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Evolution in Fish

By mikeliu in News
Tue Apr 09, 2002 at 03:32:42 AM EST
Tags: Science (all tags)
Science

We've probably all heard of the case of peppered moths in England during the Industrial revolution evolving to change their color in response to increased pollutants (though recently this example has come under question). Another fascinating example of evolution in action that I recently came across is the mummichog fish, which has apparently adapted to polluted waters that kill normal fish, and cannot even live in fresh water anymore.


The Fundulus heteroclitus, or mummichog, is a species of fish found indigenous to Virginia. Among its habitats is the Elizabeth river, which has been highly industrialized and polluted for 300 years now. Incredibly, an adapted version of the mummichor has learned to survive in this deadly soup. Although it is subjected to higher cancer rates than its unadapted cousins, it has no problems surviving in the industrial sludge, and in fact will actually die when placed into clean water. Of course unadapted breeds taken from nearby areas are killed when exposed to the same contaminants that exist in the river.

Not only is this a very interesting example of evolution in action, but I think that it raises interesting questions as well. How should we treat species such as this, that evolved as a result of our action and pollution? For example, if we wished to clean the river up, should we take into consideration that we would be harming this species which evolved to live in the polluted river? Just what exactly is the goal of environmentalism in this regard? To prevent the changing of environments which might harm any life? In that case should this river should get protected status that prevents any future cleanups?

It's a tricky angle on environmentalism that never occured to me in the past. If the goal is simply to make the world a more pleasant place for humans to live, then would it be justified to build parks over habitats of the endangered poisonous stinging king scorpion, just because we never liked them anyways, and a park would be better for us in their place? As more time passes from when we started truly polluting the world and changing the nature of ecosystems, and our own power becomes greater and greater, cases like this are only going to become more and more common.

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Evolution in Fish | 34 comments (34 topical, editorial, 0 hidden)
As creators (4.33 / 9) (#1)
by rickward on Tue Apr 09, 2002 at 01:19:48 AM EST

we have a responsibility to our creation. Just what that responsibility is, though, escapes me at the moment.

Nevertheless, we'll probably end up exploiting the new species' body chemistry and physiology to make quieter nuclear attack submarines and better Brita filters.

People who get pissed over silly things deserve to be bothered at all costs. --MisterQueu

Human acts caused them to exist, but (4.33 / 6) (#3)
by Mysidia on Tue Apr 09, 2002 at 01:38:17 AM EST

That doesn't make humans their creators. Other creatures' polution is their "air"

So in one sense... "cleaning it up" would destroy their habitat.

If given time, all species will adapt to live in their polluted environment, and the pollution would at that point no longer be "artificial", it would be the natural order of the time.

Humans are part of the natural order after all, and just like any predator... evolution has to take them into account.

I think environmentalism should strive for a world clean and safe, and comfortable for humanity though, not to cater to random species of fish, nor to discard random species of fish or the like out of the sheer greed of some.



-Mysidia the insane @k5
[ Parent ]
Evolution and stuff (5.00 / 3) (#5)
by carbon on Tue Apr 09, 2002 at 02:59:58 AM EST

I definetly agree. It seems that placing humanity out of the chain of evolution is illogical, since our species came about through the same system as all the other ones. Certainly, we have an unfair advantage at this point, because we developed a considerably large amount of intelligence, enough to . It's really impossible for any other species on the planet to topple our position at the top of the pyramid, though we might just do that to ourselves...

I tend to think that protecting animals is important, for the very reason that you state: protecting humanity. We don't yet have complete knowledge as to all the forces that keep the current ecological system working, so altering these forces on a grand scale from their original state could in turn cause problems we're not really in any position to predict or deal with.

However, I also think that any species exhibiting signs of self awareness (by signs I mean having the ability to grasp simple concepts, remember what has happened to it before, exhibit emotions, etc) also should be protected. I can't really justify this position logically, but I'm going to stand by it anyways, simply because I sort of feel that it's right (as poor a reason as that is.)


