Tuesday, April 19, 2022

Death through Kindness.

A few months ago I had an early-morning breakfast with the CEO of one of my endlessly interesting clients.

I suppose because Holding Company agencies have abdicated intellect (intellect costs money and advertising-industry wages have been plummeting since the consolidation of Oligopoly control of the industry) I seem to attract the business of a lot of very complex companies.

These aren't soap manufacturers or hamburger chains. These are often companies with steep learning curves.

They most often deal with true innovation. Not changing the "gender" of Cracker Jack to Cracker Jill or, soon I suppose, Cracker Fluid. Assuming, of course, that the prenomen Cracker is not offensive as a slur to Lindsay Graham, Mitch McConnell, David Duke, Margery Taylor Greene and their merry band of white supremacists.

The man I was having breakfast with was a former big-wig at McKinsey and a professor at Yale Business School. He had more board affiliations than a large lumber yard and as it was the first time we were meeting, I was on my best behavior.

We were talking about business and I said something both reductive and I suppose, profound. 

"If you think about it," I pontificated, "science is really about vision. It's about seeing things--and therefore understanding them--that we couldn't see before. Like Leewenhouk and the microscope, like the original telescopes invented in the Muslim world, like the $10 billion Webb telescope, or even the voyages of discovery from Columbus on down, it's all about seeing things."

This CEO was roughly old enough to be my father. And, as I said, a very accomplished person.

He pushed himself away from the rickety table we were sitting at. (The more expensive the coffee, the more rickety the tables. That's not Raymond Chandler, but it could be.) 

He said, "You're not a scientist, are you?"

"I'm a copywriter," I reaffirmed.

"That's the best definition of science I have ever heard," he said. "I've never thought about it that way."

My sole advantage as a creative person is based on my vision. Not a Ted-Williams-like 'batting eye.' (It was said he had 20:10 vision--he was able to see at 20 feet what others could see at 10) but my ability to see things, turn things upside-down and notice things that other people seem to miss.

Much of that comes from my almost non-stop nose-in-bookedness. I read a pretty heavy book a week, and probably about ten book reviews. Book reviews are a good way to get a topline of some real intelligence in five minutes. I don't know why more people don't read them. Wordle I guess or Kardasianitis.

As I've said before, reading a good book is like spending 15 or 20 hours with a genius--or at least someone very knowledgeable about a particular subject you might never have thought of. I think it was the famed computer scientist Allen Kay who said, "a different perspective is worth 100 points of IQ." Reading gives me that perspective and on topics that I'd normally never consider. If your synapses are working well, you can find connections from things you might not ordinarily connect.

For instance, right now I'm in the middle of a tidepool in Scotland with the great writer Adam Nicolson, reading his book "Life Between the Tides." [NY Times review here.] Something struck me about sea urchins and life in the modern ad agency.

It seems to me, at least sometimes, that the HR-led enterprise has weeded out all conflict and attempted to replace that strain with "highly collaborative agitators," and "bridge builders." The alpha predators have been told to play nice. Fairness is the rule.

In fact, where David Ogilvy once said, "Talent, I believe, is best found among non-conformists, dissenters and rebels" today we seem more intent on inclusion and equity--not standing out and "winning" but cooperating and working together.

Back to Nicholson. He tells of a 1963 study by a scientist called Robert Paine conducted along the Washington coast. Paine's study revealed a complex community, in which seaweed was eaten by sea urchins, limpets, winkles and chitons. Coraline algae were eaten by chitons and anemones who were in turn eaten by whelks, starfish and sea stars. And so it goes in a dog-eat-dog or whelk-eat-whelk world.

A Pisaster ochraceus. (Ochre sea star)

"It was a ferocious and layered world, full of strife." With that, the experimenters asked an important question. What would happen to this community if the apex predators, the Pisaster (sea urchin) was removed.

In a short while, the community collapsed. Where there had previously been fifteen different species on that patch of shoreline, now there were eight. Diversity had halved. 

"In the absence of predation, the mussel had won. The experiment had shown that predation did not...diminish life, but had opened up opportunities for the variety of life to flourish." 

I realize I may well be excoriated for supporting the idea of "predation" in the workplace--a rough and tumble, knives-out competitiveness and combativeness. I realize today's a la mode is one of kindness and inclusion. 

But I wonder.

I wonder if kindness and inclusion necessitate the lowering of standards. For instance, if the National Basketball Association said "we need to be inclusive of slow, short, fat people who aren't athletic. It's exclusionary to keep them from playing," I would imagine interest in the game would drop considerably. 

"Starting at guard for the New York Knicks, Buddy Hackett."

