The Future of Beetles
Part one - a nihilistic approach
It is a sobering thought that one day our sun will expand and its hot atmosphere will engulf our tiny planet, burning it to a crisp and in the process destroying all traces of life. This may happen within the next billion years or it may take as long as five billion years, in which case it’s likely our Milky Way would already have merged with the Andromeda galaxy. It is hardly any consolation that humans will not be around to witness this but these two aspects of the future are understood with certainty and accepted with certain nonchalance because they are due at some time beyond our everyday experience. We cannot do much about the sun’s thermodynamic progress but it could be argued that in fact we might be able to witness these events from some far-off position in space after we have mastered the technology to traverse interstellar distances but this would be a mistake because, contrary to what some people would have us believe, human evolution continues apace, and the problem here is that the pace of evolution is far removed from how we perceive time. Most people can appreciate a year and what goes on in that span of time, ten years is OK as well but the details get a bit hazy, one hundred years and we must rely on hearsay and the history books. For the purpose of this discussion, three hundred years is a good length of time as it covers the beginning and the ongoing development of what we might call serious natural history i.e. from about the time of Linnaeus. But evolution has, obviously, been going on for rather longer than this; in the broadest sense for about fourteen billion years; from the earliest life on earth for maybe four billion years, and add a bit longer for chemical evolution then it began not long after the earth’s formation, which is thought to have been around 4.5 billion years ago. Following a fair amount of trial and error and general messing around as well as the odd meteorite here and there and we arrive at the earliest human-like animals about two million years ago, and with a bit more messing around here we are with our big temporal lobes and opposable digits and all. The time it took for us to evolve is truly immense and, other than in purely academic terms, far beyond our imagination.
But despite these enormous time-spans the differences between the apes, the earliest humans and ourselves are very small in terms of DNA e.g. we share about 98.8% of our DNA with our closest relative, the bonobo, but in morphological and psychological terms the differences would appear much greater. In human terms it is sometimes quaintly-impressive to see apes using rocks to smash nuts or using sticks to remove ants from tree hollows, and it is easy to ascribe this to intelligence beyond that of other animals with the exception of ourselves, and whether this learned behaviour can really be classed as intelligence in the everyday sense of the word is a rather personal matter. What is impressive though is that the 1.2% difference in our genome has allowed humans to send rockets to other planets and to generally destroy our environment with our science and technology. We can appreciate what a difference the 1.2% makes when observing apes, but what we cannot appreciate is how different we would be with a further 1.2%, but in this case the difference would be between modern and future humans; would future humans look back at us with the same quaint sympathetic-impressed expression while explaining how we could send a rocket to Mars and explode atomic bombs in the same way that we watch and comment upon other apes with their sticks and nuts? And if we are genetically another 1.2% different would we still be calling ourselves human? Or would we consider humans extinct and our future selves a distinct species? And would it take as long as, say, a million years? All our cells contain about three billion base pairs in their DNA, and 1.2% of this represents about 35 million base pairs. The background rate of mutation is very small, variously quoted at about one base pair in one hundred million per generation, and only germ-line mutations can be passed on, and the majority of these may make no appreciable difference to how we look or function and so we might be tempted to say that they make no difference at all, but this is because we cannot appreciate the sort of time spans needed to produce new species, and because of our relatively-long life-cycle and the infancy of our genetic recording, we cannot yet even measure changes in allele frequency or genetic drift. But the more scientific-minded can at least appreciate that such things are occurring and that they are simply a continuation of the processes that have shaped us since the first life on earth. To imagine that human evolution has stopped is simply demonstrating ignorance. We cannot influence this sort of thing (actually we can by interfering with the genome of fertilized eggs but that’s another can of worms) and whether it takes two or twenty or two hundred million years for this differentiation to occur, it will not be humans watching the sun expand or the galaxies merge.
