Tag Archives: plasticity

First the good news: plants evolve quickly in response to climate change

plant in droughtNow the bad news: it’s not always a positive change, as serendipitously discovered by Arthur Weis of the University of California:

When a severe drought struck southern California, Weis realized that he could use the extra bucket of seeds for an experiment. In 2004 he and his colleagues collected more field mustard seeds from the same sites that Sim had visited seven years earlier. They thawed out some of the 1997 seeds and then reared both sets of plants under identical conditions. The newer plants grew to smaller sizes, produced fewer flowers, and, most dramatically, produced those flowers eight days earlier in the spring. The changing climate had, in other words, driven the field mustard plants to evolve over just a few years. “It was serendipity that we had the seeds lying around,” says Weis.

The article continues with a lengthy examination of the plasticity of lifeforms – their ability to change swiftly in response to environmental conditions. Recent research is putting the lie to the original Darwinian view of evolution as something that operates at a glacially slow pace, and strongly suggesting that climate change – regardless of cause – may be one of the most important factors in evolutionary change. Whether the increasing pace of climate change will be reflected by a stronger and faster response from natural selection remains to be seen. [image by Andyrob]

This pretty much underlines what I think a lot of us know deep down; whatever happens, the Earth and its biosphere will survive. Whether we get to remain a significant component of it is still an open question.

A cure for racism?

If there’s one thing that the recent United States elections made plain to me, it’s that, sadly, there’s a lot more racism still about than I had realised – and that goes for this side of the pond as well, and pretty much everywhere.

But what if there was a way to ‘cure’ racism? It’s a tricky question, because prejudice of any kind isn’t a disease or pathology as such; it’s part of the way our minds are wired, but (to use an analogy which I hope isn’t too inaccurate) it’s more of a software issue rather than a hardware problem.

Nonetheless, a team of university researchers believe they may have found a short-cut method for eroding the race-focused deep bias:

Tarr’s findings overlap with other results suggesting that the key to reducing racial bias — at least in a short-term, laboratory setting — is exposure to people in personalized ways that challenge stereotypes. This is hardly a new notion: it’s the essence of the contact hypothesis, formulated in the mid-20th century and the basis of integrated schooling.

But unlike carefully structured social mixing, with precisely controlled conditions of interdependence and equality, Tarr and others raise the possibility of a a lab-based shortcut to bias reduction.

Even if this method turns out to be genuinely effective and harmless, I doubt we’ll be seeing it deployed en masse any time soon. Maybe it would be applied to serious recidivists as a punitive correctional method, but the legal implications of rewriting someone’s mind are going to be an ethical minefield for years to come. And to receive the cure voluntarily would be an admission of being racist, which is the principle barrier to defeating the bias in the first place… even so, an interesting insight into mental plasticity.

I wonder if they could remove my positive bias towards unhealthy foods?