Wasn't Dr. Claus the bad guy on Inspector Gadget? - dirvish
[ Parent ]
opposing philosophies? (5.00 / 1) (#12)
by mikeliu on Tue Apr 09, 2002 at 08:29:27 AM EST

"I think environmentalism should strive for a world clean and safe, and comfortable for humanity though, not to cater to random species of fish, nor to discard random species of fish or the like out of the sheer greed of some."

I'm not sure I understand what you're getting at here. How are you reconciling what are (apparently to me) conflicting goals of neither catering to nor discarding random species of fish? It seems to me like catering to random species of fish would be things like environmental protection acts designed to protect the fish. And discarding them would be letting people do whatever they want to them.

Am I misunderstanding what you're saying? Those seem like diametrically opposed ideologies to me.

[ Parent ]
Wow! (3.16 / 6) (#4)
by whatwasthatagain on Tue Apr 09, 2002 at 02:01:36 AM EST

You mean God will clean up the mess for me?

Of course, Atheists get no such benefits...


--

With profound apologies to whomsoever this sig originally belonged.
[ Parent ]

My thoughts (4.85 / 7) (#2)
by kuran42 on Tue Apr 09, 2002 at 01:27:15 AM EST

I don't think it's really feasible to allow an environment to remain polluted; with very few exceptions, pollution will dissapate over time (either breaking down or spreading out into new environments) and unless it is constantly replenished the levels may drop below those required for the pollution-adapted individuals of a species. Continuing to pollute doesn't make sense, because you will continue to damage more habitats and other species. It seems like the best solution is to carefully monitor any environments we have polluted and allow their very gradual return to a "natural" state. Over many generations the population can thusly be brought back to a state where it can survive in an unpolluted environment.

A simpler solution may be to just clean up the environment as quickly as possible, allow a die-off, and repopulate the area with members of the original species from another area. Perhaps a crueler solution, but also a more economical and technically simple one.

--
kuran42? genius? Nary a difference betwixt the two. -- Defect

Start of a new environment (5.00 / 4) (#6)
by 4thMonkey on Tue Apr 09, 2002 at 04:18:54 AM EST

Leaving the environment how it is at the moment is the worst option in my opinion, as it would allow the mummichog fish to continue to live in that habitat but there would be few other fish able to survive in the same waters. We have set up an artificial environment but are under no obligation to maintain that environment. I think the the aim of environmentalism is not to "make the world a more pleasant place for humans to live", its goal is to make as little impact as possible on the environment as a result of our presence. If we do have a negative impact we should reverse that as soon as possible, in this case we were too slow in acting to fix our mistakes allowing time for the species to change.

If we chose to leave the river in its current polluted state to keep this species alive we could see another species adapt to the conditions (there would be an opportunity in the environment which could be filled). Over time the decision to clean up the environment would become more difficult as the number of animals able to survive in the environment increases.

<Devil's Advocate>
An extreme example would be if there was a rare bird species in the area that adapted to eating this new mummichog fish and in time the bird could only eat that fish. I could see a zoo opening where there is a pond full of polluted water to breed fish to feed this rare bird species during a breeding program, they would need to add oil occasionally to keep them alive :-).
</Devil's Advocate>

Seriously, I think the best solution is to try to clean the environment even if this new variation of fish is destroyed in the process. The cleanup would take years to complete so the gradual change in the environment might allow for the same process to occur in reverse.

Until we have completed the cleanup this fish could be useful for scientists to study to find out how they are able to survive in the toxic environment and find new methods for cleaning up the results of an oil spill the next time it occurs.

close to natural fallacy (5.00 / 1) (#11)
by mikeliu on Tue Apr 09, 2002 at 08:24:03 AM EST

Your argument sounds close to the natural fallacy to me, wherein something is presumed to be better simply by virtue of it being a member of the ill-defined set "natural".

If a whole ecosystem did evolve around this polluted river and its mummichogs, then what exactly is our incentive for changing this ecosystem back to its "natural" state? In a sense, if a whole ecosystem could evolve for this environment, we'd be getting the best of both worlds, industry and environment together, with the only real down side being that humans probably wouldn't evolve along with the ecosystem, and we might not like what the new ecosystem is like.

