Saturday 31 May 2008

The Origin of Duality- The Plant and The Parasite

Yin and Yang.

The world is composed of two opposing poles.

This dim recognition is something that philosophers have dimly grasped at since time began.
Somewhere in there, concepts have been blurred. An attempt has been made to attach everything to these two poles. A Yin, female, cold, evil. A Yang, male, hot, good.

This bit is flawed, obviously. Good and Evil are real, because time is real. We might call them unity and decay, but essentially they are a facet of the universe. They ultimately have their roots in basic laws of physics. Good is the steam that powers the engine, Evil the steam that the laws of thermodynamics say must and WILL be lost. Good is the seemingly random drive forward that characterises existence. Evil is the fact that it IS random, that perpetual motion IS impossible, that the unity can never be perfect. Good is the blossoming of the fruit, it's scattering of seeds to bring in more fruit, Evil is its rotting and decaying.

But Yin and Yang. That's different. The Eastern philosophers believed Yin and Yang to be mutually dependent, a male and female principle inherent in Life, and FUNDAMENTAL to its existence, at the root of the universe, a fundamental duality.

The purpose of this post is to advance the view that this ancient piece of insight, is in fact, correct. That modern science is now staring in the face a most uncomfortable piece of knowledge. Uncomfortable, because it can actually answer the question 'Why two sexes?' with a definite answer and that answer has implications that nobody really wants to face.
It has the answer, potentially, to why this curious phenomenon known as Life has developed in such an amazing way on this rock, and why it really might be true that it exists in many locations in this vast universe, but only here has it succeeded in putting several cells together to form bodies.

Because we must accept, this may be the case. And in fact, we now see that the statistical odds show us something interesting. The History of Life on Earth suggests that LIFE, in a bacterial sense, has a good chance of being a fairly common phenomenon. DNA is merely the cleverest of all viruses, and viruses can probably appear in a vast number of environments.

No, the big leap, is the appearance, maybe 2.3 billion years ago, of the Eukaryote cell. Cells with a nucleus. Viruses, Bacteria, they may be commonplace. But in the appearance of the Amoeba, we may be looking at something the emergence of which, really marked something special in the history of life ANYWHERE.

Advances in molecular biology in the eighties meant that some biologists were posing the basic question 'Do men and women ULTIMATELY have different ancestors?'

It's a complex question, not a simple one. In one sense, the question seems ludicrous. No, we don't. You and I are all composed of cells which ultimately had their origin in BOTH our parents, we carry BOTH their genes. But the crucial chromosomes, those which distinguish us- X and Y- do they have different ancestors?

And the answer to that, seems to be yes.

We are looking at a life history of two billion years of evolution, driven entirely by a fundamental symbiotic relationship between these chromosomes.

Modern molecular biology has proved that the nuclei of the Eukaryote cell are related to different bacteria, to the rest of the cell. The Eukaryote cell really originated as the first symbiotic parasite relationship. One Bacterium invaded another and lived inside it. We'll call the invader Yang, and the host Yin. From now on, Yin did all the work and Yang lived off its efforts. Yin ate, so did Yang. When Yin reproduced (by dividing), the new Yin had a new little Yang at it's centre.

No virus had ever been so clever. It had invaded another virus and forced it to do its work for it.
And Yang could afford to adopt more aggressive tactics than other viruses. It's not so frightened about being eaten. It has the viral equivalent of a human shield protecting it. True it kind of has to co-operate with it's host and the two kind of work it out between them, but ultimately, they're in it together.

From time immemorial we recognised two main divisions in the realm of multicellular forms; Animals and Plants. The main distinction was that plants don't move and pick up nutrients from where they are. Animals move and gain their matter from a source which has already done the work. We were on the right lines, but not quite. Because we now accept that Fungi don't move, but don't make their own food either. Like animals, they steal their matter from another life form.

And lo and behold, we now discover that the most fundamental divide- maybe 1.5 billion years ago- between multicellar lifeforms, is between bikonts and orthistokonts. Those that make their own food, and those that steal it from them. Plants and the rest of us basically. Fungi are our close cousins, not those of plants. Like us, they cannot exist alone. Animals and Fungi cannot make their own food, only take it from others- plants.

I would offer the view that this division marks the earliest emergence of what is known as the 'Red Queen hypothesis'. This advocates the view that the driving motor of evolution is in the relationship between predator and prey- prey species have to get smarter at not getting eaten to reproduce in sufficient numbers. Predators have to get better at eating, to reproduce in sufficient numbers. This game of oneupmanship is the key to the rapidly accelerating rate of evolution- it's an arms race, basically.

