What determines life’s outcomes?

This is an interesting study I just stumbled on. The short of it is that genetically identical mice with more-or-less identical environment developed significantly different activity profiles. And these differences showed in actual brain development (determined after the poor mice surrendered their brains for science).

I once saw an experiment (no reference) that interested me and that I’d love to duplicate (perhaps only as a simulation). Someone built an apparatus with a large box filled very smoothly with very uniform fine dirt. The box was then placed at various angles. A very few water mister was suspended far above the box so that a fine (random) spray would fall on it. Over time you got what you’d expect, an eroded landscape. But of course each landscape was different and predicting what would happen was impossible. Yet there is some notion if we could do enough precision in such an experiment we could model this and predict it, but that never seems to work.

It’s the same with the simple experiments in chaos of a simple device to drop grains of sand, one-at-a-time, and watch the cones develop and then sustain a sudden collapse (mini-landslide). Despite attempting to get totally uniform particles and perform the experiment isolating all possible external randomness, nonetheless the nature of the pile of sand was unpredictable.

So to it appears to the be the case in biology, at least based on this study. Somehow despite controlling for as many differences as possible in the starting conditions of the experiment the mice developed differently. The idea, as expressed in the paper, is that some small and seemingly random difference appears early in the mouse’s life and this is then reinforced over time. The activity level of each mouse thus seems to be unpredictable independent of starting conditions.

So does this apply to humans? Who knows, certainly a controlled experiment like this is not possible. Even identical twins rarely have exactly the same environment, so the control exercised in this study is not possible with humans. So without evidence we can only speculate.

But it does appear that chance plays a bigger role in who we are that perhaps we’d like to admit.

I know in my own there have been “chance” events (at least those that I had no control over or say in) that had major effects. But at the same time, the notion of “attractors” in chaos theory might suggest these events don’t matter, that while the path through life might vary, the overall outcome probably does not. Again, without evidence, nothing but speculation.

But I think these hints violate two cherished concepts much of humanity holds:

  1. we are masters of our own fate. Certainly the Repugs want to believe this because they want to denounce any attempts at social engineering to correct for bad luck. (Come on, guys, imagine you’d been born poor and a different race or a different gender and tell me that your life would have worked out the same for you just due to your drive and determination).
  2. to the extent something meddles in our life it is a personal god. Yes, some people want to believe they have someone watching over them and helping them through life. A random path, only somewhat influences by accident of birth, is just too scary. Even if you don’t believe you’re 100% master of your own fate, then you want to believe your piety does the rest.

Nope, I’ll go with chance playing a far bigger role. All the determination in the world can’t overcome an excess of unlucky obstacles. All the great advantages, genes and environment, can’t guarantee success (whatever that even means). And rest assured, despite your desire to believe, there is no one “upstairs” looking out for you – you’re on your own in that regard (prove it otherwise if you can!).

So I guess we just have to plod on our random path. Not only is our genetic heritage completely unique, but all those life events are unique as well, so life just plays out as it will, like those sandpiles or eroding boxes of soil. Enjoy what you can.

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About dmill96

old fat (but now getting trim and fit) guy, who used to create software in Silicon Valley (almost before it was called that), who used to go backpacking and bicycling and cross-country skiing and now geodashes, drives AWD in Wyoming, takes pictures, and writes long blog posts and does xizquvjyk.
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2 Responses to What determines life’s outcomes?

  1. Nona says:

    well this explains the vast difference in 5 siblings. Mother should have had mice.

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