Needless grapes

It took nature more than a billion years since the Earth was born to devise a mechanism for trapping Sun’s energy. This made life in the ocean self-sufficient. Then around half a billion years ago, it delegated the responsibility to plants and animals to carry life forward. To uncharted territories. Plants marched towards the land. Animals came along.

Passing the baton from generation to generation, life kept on conquering territories. There was a big deterrent on land though. In water based plants, male sperms swim to meet the female egg for fertilization. The fertilized egg then needs water to germinate. Water wasn’t as readily available on land as in the ocean. The very core of life’s survival – reproduction – was under threat.

After struggling for another 100 million years, nature invented pollens that carried the male sperms to the female egg using the wind. A neat strategy to overcome dependence on water. Sperms in the pollen and egg fertilize to produce seed which then germinates into a new plant on wet ground.

Now what if there’s not enough wind to carry pollens? Nature looked around and saw insects. They were feeding on pollen-bearing organs with no apparent benefit to the plant. Why not use these freeloaders to carry pollens? But they needed to be tricked into doing so. Thus came about one of the most effective innovations of nature – a rare combination of beauty and utility – flowers. Their colours and fragrance attracted the insects. They found nectar in there which they fed on unaware that the plants quietly loaded pollens onto them while they were busy feeding. This was a huge relief. Plants no longer needed to depend on natural agents – water or wind – to transport sperms to eggs. Reproduction was back on in full swing.

With plants going to far away places via this newfound reproductive strategy, a new challenge surfaced. The seeds that were produced as a result of fertilization still needed water to germinate. How do you carry the seed to wet grounds?

The plants went for the tried-and-tested strategy. They added an enticing structure called fruit around the seed. Again, it was not just a marketing ploy full of colours and fragrance. It did have value proposition too in the form of food. Many birds and mammals fell for it and inadvertently participated in dispersal of seeds.

And then came to this world a bipedal animal with specially modified thumb to easily pick fruits. This gave him advantage over other creatures. He did not however stop at helping the cause of plants by dispersing the seeds. He used the advantageous grip to pick and throw stones and other tools at fellow animals. He then began consuming the seeds on a large scale. Worse, he even invented seedless grapes!

Why this sexpensive business?

Sex is expensive. At a minimum, it requires persons of opposite gender to come together. It may superficially seem to be a non-issue because for every female, there is a male around (well almost). But it does take quite a lot for a person from Venus and another from Mars to come to a meeting place on Earth. Yet getting together is just the beginning. They must then like each other to begin a meaningful conversation that could lead them further. Thereafter they need to love each other. It demands a lot of effort to impress one another. Too much energy goes in singing, dancing, feeding, eating, gift buying, villain-bashing, showing off beauty and strength, chatting (love letters in the past), and so on. All done. Then each of the lovers need to shun the competition. Because signalling does not discriminate between individuals of the opposite gender. Ask a plant which spends so much energy producing flowers with all their visual beauty and fragrance and then gets a bunch of freeloader insects who would not assist with pollination. Is it all worth it?

The above para was intended for fun. But there is a huge scientific cost too to this whole business of sex. Finding mates is a huge biological/ecological problem. Then there are costs associated with the fundamental sexual process of cell division – meiosis. Unlike mitosis (cloning) which finishes in under 2 hours usually, the sexual cell division of meiosis takes much longer to finish. If a female were to self-reproduce, she could pass all of her genetic material to the offspring and not just half. And then, ecologically speaking, half of the progeny in the form of males would not need to be produced at all. Why even bring these un(re)productive beings to life just to eat up resources?

What on Earth then are the benefits of sexual reproduction that the nature has preferred this mode over cloning? Well, that is one of the trickiest questions which the scientific world is yet to find a satisfactory answer to.

Cloning would produce the same individual every generation with the exception of cases affected by mutation. Does sexual reproduction enable life to stay ahead in the arms race with the villain who wants to disrupt life? By disturbing the pattern of life form just a little every generation? Making every eukaryotic individual unique? So that the villain cannot come up with a strategy based on its understanding of the earlier generation? And under this ever changing guise, life quietly goes a step further? But who is this ‘villain’? Even harder question is: who or what is this ‘life’?

With science, every answer leads to further questions, no?

Two sigmas ruin the bell curve

Campus of a premier national institute in India in the nineties. It was dark. Sounds of some people stomping next to the hostel building followed by glass shattering broke the eerie silence. There was a sudden surge of activity in the ground floor wing and everyone came out of their rooms. It was first year Science post-graduate students’ wing. Soon their seniors emerged from the upper floors. An extraordinary general meeting followed. It was a war-like situation. An Engineering graduate student had attacked the room of a Science post-graduate student.

It was not a personal feud. A full-blown inter-caste war it was. The echoes of which were felt decades later when the Engineering almuni left out the Science post-graduates from the celebration of 25 years of graduation. Such deep rooted was the strife.

Chevron fold at Ulverstone, Tasmania in December 2016

Superficial cause: Engineering students who held the majority decreed that a second year Engineering student was equivalent in ‘campus social status’ to a first year Science student. The right of ragging (hazing) a Science post-graduate fresher came with it.

Deep cause: An Engineering candidate was superior to a Science graduate because, ha, no brilliant student in his right senses would do a Science graduation ahead of Engineering and Medicine. So yeah, notwithstanding an altogether different discipline, Science graduates represented an inferior ‘caste’ and needed to be treated as such.

A classic case of conflict due to combined effects of majority-minority dichotomy and social stratification it was. One hopes the current generation is more sensible and that things are much better now.

Call it race, caste, tribe, religion, institutional loyalty, nationalistic pride, geographic superiority or “phylumbaazi” (a colloquial term frequently in use in the region) – excessive invocation by these groups of collective entitlement of their members render them nothing more than refuges of mediocrity. For people who do that are not contributors to the value of the group, but are exploiters of the current value. This applies as much to the “superior” group as to the “inferior” group. Fundamentally they are doing the same. One wants to continue to get the benefits by victimising others for the current perceived superiority of its group, and the other wants to continue to get the benefits of being the victim. None is bothered about the declining perceived value of their respective groups because of their frequent stake at entitlements.

True value-adders of either group do not need benefits of perception. On the other extreme, the bottom-dwellers of either group are content with what they have. It’s the mediocre people in the group who stake a claim to the cake without actually contributing to its making. Unfortunately, the statistical bell curve ensures that such mediocre people will be in the majority. So in the end whether this majority follow the value-adders or dictate their terms onto them determines the merits of the group. It’s not hard to see then why true value-adders sometime leave a group they naturally belong to.

We see people seeking entitlements for various reasons, often at the expense of true merit. One common scenario is: we stuffed it up and are now entitled to prevent others from stuffing it up further. Yet another: we once studied head-down-bum-up to acquire this highly coveted qualification or get into this universally revered institution and now will reap benefits for the rest of our lives. Or: we were treated unfairly when we were new and now that we have reached this position of dictating terms, why should the freshers have it easy? Or simply, we are the sons of the soil and therefore entitled to chew up all the resources here without being accountable to anyone. Whatever the cause, such claims of entitlements have one thing in common – the rhetoric usually comes from the mediocre in the business. And when they seek to extend such entitlements for their offspring, the caste comes in handy.