Natural Science & Mathematics Colloquium: Jordan Price


On Wed. Feb. 8, Jordan Price, Professor of Biology here at St. Mary’s College of Maryland, spoke at the second Natural Science and Mathematics Colloquium of the spring semester. Price is an evolutionary biologist and behavioral ecologist and has taught at St. Mary’s since 2002. In 2015, Price became a Steven Muller Distinguished Professor of Science.

His talk was titled “Life in the Matrix: The Hidden Agents Behind the Evolution of Our World and Why We Fail to See Them.” Price said that “understanding evolution is not just about learning facts, [but] it is also about seeing the facts from a new perspective.” Price invited his audience to choose to look at evolution from a new perspective with him by offering audience members to choose to eat a blue “pill” (jellybean) or a red “pill,” similar to the Matrix movie when Morpheus gave Neo the choice between the two colored pills. Swallowing the blue pill means nothing changes; you continue seeing the world and everything around you as before. But if you choose to take the red pill, you learn the awful truth about how the world really works and begin to see everything around you from a new perspective.

Presumably, the audience swallowed the red pills, and Price began to show his audience evolution from a new perspective. “We have preconceptions about how we see the world,” Price said. “We look for facts to support them or not, but [we] can use the same facts to view the world in different ways.”

First, Price went over how we see the world and evolution. When thinking of evolution, one oftentimes thinks of Darwin and his theory of natural selection. We know that organisms have different traits and that those traits are heritable. Some individuals are more successful than the others and live longer and leave more descendants. Those organisms are said to have a higher biological fitness: the ability to survive and produce offspring.

On the other hand, there are some heritable traits that actually decrease an organism’s biological fitness. There are “selfish” genes that can manipulate meiosis and cause meiotic drive. In stalk-eyed flies these genes kill all Y-chromosome bearing sperm and cause the entire population to become female. There are also altruistic genes; these genes cause individuals to give an alarm call when danger is near to warn their relatives. This alarm decreases the individual’s biological fitness and oftentimes results in the individual’s death. There are also genes which cause populations to cooperatively breed. Individuals don’t all breed and reproduce themselves, but help to raise other individuals’ offspring.

Why do these genes evolve and become prevalent in populations? “How could such traits evolve if they lower the fitness of the individuals who carry them?” Price asked the group. We just said that populations evolve in order for individuals to live longer and reproduce more. These heritable genes which are being passed on seem to directly contradict this fact which is widely accepted by the scientific community.

But perhaps we need to look at this information as if we were Neo, having just swallowed the red pill. Organisms and genes usually have similar interests to increase an individual’s biological fitness, but not always. “When genes and organisms have different interests, the genes’ interests always win,” Price said. The genes interest is to be copied and increase in prevalence throughout the population. If we had swallowed the blue pill and seen life how we always have, we think that genes are what organisms use to reproduce themselves, but if we look at the facts from the new perspective that the red pill has given us, we see that organisms are being used by the genes to reproduce themselves.

“It is a very difficult thing for us to accept,” Price said. “It’s like Neo in The Matrix trying to accept what he is learning about the world. [This] simple change in perspective conveys an entirely different idea. Genes are successful if they cause us to replicate them, not because they [necessarily] benefit us in any other way,” Price said in conclusion. “Their successes do not always coincide with our successes.”

So do we use genes and the information they encode, or are they really using us?