In Praise of the Loner and Man with No Name By John Steele
Being a loner, out herein the scrub in my tent, much like Uncle Len in Adelaide, wallowing in the filth of his shed, we need a philosophical and scientific underpinning for our eccentric life style choices. Got it:
“There are always individuals that don’t participate in the collective behavior—the odd bird or insect or mammal that remains just a little out of sync with the rest; the stray cell or bacterium that seems to have missed some call to arms. Researchers usually pay them little heed, dismissing them as insignificant outliers. But a handful of scientists have started to suspect otherwise. Their hunch is that these individuals are signs of something deeper, a broader evolutionary strategy at work. Now new research validating that hypothesis has opened up a very different way of thinking about the study of collective behavior. Scientists have used slime molds to experimentally investigate the emergence and maintenance of social behavior, identifying mechanisms that ensure cooperation among the amoebas. But they’ve always focused on the aggregated cells. Tarnita and her team wanted to investigate whether the cells that stayed behind—the “loners,” as they called them—also played an important role.
As they reported in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in 2015, those loners turned out to be perfectly functional, eating and dividing regularly in the presence of nutrients. Their offspring could aggregate normally when starved—and they always left behind some loners of their own. Their presence seemed to be a consistent aspect of slime-mold behavior. As the scientists reported in March in PLOS Biology, however, instead of a constant fraction of loners, they found a constant number of them. “There is some sort of a set point that the cells have memorized,” says Thomas Gregor, a biophysicist at Princeton and one of the study’s co-authors. Different strains of the slime mold had different set points. As Tarnita puts it, “Some of them seemed like extraordinarily good aggregators, leaving behind [only] some 10,000 loners. Others were so bad at aggregating that they could leave behind 50,000 or 100,000 loners.” That natural variation between strains means that loner behavior is a heritable trait that natural selection can act on. Further experiments and simulations showed that this number is also influenced by environmental factors, which affect how the cells’ chemical signals diffuse and interact to facilitate—or impede—aggregation.”
Loners then have an important evolutionary function, being types of hedge bets to ensure that something of the group survives. Yes, if it is good enough for slime mould, it is good enough for me.