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No. 15: Spring 1981

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The Evolutionary Struggle Within

Ted Steele, an immunologist, has come up with experimental evidence showing in some cases that acquired immunity may be transmitted to progeny. When Steele's research was announced, many scientists and science writers rushed to the defense of Darwinism. They pointed out with unseeming vigor that a revival of dread Lamarckism or the Inheritance of Acquired Characters was not indicated.

It is true that Steele has proposed a Darwinian interpretation of his findings, but his theory adds a startling new dimension to the development of life. In essence, Steele asserts that an organism's immunological system is really the evolutionary scenario in miniature and compressed in time. The body's immuno-logical system is trying to cope with up to 10 million defensive cells. The only defensive cells that survive and multiply are those that happen to encounter an invader that they can lock onto and destroy. The "fittest" defensive cells are those that have just the right characteristics to knock off invaders, and only they survive permanently in the body's defensive arsenal, giving it acquired immunity. The Lamarckian part of this story occurs when the RNA of the selected defensive cells gets passed on to the organism's progeny.

(Tudge, Colin; "Lamarck Lives -- In the Immune System," New Scientist, 89:483, 1981.)

Comment. The picture evolving here is one of a hierarchy of evolutionary struggles -- say, humans on one level and their contained defensive cells on another level. The levels are not completely independent. The question that arises next is whether there are other evolutionary struggles going on, possibly in the mitochondria and chloroplasts, which possess their own genetic material. Or, waxing speculative, are there hierarchies of evolutionary struggle above humanity of which we know nothing except for perhaps a few anomalies representing cross talk between levels?

From Science Frontiers #15, Spring 1981. 1981-2000 William R. Corliss