Butch and Joanne
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Butch and Joanne • Posted: May 23, 2010 16:21:44Comments WelcomeVote CoolPhotoblogsPurchase a PrintShare

Did you read about the advent of "square tomatoes"? That's right, square tomatoes.

The story goes like this: it isn't genetic engineering. What they did was place the immature green fruit, while still attached to the vine, inside a clear plastic cup in the shape of a cube. As the fruit grew, matured, and ripened, it took on the shape of the cube. The process did not change the taste. But the fruit does pack and ship easier.

Now, just imagine something. Imagine that during childhood we could mold all children into exactly the shape we'd prefer them to be when they reached adulthood, with just the right set of talents and disposition. Would that be a desirable turn of events for our society? Or even for the entire human race?

Clearly, some people, perhaps even a great many people think that would be a good turn of events. Then, according to them, we wouldn't have to deal with all the "kooks" in the world, all those people that "just don't fit in", turn into criminals or, worse, terrorists, or don't take baths and stand around on street corners hoping for a hand out. There's even a version of evolutionary theory, called Lamarckism, that suggests fostering "good" traits in species will "improve the breed", because, the thinking goes, all those "improvements" will get passed on to succeeding generations.

That theory of evolution was and still is wrong. Behavior does not translate backwards through the organism into a change in DNA that will promote the same behavior in subsequent offspring. No matter how many square tomatoes you manage to grow, that will be the last of them, just as soon as you quit putting the newest ones inside plastic cubes. Squareness will not get passed on. Unaltered genes say otherwise.

Please now turn your attention to the image above. In it are two women. One is probably somewhat older than the other. They could be biologically related to each other, but that isn't clearly established. What is clear is that each outwardly presents a very different version of womanhood, one somewhat boyish or manly, Butch, and the other more traditionally "girlie", Joanne. So how did this difference in presentation come about?

Did the two get molded or raised differently? Did one of them falter in their "moral" development and therefore succumb to "sin"? And if so, will the entire human race slip into perilous retrograde as similar "faults" propagate? Shouldn't we either exterminate all the "faults" before they do propagate, or at least try to remold them into something more "acceptable"?

From my point of view, the silliness of all those ideas is immense. But I'm quite sure not everyone sees it that way.

We don't yet know why some women turn out to be less "girlie" than others. Genes are at work, but so is gene expression. Also at work are overall evolutionary processes. The way evolution actually works is that there are mechanisms for variation in both genotype and phenotype, i.e. genes and gene expression. Environmental factors tend to favor some variations over others. Ones that find viable conditions go on to propagate. Ones that do not fail. Without variation in both genotype and phenotype all species would eventually die out because, inevitably, all environmental conditions will change.

Without doubt, some will look upon the two women above and be disturbed. But from my point of view, it is both interesting and good to see our species continuing to produce the variations that should help us to survive well into the future, perhaps too far into the future for the welfare of most other species on this planet. Women of Joanne's type will undoubtedly continue to produce offspring, while women of Butch's type seem more likely to help slow and perhaps reverse population growth, to what one might hope is a more sustainable level of renewal.

Wednesday, May 5th, 2010