To make it clearer with a more drastic hypothetical situation, what if instead of at a river (where the argument could be made that other downstream consequences still existed) this happened in an isolated mountain lake? And an entire thriving ecosystem builds up around the pollution from a factory on the lake? Wouldn't forcing that factory to be taken away (assuming the people running it still would like to run it) be just as bad as polluting it in the first place? After all, destroying an ecosystem is destroying an ecosystem right? Is there something that inherently makes a "natural" ecosystem more worthy than an "artificial" one in your opinion?

[ Parent ]
Semantic argument (none / 0) (#22)
by Wah on Wed Apr 10, 2002 at 11:57:38 AM EST

Is there something that inherently makes a "natural" ecosystem more worthy than an "artificial" one in your opinion?

Undoubtedly. Especially when you are comparing a non-industrialized system with a polluted one. All this example shows is that life will "find a way", but that's not an excuse to pollute the whole world and call it a wash aesthetically.

Although it is subjected to higher cancer rates than its unadapted cousins, it has no problems surviving in the industrial sludge, and in fact will actually die when placed into clean water.

That seems like a pretty simple criteria to judge an ecosystem. Cancer ain't good for life. More cancer, less life, less good. Which is not to say that "natural" means NO cancer, but it could certainly be argued that it is a good criteria for judging the worthiness of a system change.
--
Fail to Obey?
[ Parent ]

"better" (5.00 / 1) (#25)
by ucblockhead on Wed Apr 10, 2002 at 02:35:23 PM EST

The flaw here is the word "better". Both the word "natural" and the word "better" are problematic and are really useless in ecological discussions.

Creatures are adapted to certain environments. Change the environment, and those creatures will do poorly. Given time, over generations, those creatures will adapt to that environment.

Whether the change is something "natural" like a volcano erupting or something "unnatural" like a factory dumping pollutants into a stream is only relevent in that human beings can control the one and not the other.

Is having less dead fish "better"? Well, better for the fish. Probably better for people. But for "nature"? No. "Better" doesn't come into it for nature. Nature is just what is. To say that something is "better" for nature is to anthromorphize "nature" into something that it is not.

Both sides would do better to realize this because it would remove some of the religious nature of the argument.

The truth of the matter is that we could nuke the hole damn planet, and in the long run, "nature" would return to what it was. We could also unbalance things to the point where life because very uncomfortable to human beings for a bit. "Nature" would return to what it was. The real question is, what do we want for ourselves? Saying that "well, nature will recover" isn't an answer, because "nature" doesn't recover, it just is.
-----------------------
This is k5. We're all tools - duxup
[ Parent ]

"semantic" "argument" (none / 0) (#29)
by Wah on Thu Apr 11, 2002 at 09:55:35 AM EST

Whether the change is something "natural" like a volcano erupting or something "unnatural" like a factory dumping pollutants into a stream is only relevent in that human beings can control the one and not the other.

That's the point I'm going for. I don't see something like someone dying of old age or a brain aneurysm as the moral equivalent (i.e. good/bad) of murdering someone. Sure, same result, but the element of the action that can be controlled, a willed action, is open for moral categorizaion.

So going back to original question I was attempting to answer, there can be a judgement on which state of "nature" is "better". "Nature" is generally understood in the current context by me as "natural environoment" not the more amorphous definition. It would be natural (ha) to assume a subjective judgement that a "nature" good for my species is "good".

The real question is, what do we want for ourselves?

Which I've assumed is an environment that leads to less cancer, for one.
--
Choas and order, flowing down the drain of time. Ain't it purdy? | SSP
[ Parent ]

In an old SF book... (5.00 / 3) (#7)
by TheophileEscargot on Tue Apr 09, 2002 at 04:38:53 AM EST

...there was a time-traveller from the future who visited the 1970s who had a similar problem. She had to constantly smoke specially designed toxic cigarettes in order to survive in the insufficiently-polluted atmosphere.
----
Support the nascent Mad Open Science movement... when we talk about "hundreds of eyeballs," we really mean it. Lagged2Death
Millennium (5.00 / 2) (#9)
by sjaskow on Tue Apr 09, 2002 at 08:13:17 AM EST

That'd be Millennium by John Varley. Good book, really bad movie with Kris Kristofferson and Cheryl Ladd.

