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Death - Accident or By Design?


The idea that one little mechanism like the telomere could be responsible for all of aging is hard for people to swallow. And it should be hard to swallow, because implicitly it requires a reorientation of our theory of evolution around species competition and away from individual competition. That is a significant change in our belief system, but without it the telomere theory of aging makes little sense. If you believe in a wear-and-tear theory of aging, you would surely expect to fight the battle on many fronts. Some followers of the telomere theory of aging believe that telomere shortening is a necessary defense to Cancer, and that aging is an unwanted consequence of this defense. But to us, that does not seem to make sense either. Nature rarely throws its hands up like that, accepting a devastating illness as a side-effect of another solution it crafted because it couldn't think of a way around it. If Cancer defense were its only goal, nature had many non-aging options. It could have periodically extended telomeres for example, every, say, ten years. People would stay young, but Cancerous cells would still hit the Hayflick limit. Or it could have come up with any number of its ingenous solutions for which it is so well known that are often beyond our powers of invention.

The problem of aging, of finding a theory of aging, of laying the foundation to uncovering The Secret, is so intractable because it requires not a new study, not a new piece of knowlege, not even a conventional idea, but a reorientation of our perspective - away from the individual and towards the species as the pivot point of evolutionary change.

By Design

The central idea that allows the telomere theory of aging to be something capable of embracing is this: death is by design as an adaptation of the species and not the individual. It is a necessary part of quick, effective and successful evolution just as sexual recombination of genetic information is. Species who do not wipe out each previous generation simply cannot get off the ground and compete against species that do because their new generations of individuals keep mixing in with, and have to compete against, the old, established and entrenched gene pool.   The idea is an old one, and has been floating around for over 100 years, first introduced by August Weismann in 1889, and has a large following 5.  But with our rapid advance on aging, the question is suddenly becoming more than academic.

Genetic Algorithms

The evolutionary necessity for death can now be seen quite literally in world of genetic algorithms (GAs), where, in a brilliant and very effective emulation of nature in the realm of computer science, a population of algorithms are allowed to mate, multiply and live only if they are better at solving the problem, and then die. And what has been found in the world of GAs is that if you don't kill off the previous generation, you don't get anywhere. This is so true that although some products allow the user to control this feature (whether the previous population lives or not), killing off the previous generation is standard practice in the industry.

The Evolution of Evolvability

Experts in the field of GAs spend their time finding just the right mutation rate, the right sexual recombination method, and tweak a host of other variables in an attempt to maximize their evolutionary output.  But recently it has been understood that nature is doing the same thing.  Richard Dawkins first described the way in which a species (or larger group such as a genus, phylum, etc) hones its evolution 'skills', as it were, and optimizes itself to become a well-oiled evolving machine.  He coined the term evolution of evolvability, and does a wonderful job of depicting its many appearances in nature.  This concept has caught on and now there is a popular book out, Evolution's Arrow, dedicated largely to this subject, as well as proven computer evolutionary models of the natural appearance of this phenomenon.  

As it turns out, for example, mutations in most mammals to the genes that result in giving us another finger or limb, for example, are over 100 times more likely than mutations to genes that control the Krebs Cycle. The species is 'intentionally' trying out new limb designs, an experiment which pays off more than mucking with the Krebs Cycle. It is the 'evolution of evolvability' that we believe is responsible for aging and death.

If this reorientation seems difficult to accept, consider the fundamental invention of sex. This elaboarate system splits a species into males and females and requires them to combine genes to create the next generation rather than simply allowing them to procreate asexually, a process that would be considerably less involved. But when attempting to imagine the origins of this system and all of its complex and highly evolved trappings, we quickly come up against a problem: How is this system even explainable in terms of evolution at the individual level? It is the framework in which that game is played, but not explained by it. Again, GAs have helped to show us the way. Sex exists because it turbo-charges evolutionary output. GAs first copied this trick from nature, and has now validated it in nature as the trick has proven absolutely essential in generating more effective evolution in the world of GAs.  Of the many highly sophisticated GA products on the market, it is now difficult if not impossible to find a product whose algorithms do not ‘mate’ and swap pieces of their algorithm to create the next generation. Without sex, the individual members of a GA, and by extension biological life forms, have to do all of their evolving on an island, by themselves, rather than participating in the cross pollination, as it were, of genetic ideas of each member which is the result of sex. 

With this in mind, we can paint a picture of the likely origin of death: Some time at the dawn of multicellular life, the first mortal creature evolved by accident against a backdrop of immortal single-celled and early immortal multi-cellular organisms, and although it was not helpful to that first creature in terms of its own procreation, it helped the species which it fathered immensely by allowing it to evolve untethered to its past.  Competing species, over geologic time periods, were evolutionary lugs, just couldn't keep up and died out as they failed to compete for the same resources that the thriving and more complexly evolved mortal species dominated.

