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III Putting Humpty Dumpty Together Again Imagine an entangled bank, clothed with many plants of many kinds, with birds singing in the bushes, with various insects flitting about, with worms crawling through the damp earth, and a square-jawed nineteenth-century naturalist contemplating the scene. What would a modern-day evolutionary biologist have to say about this image—about the plants, the insects, the worms, the singing birds, and the nineteenth-century naturalist deep in thought? What would she say about the evolutionary processes that shaped the scene? Undoubtedly the first thing she would say is that the tangled bank image is very familiar, because we borrowed it from the closing paragraph of On the Origin of Species. The nineteenth-century naturalist who is contemplating the scene is obviously Charles Darwin. The famous last paragraph is constantly being quoted, the biologist would tell us, because in it Darwin summarized his theory of evolution. He suggested that over vast spans of time natural selection of heritable variations had produced all the elaborate and interdependent forms in the entangled bank. Our modern-day evolutionary biologist would almost certainly go on to say that she thinks Darwin’s theory is basically correct. However, she would also point out that Darwin’s seemingly simple suggestion hides enormous complications because there are several types of heritable variation, they are transmitted in different ways, and selection operates simultaneously on different traits and at different levels of biological organization. Moreover, the conditions that bring about selection—those aspects of the world that make a difference to the reproductive success of a plant or animal—are neither constant nor passive. In the entangled bank, the plants, the singing birds, the bushes, the flitting insects, the worms, the damp earth, and the naturalist observing and experimenting with them form a complex web of ever-changing interactions. The plants and the insects are part of each other’s environment, and both are parts of the birds’ environment and vice 236 Part III versa. The worms help to determine the conditions of life for the plants and birds, and the plants and birds influence the worms’ conditions. Everything interacts. The difficulty for our evolutionary biologist is unraveling how changes occur in the patterns of interactions within the community and within each species. Take something seemingly simple, like where a plant-eating insect chooses to lay its eggs. Often it will show a strong preference for one particular type of plant. Is this preference determined by its genes, or by its own experiences, or by the experiences of its mother? The answer is that sometimes the insect’s genetic endowment is sufficient to explain the preference , but often behavioral imprinting is involved. Darwin discussed this in the case of cabbage butterflies. If a female butterfly lays her eggs on cabbage , and cabbage is the food of the hatching caterpillars, then when they metamorphose into butterflies her offspring will choose to lay their eggs on cabbage rather than on a related plant. In this way the preference for cabbage is transmitted to descendants by nongenetic means. There are therefore at least two ways of inheriting a preference—genetic and behavioral. An evolutionary biologist would naturally ask whether and how these two are related. Can the experience-dependent preference evolve to become an inbuilt response that no longer depends on experience? Conversely, can an inbuilt preference evolve to become more flexible, so that food preferences are determined by local conditions? Similar questions can be asked about the plants on the entangled bank. The most obvious effects of the insects’ behavior are on the survival and reproduction of the plants. Being the preferred food of an insect species may be an advantage to some of them, because it means that their flowers are more readily and efficiently pollinated. If so, those plants that the insects find tasty may become more abundant. Any variation, be it genetic or epigenetic, that makes a plant even more attractive to the insects, or that makes its imprinting effects more effective or reliable, will be selected. Conversely, if the insects’ food preference damages the plants, variations that make it less attractive or more resistant to insect attack will be favored. For example, plants often produce toxic compounds that are protective because insects cannot tolerate them. The ability to produce such toxins will be selected. In some species toxin production is an induced response, brought about by insect attack, but in others it is a permanent part of the plant’s...


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