Chaos theory is the idea that small changes in initial conditions result in vast differences in the final outcome. For instance, a butterfly flapping its wings could result in a hurricane forming several weeks later. Weather can be considered to be ‘chaotic’ as small fluctuations in atmospheric conditions can build up into large weather effects over time. This makes it impossible to predict more than a few weeks in advance, and for weather forecasting to be unreliable.
So how is it that climate change, which is essentially how average weather changes over time, can be predicted 50 years or so into the future when weather can barely be predicted 5 weeks? If they are so closely linked, how is our ability to predict each so radically different?
Although weather is chaotic, climate is not. In the same sense that although we are unable to predict the age at which a specific man will die, we can make reasonably accurate predictions as to the average age at which 100 or so men will die, and how this will change over time if we look at statistics on eating habits and changes in public health. We can measure many of the factors that affect climate change, most significantly the atmospheric conditions, and how these are likely to change over time, and are therefore able to make predictions into the future.
Yet chaos still does not mean randomness. Seemingly chaotic systems can show recurring patterns emerging, a famous one being the golden ratio. In flower petals, pine cones, shells, hurricanes and even spiral galaxies, these seemingly random formations show this Fibonacci sequence. Even at a microscopic level, the DNA molecule measures 34 angstroms long by 21 angstroms wide for each full cycle of the double helix spiral. These two numbers are in the Fibonacci sequence, with their ratio closely approximating Phi (the golden ratio).
When we are born, we have an innate ability to swim, yet this is lost and a much more advanced swimming ability is developed. This skill can develop twice in our life, an initial simpler version to cope with immediate needs, and a more matured version when we have the mental capacity to learn it.
This is mirrored in how we learn to understand others; how their thoughts, feelings and desires may be different to our own. For a long time it was believed that it is not until around the age of 4 that we develop this ability, known as theory of mind, and is tested using the Sally Anne test. In the Sally Anne test, the doll ‘Sally’ doesn’t see where the doll ‘Anne’ has moved a ball to and the child has to say where Sally will look for it. This requires the child to understand that what Sally knows about the position of the ball is different to what they know, and therefore that sally will look for the ball where it was before Anne moved it.
Yet more recent studies have shown that babies as young as 15 months possess theory of mind, and are capable of understanding the Sally Anne test. This is because we know that babies look for longer at things that surprise them, and when Sally looked for the ball where she hadn’t seen it placed, the babies stare for longer, showing that they were surprised that Sally knew where the ball was.
This suggests that we have a dual system for attributing mental states to others, one an automatic intuitive system for making gut decisions, and a second with flexibility that we develop at a later stage. Studies like these give much more credit to our gut instincts over our conscious decision-making processes, and so we should listen to our gut more often.
The gradual adaption to life on land was a milestone in evolution, and can be largely attributed to the evolution of eggs in reptiles and birds.
Firstly, let’s look back to one step before reproduction became fully independent of water. Amphibians, although able to live on land once adults, are limited to areas containing water for reproduction. This is due to the spawning of their eggs, with external fertilisation, making the eggs very susceptible to desiccation.
Reptiles, however, have eggs contained within an eggshell, reducing water loss. The egg also shows a number of other advances, such as a substantial food supply (the yolk), and internal fertilisation. This enabled the domination of the terrestrial environment, with few other competitors.
The evolution of the egg, and how its advances shaped the development of life on land, still begs the question: what came first, the chicken or the egg?
We must first define an ‘egg’. Egg laying animals obviously existed long before the chicken so technically the egg came first but in this context, we are referring to a chicken egg. But secondly, we must define a chicken egg. Is a chicken egg an egg produced from a chicken or an egg containing a chicken?
Eggs produced by a chicken require a protein, known as OV-17, which is only found in chicken ovaries; therefore you can’t produce a chicken egg without a chicken. However, new species are formed from small genetic mutations over thousands of generations, and these must occur in the zygote. A creature (let’s call it a proto-chicken) very similar to a chicken produced an egg which, due to a small genetic mutation, developed into the first chicken. Therefore the first chicken hatched from the egg of the proto-chicken, and the egg came first. Although you could argue that this egg was not a chicken egg, no one mutation could constitute a new species.
Despite this question still being an on-going debate, it does provide some food for thought over breakfast.
In 2006 Shinya Yamanaka, a japanese physician and researcher of adult stem cells, generated iPS cells from human adult fibroplasts. This breakthrough was a result of identifying the 4 key genes involved in reverting the specialised fibroplast cells to a more pluripotent state: Oct4, Sox2, Klf4 and c-Myc.
By using vector molecules to carry the extra DNA into the fibroplast, where they were switched on using chemical treatments or electrical impulses, they started to produce proteins that caused the cells to become iPS cells. From these iPS cells they were able to reprogram the cells into the three major tissue types from which all organs of the mammalian body are formed: ectoderm, mesoderm and endoderm.