HomeLatest ThreadsGreatest ThreadsForums & GroupsMy SubscriptionsMy Posts
DU Home » Latest Threads » Forums & Groups » Main » General Discussion (Forum) » how this ends - insights ...

Wed Feb 10, 2021, 03:25 PM

how this ends - insights from really, really old alligators

Last edited Wed Feb 10, 2021, 09:19 PM - Edit history (1)

Folks,

A while back, I compared changes in the Republican Party since 1980 with the phenomenon of runaway selection in evolutionary biology. It's especially prominent in the context of sexual selection. When selective pressure on a feature is very strong - for example, if females have a very strong preference for males with elongated tail feathers, brightly colored scales, tall antlers, or some other display structure that doesn't necessarily improve survivability - that structure can evolve very rapidly to an extreme condition. This is even true if the sexually selected trait impairs the ability of a male to escape predators or find food - as long as it survives long enough to breed, an early death doesn't matter.

This is what we've seen with the Republican Party. The Reagan "Revolution" brought a higher levels of demonization of Democrats. This was amplified by AM radio, and then by partisan cable news and the internet, so that each succeeding Republican candidate had to be more conservative than anyone else or risk losing during the primaries. But this may be approaching the limit of survivability, because they've now become so extreme that they risk losing the general election.

I thought some more about this over the past few days, and my own work might indicate how this might end.

It's a generally accepted axiom that generalized ancestors evolve into specialized descendents, but not the reverse. Butterflies that can collect nectar from a wide range of flowers gradually become increasingly specialized toward a particular kind of flower to the point that, eventually, they can only really collect nectar from that one kind of flower. (This also happens with hummingbirds. Look up the sword-billed hummingbird, and you'll see what I mean.) In turn, the flower evolves to cater only to that one kind of butterfly.

(This axiom is actually false, as I'll discuss below.)

This has the benefit of ensuring a relatively competitor-free source of food for the butterfly as long as the flower is around, and it ensures pollenation of the flower as long as the butterfly is around.

But this implies a serious cost - if the flower disappears, so will the butterfly. Specialization, in general, increases the risk of extinction if the environment changes in ways that prevent the specialist from functioning. Generalists, being more capable of using other resources, are more likely to survive.

I really do think we're at the point where the Republican Party has become overly specialized. It is now directed at Trump-style populism and nationalism. There are still plenty of people who call themselves Republicans and regard themselves as economic conservatives or libertarians, but who also dislike Trump, but anyone watching the impeachment process can clearly see that fear of offending Trump's base is keeping them from doing anything about it. The party is now specialized for the collection of votes from red hatters in gerrymandered districts.

This hurt them in the 2018 midterms - they may have succeeded in the primaries, but not so much in the general election. It appears to have been less true in the 2020 congressional elections, but it was a weird election all around. I fully expect this trend to continue for the next several election cycles.

So how does this end?

There are two possibilities. The first, and most obvious, is extinction. But here, I see a disconnect between my analogy and political reality. A species goes extinct when none are left alive. The Republican Party might collapse, but its members are still going to be here.

This is where my work, and that of my students, might prove insightful, because we've helped show that specialists can, indeed, become generalists. (This is also where I run the risk of revealing my identity - not too many people do what I do - but so be it.)

A good example is the North American alligatorine radiation. Alligatorines comprise comprise the two living species of Alligator (American alligator, A. mississippiensis, and critically-endangered Chinese alligator, A. sinensis) and extinct forms more closely related to them than to the caimans currently found in Latin America. (Alligatorines and caimans together form Alligatoridae.)

There's only one species in North America today. But if you go back to between 65 and 40 million years ago, there were several. One could find as many as three species co-occurring in parts of the American West. (The same was true in Europe, by the way.) And none of them really looked like an American alligator - they were all very small (6 feet in length for some, no more than 3 feet for others), they had comparatively short snouts, and most had blunt, anvil-like teeth in the back of the jaws. These were specialized for hard-shelled prey.

