational diving and snorkeling in Shark Bay, which lived up to its name.

For example, what are the underlying evolutionary commonalities and differences, for example, of

· immigration and invasions of pests and pathogens?
· emergence of genotype-environment mismatch and its influence on individual and population health?
· evolution of virulence and of antibiotic and pesticide resistance?
· sustainability of exploited populations and biological diversity?

How might these evolutionary challenges themselves interact in the context of broader global change? What strategies and lessons can be co-opted across fields?

The answers, or at least steps toward them, are available in video and print. Summit presentations are at From there, you can link to the papers, which form a special March 2011 issue of Evolutionary Applications, are available for download without charge (thanks Wiley-Blackwell!) through April 2011.

Probing the perilous future of the human-biosphere can often grant little more than an ever-grimmer view of how difficult the big issues will be to predict and manage, and for many, to survive. And now we toss evolutionary considerations– yet more variables– into the splashing mix! But I think we should instead take heart: evolution is the predictive core of all the biological sciences. Paleontology was merely a starting point. As we finally integrate evolutionary theory into widespread practice, we will surprise ourselves by designing better means of producing, protecting and preserving the things that we value most.

Photo: the Heron Island crew.

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