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Grasping the Key to the Evolution of Living Organisms Searching for "Structure," "Context," and "System

13.09.2010
Being a biologist who likes bugs, the thing that brought me to write an essay on evolutionary biology was that I thought the “sociobiology,” the theory of evolution that pushed Neo-Darwinism to extremes, was a sham - by Prof. Kiyohiko Ikeda.
Grasping the Key to the Evolution of Living Organisms
Searching for “Structure,” “Context,” and “Systems”
Kiyohiko Ikeda
Professor of School of International Liberal Studies, Waseda University
Being Called a Biological Structuralist
Being a biologist who likes bugs, the thing that brought me to write an essay on evolutionary biology was that I thought the “sociobiology,” the theory of evolution that pushed Neo-Darwinism to extremes, was a sham. In Europe and America during the 1970s, sociobiology had spread to the sensational with the appearance of theories such as Richard Dawkin's selfish gene. Going into the 1980s, the scientists of Japan were also influenced by this movement, and sociobiology was widely accepted with people beginning to make comments like as “Even the famous ecologist Kinji Imanishi is already outdated.”

Being contradictory, I saw everyone suddenly crashing down into sociobiology and began thinking that this could be a problem. Accordingly, I published a problem presenting essay in a scientific journal called Seibutsu Kagaku in 1985 while studying on my own and reading literature opposed to sociobiology.

In this essay, I developed the explanation that the genes known as the genome are not merely strung together but are structured, with an upper structure, a lower structure, and genes to control genes. This was because I thought that just the genes referred to in sociobiology were not able to explain evolution but organisms might evolve through the repeated stable and unstable expression of genes based on a structure.

Dr. Atsuhiro Shibatani (biologist, microbiologist, and honorary professor at Kyoto Seika University), who read my essay, quickly contacted me and told me “we're going to be bringing in scientists from around the world to Japan next year and holding an international symposium on biological structuralism, and you're going to be a part of it.” While thinking to myself “what's biological structuralism,” I presented this talk at the symposium held in Osaka in 1986.

Kôzôshugi Seibutsugaku to wa Nanika (What is Biological Structuralism) (Kaimeisha, 1988)

It was Dr. Shibatani and a few overseas researchers that started talking about biological structuralism, but at the time I had not had the faintest realization that the thing I was thinking of fell into the realm of biological structuralism. I've heard that some say “Kiyohiko Ikeda was the one who brought up biological structuralism in Japan,” but this might be because I wrote a book at the behest of Dr. Shibatani entitled What is Biological Structuralism after the symposium.

Personally, I don't much like the very intellectual sound of the word “structuralism,” but Professor Shibatani's ideas did resonate with me. Later, I was even able to write one chapter in a book from Edinburgh University Press edited by Professor Shibatani, and it was reviewed in the worldwide scientific journal of Nature where John Tyler Bonner of Princeton University appraised it as an “a model of clarity.” Even I was surprised by this.

The truth is the hypothesis called the stabilized core theory that I proposed has up until this point not been validated, but it is true that the genome is structured, and in recent years it has come to be known that DNA exists which controls genes. Craig C. Mello and Andrew Fire first found that the genome includes a system called “RNA interference” which controls genes, and they received the 2006 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for this discovery. I think our idea that the genome is structured was correct in its fundamental orientation.

The Key to Evolution Is in “Systems”

Natural science has for a long time been ruled by the idea of “reductionism.” The idea of reductionism is that at the top there is a grand theory saying, for example, that the whole can be explained by dividing it into parts, and all phenomena below it can be explained by this grand theory. While physics and chemistry have consistently developed well under this philosophy, it doesn't work well for biology. Biology's elements are too complex, and it cannot be described well by a unified theoretical concept such as grand theory.

Up until the 1990s, it was thought that if we just understood genes, everything else would fall into place, and we would be able to explain everything about organisms with genes from their origins and ecology to their actions and evolution. Based on the ideas of reductionism, cracking the code of the genes themselves was important. However around the time the year 2000 came and went, it came to be realized that with just genes, nothing could be understood, and in fact what was more important was their context within the cell of how they work in what kind of system.

38 Oku-nen Seibutsu Shinka no Tabi (3.8 Billion Years - A Journey of Biological Evolution) (Shinchosha Publishing, 2010)

This book explains the essence of the structure of evolution like genetic mutations, natural selection, and genetic drift which cannot be deciphered by Neo-Darwinism while specifically illustrating various phenomena back through the 3.8 billion year history of life.

For example, it is possible that when an organism is placed in a high temperature environment different from the norm, a protein transforms and causes a gene to be expressed. If this environmental change doesn't pass by but instead continues persistently and the change becomes fixed, there is a possibility it will lead to major evolution. On the other hand, it is very difficult to explain how seals and whales went from four-legged mammals to the legless underwater animals they now are and what kind of change occurred in the developmental system there.

In this case, it's difficult to conceive of it unless we have both a continuous change of four-legged animals giving birth to legless children and an environment where the animals have been living at the water's edge and slowly moving from land to sea. Said in a different way, it is not possible to explain this kind of evolution with only the “passive” natural selection and mutation of the traditional theory of evolution. I think it may be more appropriate to say that organisms “actively advance” into their environments.