[ Parent ]
No, (4.00 / 6) (#8)
by FredBloggs on Tue Apr 09, 2002 at 05:04:45 AM EST

"change their color in response to increased pollutants"

Thats not how evolution works. Species dont learn and plan the next generation. Its just that the ones that are exposed due to their colour get eaten, and the other ones dont, and its those other ones who survive. Read any book on evolution.

yeah... (5.00 / 1) (#10)
by mikeliu on Tue Apr 09, 2002 at 08:18:44 AM EST

Yeah, I understand that, I guess I phrased it badly. I guess what I meant to convey was evolved to be a different color in response to selection pressures which occured as a result of increased pollutants. But that's kinda awkward. I'm thinking most people get what I mean anyways though.....

[ Parent ]
Its important (5.00 / 3) (#13)
by FredBloggs on Tue Apr 09, 2002 at 08:58:17 AM EST

to remember at all times that evolution is not goal led. Things are trying to get to some perfect point. There are just mutations and the ones which are best suited to the environment they are in get to survive another generation.

Check out `Lifes grandeur` by Stephen Jay Gould.

[ Parent ]
Doh! (5.00 / 2) (#14)
by FredBloggs on Tue Apr 09, 2002 at 08:58:51 AM EST

...Things are **NOT** trying to...

[ Parent ]
Minor point (5.00 / 2) (#15)
by kuran42 on Tue Apr 09, 2002 at 09:41:16 AM EST

Evolution through natural selection is not goal oriented. Evolution through other means (Eugenics, for example) may well be goal oriented. Normally we speak of evolution through natural selection, but whenever you throw a human element into the mix, things can get a bit unusual...

--
kuran42? genius? Nary a difference betwixt the two. -- Defect
[ Parent ]
Metaphors, metaphors (none / 0) (#32)
by SIGFPE on Thu Apr 11, 2002 at 02:14:59 PM EST

When discussing evolution it turns out that metaphors are an incredibly powerful tool in simplifying certain types of statement. For example it's a lot easier to say and think about the statement "they adapted so as to reach leaves on the highest trees" than "through each successive generation the animals most able to reach the highest leaves had a differentially higher rate of reproduction resulting in a greater proportion of them in the gene pool". What's more - many entire arguments made using the 'goal led' analogy work out correctly when written in expanded form.

On the other hand it's easy for third parties to listen to such metaphorical language and be misled by it so whether you should use it clearly depends on context.
SIGFPE
[ Parent ]

Also (minor edit) (none / 0) (#16)
by bob6 on Tue Apr 09, 2002 at 10:13:52 AM EST

[...] which has apparently adapted to [...]
It's better to say "wich is apparently adapted to ...". Adaptation is a consequence.

Cheers.
[ Parent ]
Adaptation != Evolution (3.00 / 3) (#17)
by MrAcheson on Wed Apr 10, 2002 at 12:02:56 AM EST

I'm picking a nit here, but its a rather important terminological nit for some arguments.

Adaptation is a species changing to fit its environment. Evolution implies a certain type of overarching process which creates this change i.e. some genetics are favored and some are not which gives rise to a new species.

While I am not familiar with the fish, the moths is an example of adaptation not evolution. A new species of moth did not evolve due to the industrial revolution. What occurred was a population shift within an existing species from the members with white coloration to the members with black. If you go to this part of Britian today you will once again find white moths because the population has shifted back now that the pollution situation is better. This is the same phenomenon which has given rise to antibiotic resistant bacteria. Essentially you are breeding a bacteria/moth/whatever of the same species which is better suited to the new environment. You are emphasizing a new part of the pre-existing gene pool not creating new material or a new species as the term "evolution" implies.

You could do the same thing by shooting every human over 5 feet tall. You would quickly get a nation of short people, however they would still be humans just shorter. So this is adaptation not evolution.

As an aside, I dont think conservation and evolution mix too well philosophically. Conservation is about preserving current environments, evolution is about species changing to fit new environments and situations. I am not going to protect my closet because the change in detergent I use in my laundry might have created a population shift with the dust mites therein. Why? Because its me closet.