At the same time, there were several other crocodylians living alongside these wee alligatorines. One was a kick-ass hoofed form with no close living relative, but others were distantly related to modern crocodiles. They also looked more or less like a modern crocodile - about the same size, with a long, flattened snout with conical teeth and a diet that included anything they could swallow. They took the larger prey that the small alligatorines were unable to process, and when young may have eaten fewer turtles or mollusks.

What happened? Climate changed abruptly. Temperature was probably not the main driver - the region was still plenty warm enough for crocs. It probably had more to do with changes in rainfall that led to the expansion of dry areas and the first grasslands. All crocodylians in western North America died out except one of the small blunt-toothed alligatorines.

The modern American alligator is basically like a crocodile, at least ecologically - fairly large, with a long, flat snout filled with conical teeth and a very broad diet. And its ancestors were specialized for small hard-shelled prey.

The transition from specialist to generalist took a very long time. The earliest forms to appear shortly after the diversity crash were still fairly small, though the snout was somewhat longer and the teeth not so knobby in the back. Body size and snout length gradually increased, as did the number of teeth in the jaws. It was another 10 to 20 million years before animals that would have lived like a modern American alligator arose.

I think this is what we'll see. The Republican Party won't go away - not completely, anyway. It might even have a different name. But over time, it will recalibrate toward the center. This will be necessary for its survival; demographic changes in the US will make it much less likely they'll win elections, an gerrymandering might not be able to rescue their chances. They'll see a choice between keeping some red hatters happy and actually being in office. Meanwhile, some media outlets (e.g. Fox "News" will begin to moderate, at least a little. They won't have had a change of heart - they'll be desperate for viewers and advertisers. And the initial changes will be so modest, many of us might not even really notice.

I have no idea when any of this will come to pass. I hoped we'd have seen stronger evidence for this in 2020. And I could be completely full of shit with my analogy. But I really do hope this happens sooner rather than later.


(For your viewing pleasure, here are a couple of skulls showing the kinds of changes I mean. The first skull is about 55 million years in age; the second is about 39 million years in age; the third is modern.)
[img][/img]
[img][/img]
[img][/img]

14 replies, 938 views

Reply to this thread

Back to top Alert abuse

Always highlight: 10 newest replies | Replies posted after I mark a forum
Replies to this discussion thread
Arrow 14 replies Author Time Post
Reply how this ends - insights from really, really old alligators (Original post)
cab67 Feb 2021 OP
intrepidity Feb 2021 #1
Irish_Dem Feb 2021 #2
BSdetect Feb 2021 #3
ret5hd Feb 2021 #4
TexasLefty29 Feb 2021 #6
Wounded Bear Feb 2021 #5
tblue37 Feb 2021 #7
Yavin4 Feb 2021 #8
Ilsa Feb 2021 #9
abqtommy Feb 2021 #10
scarletwoman Feb 2021 #11
Hermit-The-Prog Feb 2021 #12
marie999 Feb 2021 #13
cab67 Feb 2021 #14

Response to cab67 (Original post)

Wed Feb 10, 2021, 03:31 PM

1. Rec'ing before I even finish reading!

OK back to reading.

(would be interesting to hear your educated opinion on the virus and mutations, at some point)

Reply to this post

Back to top Alert abuse Link here Permalink


Response to cab67 (Original post)

Wed Feb 10, 2021, 03:33 PM

2. Adapt or die.

The US is changing dramatically.

The GOP made a big lunge towards the lunatic fringe in order to survive.
But it will backfire eventually, that position cannot hold.
So they will have to adapt or come to the end of their run.

Reply to this post

Back to top Alert abuse Link here Permalink


Response to cab67 (Original post)

Wed Feb 10, 2021, 03:40 PM

3. Survival is not about the "strongest" its about the fittest. Fascists really believe in the former.

In any talk with a RWNJ ask them about it.

Then explain the difference.

Reply to this post

Back to top Alert abuse Link here Permalink


Response to cab67 (Original post)

Wed Feb 10, 2021, 03:40 PM

4. So, what you're saying is...

our children might turn into monkeys? Hah! Gawd wins again, you atheist!

Reply to this post

Back to top Alert abuse Link here Permalink


Response to ret5hd (Reply #4)

Wed Feb 10, 2021, 03:48 PM

6. This comment doesn't need to be here.

This is a fantastic post. You may belong on a “.win” with things like that to say.

