The Locust and the Wookiee Cellist Phenotypes

The grasshopper (left) and the locust (right) are simply two different expressions of the same genome

The grasshopper (left) and the locust (right) are simply two different expressions of the same genome

An intriguing piece David Dobbs at Aeon Magazine is basically a rallying call to put to rest the supremacy of genes as the primary or sole driver of evolution. Dobbs begins the piece by describing a talk he attended at a neuroscience convention by Steve Rogers (no, not Steve “Captain America” Rogers) of Cambridge University which basically demonstrates that locusts and grasshoppers are not only closely related, they are really just different the same species which are simply the result of different gene expressions of the same genetic material.

As Dobbs states:

The grasshopper, he noted, sports long legs and wings, walks low and slow, and dines discreetly in solitude. The locust scurries hurriedly and hoggishly on short, crooked legs and joins hungrily with others to form swarms that darken the sky and descend to chew the farmer’s fields bare.

Related, yes, just as grasshoppers and crickets are. But even someone as insect-ignorant as I could see that the hopper and the locust were wildly different animals — different species, doubtless, possibly different genera. So I was quite amazed when Rogers told us that grasshopper and locust are in fact the same species, even the same animal, and that, as Jekyll is Hyde, one can morph into the other at alarmingly short notice.

Dobbs explains that:

How does this happen? Does something happen to their genes? Yes, but — and here was the point of Rogers’s talk — their genes don’t actually change. That is, they don’t mutate or in any way alter the genetic sequence or DNA. Nothing gets rewritten. Instead, this bug’s DNA — the genetic book with millions of letters that form the instructions for building and operating a grasshopper — gets reread so that the very same book becomes the instructions for operating a locust. Even as one animal becomes the other, as Jekyll becomes Hyde, its genome stays unchanged. Same genome, same individual, but, I think we can all agree, quite a different beast.

A veritable Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde (or to go back to the Marvel Comics references, Dr. Banner/Incredible Hulk –well, technically there is a Mr. Hyde in the Marvel Universe too, but…)

Why does this happen, well:

If faced with clues that food might be scarce, such as hunger or crowding, certain grasshopper species can transform within days or even hours from their solitudinous hopper states to become part of a maniacally social locust scourge. They can also return quickly to their original form.

[T]hese phase changes (as this morphing process is called) occur when crowding spurs a temporary spike in serotonin levels, which causes changes in gene expression so widespread and powerful they alter not just the hopper’s behaviour but its appearance and form. Legs and wings shrink. Subtle camo colouring turns conspicuously garish. The brain grows to manage the animal’s newly complicated social world, which includes the fact that, if a locust moves too slowly amid its million cousins, the cousins directly behind might eat it.

This is simply an adaptive behavioral change spurred on by environmental pressures which cause a different set of expression from the very same genes we find in both the grasshopper and the locust.

It’s not a whole lot different (metaphorically speaking) than what I describe in my post about Diversifying Your Performance Skills Portfolio. We could morph from a Baroque Cellist to a Wookiee Cellist with the same level of ease that a grasshopper can morph to a locust.

Jon Silpayamanant (from l. to r.) as a baroque cellist, an improvising cellist, a steampunk cellist, and the Wookiee cellist.

Jon Silpayamanant (from l. to r.) as a baroque cellist, an improvising cellist, a steampunk cellist, and the Wookiee cellist.

Some of you might say, “Hey, no fair–these performing personae aren’t aren’t gene expressions that transform your physical body and behavior.  You have to acquire a Baroque Cello and a Wookiee Costume to get into those roles.” While not untrue (and I could simply respond that I’m being “metaphorical” here), we can always simply look at these different performing roles as simply the gene expressions on the extended phenotypes that constitute the immediate environment that support these roles.

