Monday, January 10, 2011

How come evolution hasn’t made us immortal? Death, like sex, helps animal populations avoid extinction

Genes do not evolve, nor do traits that are coded for our genes. We say that they evolve to facilitate discourse, which is alright. Populations evolve. A new genotype appears in a population and then either spreads or disappears. If it spreads, then the population is said to be evolving with respect to that genotype. A genotype may spread to an entire population; in population genetics, this is called “fixation”.

(Human chromosomes capped by telomeres, the white areas at the ends. Telomere shortening is caused by oxidative stress, and seems to be associated with death of cells and organisms. Source: Wikipedia.)

Asexual reproduction is very uncommon among animals. The most accepted theory to explain this is that animal populations live in environments that change very quickly, and thus need a great deal of genetic diversity within them to cope with the change. Otherwise they disappear, and so do their genes. Asexual reproduction leads to dramatically less genetic diversity in populations than sexual reproduction.

Asexual reproduction is similar to cloning. Each new individual looks a lot like its single parent. This does not work well in populations where individuals live relatively long lives. And even 1 year may be too long in this respect. It is just too much time to wait for a possible new mutation that will bring in some genetic diversity. To complicate matters, genetic mutation does not occur very often, and most genetic mutations are neutral with respect to the phenotype (i.e., they don’t code for any trait).

This is not so much of a problem for species whose members reproduce extremely fast; e.g., produce a new generation in less than 1 hour. A fast-reproducing species usually has a short lifespan as well. Accordingly, asexual reproduction is common among short-lived and fast-reproducing unicellular organisms and pathogens that have no cell structure like viruses.

Bacteria and viruses, in particular, form a part of the environment in which animals live that require animal populations to have a large amount of genetic diversity. Animal populations with low genetic diversity are unlikely to be able to cope with the barrage of diseases caused by these fast-mutating parasites.

We make sex chiefly because of the parasites.

And what about death? What does it bring to the table for a population?

Let us look at the other extreme – immortality. Immortality is very problematic in evolutionary terms because a population of immortal individuals would quickly outgrow its resources. That would happen too fast for the population to evolve enough intelligence to be able to use resources beyond those that were locally available.

In this post I assume that immortality is not the same as indestructibility. Here immortality is equated to the absence of aging as we know it. In this sense, immortals can still die by accident or due to disease. They simply do not age. For immortals, susceptibility to disease does not go up with age.

One could argue that a population of immortal individuals who did not reproduce would have done just fine. But that is not correct, because in this case immortality would be akin to cloning, but worse. Genetic diversity would not grow, as no mutations would occur. The fixed population of immortals would be unable to cope with fast-mutating parasites.

There is so much selection pressure against immortality in nature that it is no surprise that animals of very few species live more than 60 years on average. Humans are at the high end of the longevity scale. They are there for a few reasons. One is that our ancestors had offspring that required extra care, which led to an increase in the parents’ longevity. The offspring required extra care chiefly because of their large brains.

That increase in longevity was likely due to genetic mutations that helped our ancestors extend a lifespan that was programmed to be relatively short. Immortality is not a sound strategy for population survival, and thus there are probably many mechanisms through which it is prevented.

Death is evolution’s main ally. Sex is a very good helper. Both increase genetic diversity in populations.

We can use our knowledge of evolution to live better today. The aging clock can be slowed significantly via evolutionarily sound diet and lifestyle changes, essentially because some of our modern diet and lifestyle choices accelerate aging a lot. But diet and lifestyle changes probably will not make people live to 150.

If we want to become immortal, as we understand it in our current human form, ultimately we may want to beat evolution. In this sense, only very intelligent beings can become immortal.

Maybe we can achieve that by changing our genes, or by learning how to transfer our consciousness “software” into robots. In doing so, however, we may become something different; something that is not human and thus doesn’t see things in the same way as a human does. A conscious robot, without the hormones that so heavily influence human behavior, may find that being alive is pointless.

There is another problem. What if the only natural way to achieve some form of immortality is through organic death, but in a way that we don’t understand? This is not a matter of faith or religion. There are many things that we don’t know for sure. This is probably the biggest mystery of all; one that we cannot unravel in our current human state.