If the Irish were an organism and the recession was its environment

As an evolutionary biologist, I have developed a sort-of obsession with viewing the entire world in evolutionary terms.  I see religion as a consequence of natural selection, languages evolve, change over time and are related to one another and I see adaptation as an intrinsic feature of humanity.

So, right now we are in a time of rapidly changing environments.  The stability that Ireland saw from about 1994 until 2008 is now in shreds and the population (super-organism) must respond in whatever way it can.

So, how is it likely to respond?

Evolutionary theory tells us that this organism will begin to evolve rather quickly, much more quickly than it was evolving in a time of stability.

The analogy I could use is the analogy with Darwin’s finches.  Darwin got to the Galapagos islands and discovered that, unlike on mainland Ecuador, where there was a single species of dull brown finch, there were at least 13 or 14 different finch types on the islands.

This presented Darwin with a quandary.  Given tectonic plate movement, the islands were relatively new.  Perhaps some millions of years old.  Whereas, the mainland was part of Gondwanaland which was around since God was a child (ahem). How, then, could this happen?  The NEWER land mass had the greater diversity?  Surely there should be much more diversity on the land mass that had been around for longer?

Well, the explanation is known as ‘positive selection’.  When competition for scarce resources started to occur for the small population of finches that must surely have arrived on the island relatively recently, then they mutations that would otherwise not have provided any advantage to a finch would now become very useful indeed.  In Darwin’s words, these small advantageous changes would have been “preserved and added up”.

The net result - competition for meagre resources on the island resulted in diversification at a rapid rate.  The first finches could only make use of one kind of resource, but within a relatively short period of time, all available resources were utilised.

So, changed environments promote evolutionary diversification on geological timescales.  Can the same happen in a short period of time in a different context?

I suspect the answer is that yes, the exact same features will manifest themselves, though the nature of these features are obviously different.

People losing jobs is analogous to resources drying up.  The stable food supply of 2008 (the building industry, apparently) is no more.

NUI Maynooth have never spun-out more companies, than they did in 2009.  The rate of patenting in Ireland has increased massively - up by 18% in 2009, from the previous year (though, worryingly, still much fewer than we should have if we were to hit the EU average).  We are responding to the environmental change, just as evolutionary theory would predict.

But, there is one other thing to think about.

A rabbit cannot evolve into a bird.

It just doesn’t have the capacity - what we might call ‘pre-adaptation’.

A rabbit can evolve so that it has greater speed to escape predators, or it can evolve the ability to resist disease or the ability to use a different food source.

It cannot evolve into a bird though.

There is evidence that we are adapting at a rapid rate, but not at the rate we need to respond.

Look at our broadband service nationally - rubbish.  This is the smart economy.  This is the pathway for rapid evolution. And it doesn’t exist.

The Irish superorganism wants to evolve.  It is making the moves.  It is diversifying.  It is adapting. It wants to fly. But it is stuck on the ground like some kind of myxomatosing rabbit, nibbling nettles.

Scrap Saturday had a skit in the early 1990s and it involved Dermot Morgan parodying Charles Haughey’s disappointment at the fact that his Fianna Fail colleagues lacked intelligence, with the line “How can I soar like an Eagle, when I am surrounded by Turkeys”.

Until we get national high-speed broadband (50 Megs per house), we are stuck on the ground, with limited opportunity to evolve.

Rapid evolution is the only solution.

It’s a good slogan.