Yeah, it’s a bit ironic that I’d use a concept created by Richard Dawkins to illustrate this given that the original piece was an overt attack of his Selfish Gene idea, but basically we can reduce all the performing roles to sets of phenotypes that are simply extensions of gene expressions.  A prototypical phenotype would be, say, eye color.  If you recall your high school biology (or even junior high science class) and the classic laws of inheritance first discovered by Gregor Mendel we can take a trait (i.e. phenotype) like eye color and construct a probability of inheritance.  With eye color, Brown (B) is a dominant gene and Blue (b) is a recessive gene, and we can use a Punnett square to show the frequency of any eye color of any offspring given the eye color of the parents.

The only way to get an offspring with blue eyes is if both parents have blue eyes (bb x bb = 4bb) or if both parents have both a dominant and recessive eye color gene (Bb x Bb = 1BB + 2Bb + 1bb).  Two parents with two dominant genes (BB) will only have offspring with brown eyes (BB x BB = 4BB).  The eye color is the phenotype.

Aki Inomata's Crystalline 3D Printed Hermit Crab Shells

Aki Inomata’s Crystalline 3D Printed Hermit Crab Shells

Dawkins, in his extended phenotype book, says that we should consider non-biological processes as well as biological process as phenotypes of genes.  One example he gave in the book (if I’m recalling it correctly) is a beaver dam which, when built, floods a small region around a beaver lodge so a beaver may have water that is deep enough for the underwater entrance.  The damn and the flooded region are extended phenotypes.  The houses we live in are extended phenotypes as much as beaver lodges and the flooded regions surrounding them.  Hermit crabs, which inhabit the shells of other creatures (or other suitable objects), have simply appropriated a home which is simply an extended phenotype.

My Baroque Cello and Wookiee Costumes are simply extended phenotypes.

This is all a simplified view, but the point is that Locusts exist because of the interaction of genes and the environment.  Without the right conditions, the alternate expression of genes why morph grasshoppers into locusts won’t happen.  Without the rage of expression a grasshopper’s genome can have, no amount of environmental change will turn it into a locust.

That’s why I said, in my “Diversifying Your Performance Skills Portfolio” post, this:

What good is it being a highly trained specialist in 14th century lute performance if there are no performing opportunities for lute, right?

And that last point is probably the one issue that needs to be emphasized.  With an investment portfolio, you can’t just invest in anything.  You have to invest in something that is actually out there to be invested in.  That’s just common sense, right?  So having a diversified investment portfolio means having diversified investments in things that actually exist.  You have to know your environment and since the asset of performance is intimately tied to you as a musician, then the region you work in will, to a large extent, determine the environment within which you can find work.  In other words, if there are no symphony orchestras within several hundred miles of where you live, you’re not likely to find work as a symphony musician (unless you move).

I think that one of the failures of the Classical Music Crisis debate is similar to the problem that Dobbs mentions with regards to the reception (and dominance) of the Selfish Gene and gene-centric model of biology and genetics:

[T]he gene-centric model survives because simplicity is a hugely advantageous trait for an idea to possess. People will select a simple idea over a complex idea almost every time. This holds especially in a hostile environment, like, say, a sceptical crowd. For example, Sean B Carroll, professor of molecular biology and genetics at the University of Wisconsin, spends much of his time studying gene expression, but usually uses gene-centric explanations, because when talking to the public, he finds a simple story is a damned good thing to have.

It’s a simplistic meme, the Classical Music Crisis one, and it leads to all kinds of distortions of the history of Classical Music in general, as well as in the US.  None of which does us any good when we’re trying to envision the future of Classical Music because if we don’t really understand its past, we might simply be repeating the mistakes already made at best.  At worst, we might not even see that future even if it’s already been with us for awhile because we wouldn’t be able to differentiated it from any other point in history.

We have to understand the environment that Classical Music evolved in and adapted to, and understand how forces shaped similar organizations–at the risk of oversimplifying, we need to know how these phenotypes interact with each other and the broader environment or we’ll simply be a grasshopper without the ability to morph into a locust.

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