Developmental Plasticity and the “Hard-Wired” Problem

“Development is the missing link between genotype and phenotype, a place too often occupied by metaphors in the past … But a strong emphasis on the genome means that environmental influence is systematically ignored. If you begin with DNA and view development as “hard-wired,” you overlook the flexible phenotype and the causes of its variation that are the mainsprings of adaptive evolution.” (Mary Jane West-Eberhard, 2003: 89-90)

“Genes, unlike gods, are conditional. They are exquisitely good at simple if-then logic: if in a certain environment, then develop in a certain way… So here is the first moral of the tale: Don’t be frightened of genes. They are not gods; they are cogs. (Matt Ridley, 2003: 250)


Plasticity: actor Christian Bale at two points in time. Same genes, different phenotypes.

Plasticity: actor Christian Bale at two points in time. Same genes, different phenotypes.

In his book The Triple Helix, Richard Lewontin told the story of the molecular biologist and Nobel laureate Sydney Brenner, who – while speaking at a conference – predicted that one day we would be able to “compute” an organism (2002). All we would need are two things: the organism’s full genome and powerful enough computers that were up to the task.

The idea is seductive. Genes are sometimes seen as self-sufficient molecules, almost existing in a vacuum, that contain all the information necessary to code for proteins. From there, it’s not a very big logical leap to think that if you had the genome, you could enter the code in some database, hit “run,” and then watch some digitized version of the organism unfold.

In fact, scientists are doing something much like this for the tiny roundworm C. elegans with the project OpenWorm. Yet even for a relatively simple organism such as this, with only about a thousand cells in total, there are reasons to be cautious. As The Economist warned in its write-up of OpenWorm: “Attempting to simulate everything faithfully would bring even a supercomputer to its knees.” However, this isn’t due solely to the limits of computing power (what if we had a super-duper computer!?). Rather, it’s a matter of how the question is framed.

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Part 11. Humans Are Blank-ogamous. Sexaptation: The Many Functions of Sex

This is part 11 of a series on the evolution of human mating behavior. Please see the introduction here. P.s. Does anybody actually read of all this?


“When the gods gave people sex, say the !Kung, they gave us a wonderful thing. Sex is often referred to as food: just as people cannot survive without eating… hunger for sex can cause people to die.” (Shostak 2000: 237) 

“sex can be many things to many people, including but not limited to a blend of personalities, social rules, desire, intimacy and performance, moral order and national image that speak to processes of sexual embodiment, varieties of sexual practice and the dynamics of culture.” (Donnan and Magowan, 2010: 175)

E unum, pluribus. (Out of one, many).


Penis Festival

Genital-themed ashtrays from the Komaki Penis Festival in Japan. For humans, sex is more complex than just getting genitals together. (

Last month, representatives in Montana debated whether to repeal an old law that made homosexual sex illegal in that state (the law was in fact overturned). Apart from the fact that private, consensual sexual behavior is still considered a matter to be legislated, there were other interesting developments from the discussion. A representative named Dave Hagstrom raised a deep question when he asked: “What is the purpose of sex?” I appreciate Hagstrom’s line of inquiry, as we could probably use more reflection on human sexuality. Unfortunately his own answer did not live up to the profundity of the question: 

“To me, sex is primarily purposed to produce people. That’s why we’re all here. Sex that doesn’t produce people is deviate. That doesn’t mean it’s a problem, it just means it’s not doing its primary purpose.”

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Adversity, Resilience, & Adaptation

Note: this post was inspired by the recent conversation I had with Soo Na Pak about grief and resilience.



Now the music’s gone, but they carry on
For their spirit’s been bruised, never broken.
They will not forget, but their hearts are set
on tomorrow and peace once again.

Phil Coulter, The Town I Loved So Well1



When I was a boy and got hurt – falling off my bike, getting hit by a baseball in the ribs, a bruised ego – my father would say to me “you’ll have a lot more of those in your life, kid.” It really wasn’t the response I was looking for at the time, which I suppose was for sympathy. My guess is that he thought a bit of cold, hard reality would do me some good. I don’t know which parental approach is the correct one, but he was undoubtedly right that adversity and getting hurt never really stop, no matter how old we are. But after being knocked down, we do our best to get up again.

My dad and I, during the great scissors shortage of 1977.

Unfortunately, we sometimes face challenging circumstances which greatly exceed falling off a bicycle – the death or loss of our loved ones, poverty, discrimination, debilitating disease or psychological trauma, famine, slavery, war, etc. Sometimes these things are chronic or even fatal, and should we be lucky enough to make it through to the other side of the tunnel, the pain can feel almost unbearable in the interim.

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