At this point it is interesting to consider this question: What were some of the most likely genetic mutations that could occur to the earliest multicellular organism that would allow it continue the repair and renewal cycle, losing and replacing cells as it lived long enough to produce offspring but then eventually to die? Complex endocrine (hormone) systems and other high-level systems often implicated in modern aging theories did not exist in these early animals - they were only small bunches of cells. The mechanism of maintaining telomere lengths with the telomerase enzyme, necessary because of the so-called 'end replication problem' - was a solution just waiting to break so it could answer this call.

Punctuated Equilibrium

The fossil record has slowly been uncovering a remarkable, but unavoidable fact. Almost all aspects of our form and function appear to have been forged in the furnace of species vs. species competition. The fossil record shows a pattern of 'puctuated equilibrium'. We see species come into existence, not change much at all for millions of years, and then exit, usually replaced by a similar but better adapted species. And if you follow the fossil record in an attempt to trace a significant trail of evolution - from monkey to man for example - you do not see a story of gradual change of individuals moving the species along towards change. What you see is a species enter the scene and then remain unchanged for millions of years, and another species appear in parallel and eventually out-compete it for resources, while the original one slowly dies out.

This observation has become so startling that many creationists have used it to attempt to debunk Darwin's theory. And while they were wrong about that, Darwin's theory perhaps had a missing piece: As a practical reality, for whatever reason, maybe because it is difficult for an entire species to crawl down from a 'local peak' together in order to find a higher one, individual change doesn't seem to be able to get an entire species to change much. It appears that only when a small group breaks off of the main species, due to isolation or genetic defect can this happen. But what this all means is that not only is evolution capable of creating forces that transcend the interests of the individual, but that this is where the real action is - it is the pivot point of most evolutionary change. In other words, we thought the primary entities competing for survival in evolution were individuals. But in fact species have been duking it out with each other, and those battles were really the ones responsible for the great variety we see in the tree of life, and by extension, the very designs of our bodies. Imagine a skin cell suddenly having the realization for the first time that the animal it inhabited was competiting against others and that these battles were more important in designing it than were its daily competition with other skin cells, and that is the hard-to-grasp realization that we must come to as well with regard to our relationship with the species we are a part of.

Richard Dawkins and the Perspective of the Gene

Richard Dawkins has campaigned long and hard for two decades for a reorientation of evolutionary competition around the gene and away from the individual, a theory he introduced in The Selfish Gene. He argues it largely to explain the many instances in nature where the interests of the individual seem to take a back seat to something else. The theory breaks us out of our individual perspective trance, and allows a framework with which to accept supraindividual forces. And it cannot said to be inaccurate or incorrect on any level. But whether it is necessary or elegant might be argued. Most traits that come out of species competition, such as - for the sake of a hypothetical example - an inherent trait to go to battle with those that are not like us, come about as the result of thousands of genes interacting with each other. So the persective of 'the gene' is messy. Also, the invention of sex does not come from 'a gene' or set of genes per se, but it is rather a system by which they are mixed up to provide a cross pollination of genetic ideas. Explaining that from a perpective of 'the gene', while possible, is messy as well. And finally, if you accept, for the purposes of argument, that telomere shortening is what causes death in us, that is a phenomenon not driven by genes at all, but by telomeres - non-encoding structures lying on the outside of genes, so that is difficult to reconcile with a genetic perspective as well.

In short, we would ask this: We easily accepted the one-level-of-removal story of the orgin of cells within the body, right? We accepted the fact that a larger group of cells working as a unit (animals) could compete with other groups of cells (other animals) and that this competition was entirely responsible for the design of the cells, and that cell-vs-cell competition had nothing to do with that design. So we should have no problem bumping that logic up to the next level - to individuals and the species they belong to - and a perspective of the gene should not be required.

Nature Gets No Respect

Finally, when contemplating the question of whether aging and death are by accident or design, think of what nature has accomplished.  After almost 4 billion years of evolution think of how truly amazing its current product has become.  There is almost nothing that does not exist in nature for a reason and its manifestations are complex and ingenious beyond description.  Are we to believe that evolutionary forces have been pushing relentlessly all this time toward a longer fertile life because, after all, the longer an animal's fertile life, the more offspring it will have, but that nature didn't quite have what it took to get over that hump?  It just couldn't contain the Mitochondrial DNA damage associated with ATP production, for example? If nature can create a human being out of dust with a mind that can send it into space, it can certainly keep an earthworm alive indefinitely if it wanted to - with its eyes closed and hands tied behind its back.  It just doesn't want to. Like the astronomers in a pre-Copernican era, if we cannot escape the trance of the individual perspective of evolution, we will be mired in life's complexity, forever searching for the myriad solutions to problems that nature seems to us not to have been clever enough to solve, but that in fact it intended.

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