What goes on when the pressure's off

Like evolution, life runs on pressure, pushing and pulling us in different directions. Would a world without tension even work at all? 

 
 Illustration by  Sarah Nagorcka

Illustration by Sarah Nagorcka

 

This is an editorial for Issue 14 by Lateral deputy editor-in-chief Nicola McCaskill, who crumbles under the pressure of choosing an ice cream flavour, and whose personality is at least 85% vestigial traits.

This month, we’re focusing on evolution — that needlessly controversial little process that gives rise to every single molecule, organism and species we know and love.

You’re surely familiar with the idea of evolutionary or selective pressure — when something that makes an organism more or less likely to reproduce drives natural selection to do its thing. We can look at plants and animals, past and present, and clearly see what traits the biological pressure cooker of evolution has served up: like fennec foxes with their adorable, heat radiating ears; flowers that look particularly attractive to bees; marine mammals such as the dugong (aka the cow of the sea); and science journalists with all their charisma and sparkling personalities.

There is, of course, a flip side: what qualities remain simply because of a lack of selective pressure? Evolution leaves behind all kinds of useless, vestigial traits that serve no purpose but don’t do much harm, either. Like the tiny flightless wings on a bird who has nowhere to go, or the practically blind eyes on moles and fish who have nothing to see, the way we are can be as much a result of what doesn’t make us worse, as opposed to what makes us better.

When it comes to humans, we’re full of useless things — ranging from the benign (goose bumps; the muscles in your ears) to the pointless and potential pain in the ass (all four of my stupid wisdom teeth). The only reason they’re still there is because there’s no particularly good reason for them not to be.

I think it’s worth considering how a lack of selective pressure could impede our progress in the ways we actually do science. How many things are the way they are simply because there hasn’t been a good enough reason to change?

For instance, I wonder a lot about women in science — about what, specifically, it will take to achieve equality (or perhaps equity is a more useful aim) for anyone working in the field, regardless of gender (or of anything else, for that matter). There’s no doubt we have made some admirable gains: a continued push to encourage girls towards STEM degrees has helped, and women now represent more than half of graduates in some (but certainly not all) STEM fields. But science has been a distinctly male arena for hundreds of years, and women working or studying in their field can still feel this acutely, with far too many leaving far too soon after all that well-intended affirmative action and encouragement got them there in the first place.

All the while, science is still progressing — winning grants, finding answers, solving problems — while the whole sexism issue hangs around on the side, like a vestigial tail that is useful for absolutely nothing, only we haven’t had a good enough reason to get rid of it yet. I can’t pretend to know what the solution to this is, apart from continuing to passionately work at creating and improving opportunities and outcomes for women in science, and relentlessly challenging the ways the STEM sphere continues to fail women. But I do wonder if what we really need is some drastic mechanism of change to force us to evolve our way out of this seemingly never-ending, pseudo-intellectual, highly masculinised academic dudebro phase.

Similarly, growing the reach of science communication has often seemed a painstakingly slow process; maybe because, to a lot of people and organisations, it hasn’t ever seemed absolutely vital. The simple objective of informing the public about science is not enough to drive all scientists to communicate their work, or encourage the public to engage with it. But building pressure to communicate strategically and effectively, to make an impact (and maybe gain more funding), and a desire to defend science from misunderstanding, is now driving more scientists to develop their communication skills and share their work.

On a perhaps more abstract level, I feel strongly that a little pressure in life can be a wonderful and valuable thing. Just like I am apparently incapable of completing an editorial until I can physically feel the deadline weighing heavily on my conscience, diamonds are indeed made under pressure, and so are useful adaptations and also every proper decision I’ve ever made. A little breathing room can be nice, and we all need to spread our flightless wings from time to time, but you never really know what you can improve on until you’re forced to find out.

Last month marked one entire year of publication for Lateral Magazine, and… well, what an evolution it’s been (sorry). As always, the editorial pressure’s been on our writers to grow some new and even more refined articles for your reading pleasure — from evolution in dinosaurs to the evolution of language, from adaptation on Earth to the evolution of the universe itself.