Reply to this post

Back to top Alert abuse Link here Permalink


Response to cab67 (Original post)

Wed Feb 10, 2021, 03:42 PM

5. Not sure how far the analogy holds, but an interesting way to put things...

Politically, extremists usually get rooted out, either from within by the "gentler" methods you describe, or by the more violent external means vis-a-vis Germany in the 1st half of the 20th Century. Of course, they weren't completely destroyed, as witnessed by their resurgence here in the US and across Europe and around the world.

Reply to this post

Back to top Alert abuse Link here Permalink


Response to cab67 (Original post)

Wed Feb 10, 2021, 03:49 PM

7. K&R and thanks. nt

Reply to this post

Back to top Alert abuse Link here Permalink


Response to cab67 (Original post)

Wed Feb 10, 2021, 03:56 PM

8. Great post! Thank you. My money is on complete extinction

One factor that you must take into account is corporate support. No political party can fully function without corporate support or massive amounts of small donors.

As corporations become more diverse and socially aware, they're not going to continue to support a political party like the Republicans. The party's food source will evaporate.

We've seen this in CA where Republicans are practically extinct because they're completely out of touch with Californians.

Reply to this post

Back to top Alert abuse Link here Permalink


Response to cab67 (Original post)

Wed Feb 10, 2021, 04:45 PM

9. I very much enjoyed your post.

Last edited Wed Feb 10, 2021, 05:37 PM - Edit history (1)

I'm a nurse, and appreciate these aspects of evolutionary biology. Is there such a thing as a a primer for amateurs? I can't go back to college for another degree, but I think I'd enjoy reading more, especially the effects of behavior on physique and especially neurology.

As for the subject at hand, I suspect you are correct. The only exception I can think of is whether their belief system about politics and government will become so deeply ingrained that, like martyrs, they are willing to die (off) by not being able to attract more cultists. But I'm guessing the effects of social media will make more people disaffected, and prone to succumbing to the disease of this cult as it spreads online.

Thank you so much for posting.

Reply to this post

Back to top Alert abuse Link here Permalink


Response to cab67 (Original post)

Wed Feb 10, 2021, 05:24 PM

10. Thanks for the extrememly informative op!

Reply to this post

Back to top Alert abuse Link here Permalink


Response to cab67 (Original post)

Wed Feb 10, 2021, 05:24 PM

11. Thank you for an interesting and thought-provoking post!

To me, the most pressing evolutionary question isn't about the Republican party, it's about our U.S. society as a whole.

There have always been violent and reactionary elements among us, along with White Supremacists, racists, authoritarian followers, fantasists, nihilists, and assorted other types who are destructive to the progress and positive evolution of society.

And yes, the current iteration of the Republican party has happily embraced them all, and given them life and power, to a more pronounced degree than ever before.

However, no matter what happens to the R. party, those reactionaries and assorted regressives will still be with us, blighting our society with their toxicity.

What can evolutionary biology tell us about them?

Reply to this post

Back to top Alert abuse Link here Permalink


Response to cab67 (Original post)

Wed Feb 10, 2021, 05:34 PM

12. The Radical Republican Reich will use any means necessary to end democracy and take over.

Reply to this post

Back to top Alert abuse Link here Permalink


Response to cab67 (Original post)

Wed Feb 10, 2021, 05:45 PM

13. I think you are probably right except for one thing.

I do not believe we as a species will do nearly enough to stop or even slow down climate change. We will not become extinct, but our species will slowly die off until we again will be using less renewable resources than the Earth can provide. I am not saying that we must go back to the point where we lived in small tribal groups. We will still have the technology we need. I am not a scientist so I can not give how long things will take, I am just going by what I have learned about our species being over 70 years old.

Reply to this post

Back to top Alert abuse Link here Permalink


Response to marie999 (Reply #13)

Wed Feb 10, 2021, 07:00 PM

14. speaking as a scientist....

....we're hosed.

Reply to this post

Back to top Alert abuse Link here Permalink

Reply to this thread