I believe the truth is that the fish will have to adapt to whatever we do because humans are the dominant species. The species that can adapt to cities and stripmalls will do so. Unfortunately those that can't will probably wind up conserved in zoos or stored in genetic banks so we don't lose all their genetic data should they someday become important to us. Or they will evolve into something that can exist in the new environment.


These opinions do not represent those of the US Army, DoD, or US Government.


conservation and evolution (none / 0) (#18)
by mikeliu on Wed Apr 10, 2002 at 04:40:46 AM EST

As an aside, I dont think conservation and evolution mix too well philosophically. Conservation is about preserving current environments, evolution is about species changing to fit new environments and situations.
Hmm, yeah, that's interesting, I'd never even considered that before, and I doubt that most conservationist have either, especially considering the high overlap of membership between liberal conservationism and liberal Darwinists. It is an interesting thought, but for me, more than feeling that conservation and evolution don't mix, I feel more that I hadn't fully thought out my beliefs regarding conservation enough previously.

My take on conservation now that I've considered it more tends more towards the self-centered reasonings, where a diverse world of weird and wonderful creatures is a world I'd more like to live in, and have my children someday live in. Additionally, any given species might prove to be incredibly useful in the future to us, so it doesn't make sense to irrevocably destroy it at this time. It would take a long long time for replacement species to evolve to replace any we might destroy, so we're better off keeping the ones we have around. I'm fairly environmental, but in my revised philosophy, I don't think I'd have any problem killing the stinging deadly brain sucker bat off entirely if I knew for sure that it would never prove useful in the future. Of course, we could never know that, so I don't advocate exincting any except the most harmful other creatures in the world (ie, malaria, etc.)

[ Parent ]
General ecological rules.. (4.00 / 1) (#19)
by ajduk on Wed Apr 10, 2002 at 04:57:20 AM EST

The more diverse the species mix in any ecological system, the greater the productivity of that system.

Hence it is in our long term interests to keep species alive.

[ Parent ]
more explanation? (4.00 / 1) (#20)
by mikeliu on Wed Apr 10, 2002 at 07:28:09 AM EST

Oh really? What exactly is the definition of productivity when we're discussing an ecological system?

For example, a counter example that popped quickly into my head is that we seem to do pretty well with systems that are essentially monocultures in the form of our mass produced farming methods we use today. The productivity we get out of the land is pretty unparalleled....

[ Parent ]
Yes, but (5.00 / 1) (#21)
by ajduk on Wed Apr 10, 2002 at 08:34:29 AM EST

The total energy 'produced' by such systems is <0 when you count the energy required for the fertilizer.

The definition of productivity here is the total increase in biomass per year (i.e. the amount you could take out long term).

[ Parent ]
Your definitions are inaccurate (5.00 / 4) (#24)
by iGrrrl on Wed Apr 10, 2002 at 01:54:47 PM EST

Adaptation is a species changing to fit its environment. Evolution implies a certain type of overarching process which creates this change i.e. some genetics are favored and some are not which gives rise to a new species.
No.

Evolution: Changes in the genetic makeup of a species. [This definition does not address whether the change is beneficial or not.]

Adaptation: Change in the behavior or genetic makeup of a species that benefits the species.

Genes change. You can see it happen in a test tube of bacteria in a matter of days. Whether those changes are adaptive, neutral, or maladaptive primarily is determined by the environment in which the change takes place. If the change is maladaptive, the process called natural selection selects against it. If it is adaptive, the change continues in offspring.

One important point here is that there are adaptations that do not require a change in the actual gene. Some of them require a change in the pattern of gene expression. Other adaptations are purely behavioral.

--
You cannot have a reasonable conversation with someone who regards other people as toys to be played with. localroger
remove apostrophe for email.
[ Parent ]

hmmm (5.00 / 1) (#31)
by faecal on Thu Apr 11, 2002 at 12:58:42 PM EST

Evolution: Changes in the genetic makeup of a species. [This definition does not address whether the change is beneficial or not.]

