An Arms Race with a difference

In a previous post I discussed how ‘evolutionary intelligence’ inadvertently works towards cooperation and coexistence in the process of ensuring survival of each species. In contrast to this we do find cases where evolution does just the opposite. In order to survive and sustain, species could be seen to compete very hard and even trample upon each other if there is no other choice. The competition is so intense in such instances that biologists refer to it by a colourful phrase ‘arms race'(I think it was Richard Dawkins who coined this colourful expression in the context of biology).
I will take a couple of examples by way of illustration:
Let us consider the case of forest trees. If one examines the forest trees,one can see quite clearly that they are strikingly tall. If one takes an aerial view,the tree tops may be seen to form a canopy. It is as if they are competing with each other to touch the skies. Yes,indeed – they are competing in evolutionary time,that is,over millions of years.(not in real time). To elaborate,the trees evolve and develop the ability to grow taller and taller over millions of years of time.

What or why,on earth are they competing? The answers are very simple and interesting. They are competing for getting access to solar energy which is the only source of energy for plants. The leaves are the most ancient solar cells ever invented(about one billion years ago). The leaves harvest solar energy with the help of what is known as ‘Chloroplast’ within and convert it to sugar so vital for their survival and growth. (One theory has it that chloroplast was a freely wandering green bacteria billions of years ago and were later hijacked by plants and imprisoned in the leaves for the purpose of harvesting solar energy).
Obviously,in a thick and dense forest, trees will have to vie with each other in order to reach the topmost point and capture solar energy. However,this is an unproductive sort of competition in the sense that the energy harvested is used up for the most unproductive purpose of growing tall. If only there were to be a pact among the trees saying they all would grow no more than,say,6feet high,they all could use the energy conserved for more constructive purposes like,say,making the stem stronger or whatever else).

Another example of such an ‘arms race’ found in nature is that of the prey and the predator – each trying to outrun the other(in evolutionary time). Here again there is no other choice except to compete for survival. In fact the competition is within the species of the prey – not with the predator species.
The comparison with arms race, as we understand today, is misplaced in my opinion. This race is very much different from what we find among humans. Among humans it is based on greed,mistrust,ego etc. In nature it is the ultimate consequence of having exhausted all possibilities for survival and then adopting the the only choice available for the survival of the species. This conclusion is based on the fact of evolution. Evolution,by definition,means that species would have to try out all options by trial and error over long evolutionary period and selected the only option which we describe as ‘arms race’.
Thus the most important message that nature teaches us is that we should first explore obvious options of coexistence(like flowers and bees)and resort to competition and fight only when all else fails in the game of self preservation.

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Published in: on June 6, 2010 at 9:44 am  Comments (1)  
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One CommentLeave a comment

  1. great post again…please keep writing…


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