And where does it start? With Yin and Yang again. In some of these Amoeba-like co-operative symbioses, Yin calls the shots. It follows a Yin strategy and meets up with other cells Yin has won the battle in, to form large composite structures, capable of processing nutrients, but too large to worry about the predations of one Yang-dominant Amoeba.
The Yang-dominant Amoebas pursue a Yang strategy. After all, what has proved to work for them, is adopting a strategy where someone else does the work. They form large composite bodies devoted to getting hold of Yin-dominant bodies and absorbing their matter.
Of course, both Yin-dominant AND Yang-dominant are composed of Yin cells with a Yang nucleus. It's just that who is ultimately in control, differs. Neither can any longer exist without the other, in either case.

So modern biology divided the Eukaryotes into three main divisions;
Unikonts- Amoebas and related creatures- single celled undeciders
Bikonts- Plants and a few plantlike Protists- the Yin-dominant lifeforms
Orthistokonts- Animals, Fungi, and a few predatory Protists- the Yang dominant lifeforms.

Since these three terms mean nothing to a layman, I propose we use terms we all understand; Let's call the three divisions Amoebas, Plants, and Parasites.

All animals are Parasites- we all steal our bodily mass from other lifeforms.

Now we come to sex.
Which of course, is how we reproduce.

Now it seems obvious that the favoured method of reproduction adopted, is cross-pollination.

My guess is that it evolved in parallel in both plant and parasite. Dividing a single cell in two is easy, dividing a multicellular organism into two new organisms, less so.
What both parasite and plant do, is to create new Yangless Yin cells and then send off lots of Yang spores to cross-pollinate the Yangless Yin cells of similar organisms.
Why has this method triumphed?

My suggestion is, margin of error. It is the method most likely to result in mistakes in replication. It will create new variants in structure which have features neither of its parents did. Many will be less successful. But some will be more so- and they will survive better. Thus, the organisms that adopted this seemingly strange mode of reproducing, triumph in the long run. To my mind, this method MUST have evolved in parallel in both parasite and plant- just the descendants of both sides which DIDN'T use this mode of reproducing, were left behind in the evolutionary arms race.

OK, let's forget the plants now.
Let's just stay with the parasites.

Because the great divide which has already split plant from parasite will continue.
Some parasites will adopt a more Yinlike Yang strategy. Some will adopt more Yanglike Yang strategies.

Some Parasites will just eat plants. Some will go further and save more energy by eating parasites too. Not only has the plant processed the nutrients to a large degree, they now get to steal nutrients ALREADY PROCESSED into body form by another parasite.

A food chain has begun.

And it is only a matter of time before the Yang instinct comes up with something really clever.
I say comes up with, but of course, all this is without thought. It's all down to errors in replication and chance. One day an organism unthinkingly does something which works, and it sticks.

It seems to have begun amongst flatworms, the division into sex, somewhere in the mists of evolution between jellyfish and true bilaterians.

In one species, a division occurs between those who adopt a parasite (Yang) approach to reproduction, and those who adopt a Yin approach.

Within a single species, occurring in a set of stages of symbiotic development, certain members of the species, stop producing Yangless Yin cells. Instead of wasting their own body matter in reproducing themselves, they will simply send out Yang spores. We will these 'Y'.

The ones that get fertilised by these, we'll call 'X'. X responds by producing descendants who suit Y's wishes, but also its own.

In time, what emerges is that each new generation consists of two types, X and Y. Y carries the spores of both, but no Yangless Yin cells to receive the spores of others. X produces Yangless Yin cells, but no spores.

Y must produce the Yang spores to reproduce both- but does not have to devote its own energy to actually producing the new forms.

X must produce the Yin cells necessary to reproduce both forms, but has made itself indispensable to Y as a result.

Neither can reproduce alone, so a new dynamic has been created.

I won't deny that there is something decidedly unromantic about all this. The origins of the male are in a parasite even adopting a parasitical approach to its own reproduction. The origins of the female are in acquiescing with this. So why does the female acquiesce?

Again, evolution. Where X has tried to free itself from Y, the results have been less than impressive. Rotifers have done it. But rotifers don't build cities. The species who have freed themselves from Y the master parasite, do not live in a female only paradise. They live in a female only stasis.

Again, errors in replication. This mode of reproduction has a huge margin of error. And evolution, is all about error.
So X and Y march forward together, hand in hand. Each species that marches forward from this point, contain X and Y forms.

And it has created curious variants. Who really has the mastery? Y? No that much so. Because if Y becomes too much of a burden to X, X can survive without Y, the rotifers prove that. Y has had to change its strategy, look after and protect the incubators, the feeders, the providers for BOTH their young.

Evolution has created insects, ants, bees, where legions of Ys exist solely to serve an X which exists solely to reproduce. Look at termites where most Ys actually are infertile, and will never themselves pass their genes on.