Surely for a mutation to propagate throughout a population of a species, it must be an adaptation? A single mutation would be only a change in the genetic makeup of an individual, not the species.

Sorry if I'm just being pedantic.

[ Parent ]

neutral (5.00 / 1) (#33)
by iGrrrl on Thu Apr 11, 2002 at 04:00:50 PM EST

Good question.

My answer: Many changes are neutral to the survival of the animal, and get propagated in the species anyway.

Maybe not the only or best answer, but it's mine.

--
You cannot have a reasonable conversation with someone who regards other people as toys to be played with. localroger
remove apostrophe for email.
[ Parent ]

fair enough (nt) (none / 0) (#34)
by faecal on Thu Apr 11, 2002 at 04:37:29 PM EST



[ Parent ]
I don't see any difference between adaptation... (4.00 / 1) (#26)
by SIGFPE on Wed Apr 10, 2002 at 05:10:58 PM EST

...and evolution as you define it - apart from a difference of degree. Your distinction sounds suspiciously like the kind of false dichotomy that creations conjure up in order to mislead people. Are you either a creationist or someone that creationists have misled?
SIGFPE
[ Parent ]
Adaptiation, evolution and speciation (4.00 / 1) (#27)
by phliar on Wed Apr 10, 2002 at 06:03:02 PM EST

Adaptation is a species changing to fit its environment. Evolution implies a certain type of overarching process which creates this change i.e. some genetics are favored and some are not which gives rise to a new species.
I would have to take issue with this statement. The technical definition of evolution is a change in allele frequencies in a population. Did Biston betularia evolve? I'd say yes, assuming coloration is genetically determined. Was a new species formed when the colour distribution of B. betularia changed? That's more problematic -- since the whole notion of species is problematic. The word evolution is loaded.

A species can be said to be different from another species if organisms of one do not interbreed with organisms of another. The usual pattern for speciation is that a population gets divided into two, the two populations drift (genetically speaking), until at some point organisms from the two are no longer capable of interbreeding. Well, if allele frequencies change over time but the organisms remain one interbreeding population, has speciation occurred?


Faster, faster, until the thrill of...
[ Parent ]

Humans not so bad (none / 0) (#23)
by Silent Chris on Wed Apr 10, 2002 at 01:47:01 PM EST

I'll actually take this as an example of my argument: humans modifying the Earth is not as bad as many people make it out to be. Yes, we may be stupid and kill off a bunch of known species (even ourselves) but Life (capital L) will find a way to adapt long past when we leave.

I say to most environmentalists, for the most part, leave it alone.

True to an extent (none / 0) (#28)
by aphrael on Wed Apr 10, 2002 at 06:23:57 PM EST

but there are two counterweights to that. :)

  • When a species is destroyed by human action, we should at least make an attempt to understand what the opportunity cost involved in losing that species is, and to determine if the benefits of the action that destroys it outweighs the opportunity cost. There is very little attempt to do either.
  • It is possible that the overall state of the environment responds to attractor theory; eg., that minor changes *at the right time* may result in major, unpredictable changes that had not been forseen and would not have resulted if the same minor changes had been made at a different time. I'm not a sufficiently good mathematician to expound on this, but an explanation can be found here.

Neither of these mean that all human action is bad, or that all extinctions should be prevented. But it *does* mean that we should be doing more to analyze the costs *before* we act.

[ Parent ]

yes, life finds a way (none / 0) (#30)
by ucblockhead on Thu Apr 11, 2002 at 12:19:51 PM EST

Life finds a way, but that way doesn't guarantee that we find a way.

I don't really give a damn if "life" finds a way to exist for millions of years. I care about whether the human race finds a way to exist comfortably for the forseeable future. In that since, I have no problen with modifying the Earth in theory. I do, however, have a big problem with screwing up the Earth so that humans have a harder time of it in the future. For an overarching "natural" million year perspective, the melting of the Antarctic icepack is meaningless. The same sort of thing happens all the time in geologic time. From a very human perspective, it would be a disaster if this happened in the near future.
-----------------------
This is k5. We're all tools - duxup
[ Parent ]

Evolution in Fish | 34 comments (34 topical, 0 editorial, 0 hidden)
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