Are you on the bus?

“You’re either on the bus or off the bus” – Ken Kesey, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test

To paraphrase William Shakespeare, “to be (part of something larger) or not to be (part of something larger), that is the question!”

Evolution is often defined by changes in genes, or changes in the information that is stored in our DNA. But evolutionary jumps, or “revolutions,” happen when there are changes in how information is stored. It’s one thing to switch from spinning records by John Coltrane to Ani DeFranco. It’s another to jump from listening to records to cassette players to DVDs and then to digital bits of information stored in the cloud. Both processes represent change. But the former represents evolving musical tastes and the latter a revolution in how we interact with music.

Mitochondria were once free-living single-celled organisms, possibly purple non-sulphur bacteria, that jumped on the bus of another early bacterial lineage, leading to the emergence of larger, more complex cells. Genetic material, or information, is found in multiple places in these cells, in organelles (such as the mitochondrial powerhouses of the cell) as well as in nuclei.

Getting everybody to play well together is important to making these jumps. You and I are multi-celled organisms that started as single cells, created from the union of an egg and sperm from our parents. If you have ever thrown your hands up in disgust, declaring how you would rather do the work yourself (e.g., a high school chemistry lab), you can appreciate the challenges in going from one cell to trillions. But by starting as a single cell, each cell in our body is genetically identical. Our cells are not competing to jump forward a generation by becoming part of the sperm or egg line or specializing on some task that is an evolutionary dead end, such as being an eye, skin, or tongue cell.

There are some organisms, such as sponges, that become multi-cellular when cells of different genetic lineages combine. But these organisms don’t have the same degree of cellular specialization as in our bodies because no cell wants to be left out. If you are part of a slime mold aggregation getting ready to fruit, do you want to have everybody standing on your head or do you want to ride the elevator to the top of the fruiting body to get your genetic material waving freely in the breeze? In this scenario the losers literally get left behind, as does any gene promoting altruism or cooperation.

Beyond complex cells and multi-cellular organisms, other examples of major jumps in evolution include ant colonies and human societies. In jumping from studying ant colonies to helping organize a field station (RMBL) and small town (Crested Butte), I’ve moved from studying complexity to being an active participant, struggling with the inevitable conflicts but finding joy in the collective successes.

The adjoining article profiles Erik Hulm, RMBL’s Director of Institutional Advancement, occasional driver of the bus, and facilitator of the emergence of RMBL’s collective consciousness, known more drily in corporate circles as a “strategic plan.” RMBL is revolutionizing science by how we knit together the work of individual scientists, generating insights that transform how we see the world. Whether you specialize in collecting, analyzing, or funding field data, you are part of something much larger!

Perhaps for the first and last time to see these references in the same sentence, you can learn more about this revolutionary topic from The Major Evolutionary Transitions by Eörs Szathmáry and John Maynard Smith (1995), and I’ll acknowledge the sharp-eyed mammalogists who observed from last month’s column that while a marmot gets the shout-out in the Big Lebowski, it was actually a ferret that made the appearance.