I would tentatively suggest that survival of the fittest HAS been dependent on finding the best balance between X and Y. Two instincts, in each species, and where one instinct has gained an advantage over the other, that species has not survived to tell the tale.

And genetics proves that. Every Y chromosome carries a gene designed to make babies BIG. Every X chromosome carries a gene to make them small. These genes simple counteract eachother. But they exist. They battle against eachother, and will always do so. It's common sense. If X won, most babies would not survive childbirth- but the mother always would. If Y won, most babies would, but most mothers would die the first time they gave birth.
It's simple. Y wants the baby to live, it carries its genes. It doesn't care about the mother, who doesn't carry it's genes.
X wants as many babies as possible, so it wants the mother to live, and won't lose her for one baby, when it has the capacity to make more babies.

So X and Y continually battle, like Hegel's dialectic. Hegel said that throughout history, opposing ideas come into conflict- a thesis and an antithesis, say, there IS a God, and there ISN'T a God. In time, a synthesis emerges, say, the universe IS conscious, and neither original statement was true in the sense it was originally taken. Then the synthesis becomes in itself a thesis and a new antithesis emerges to counteract it, and the process is repeated. Scientific advance of course, has been like that. Light is particle. No it isn't, it's a wave. What if it's both a particle AND a wave?

And this of course, is how male and female have marched forward throughout the history of evolution. The hunter and the mother. Yin and Yang. Yang, free to be the pure parasite, because it has outsourced its reproductive capabilities to the Yin of its own species. And Yin, able to guard the young, keeping a careful eye on Yang, making sure that Yang really does keep its side of the bargain. From the point of view of Yin, Yang is a tolerated parasite, tolerated because its efforts make less work for both of them.

The strange dynamic that has resulted is what one biologist in the thirties called surplus male energy. It's uncomfortable now to discuss this, because it was stated in era where sexist attitudes still existed. But I think it's fair to see life in these terms. What it actually means is that males in any species have so much LESS they need to do. They have surplus energy. They use very little energy up in reproducing. Their task there is easy.

And life has harnessed that. Take a look at any termite mound and see what I mean. Surplus male energy has had a huge payback, in collective species. When looked at in terms of non-collective species, it seems more of a hindrance than a help. I was watching a documentary recently about polar bears and couldn't help but think that maybe the Black Widow spider had it right by eating her mate after he had done his job. Because in many species, males will attack and eat their own young. Male crocodiles, will eat crocodile eggs.

But human history backs up this point. Yes, Feminism is correct. The fact remains that in our current state of development, we don't need any longer to consign half our species simply to cooking and child rearing. But that is because of where we have got to. Feminism came, because human history has made it possible for both X and Y to enjoy the benefits of the human equivalent of termite mound building over the last ten thousand years.
Because up to now, most of it was pretty much driven by surplus male energy. But never forget what women were doing with THEIR energy.

A lot of human energy has gone into this process. Since we started farming, surplus male energy has gone into cave painting, metal smelting, poetry, city building, trade, war, religion, philosophy, science. Our termite mounds scrape the sky, we scurry around in aeroplanes and the motor car.

Wow. Now that's a species.
But with 6.7 billion of us, it can only have been possible because of all that surplus energy freed by women putting in an identical and equivalent amount of energy in reproducing us to such huge numbers.
Their contribution was to FREE all this surplus energy, so that men could go around hacking eachother to pieces, then putting it into verse form, so that men could find more refined ways to hunt, like sailing to India and swapping beads for tea.

And now, quite rightly they are pointing out that we are a rational and enlightened species, and simple evolution has dictated that the same basic processes tick away in the brains of both sexes, the same instincts in many ways, aside from the ones that originate in the differing life strategies of X and Y.

We both put the effort in, now maybe we can realistically look at what's best for all of us, in this changed world. What women are saying, is we now have a lot MORE surplus energy. Women's energy can be freed to. And isn't that a major step forward in the evolution of our species, that we can do so?

And women have a point. Look at the rotifer. Evolution time and time again tells us, this is a bargain. Women have a right to say that the world that was created out of surplus male energy was created because basically, women have done all the real work.

An enlightened humanity acknowledges the history of gender relations and the reason why human history was the way it was. And now it says, restructuring everything is not only doable, it's right to do it.

Because to do so, means a lot more surplus energy, to be reinvested in the future and the happiness of all of us.

The history of evolution has been a strange history of progress, driven by the curious relationship of the plant and the parasite.

But human knowledge can, and I hope, WILL change that now, not remove the dynamic, but change it into something more advanced yet.

It's time Man and Woman stood together hand in hand, as equal partners, whose efforts together created this world and acknowledged just why it is that the efforts of one half of humanity have been largely unsung.
And both enjoy the great future our efforts have made possible.

