The Energonomics of Evolution

22 September 2006 at 7:38 pm 1 comment

Reading Jared Diamond’s first book The Third Chimpanzee:  The Evolution and Future of the Human Animal (because his other two books, Guns, Germs and Steel and Collapse:  How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed are two of the most important books on the planet).  Like these two later books, his purpose is “to help us avoid repeating our mistakes–to use knowledge of our past and our propensities in order to change our behaviour” (4).  His goal is to help us understand the historical/evolutionary roots of our current problems (like genocide, environmental destruction, and apparently suicidal tendencies like drug use) in order to bring about the necessary political will to make the changes we need to make to save our species from destroying itself in one of the variety of ways we are on the brink of doing so.  You can see the seeds of his other books here:  when he writes, “While courses in the history of civilization often dwell on kings and barbarian invasions, deforestation and erosion may in the long run have been more important shapers of human history” (335), I am reminded of Collapse, and the chapter on “Accidental Conquerors” is like a 14-page summary of Guns, Germs and Steel which tells us “where we live has contributed heavily to making us who we are” (248). While not ostensibly about “energonomics” (or “the management of energy”), there are a couple of moments in the book when I connected what he was saying to the concept of management energy at the level of evolutionary selection.  In the chapter answering the question, “Why do we grow old and die?” he tells of the limitations of the body:  “Even people doing hard exercise and eating rich food–lumberjacks or marathon runners in training–can’t metabolize much more than about six thousand calories per day.  How should we allocate those calories between repairing ourselves and rearing babies, if our goal is to raise as many babies as possible?” (130).  He continues:

At the one extreme, if we put all our energy into babies and devoted no energy to biological repair, our bodies would age and disintegrate before we could rear our first baby.  At the other extreme, if we lavished all our available energy on keeping our bodies in shape, we might live a long time but would have no energy left for the exhausting process of making and rearing babies.  What natural selection must do is to adjust an animal’s relative expenditures of energy on repair and on reproduction, so as to maximize its reproductive output, averaged over its lifetime. (130)

Diamond’s work demonstrates how energonomics has implications for biological systems and can help to understand fundamental questions about natural selection.

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Entry filed under: books, energonomics, science.

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