Fish sex and personal identity

Meditations on biology’s Red Queen Hypothesis through the lens of personhood

Will Nelson, Senior Columnist

Picture this: a parasite is introduced to two different populations of the same species of fish, each living in separate, almost identical pools. After several years, one of the populations is covered in black spots and is rapidly dying off, while the other seems almost unaffected. What happened?

The key difference between populations is that one of them has sex. 

The Mexican Poeciliid fish has two distinct variations–one that reproduces sexually, and one that reproduces clonaly. It was the pond with the sexually reproducing fish that was able to survive the parasite. With the exchange of genetic information and the recombination of genes that accompanies sex, they were able to develop a biological defense against the offending parasite more quickly than the fish who simply clone themselves.

What does this have to do with identity and personhood? Worry not, I’ll get to that.

This study, performed by a team of scientists including Robert Vrijenhoek, was one of many that have helped to cement the Red Queen Hypothesis as a legitimate theory in the scientific community. 

At its most simple, the Red Queen Hypothesis states that organisms never stop evolving because other organisms–competitors, predators, parasites etc.–are also evolving alongside them. It’s a biological arms race that’s endured since the beginnings of life itself.

The hypothesis’ name comes from a line in Lewis Carroll’s “Into the Looking Glass”, when Alice is running a race in the Red Queen’s garden but is unable to move anywhere, no matter how fast she runs.

“It takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place,” says the Queen. So it is with organisms, constantly adapting to remain one step ahead of the other. 

The hypothesis answers the question that lonely scientists locked away in their labs have pondered for centuries; why have sex when cloning is so much more efficient?

It turns out that it’s the most effective way to exchange genes, thus giving organisms that sought after evolutionary edge. 

I don’t recommend using that line in bed… maybe if they’re a bio major, they’re into that kind of thing. 

The implications of this result also effectively reduce the role of males in any population to a mere vessel for carrying genetic information. Male power who?

But I think the beauty of this hypothesis extends beyond celebrating sex and irrationalizing the patriarchy. Like so many things in science, it holds a wisdom that transcends academia. 

The day that we learned about the Red Queen Hypothesis in my Ecology class, I’d been reflecting as I washed my hands in the strange and magical bathroom on the lowest floor of Drew Science. I was thinking about how much my life circumstances had changed since I’d last been using that bathroom on a regular basis back in my first year. There are a completely new set of people in my life, a new living environment, new opportunities, new ways to spend my time. Almost every aspect of my life has changed dramatically–and I’ve changed with them. 

Aren’t we all a little like those scrawny little fish down in Mexico–constantly changing ourselves at the most fundamental level to keep up with the changes around us? While the fish change their genetic makeup to fend off parasites, we change little snippets of our identities–things we value, how and who we love, where we spend our time–to suit the circumstances we find ourselves in. 

Fate is the Red Queen, forcing endless change upon our lives and feeding us dry biscuits out of her pocket when we’re thirsty (that’s canon). The only choice we have is to accept the change, eat the damn biscuits and keep running.

Whether or not they understand it, Poeciliid fish live and die by a universal law that so many of humans are too quick to forget; change is perfect and constant–we will never arrive at where we’re going and all we can do is make the most of our fleeting time in transit.