Yin and Yang are inseparable, and in their tidy fit, lies the ultimate harmony of existence.


Anonymous said...

I do agree that yes, the history of evolution has been a strange history of progress. you think yin and yang are inseparable because of choice or need?

Anonymous said...

I think this post was fabulous. I know this is jumping the gun but I was just reminded of the saying that anger is necessary because it brings about change it is motivates us.
Anger is perceived as a negative emotion...but without it, well, history would be completely re-written.

Ying and Yang can be applied to almost everything I can think of. What would it be like with just one, but not the other? Can you reach a whole with just a half?

Anonymous said...

Pretty interesting.... the yang invading the yin cell is a good analogy of it all; literal, and vivid...

Anonymous said...

Their contribution was to FREE all this surplus energy, so that men could go around hacking eachother to pieces, then putting it into verse form, so that men could find more refined ways to hunt, like sailing to India and swapping beads for tea.

I love this Crushed, but now unfortunately a lot of male energy is wasted sitting in front of TV or swapping improbable tales at the pub. Luckily not all of them.

It's time Man and Woman stood together hand in hand, as equal partners, whose efforts together created this world and acknowledged just why it is that the efforts of one half of humanity have been largely unsung.
And both enjoy the great future our efforts have made possible.

I could not agree more! In fact the time is long past. Great post Crushed.

Anonymous said...

Maria- It has been, and that noticeable sppeds up once the Eukaryote cell comes into play. Once that food chain kicks in, the rate continues to accelerate faster and faster- hence the term 'Red queen hypothesis', it refers to the bit in Alice through the looking glass where the Red Queen says that you have run faster and faster to stay still.

Ultimately, the answer is need. Evolution really is a blind watchmaker, as Dawkins says, but in the development of sexes it created an amazing way to speed up mutation rate. And the more mutations you have in any generation, the faster evolution occurs.

For example, I actually DO believe that the human brain has evolved dramatically since the start of the Neolithic. Our morphological form hasn't changed much, but I'm sure our neural pathways have changed dramatically. I'm pretty sure we process received information much faster then we did even two thousand years ago- and that our brains can store more data.

Sexual selection is the key to this. Women have tended to be more likely to be lured into bed by the cocky guy with the cheeky smile and the quick witted chat up line, than the safe bet accountant.

Women make the choices at the end of the day, THEY choose what genes should be passed on. And whilst some (Men mainly) might frown at their choices, fact is they usually make the right choices from the point of view of natural selection.

Kate- Yes- A lot more people would have lived a lot longer at the court of Henry VIII... :)

No, you can't of course. It's funny because we have so much struggled to come to terms with this duality for so long- partly because of the misguided attempt to link it the other duality.

But I think this division, being as deep as it DOES affect so much. Maybe even in our brains. Because it stands to reason, in each individual, regardless of physical sex, this dynamic must exist. Posibly the two halves of the brain really are, as some suggest, a male and a female half. Interesting to speculate on, certainly.

Eve- Well, because that is EXACTLY what happened, pretty much.
My view is that so much of the recent advances in molecular biology are so radical, so shocking to so many of our basic totems, that they don't filter out to the wider public, except those who re fascinated by such quesions.

Up until the seventies, all natural history was pretty much based on fosssils and studying body parts- and we couldn't go back before the Cambrian.
Now we really DO have a pretty much complete family tree of life, and parts of it really have shocked us.

And I think some of the implications may take a generation or so to sink in. Like the idea I've posted here.

jmb- I did like that line myself, actually. :)
Ah, the wastage of the male in the decline phase of Capitalism...
Yes, it is partly the inability of the system at present to appropriately harness any of this energy that I find symptomatic of its decline.

Yes, it IS long past, but it really WILL take a revolution in thought to truly change that. Because in spite of the apparent advance of Feminism, the basic thought patterns and societal structures that existed in pre-Feminist times remain.

I actually think there does need to be a THIRD wave of Feminism- and I know some won't like me saying this, but it has a lot to do with freeing women from male ideas of what women should be, in a sexual sense.

One of the few posts I can honestly say I'm 100% happy with. I said to another blogger, I doubt it will receive much comment- it's too involved, but I've started using saturdays when no one is around really, to post posts that are meant more to be read over a longer period of time.

Anonymous said...

I have always been fascinated by Ying&Yang simply cuz it shows that every good has a lil’ bad in it, and every bad has some good…. Its not all or nothing, most of us live in the greyzone and can change. It give us hope, and that is what makes us human.

Anonymous said...

Crushed, I liked this post, also, although I was surprised that you didn't explore the perceived duality of Yin and Yang, and all the ancient's clues (including Judeo-Christian allegories) that indicate they are not in fact polar extremes, but equal parts of the whole. I guess you did, I'm still digesting it.