Some very intricate human artefacts, carved from ivory and bone, have been scientifically dated to around forty- thousand years of age and the oldest of all, stone tools from Ethiopia, are thought to be between 2.5 and 2.6 million years old. Sometimes very intricate and delicate artefacts survive over long periods of time and retain their structural and chemical integrity, the oldest cave paintings, from Sulawesi, are at least thirty-five thousand years old and the dye used in such paintings, red ochre, has been found in Israel dating back a hundred thousand years, and the oldest manufactured book, in the modern sense, is probably the seventh century Stonyhurst bible. Older yet, but with no help from humans, are amber fossils, among the oldest being Triassic arthropods which lived around two hundred and thirty millions of years ago. Our collections of insect specimens are extremely delicate but with the right sort of looking after might be expected to endure over many thousands of years, accidents accepted of course. Accidents in this context are absolutely catastrophic but they do happen, whether intentionally (if, indeed, there can be such a thing as an ‘intentional accident’) as in the case of Dresden, or otherwise as in the case of the National Museum of Brazil, but in any case even if one of these events were to happen only once in every five hundred years then we’re in trouble, or at least our collections of insects are. Then there is the question of the structural integrity of insect specimens; as we know they can be fine if left alone after two hundred years, but what about ten thousand years? And modern collections are not left alone, they are examined and sent all over the world for other people to examine, a regular source of losses and accidents. Keeping collections in good condition is very expensive; trivially so in terms of time because it is generally a labour
of love for those doing the maintaining, but also in terms of both public and private money. Insect collections depend crucially on a vibrant economy. Perhaps the best way to preserve and offer our insect collections to the future is to encase specimens in amber, or at least some acrylate or other. This may well be the most sensible way to preserve a snapshot of our fauna for far-distant generations; most insect specimens are small and might be preserved in blocks no larger than 10mm cubed, these could be organised and stored in fire-proof, and probably bomb-proof boxes or vaults and left alone for hundreds or thousands or millions of years. Would we not love to see such a collection of fifty million specimens made five million years ago? Even in the short term of hundreds of years a conventional collection with its pins and cards and glue and labels and boxes will need to be constantly cared for and paid for. And at the moment we have on our tiny planet rather a lot of preserved insect specimens.
Another aspect of modern collections is their utility. Dead insects are really good when it comes to studying structural morphology but rather less so when this is put to the test in order to work out phylogeny, as the last few hundred years have demonstrated, where even today every check-list differs and phylogeny varies according to opinion and the prevailing wind; we always have an up to date checklist but we know full well that the next one will be very different. Specimens are also very good at demonstrating divergence and convergence; evolution in action as it were, sibling species and ring species and what have you are laid bare in the drawers of an insect collection. But these aspects have been well-studied and are fairly-well understood and so how many more examples are needed? Thus the educational aspect of collections should be obvious, although I can’t remember seeing a collection in any school, but perhaps that explains a lot as well. If the function of curators is to look after specimens and make sure they are safe then they have their work cut out, if their function is to classify and label collections of insects then perhaps this should have stopped many years ago and put on hold until a sensible system, agreed upon by everybody, is discovered but this would be a very dangerous thing to do. It should be obvious that the holy grail of systematic entomology is to construct an evolutionary tree that will give a precise ancestry of every species back to the primordial soup. It should also be obvious that this is impossible because our world fauna is partly the expression of the millions of species that have gone extinct over geological time and left no traces, i.e. that our fragmented and very incomplete modern representation of the world’s previous inhabitants is not sufficient to piece together the evolutionary jigsaw. But, at least in theory and there is no reason why this should not work in practise, an alternative, or for the moment perhaps we should say complementary (to be complimentary), system is becoming available; that of molecular genetics. It should be stressed that, and ignoring whatever is written to the contrary, that this science is still in its infancy; it is well-understood but so far only poorly applied and interpreted. In isolation molecular genetics cannot get us far because it is a very time-consuming way to carry on; getting the results is becoming faster all the time and soon this aspect will not limit our research, on the other hand knowing what to do with the results and then actually doing it is at present limiting the scope of this science. Fortunately there runs in parallel another very powerful system for applying the results of genomic analysis, a system that I think is by far the most significant development of human intellectual endeavour so far, that of digital technology. I have spoken with many well-qualified and professional biologists and read many, sometimes derogatory, articles in respected journals about this; whether species can be defined and identified by a sequence of base pairs, there have even been discussions in various online chat rooms, and the prevailing opinions seem to be that molecular genetics will never