What Color is Your Beard? Mine is Green.

St Patrick's Day Green BeardWell, I should have known better than to diss Richard Dawkins in a previous essay, although I don’t think saying that I’m uncomfortable with his confrontational style of atheism is really dissing. I doubt very much that it would bother him if he knew that his style isn’t my style. But because one of my most trustworthy critics was upset by the comment, I’ll make Geekdaddy the Nameless Critic happy by writing about a subject that is near and dear to Richard Dawkins’s heart – or maybe his mind.

Beards. Well, to be more specific, green beards. And if I may take this a bit further, let’s slide right into slime molds with green beards. Daughter and Son and I have recently been exploring this subject, because it’s slime mold season in Maine. (Other states get to have Cherry Blossom season, Cheesemaking Month and Raspberry Festivals to celebrate spring. In Maine, we know it’s spring when we have to replace all the fly strips because they’re full, we can’t sleep for the caterwauling of lovesick porcupines in the tops of pine trees and can’t take three steps without slipping in what looks like dog vomit, but is, in fact, slime mold. Tra la la.)

I would like to say that our slime molds all have green beards, but that would be a lie and Richard Dawkins would probably come down on me like a load of bricks, followed by hate mail from E.O. Wilson (one of my favorite science writers, by the way) and the shades of W.D. Hamilton and Stephen Jay Gould. As I’m sure you know, only some slime molds have green beards and even those that do only have figurative green beards, so you may wonder why I even bring up the subject.

Actually, at this point in this article, I’m starting to wonder why I brought up the subject, which seemed so straightforward when I started writing the darned thing. Well, let’s start with altruism and its place in evolution, which is what my kids and I were delving into slime molds after, so to speak. We all know that altruism is that quality which makes parents run back into burning buildings to rescue their kids, turns bystanders into good samaritans, and got David Crosby his liver transplant. (Well, being rich and famous probably didn’t hurt, but the person who donated the organ, or his or her family, was altruistic.)

It’s understandable that parents would save their children and that siblings would save their siblings, because it would help insure that their “kin”, people who contain their genetic material, their genes, would be more likely to survive. But why do strangers, the good samaritans and organ donors, help other people, often risking their lives to do so? How does that further the chances of their genes floating to the top of the gene pool?

That’s where the greenbeards come in. W. D. Hamilton, the British evolutionary theorist, originated the concept. Richard Dawkins, in his book, The Selfish Gene used a hypothetical example in which having a green beard is a marker that lets individuals with a gene for cooperation recognize others with the same gene. So, to quote Dawkins, ” the greenbeard gene (or genes) must do three things: establish a signal (the green beard), enable recognition of others that share the signal, and promote cooperative behavior towards other greenbeards.”

What can this possibly have to do with slime molds, you ask? Plenty! The individual cells that make up slime molds usually just mooch around by themselves, digesting cellulose and minding their own business. But when a crisis arises, when their moisture source dries up or the supply of wood runs out, the individual slime mold cells that are cooperative and altruistic exude a protein (cAMP, if you must know) that other altruistic slime mold cells can follow.

Gradually, as more and more slime mold cells follow this trail, a “slug” of slime molds forms and actually begins to move like a single organism, as it searches for a source of light. When it reaches it, the “slug” cells change to form a fruiting body that rises on a stalk to discharge spores into the new environment, where they will likely form new cells. Then the “stalk” dies.

If you’re not thoroughly knackered by reading this harrowing description of life and death at the cellular level, you may want to pursue the subject on a slightly higher plane on Google where lizards often get into it. I will warn you though, that things get more complicated and several new colors are introduced when you bring lizards into the equation. But the central tenet holds true. In lizards, slime molds, and probably in humans, nature tries to filter out the less-altruistic members of society with mixed success, as far as I can tell. I’d say that Nature needs to concentrate on the Washington, DC area a little more, or at least on the human population in seats of power there, but as far as I know, most of the Capitol-area slime molds are still giving each other a leg up (or I guess I should say, a pseudopod up) just like they’re supposed to.

So what did my kids learn from all this? Well, they didn’t write reports, but apparently it made a deep impression on them, because they’ve both been talking about it and noticing examples of altruism in animals and people. It’s led to many a trip to the bookcase to check out something in our science reference books and Daughter was going to draw slime molds but gave up when they all came out looking like blobs. It did me no good to remind her that they are blobs. Artists are so temperamental.

Dawkins, Gould and Hamilton all got looked up in Wikipedia and we’ll be taking out some of their books from the library tomorrow. We broadened our knowledge of evolution, cells and simple organisms and how nature recycles plant and animal material. We’ve had many lunchtime discussions about how belief or lack of it affects scientists and the way they look at the world. In short, we’ve wrung about as much out of slime molds as we can and will probably be leaving them behind for more evolved organisms like bacteria. (Heady stuff!)

And to think that it all started when Daughter slipped in the leaves and said, “Oh crap, the dog threw up and I just stepped in it.” It really is true. Everyday is an adventure with Unschooling.

About Lill Hawkins

My two home schoolers have left the nest to pursue college, but that doesn't mean that Geekdaddy and I have sunk into boredom. He's still talking to his tomato plants and I'm still talking to people who wear wooden cups around their necks on a string and overhearing conversations that would make a sailor blush at restaurants. Thank goodness or what would I write about with the kids gone?
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