Diversification as a strategy to survive

what can we learn from us?

Just recently I finished a book titled The Gene: an Intimate History by Siddharta Mukherjee. The book started by a touching stories about Dr. Mukherjee and his family history, that his gene is ‘tainted’ by abnormality. He has several family members with unusual mental conditions, and that may be printed in his gene as well.

The book wave a history of our understanding of the genes, starting as far back as Mendel, and even socrates. It then moving on to Darwin’s highly influencial “the origin of species”, and continued to the finished “the genome project”. To me who takes humanity’s understanding of genes and DNA for granted, the history of finding ourselves is really a great story to be told. There are so much to take from this book if you are like me, a non-biologist. The story of how we misused the knowledge (the times of eugenics), how we understand genetic illness, how we understand reproduction.

A disclaimer before we go: I am no biologist so please read with a grain of salt.

Why do we have sex?

As the highest, most complex being on the planet, humans use sex as a means to reproduce. To make a baby, two types of individuals will be needed: one who produce egg, and another who produce sperm. The sperm then swim with style to the place where egg resides, and then inject its content (which is just a DNA, i.e. a blueprint) to the egg.

The sperm literally only adds copies of father’s DNA to the egg. The rest of the ingredients are coming from the ladies. So yeah boys, your sperm is not contributing all that much.

In fact, according to Dr. Mukherjee, it will be much more efficient for humanity if the girls can do Parthenogenesis, an automatic development of egg with no fertilization. There’s no need to find mates, risking a girl to enter an abusive relationship, no need for rules to govern marriage. Sounds much better. (I mean Dr. Mukherjee presented a much better cases than marriage problem but that’s all that stuck in my head sorry)

It turns out, efficiency isn’t the main reason why the most complex being, top of the food chain, the homo sapies, evolved sexual reproduction as its main way to reproduce. The main reason is to increase diversity.

Parthenogenesis (and maybe other asexual reproduction) creates an exact copy of the parent. This is amazing if the parent is the best-individual in the world. Why highly limited human like me should live on this planet if a kind, rich, and smart person (like, maybe, Taylor Swift) can filled this planet with billions of talented individual, right? Population who are an exact copy of Ms. Swift would rule the world, and nobodies like me will not survive for very long. Moreover, why would Ms. Swift marries me and taints her offspring with my genes (or anyone really since she is the best in the world) if she can just multiply and retain her superior gene?

It will be much more efficient if every single humans in the world is highly talented, very intelligent, and superbly attractive. No covidiots, no shit politician, no narcisstic leaders. Right? Humanity will be highly efficient.

The problem with efficiency

The problem with having an exact copy of a species is that once anything bad happened to that individual, it will also happen to everyone else. Take, for example, thalassemia.

Thalassemia is a disorder caused by a mutated of a certain genes that causes a human to produce small blood cells. In a worse case, a person could be dead before he/she was born or would require a lifetime blood tranfussion. Nobody wants to be born with a mutated gene. However, It turns out a type of Thalassemia called Alpha Thalassemia protects a person from a killer disease, Malaria. Alpha Thalassemia is more common in people living in tropical countries (yes, including Indonesia) and would explain why Malaria was such a huge problem for colonisers.

Now imagine if every human in the world have a “good” gene. Maybe the world today would have been ruled by evolved cockroaches.

In other words, humanity (and other species, obviously) is saved because it invested in a developing sex as a mean for reproduction. It allows for mixing genes with others, creating a diverse humanity. People with “good” gene are only best equipped living in a “good” condition. Blind people is only “a disabled” in a situation where the earth is filled with light. Savants are lucky to be living in a world filled with data and numbers. Highly “fit” people have less worth in the world where heavy-lifting is done by machines.

The book really change the way we think about “normal”.

Perhaps mixing genes is not efficient. Diversifying our gene may cost us having to lose a certain “superiority” and become less “efficient”. However, it allows for a greater chance of survival. In a long run, it is better to be diverse than efficient. In other words, diversification is a strategy for a dynamic efficiency.

Static efficiency vs dynamic efficiency

Humans have this tendency to maximising everything, trying to reach maximum potential by sorting “the bad” out, and only opting “the good”. Search engines and recommendation algorithm direct us to webpages more “suitable” to our characteristics, making us further away from engaging in a diverse forums and dialogue. We always want our children married with the “best” candidate. Once we think we know how the world work, model it in our minds (and our computers), we will do a policy best fit with that model.

Of course there always the problem “all models are wrong”. But even if that model is right, we will never know whether it will always work. Had humans succeeded in deleting the Thalassemia mutation, maybe we all are dead by now from Malaria hundred of years ago. We are “normal” because the current world is suitable for “normal” people. We may need to invest in keeping “the freaks” alive.

The same adage exists in investing. You got that right: “never put the all your money in one basket”. If you have an idea of the best yielding investment, why would you not putting everything there? Why would you want to diversify? Unfortunately, we will never know what is the best yielding investment. Just like we will never know what kind of future we will have, what kind of virus, bacteria, or whatever disease can hurt humanity, what kind of world will exist in the future, we will never know. The best chance of survival is to diversify.

In international trade, critics are there for the Just-in-Time (JIT) delivery. That is, making sure warehouses are lean and efficient, relying on third or even fourth parties. Everyone aims for this static efficiency to compete. Unfortunately, when problem happens to one of their supply chain, the whole production jeopardized. This was true when Fukushima exploded, was true when Thailand got heavily flooded, was true when coronavirus hit.

Countries respond by turning inward. With many leaders thinking that they can no longer rely on other countries, they campaign nationalistic production. They want to produce everything.

Sadly, it will work in the opposite direction. Concentrating production in their own countries are also problematic, assuming that nothing will ever happen to their own countries. The key, instead, is to diversify, sourcing their needs to more than one countries, while at the same time supplying to more than one countries. We need to better understand production network, not shying away from it.

Humanity has taught us that diversifying, albeit not efficient, is better in the long run. Who are we to defy nature?

Krisna Gupta
Krisna Gupta

Dosen di Politeknik APP Jakarta. Juga mengajar di Program Pascasarjana Universitas Indonesia. Associate researcher di Center for Indonesian Policy Studies. Fokus penelitian tentang dampak kebijakan perdagangan dan investasi terhadap ekonomi Indonesia, terutama sektor manufaktur.

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