replace comparative morphology. My opinion is that in the few hundred years of constructing phylogenetic systems we have ended up chasing our tails, new systems are constantly proposed, and sometimes adopted, only to be replaced by better ones. Fair enough though, because we have a fair number of specimens to play with and new ones are being added to collections all the time and we can only do what we can do, and until another Darwin or Wallace comes along we will continue to do what we do. But several things need to be considered very seriously. Financial investment in ‘entomological research’ at the systematic level is a rather esoteric way to spend money; but considering the often ludicrously wasteful way that public money is squandered, perhaps not such a bad thing to spend it on, but the results are of dubious usefulness, especially considering how the holy grail constantly eludes us, and also considering that the result of all this spending is often simply to produce more people that will do exactly the same sort of thing for a living and ultimately add to the colossal mountain of redundant papers that get routinely published and then ignored because better ones get written. Financial investment in molecular genetics is different because the results are far-reaching across many fields of research, some of which will generate vast sums of money as well as the odd Nobel Prize, medicine or food-production systems for instance. The results from many areas of applied research into molecular genetics are slowly piecing together the larger picture. The industry is financially driven and worth a fortune, the results generate money for more investment and research and it’s growing all the time; it needs no collection boxes, fund raisers or volunteers. And if this is true of molecular genetics then it applies ten-fold to the digital industry, indeed ironically there would hardly be a ‘genetics industry’ were it not for digital technology. Research into things digital has given us computers and mobile phones and the whole entertainment industry; science does not need to do this research, indeed it could not do this research, because the truly vast quantities of money generated by the digital industries make it self-sustaining in a way that university-funded science could never match. And the proceeds, in the form of the technology, become available to scientists almost gratis. It is still relatively easy for systematists to criticize or even dismiss the idea that all species will be known from, or even defined buy-in the way we define a species by its type - a genetic barcode. Here it is worth considering two things. Firstly that, much as it would seem to the contrary, both molecular genetics and digital technology are very firmly still in their infancy and that we probably cannot imagine, even in our wildest dreams, just how powerful and versatile these sciences will become. It may bring derisory remarks but imagine this: going out into the field and placing a beetle into a little black box for a few seconds and then releasing it, the box then giving you the name of the species and a file containing all that is known about it. Sound far-fetched? Secondly, that we really cannot imagine how quickly and how clever things will become; imagine the scenario above and then imagine going back in time and trying to explain to somebody out in the field with their camera and light meter and lenses and rolls of film how things will be in fifty-years time; a camera built into a phone, instant results sent anywhere in the world, unlimited shots and programs to manipulate the results, this may be a fairy story for the poor sod waiting to get his rolls of film back from the chemist and hoping-a long shot-that one of his field close-up shots will be worth keeping. That’s where we are right now, and that forms the basis of the next part of this article.
Certain facts need to be understood. We will not remain as we are; should we avoid changing the fauna on our planet and so save ourselves then we will surely evolve into a new species, or perhaps several new species through some form of sympatric divergence. The same goes for beetles; the vast majority of species around today will either be destroyed by habitat abuse and/or climate change, or they will evolve into new species, and we’ve already got a good start on this. Whether our insect collections will survive over thousands of years is anybody’s guess. And whether they will be of any use in thousands of years is also open to debate. I cannot help thinking that future scientists will be completely baffled by our ‘scientific names’; there are so many synonyms etc, and there is so much confusion that it takes a good deal of work to find out what species is being studied, and there is every chance that what we are dealing with will either be re-named or re-classified, and this madness never seems to stop; it seems we have painted ourselves into a corner and we are still painting, this madness surely cannot go on; there must surely come a point where we realize that the system itself is generating more work than the beetles themselves! Of course, like the urge to collect, this is a very satisfying way to carry on and there are web pages that give the whole cascade of classification for countless beetles all the way from ‘life’ down to subspecies and whatever, with every stage noted under a heading like ‘Family’ or supertribe’, and these descend from top left to bottom right and they look grand. Pages and pages of the stuff, substantially meaningless and mostly a waste of time but it looks good and people take it seriously and it looks very sciencey, like pages of maths or chemistry equations but really no more meaningful than Lewis Caroll’s best poetry. How on earth will this kind of thing be viewed by future scientists? Will there come a day, as surely there must, when we realize that a better system is needed and that the mountain of redundant nomenclature should be skipped, literally, never to raise its stupid head again? At the moment we cannot see any answer because there is no viable alternative, but there