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SYFY WIRE evolution

Déjà vu? Things appear again and again in nature because of evolution 

Yes, you are seeing that again...and again...for a reason.

By Elizabeth Rayne
Liz Pink echeveria succulent GETTY

Go outside (you should anyway because your brain needs it). Look around. Now really look around. See how everything repeats over and over?

From micro to macro, forms in nature are constantly on replay. They evolved to be almost endless for a reason. Evolution favors simpler structures with simple genetic algorithms, or instructions, because they are much less likely to get lost in translation. This is what researchers Iain Johnston and Ard Louis of Oxford University, who coauthored a study in PNAS, believe has kept certain biological structures around for millions, even billions of years.

“The elemental parts of biology are likely to take simple structures,” Johnston and Lewis told SYFY WIRE. “But that doesn't mean that their interactions and consequential behavior at the cellular and organism levels can't give rise to the complexity we see around us.”

Meaning, structures like DNA, RNA, and proteins are simple compared to an entire organism. You are a walking mashup of simple structures that have combined into more complex structures many times over, kind of like fractals. Take the succulent above. Fractality is the phenomenon of patterns within patterns within patterns (this is starting to sound like Dune here, but hang on). Zoom in, and you see one leaf. Back away, you see one succulent made of those leaves, and further back, several succulents in a formation that mirrors the individual. Eerie.

Think about it. Say you were building a model spaceship. Would you rather have simple instructions for building modules that are exactly the same, which you would then put together to form larger ones until you finished the entire thing? Or would you want to go through nearly indecipherable instructions for each smaller structure? Unless you’re the masochistic type, you probably would prefer not to torture yourself and go off of instructions that make the process easier.

The same can be said for evolution — it doesn't want a headache. This might explain why things with 10 arms and other bizarre creatures that emerged in prehistoric seas have only survived as fossils.

“During the Cambrian Explosion, this bewildering diversity of weird organism body plans appears in the fossil record — then dies out,” the researchers said. “It is true that more complex algorithms are typically less robust to perturbations such as a random mutation.”

Phenotypes (observable features that arise from genes) that are simple just hold up better. Evolution prefers modularity, which happens when separate parts evolve on their own and come together to form more organisms, much like all those identical modules come together to form that hypothetical model spaceship. This also explains why there is more mutational robustness in simple phenotypes. They are less likely to be warped and end up mutating because they are made of multiple sets of simple instructions rather than one complicated set for each part.

With individual parts that are stronger, it is easier for them to evolve more functions, such as mechanisms that bind proteins, without sabotaging themselves. More robustness can also mean a higher chance of new phenotypes forming because of cryptic genetic variation. Anywhere there is unexpressed genetic potential, there is cryptic variation, so while something might be hidden in the depths of an organism’s genes, it might show up in the next generation. If you don’t look anything like either of your parents but like your grandparents, you can probably relate.

So if evolution prefers the types of simple structures that create fractals, could this further explain why fractals out in nature are what the brain prefers to see?

“This could be a very deep link,” said the researchers. “Fractal structures like ferns and trees are a perfect example of a simple algorithm emerging in biology — a developmental motif repeated over and over.”