The Strategy Toolkit - May 2023 edition
Excerpt: Strategy and Biology, part three
At the end of part two, we left you with the question: “Where, we ask, is our newest thinking, our newest ideas?”, quoting geneticist Paul Nurse’s argument, “We are drowning in a sea of data and starving for knowledge.”*
* Nurse, Paul, “Biology Must Generate Ideas As Well As Data,” Nature, World View, September 13 2021
Aptly, writer Jill Lepore used the metaphor of a four-drawer filing cabinet to make this very same point. She calls the top drawer ‘Mysteries’, followed by ‘Facts’, ‘Numbers’, then ‘Data’. People collect mysteries to achieve salvation, facts to find truth, numbers to feed statistics to policy-makers, and data to feed computers to make predictions. A nifty construct. Each is useful, particularly when used together. But here’s the rub.
“A problem for humanity, though, is that lately people seem to want to tug open only that bottom drawer, “Data,” as if it were the only place you can find any answers, as if only data tells because only data sells.”*
* Lepore J., “Data-driven,” The New Yorker (April 3 2023): 16-20; https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2023/04/03/the-data-delusion
Lepore warns us of the perils inherent in data science, how the use of historical data is not predictive, and how easy it is for humans to choose correlation without causation, to justify all kinds of expedient action, regardless of the risks and consequences.
A great example of what can happen when we heed Lepore’s advice is in a recent Nature paper*, the work of scientists at the Max Planck Institute of Geoanthropology in Jena, Germany, as well as UC Davis and McGill University. By combining a much expanded genome sequencing dataset to include populations throughout Africa, with software capable of using much more powerful computing resources, the researchers found that a more diffuse and wide-ranging origins model (as opposed to the traditional single-origin theory) fit the evidence better. The previous model relied on a limited fossil record and the new model a relatively unlimited set of genes. And they propose a new metaphor - a tangled vine, rather than a tree, of life.
* Coleman, J., “Human-evolution story rewritten by new data and computing power,” Nature (May 18 2023); https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-023-01664-z
* Ragsdale, A.P., Weaver, T.D., Atkinson, E.G. et al. A weakly structured stem for human origins in Africa. Nature (2023). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41586-023-06055-y
Another example is the growing understanding of how much, and in what ways, homo sapiens itself has evolved since emerging approximately 80,000 years ago. Initial studies point to an acceleration of change, evidence of which being the number of new mutations over time.*
* Moyzis, R. et al, “Recent acceleration of human adaptive evolution,” PNAS (December 26, 2007) 104 (52) 20753-20758; https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.0707650104
They suggest this has happened for two reinforcing reasons:
“First, the human population has expanded rapidly during that period, which increases the size of the gene pool in which mutations can occur. Second, the environment in which people find themselves has also changed rapidly, creating new contexts in which those mutations might have beneficial effects.
“That environmental change itself has two causes. The past 80,000 years is the period in which humanity has spread out of Africa to the rest of the world, and each new place brings its own challenges. It has also been a period of enormous cultural change, and that, too, creates evolutionary pressures.”*
* Anonymous, “Darwin’s children,” The Economist (December 15 2007): 87-9; https://www.economist.com/science-and-technology/2007/12/13/darwins-children
The mutations that were selected appear to have provided protection from diseases such as malaria, and to have supported the shift from hunter-gatherer to agricultural lifestyles (e.g. the ability to metabolise lactose effectively). Others, with implications for medical diagnosis and treatments, are areas of ongoing study.
If there is an accelerated pace of mutation, then what about the future, especially given the evidence for climate change? How will humans change as a result?
Keep reading with a 7-day free trial
Subscribe to The Strategy Toolkit to keep reading this post and get 7 days of free access to the full post archives.