will be, soon enough, and it will come from a combination of molecular biology and digital technology, either one alone is incapable of producing a different system but together they offer such an awesome and powerful way of cataloguing the natural world that any attempt to fight it will be at best stubbornness and bloody-minded. It is still safe to argue against this for several reasons, the first of which is obvious i.e. that naturalists the world over are too invested in the current nonsense to want to change it. Secondly the present system is ingrained into the education of biologists, such people want to learn about bugs and things rather than the chemistry of nucleic acids and digital technology; maybe we are approaching the point where classification and nomenclature are best left to molecular biologists and technologists while real biology, in sense of form and function, become the sole domain of ‘biologists’. Thirdly, we have huge insect collections that are beautifully, albeit often ephemerally, named and laid out in drawers and boxes to the delight of everybody involved, and to produce these collections requires many thousands of hours of patient and diligent work, by both the paid and the volunteer, by both the scientist and the amateur. This is a truly massive expenditure of time on what is essentially a work of art, those involved are obviously very passionate about insect collections and the results are nothing short of astounding, but what of the utility? How relevant will these collections be when the very thing they are amassed to demonstrate i.e. the lineages of life, become the domain of biochemists? Nelson’s column is a good example of something that once held a very special place in our national heritage, and nobody can argue that it is not a spectacular monument to a very cherished historical hero, but today it goes largely ignored; we can still see the achievement and recognize the awe in which our grateful nation once held this character but it no longer represents dominance and empire, it’s just a good monument to a great man and as we move on and become ever more multi-cultural its meaning becomes less important. These days we have more relevant things to waste our money and time on. The collections are also great monuments to our dedication and passion but for how much longer will scientists trying to unravel the threads of life find them necessary, or even useful? This may seem very pessimistic, almost nihilistic, but for some time now it has been possible to construct lineages from base-pair sequences, the results are not always conclusive or unambiguous or even convincing, but look forward a few decades to when methods have evolved to make sense of the data and the data is easily obtained without the need for very expensive equipment, and our present way of thinking will seem historically luddite, go forward a little more and our descendants will never need to consult a collection in order to do research, and if collections are needed they will likely be virtual and offer detail we cannot imagine. But in that future time it will be very difficult to imagine funding collections; then, as now, investment will be very selectively applied and no matter how luminous or efficient we can make a gas-lamp the roads will be illuminated by electricity. Maybe the next few decades will offer a good opportunity to preserve our insect collections permanently, safely sealed once and for ever, and get on with the real task of finding the grail. Specimens will always be needed as a source of DNA and with any luck it will be possible to extract this from our collection specimens but in any case specimens will probably always need to be obtained from the wild, these should be used as a source of genetic material and then scanned and stored in such a way that future samples of biological material can be extracted intact. This will not be so attractive or pleasing as cabinets full of insects but at least the scientific utility can be considered from the outset and it will, rather obviously, be necessary in order to keep tabs on the type of organism being studied in the sense of e.g. a Notiophilus with the a certain genomic composition, just to keep tabs on what’s going on, and in this sense any alpha or beta or omega or cyto or any other sort of taxonomy should be based on the molecular genetics. Charles Darwin and Gregor Mendel would have loved it, Jim Watson and Francis Crick should be duly proud.
Walking in the country is a sublime way to carry on for many people, knowing what birds or insects or plants are around is part of the pleasure, and bringing home mementos in the form of leaves to press or insects to preserve is very satisfying. There must be something to it because we’ve been doing it for centuries now and it remains popular (although in the case of collecting bird’s eggs we have come to our senses). Extending this to collecting for its own sake, as with stamps or model cars, is also very satisfying and there comes a point when we go out solely to find specimens to add to our collections, it’s part of human nature to do this sort of thing, and there have been plenty of very cogent reasons why national collections of hundreds of millions of specimens have seemed necessary. But are they still so? Do we really need to keep going back to our little bits of jungle and take specimens to make our collections bigger and more satisfying? If we are still around, in whatever form, in a few hundred thousand years time, and if we have the need or the inclination, and if there are still insects around, then it would be interesting to see what evolution has produced. For now we keep on filling gaps by finding and describing new species and contriving more cascades of classification, there are many details left, some of which can be discovered and some of which cannot, but we need to wake up and see that the answers do not reside in comparative morphology, rather they are hidden within the genetic material. So do we need more and more boxes of specimens? Of course we do not, but it’s fun getting them and sorting out the cabinets.