Sunday, February 16, 2014

One Direction as a metaphor for the benefits of genetic diversity

I am currently in Fukuoka, Japan, at a workshop organized by Tet Yahara, Makiko Mimura, and others that is focused on developing a Genetic Diversity Report. The basic idea is that biodiversity science and policy currently focuses on species and their benefits to humanity, such as ecosystem services. This perspective misses the critical point that genetic diversity within species is incredibly important to those species and to their benefits to humanity.

Every day during the workshop, we have been taking the subway from our hotel to Kyushu University and, every time, we have been saturated with posters of five young men (boys, really) who are clearly pop stars of some sort or other. The posters are all over the walls and hang every few meters along the ceiling of every subway car. During each commute, we probably saw 100 posters (surely a dozen would have sufficient). But what was the message? Who were these guys and what were we supposed to be buying? Having seen these posters a few hundred times (so maybe a dozen posters wasn’t sufficient after all), I started to get curious and looked for a hint on the poster – but everything was in Japanese, except for two small words “One Direction.” Oh, I had heard of them – the current generation’s boy band, like N’Sync or The Backstreet Boys or New Kids on the Block of previous generations. It seems One Direction was to “perform” soon in Fukuoka – although we couldn’t figure out the date.

One Direction (top) and No Direction (bottom). From left to right: Peter Prentis, Bruce Walsh, Andrew Hendry, George Roderick, and Peter Hollingsworth. (Photo: Chris Kettle.)
This got me to thinking. One of the key features of boy bands (and girl bands – Spice Girls!) was that they were carefully constructed for diversity. One boy was the sensitive type, one was the bad boy, one was the jock, and so on. Here is how Wikipedia explains it:

Seen as important to a "boy band" group's commercial success is the group's image, carefully controlled by managing all aspects of the group's dress, promotional materials (which are frequently supplied to teen magazines), and music videos. The key factor of a boy band is being trendy. This means that the band conforms to the most recent fashion and musical trends in the popular music scene. Typically, each member of the group will have some distinguishing feature and be portrayed as having a particular personality stereotype, such as "the baby," "the bad boy," or "the shy one." While managing the portrayal of popular musicians is as old as popular music, the particular pigeonholing of band members is a defining characteristic of boy and girl bands.

Our main goal as a group is to convince people, including policy makers, who don’t normally think about genetic diversity that they should be doing so. We came up with a list of the benefits that seemed quite clear to us – but how to convince people who weren’t already converts? I suggest the One Direction metaphor:

Complementarity: By carefully assembling alternative stereotypes into the band, the manager seeks to appeal to various “diverse” segments of teenage girldom. If all of the boys were the same (clones of each other, for example), then presumably some girls would not be interested and the records and concerts would make less money. The same concept applies in biodiversity. If a diversity of phenotypes/genotypes exists in a population, then the population might use a greater diversity of habitats and thereby increase in total abundance. Similarly, a more diverse set of genotypes will be more resistant to the negative effects of diseases, which can’t then evolve to specialize on any single genotype. A great example is provided by the diversity of rice types in Chinese agriculture increasing resistance to pathogens (Zhu et al. 2000).

Portfolio effect: The appeal of different boy stereotypes to young record-buying and concert-going girls presumably varies through time. In some years, bad boys might be more popular, in other years, the sensitive types might be more popular. Or perhaps each girls goes through their own preference arc as they get older – maybe they like the shy one at first, grow into the cute one, and graduate to the bad boy. By having multiple types in the band, the overall popularity of the band might remain more consistent/stable through time. The same effect again applies to biodiversity. If a number of different types are present in the population and those different types are differentially susceptible to environmental conditions that vary through time, then a more diverse group will have greater stability through time. A great example is how the diversity of sockeye salmon populations in Bristol Bay, Alaska, buffers the entire production of the bay (and therefore harvesting by humans) in the face of considerable environmental variation through time (Schindler et al. 2010).

Option values: By having a diversity of boy types in a band, managers can increase the chances that some future popularity trend will be captured by existing membership in the band. Perhaps the shy type isn’t popular now but it will be next year. In biodiversity science, option values can work something the same. For instance, some types in a population might not be of much benefit for the population (or humans) now but perhaps they will be under future environmental change. Or perhaps certain types that aren’t obviously useful to humans in the present will eventually become so as we better understand their beneficial properties.

Potential for change: Related to option values – but with a different emphasis – diversity within a band can increase the potential for future change. Perhaps the preferences of future pre-teen girls are not well foreseen by the current stereotypes in the band but one of the key features of boy bands is that the producers can modify them to try to match changing trends – and the greater diversity of types to start with the greater the chance they can be modified into a future preferred type – and the greater the chance the band (or parts of it) will persist into the future. (Justin Timberlake is still here.) In biodiversity, a good example is that greater amounts of genetic diversity in the present will allow more rapid and flexible evolutionary change in the future, which will aid population persistence (evolutionary rescue!).

Having just closed out two days of discussion, we now have to write this report – but how to do so? Should we write a nice glossy document that we hand out to policy makers and publish online, or should we edit a special issue of a journal, such as Evolutionary Applications. Either approach seems fine to me but I think that whichever route we go, we should put One Direction on the cover. Doing so would be certain to reach more people – and what better way to influence policy makers than by first convincing their daughters that genetic diversity is the way to go. By virtue of One Direction and N’Sync and The Backstreet Boys and even the Jackson Five, they are already primed to accept it.


  1. Given the likely age range of the people you're trying to convince, maybe the Beatles would be a more convincing example? They even provide an example of the idea that genetic diversity within a species (John, Paul, George, Ringo) can provide the basis for adaptive radiation (e.g., the very different solo careers of the four, after disruptive selection broke the band apart :->). :->

  2. Too young for the Beatles ;-)

    There are only few boy bands in the eighties, but I can think of many boy duos - Wham, Duran Duran, Modern Talking, A-ha, Pet Shop boys....

    And in Europe (Germany), there was Alphaville ( a boy band)

    The late 80s saw the start of the ew Kids on the Block

  3. Maybe what we really need is the NEXT boy band. Also, Hitoshi informs me that they are not actually coming to Fukuoka - it is merely an advertisement for a cell phone.


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