Posted in Science & Nature

Four Fs

Biologists state that the driving force behind evolution can simply be summarised as four forces: fight, flight, feed and mate (“fuck”). These are known as the Four Fs. Evolution is described as the process by which species adapt to an environment through modifications in the genomes of successive generations. The Four Fs describe the adaptations most commonly seen in evolution; that is, the four things that species evolve in order to better adapt and survive their environment. For example, carnivores developed sharp teeth and claws to hunt better and herbivores developed faster legs to flee from their predators better. Nature is a vicious battleground where different species compete with each other for survival, and the Four Fs are the most powerful weapons of survival.

As much as we’d like to think that we are higher-order, civilised beings, human beings are still driven by the basic four forces that drive every other species in the world. Obviously, our bodies are well-adapted to these forces, such as our fight-or-flight drive activating in the face of danger to let us fight harder or run faster through adrenaline. Anyone can see that nature has done her job well by bestowing us the gift of satiety and orgasm to promote our feeding and mating. But what is interesting that the Four Fs go beyond our “natural evolution” to affect the evolution of our civilisation.

Consider this: what is the purpose of war? Since the dawn of time, mankind has spent a considerable amount of resources figuring how to most efficiently kill another group of people, or live in fear that other people will kill us. If we study the behaviour of chimpanzees (one of the few species other than us that wage warfare), we can see that their motivation is for food and sex (i.e. mating partners). This also applies to mankind and it is not a story of ancient times. It is well-known that raping and pillaging runs rampant during wars. Less than 800 years ago, a man named Genghis Khan was so successful in waging war that DNA evidence suggests that 0.5% of the world population are descended from him. Even in the present, countries wage war to secure natural resources to ensure that their people can eat, as the health of the economy directly correlates with the ability of people to put food on their plates. Almost every war essentially boils down to a fight for food.

Then what about sex? Like it or not, sex has been a tremendously influential force in history. From Cleopatra’s seduction of Caesar preventing Rome’s invasion of Egypt, to Henry VIII turning against the Catholic Church to marry Anne Boleyn, sex has been a timeless motivator for humanity. Although the consequences would not be as dramatic as those described, a significant proportion of our actions are also based on our primal desire to reproduce.

Of course, this is not always the truth and human beings are capable of acting on less wild motivators such as happiness and altruism. However, the next time you make a decision or see a conflict on the news, question this: how much of an impact did food and sex have to motivate that?

Posted in Science & Nature

Red Queen’s Hypothesis

In Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass, there is a scene where the Red Queen says to Alice: “It takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place”. Essentially, it means to spend all the effort you can just to keep the status quo. In life, there are so many times when it seems like you’re frantically running just to realise that no progress has been made. Interestingly, the same rule is seen in biology and evolution.

The simple rule of natural selection is that the best adapted species wins. Unfortunately, this means that no matter how well you are doing in the environment, as soon as another species becomes better adapted to a new change, you become the lesser species and eventually destroyed. To prevent this, a species must continuously evolve and adapt just to stay in the same position. Nature despises stagnancy and loves progress. For example, a predator always strives to evolve to better catch the prey while the prey evolves to avoid the predator. This cat-and-mouse arms race allows for continuous evolution and ever-improving fitness. This is the Red Queen’s Hypothesis.

A fascinating extension of the hypothesis is that it may be a cause for having sex. Sex is one of the most intuitive inventions of Mother Nature that allows for massive genetic variation. The Red Queen Hypothesis has been used to suggest that this may have evolved to speed up the process of evolution so that hosts could beat parasites in the ongoing arms race. The greatest act of love may simply be a mechanism for us to stay competent in this ever-changing world.

Posted in Psychology & Medicine

Cognitive Dissonance

When two conflicting ideas exist at the same time in the human mind, it causes uneasiness and discomfort. Human beings instinctively tried to reduce the dissonance, most easily achieved by adaptation and blaming. For example, when a person wants something strongly but cannot attain it, they choose to believe that they do not want it any longer, discarding one idea to dissolve the dissonance.