At this point, the nature of systems related to the evolution and origin of organisms is still only being theorized about with hypotheses in academic simulations, but in another 50 years these theories may be proven with experiments. A new area of research may even be formed that could be called “experimental evolution studies” – artificially causing evolution by manipulating systems of cells and genes in a test tube.

Even since the dawn of history we have already come to understand that major changes to the environment influence the evolution of organisms, and furthermore we will be able to make detailed explanations such as “the cell context changed in this way due to a major environmental change, and because this bias was in place, the expression of the genome changed in this way,” and we may even by able to provide various explanations for the phenomena that seem to have no relationship with environmental changes.

In the past it was feared that gene exchange experiments would produce cells for biological weapons, and they were carried out under strict control. However after many attempts, it turned out that no matter how many genes of the E. coli bacteria were changed, it only made E. coli bacteria and did not cause it to evolve into a new species. The control got much looser, and students can now regularly conduct gene exchange experiments in open spaces.

However when we have found the cell systems that control the expression of genes and these systems can be artificially manipulated, it may be possible to cause the evolution of a new species in an experiment. When that happens, there will be need to once again consider controls from an ethical standpoint.

Biodiversity - Difficult to Find a Mutual Understanding

Recently I've also been interested in the problems of biodiversity, and while teaching university lectures I have been intertwining the problems facing developing countries, environmental problems, and biological evolution. The word biodiversity was coined in 1986 by a man by the name of W. G. Rosen, and it was created not as a word with a scientific base but as a catchphrase to call for the conversation of wildlife.

Biodiversity is made up of three pillars, “species diversity,” “genetic diversity,” and “ecological diversity.” The problem, however, is that these three pillars have an aspect of mutual contradiction. For example, let's say that a breed of animal that is similar to an endemic species enters from abroad and becomes interbred. From the perspective of protecting species diversity, it is better to protect each species and prevent them from mixing, but for the purpose of species survival strategy it is better to conserve genetic diversity through mixing. Here lies a contradiction already.

When looking from the perspective of diversity of the ecosystem, if interbreeding continues and the ecosystem becomes homogenous, this is not desirable. With all of these various meanings, the use of the word biodiversity by itself complicates the conversation, because its meaning is completely different depending on what is being valued. Biodiversity is often debated without a mutual understanding of its meaning.

Ministry of the Environment “Biodiversity” Web Site
(Ministry of the Environment, Natural Environment Division, Natural Environment Planning Section – Biodiversity Global Strategy Planning Office)

The Japanese crested ibis has gone extinct, and now there are attempts to bring crested ibis from China and release them in Japan. If this had been done sooner and if an interbred crested ibis was created, the blood line of the Japanese crested ibis would be to some extent protected, even if the Japanese crested ibis became extinct as a pure-blooded species. Depending on the angle from which to protect “biodiversity,” the strategy to be taken is completely different.

There is an international treaty on biodiversity from 1992 known as the Rio Declaration, but in fact the United States has not ratified it. This is because its assertion that “profits gained from biodiversity are distributed equitably” goes against the profits of multinational corporations centered in the United States – the plan to make money by establishing intellectual property rights on the DNA of species collected from developing countries.

In contrast to this, countries like Costa Rica actually make overseas corporations sign contracts to “pay to Costa Rica some portion of profits” before entering the country and collecting species. I think this is a very clever strategy. The burning of natural forests has been a problem in developing countries, but this strategy creates profit from the forest and leads to their protection, killing two birds with one stone. The seeds of new economic development for developing countries may lie in this tying of biodiversity to intellectual property.

Kiyohiko Ikeda
Professor of School of International Liberal Studies, Waseda University
Kiyohiko Ikeda was born in 1947. He graduated in zoology from the Biology Department of the Faculty of Science at Tokyo University of Education in 1971 and completed his PhD coursework from the Division of Natural Science at the Graduate School of Tokyo Metropolitan University receiving a Doctorate of Science. After working as a high school teacher and then a lecturer, assistant professor, and professor at Yamanashi University, he came to his current post in 2004. From 1993 to 1994, he worked as a visiting research fellow at the Australian Museum. His specialties are evolutionary ecology, biodiversity, environmental and ecological theory, scientific sociology. He is also active as an essayist and has authored many books. Among the books he authored alone are 38 Oku-nen Seibutsu Shinka no Tabi (3.8 Billion Years - A Journey of Biological Evolution), Kankyô Mondai no Uso (Lies about Environmental Problems), and Bunrui toiu Shisô (An Idea Called Classification). He has also written Seigi de Chikyû wa Sukuenai (The Earth Can't Be Saved by Justice) and Hontô no Kankyô Mondai (The Real Environmental Problem) in collaboration with Takeshi Yoro and Sannin Yoreba Mushi no Chie (Knowledge of Bugs According to Three) with Takeshi Yoro and Daisaburo Okumoto as well as other books.
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Further information:
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