I wonder if we by removing the human Pisasters from our offices if we've actually sullied life and diversity in what had been a multi-layered community.

This is not a cry for homogeneity. 

It's a question about if we have or have not considered the laws of unintended consequences. That by removing predators the world is, suddenly, less safe and less diverse.

I don't know.

I do know as humans are an animal it makes sense to look at the societal vagaries of other animals that may be more easily studied. Before I'd rush in and replace an old shibboleth--battle--with a new one--inclusion--I'd think long and hard about the effects of those decisions.

This is not to say I am for exclusion.

It is to say that much progress, at least in most of the natural world, is based on battle and that battle often begets order. We ought to be careful and think about what we're replacing it with.


If you'd like to read a bit of real science on this topic, here's a link.

And the article.


Could the fate of an ecosystem hinge on a single keystone gene?
In the 1960s, a scientist revolutionized ecology with the idea of keystone species that have an outsized effect on entire ecosystems. Now scientists say they have found a keystone gene.
April 6, 2022

In 1963, armed with a crowbar and curiosity, Robert Paine started an experiment that changed how we think about ecosystems. At a series of tide pools on the Washington coast, the young University of Washington ecologist pried up orange and purple starfish, Pisaster ochraceus, and hurled them into Mukkaw Bay.

The loss of that single species transformed the tidepools. Mussels that were a favorite food of the starfish took over, crowding out many other species. The insights led Paine to coin the term “keystone species” to describe a critical species that can determine the fate of an entire ecosystem, like the central keystone that keeps an arch from collapsing. The idea has played a pivotal role in understanding ecosystems, such as the way the eradication of wolves around Yellowstone National Park led to a surge in grazing by elk that wiped out willow populations and eroded stream ecosystems. It underscores, in an age of mass extinctions, how the loss of even a single species can wreak havoc.

Now, a group of scientists have taken the insight to even a smaller level. They’ve found what they call a keystone gene. While the results come from a laboratory, it underscores the potential ecological risks from the loss of biodiversity, even within a species.

“Our findings show that the current loss of genetic diversity may have cascading effects that lead to abrupt and catastrophic shifts in the persistence and functioning of terrestrial ecosystems,” says Matt Barbour, a researcher at University of Zurich in Switzerland who helped lead the research.

To see how subtle genetic differences within the same species might resonate through an entire ecosystem, scientists in Zurich and the University of California, Davis turned to a lab rat of the plant world, Arabidopsis thaliana, also known as mouse-ear cress or thale cress. The tiny, spindly plant with delicate flowers is often considered a weed and can be found sprouting from such unlovely places as the cracks in a sidewalk.

But for scientists, the hardy plant has several advantages. It is widely used in plant research as a model organism and has been dissected down to the genetic level. It is also a popular food among aphids, putting it at the bottom of a sequence of relationships between different species.

In this case, Barbour and the other researchers capitalized on these relationships by creating miniature ecosystems in small containers simplified to just four organisms: the plant, two aphids that feed on the plant, and a parasitic wasp that lays its eggs on aphids.

To test the effect of a single genetic change in the plant, they took four different strains of the Arabidopsis, each with a single difference in a part of its genetic code that influenced production of chemicals that can repel aphids. Each of those variants is found in nature as well. They then created 60 mini-ecosystems in small mesh-walled boxes, each with different combinations of plants.

All of these little worlds changed as the scientists followed their progress for roughly four months. In some cases, all the insects starved and vanished. In other cases, one of the two aphid species disappeared. In still others, the system gradually broke down until just the plant and an aphid species was left.

When the researchers sifted through the patterns of extinctions, one feature stood out. Ecosystems with a version of the plant in which a single gene (AOP2) was turned off were much less likely to witness an extinction. The extinction rate fell by 29% when a plant with the disabled AOP2 gene was present, the researchers reported last week in Science.

It turns out that in addition to being involved in production of plant-defense chemicals, the gene also influences the plant’s growth rate. With the gene inactivated, the plant grew faster, enabling it to better keep up with demands placed on it by the aphids, the researchers found.

While a controlled laboratory is a far cry from the messy world and its intricate food webs, the researchers note their findings show that even a difference in a single gene can have far-reaching consequences.

The findings demonstrate the potential importance of combing genetic and ecological tools for understanding how genetic changes might influence the fate of ecosystems, the authors write, It also underscores the dangers of losing genetic variation within a species as its numbers shrink, or the potential for impacts from introducing organisms with a genetic tweak that turns out to be significant. That gene, after all, could turn out to be a keystone much like Paine’s starfish.

Barbour, et. al. “A keystone gene underlies the persistence of an experimental food web.” Science. Mar. 31, 2022.

Image: ©Anthropocene Magazine

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