A famous portrayal of this condition is Aesop’s fable The Fox and the Grapes, which goes as following:

A fox sees a grape on a tree and wants to eat it. However, the grape is too high up, so the fox says “That grape is surely sour.” and turns away.

This fable shows the classic pattern of: Wants something -> finds it unattainable
-> criticises it to reduce their want, and ultimately the dissonance caused by it.

This effect is quite powerful and explains many of mankind’s unique behaviours. As stated above, people try to reduce the dissonance by justification, denial and even blaming a third party to ease their mind.
Interestingly, the act of “justification” is brought on by another human feature: arrogance. Most people consider themselves intelligent and always making the right decisions, ergo when they make a mistake it conflicts with their self-image. Instead of accepting that they made a mistake (thus altering their image), they instead believe that they intended that action. This belief is so strong that they do not even know the justification happened subconsciously.

For example, there is a phenomenon called buyer’s remorse, where a buyer finds a flaw or a better product after buying something, feeling remorse (which is due to the discomfort caused by cognitive dissonance). Instead of blaming themselves, people will justify their reasons for buying that product, and paradoxically value that item even more. This shows how cognitive dissonance can be seen everywhere in everyday life.

In short, people cannot accept paradoxes, believe they always make the right decisions, and twist reality and make excuses when it does not fit what they desire. People are fascinating.

Posted in Science & Nature

Peppered Moth

The peppered moth are a species of night-flying moth that have been studied extensively for over 200 years by biologists. They are known to be prime examples of the power of natural selection.

In England, there are two variants of this moth: one that has a peppery white appearance and another that is much darker, almost black. Originally, the white variant was much more common, as they could easily camouflage themselves on trees covered in light-coloured lichen. 

However, during the Industrial Revolution, the heavy pollution killed the sensitive lichen causing trees to expose their dark bark. This caused the white moth to be extremely visible, making them easy prey for birds and other predators. The change in environment resulted in black moths, that used to be disadvantaged, to have a better chance of survival, causing the black moth population to become superior. 

As people became more aware of air pollution and England began cleaning up its environment, lichen returned to the tree and the table turned once more – the dark moths were now better targets and were heavily preyed on. Instead, the white moth retook the majority position, thus showing how the environment affects which traits survive in a population.

Posted in Science & Nature

Kangaroo Rat

Kangaroo rats are a type of rodent found in North American deserts. They are known for their extremely long and strong hind legs which they can use to hop great heights (up to nine feet), just like a kangaroo. But the most interesting feature of the kangaroo rat is its kidneys.
This tiny animal is known to be so efficient in using its water that it literally never has to drink water. By having extremely efficient kidneys, kangaroo rats gain sufficient water from metabolism, as water is made from oxidation of food naturally. This gives them a strong advantage in such a dry habitat.

Kangaroo rats have many more adaptations that aide their survival in their desert environment. They exhibit food-hoarding behaviour and can be often seen with their cheek pouches full of grains. As there is no pools of water, they roll in the sand to have sand baths like some birds. Being rodents, they are social and live in underground community tunnels to avoid the heat during the day.

When in danger, kangaroo rats hop on the spot and stamp their feet on the ground to send signals to nearby friends using the vibrations. Amazingly, they have been observed to even fight snakes in times of need, using sand to their advantage. By leaping back with their strong hind legs, kangaroo rats are capable of spraying sand at their enemy, irritating them and sometimes even damaging them. Furthermore, they show exemplary teamwork by attacking a predator together, biting and leaping back to continuously inflict damage. Because their legs are so well-developed, they are able to jump away from harm even if it is a snake striking at rapid speed.

Such adaptations in anatomy, physiology and behaviour allow the kangaroo rat to survive in an environment that can swiftly kill even a person.