Saturday, December 13, 2014

My Third Law: It Depends!

Should burns take place in spring
Or wait for autumn rain?
Would baiting help or hinder?
Can owl chicks live through flame?
‘I dunno,’ we had to answer.
‘Not sure, can’t really say.
Needs further replication
Might vary day-to-day.’
PhDs require devotion,
Long days with no weekends
But the ultimate conclusion seems
‘Umm, well, it depends.’
- excerpt from post, 'My Grand Conclusion', on zoologist Bron's blog, Working on the Wild Side
The two of us answered in unision..... "It depends." And looked at each other with a knowing smile.

A retired couple asked for information on where to go to see this bird and that bird. Husband asked for specific details: what species, what location, what time. He was dissatisfied with my answers, including "They were seen here yesterday morning, and there yesterday afternoon, and at this location this morning, but they may be anywhere. They don't send us memos on when or where they go."

When asking for exact details on how to get to 'Point A' from 'Point B' (a distance of 125 miles), my explanation of various options of traveling from Point A to Point B resulted in some visible upset. His wife gently reminded him that they aren't in a hurry and he might enjoy experiencing different things along the way. Her comment was met with a hand wave, pointing at a map, and listing what he expected to see, do, encounter, etc. He wanted no surprises.

"If something changes, if we stray from the map, it will be an adventure!", said his wife.

"No! No surprises, and I don't like adventures. Adventures mean poor planning," Husband responded. "How long will it take to get to 'Point B'?"

Wife and I replied simultaneously, "It depends!"

I looked at them both and then asked Husband, "Are you a mathematician?"
Eyebrows went up and he said, "Why, yes! How did you know?".

"A strong aversion of risk and uncertainty," I responded. Wife returned my smile.
"Oh my God, are you a biologist, too?!" Husband asked with raised eyebrows and looking like he was stuck in between two conspirators.  By that time, all three of us were laughing.

Third Law: It Depends!

My First Law, unapologetically borrowed from The First Law of Thermodynamics (aka 'You can't win'), states that where there's a positive, there is a negative. And this is related to My Second Law: 'Everything is relative'. 'Positive' and 'negative' are relative to the perspective of that which observes or experiences the action/reaction, which depends on time, place and being. (Note that the Second Law of Thermodynamics is 'You can't break even'. See blog post linked above.)

I think you can see where I'm going.

My Third Law is 'It Depends'. If anything I have learned in biology and ecology (and life itself) remains constant, it is: It depends. For the person who demands or insists on a life or reality of 'Yes' or 'No', you will either be disappointed or live in perpetual denial. For life is not simply black and white. A vast area of gray reside in between.

Evolution of......

As an undergraduate back in the early 1980's, and in the 'backward' state of Maine, specialization was not the norm. To specialize meant the same fate as an organism that is specific to a very narrow habitat and diet. It could mean death in a drastically changing environment. As most biologists will recognize the analogy, plasticity in lifestyle, education and thinking meant adaptability and survival.

Thrust into the rapidly evolving culture and society of rampant specialization in grad school (Oregon) was somewhat traumatic for me. But that did not deter me from learning and cultivating both professionally and in my own culture, plasticity. It has been ironically amusing to see a reverse in the trend of specialization the last six years, albeit at a slow rate in academia. Several life science disciplines still resist recognition and acceptance of integrated sciences and practice. Even in my beloved field of biology.

An exception is ecology. Perhaps because the very concept and foundation of ecology is based in dynamic and complex relationships. No longer can only one variable be 'the' determinist'. In ecology, models are not equated with 'laws', but serve as bases for probabilities and predictions. With a good dose of 'it depends'.

Evolution itself operates on 'It depends'. Nearly all phenotypic traits are based on the expression of multiple genes interacting within the context of a dynamic relationship with their environment. A trait will evolve and remain as long as it confers fitness within a set of environmental conditions.

Changing one note in a symphony is sometimes drowned out by the rest of the music. Except for rare diseases, one single gene is not responsible for obesity and/or diabetes. Ernst Mayr commented, "The idea that a few people have about the gene being the target of selection is completely impractical; a gene is never visible to natural selection, and in the genotype, it is always in the context with other genes, and the interaction with those other genes make a particular gene either more favorable or less favorable."

Frankly, I feel more comfortable with a world of 'it depends' than dictates of 'The Theory of Everything', the 'Gene for Everything', and 'Models are Laws'. A world of Venn Cubes (a more complex 3-D model of Venn Diagrams ;) makes more sense to me; it's more representative of life and reality. Perhaps I can handle the uncertainty and risk.

So, according to my Third Law, there is a caveat to my First and Second Laws. It depends.

Interview  with the late biologist, Ernst Mayr on

MAYR: "One of the surprising things that I discovered in my work on the philosophy of biology is that when it comes to the physical sciences, any new theory is based on a law, on a natural law. Yet as several leading philosophers have stated, and I agree with them, there are no laws in biology like those of physics. Biologists often use the word law, but for something to be a law, it has to have no exceptions. A law must be beyond space and time, and therefore it cannot be specific. Every general truth in biology though is specific. Biological "laws" are restricted to certain parts of the living world, or certain localized situations, and they are restricted in time. So we can say that their are no laws in biology, except in functional biology which, as I claim, is much closer to the physical sciences, than the historical science of evolution."
EDGE: "Let's call this Mayr's Law."

Further reading:
"The typical ecological answer – it depends", blog post by oikosasa. Website: Oikos: Synthesizing Ecology.
"Which species is best for their host marsh cordgrass? Fiddler crab or mussel? The answer is – it depends"
"Ecological processes depend on …", blog post by CJA Bradshaw. Website:
"In real ‘ecological’ life, things are vastly different. It’s never as straightforward as ‘yes’ or ‘no’, because ecology is complex. There are times that I forget this important aspect when testing a new hypothesis with what seem like unequivocal data, but then reality always hits."