Warning: This blog is written for a rational audience that likes to have fun wrestling with unique or controversial points of view. It is written in a style that can easily be confused as advocacy for one sort of unpleasantness or another. It is not intended to change anyone's beliefs or actions. If you quote from this post or link to it, which you are welcome to do, please take responsibility for whatever happens if you mismatch the audience and the content.

I wonder if anyone has done an experiment like the one I'm about to describe. Let me know if you have heard of it.

The experiment would involve one set of slightly underfed mice that are not tall enough when on their hind legs to reach some extra food on a ledge in the cage. They'd smell it and want it, but they couldn't reach. The food would always be there, day after day, just out of reach.

You'd need a control group of mice who are similarly underfed but have no shelf of food that is frustratingly beyond their reach.

I'm curious if the mice that have the shelf of food just above their reach would produce taller offspring, on average, than the control group.

If so, I would call that Aspirational Evolution. My hypothesis is that creatures with brains have evolved in a way that allows one generation to influence the genes of the next based on what the parents imagine they need to better survive.

I do know that if one generation of humans lifts weights, for example, it doesn't automatically make their kids have bigger muscles. But going to the gym has no immediate survival advantage in the way that extra food has to a hungry mouse. Exercise registers to us as more of a rational decision that might pay off over the years. Hunger is right now, and emotional.

When humans get stressed, their bodies automatically produce one set of chemicals, and if they fall in love they produce another. There's a lot going on in our bodies, chemistry-wise. It wouldn't surprise me to learn that our minds - and specifically our aspirations - positively influence the design of the sperm and eggs that are formed by our bodily juices.

Has anyone done that experiment?

Rank Up Rank Down Votes:  +14
  • Print
  • Share


Sort By:
Aug 26, 2013
With food continually out of reach can you explain why the mice wouldn't die before they produced any offspring?

And a follow up question: if the mice didn't die and did produce offspring then one assumes there must be an alternative food source to sustain them, and if this is the case then there is no evolutionary requirement to be larger. Or so my friend Reepicheep tells me.
Aug 26, 2013
Skimming I see that others have pointed out that this is similar to the long discredited Lamarckism.

I'd like to add that a simple thought experiment shows how this doesn't really work. There is no apparent mechanism for what you describe and though you know that being taller would allow the mouse to reach the food, how would the mouse's body? If your theory were correct wouldn't it be just as likely that the next generation evolved genes to not be as hungry for food? Or to ignore food smells in above the eyeline as they are unattainable? Or the ability to stick to the wall to climb it? Or to fly? Or perhaps just be able to jump higher?

The problem is that you are attributing conscious intent to the direction that the evolution will follow. How would this work in plants of simple animals without higher brains? Also, what mechanism led to this ability in the first place when lower brained or no brained life clearly doesn't have it? The trait must have evolved itself but why when standard Darwinian evolution so clearly explains a functional alternative method? This would be layering on complexity that isn't supported by any evidence.
Aug 26, 2013
My family has already conducted that experiment. I know of at least 3 generations of women who have aspired to be thinner, and 3 generations of men who aspired to have more hair. Our genes are getting the message.
+2 Rank Up Rank Down
Aug 26, 2013
There are two ways that this sort of change could occur, and I think everyone is discussing only one of the ways.
1. (discussed in detail) food too high leads mice who don't change breeding patterns to have taller offspring due to mutation or some sort of hope effect.
2. Female mice, seeing that the food is up high, seek out the longest male mice to mate with. This could result in a longer than usual set of offspring, who might be able to reach the ledge when full grown (assuming the famine doesn't stunt their growth).
It is amusing to me that people seek to define what makes a person physically attractive, in my experience there is always a "Attractive to me," and an "Attractive on average" for any given person. If you are really skinny, someone with a few extra pounds is more attractive to you. If a guy's face is long, maybe someone with a round face (vice oval, the gold standard of female faces) is attractive.
I have heard that some African Americans wear makeup to appear slightly lighter in skin tone. This may be due to lighter skinned Black folks getting better pay, but it may also increase their ability to attract the opposite sex. This clearly isn't a genetic desire for lighter skin (for thousands of years in Africa, light skin meant problems), but a learned desire to change skin tone.
I suppose the long and short of my long diatribe is that it is possible for us to control our genetics, but by mate choice, not by wishing really hard.
Aug 26, 2013
It is known that environmental factors play a role in switching on genes (or not) and therefore influences organism development. This is not necessarily evolution as it is alternate expressions of existing genetics rather than alterations to the genetics. (I see some commenters have already referenced this.)

The standard natural selection view of evolution would go against Scott's experiment. If no mice are able to reach the extra food, then none of them have a reproductive advantage and there can be no generational trend towards taller mice.

There is also no reason at present to give any credence to the idea that brain chemistry influences the genes in the gonads. They are nowhere near each other. This is also not standard Lamarckism, Lamarck postulated that the first generation mice increase their own tallness via desire and pass that on to the offspring, Scott is postulating that the first generation mice do not get taller, only their offspring.

Of course, scientific knowledge is often expanded by trying new things and seeing unexpected results. I think unless the mice are kept one per cage, they would merely learn to climb on top of each other to reach the food.
+5 Rank Up Rank Down
Aug 26, 2013
I am not a scientist. Everything I have read about genetics and evolution considers the situation with mice described above as descriptive of Larmarkism. According to current and continuing evolutionary theory Larmarkism is incorrect. It was a theory formulated when philosophy was concerned with the rights of individuals to make their own freedom under the ultimate guidance of God. This was before modern genetic theory with knowledge of DNA and chromosomes was built up through research and experimentation.

An example of Larmarkism often given is that for giraffes. Their long necks enable them to reach leaves at the tops of trees. If, in competition with other giraffes, leaves low down are all eaten but those further up are out of reach, would stretching their necks in aspiration to reach still further cause them to have offspring with longer necks? A basic premise of Darwinism says it would not. Instead, sexual selection and environmental factors determine which individuals breed with a slight advantage in that regard. The advantage then reinforces itself over many generations, not from one to the next.

I am sure all reputable science establishments would disdain experimentation with aspirational mice. That sounds like the kind of literary based common sense, false theory that has always paralleled real scientific theories, abstruse and non obvious as they seem at first. The experiment has probably already been tried many times, anyway.

The last major Larmarkian was the biologist Lysenko for a while controlled agriculture planning in the Soviet Union, administering it according to Marxist theories instead of sound scientific principles. Several Soviet geneticists who opposed Lysenko were either executed or forced into labor camps. The result was forced replacement of sound agricultural techniques with those mandated by Lysenko. Bad harvests and even mass starvations resulted. Something similar happened when Maoist theories were applied to Chinese agriculture.

People want so badly to control their destinies. If mice can be found to do it, cannot humans do it, too? To a certain extent we all do in their selection of mates. But evolution is a long process, and formulation of our basic humanity was fairly well set when Homo Sapiens developed, maybe before that. All of us left now are homo sapiens, and innate physical and mental capabilities are spread evenly among us. What things differ are external appearances among regional groups and what factors cultures consider important.

Scott, what you describe above sounds suspiciously like the a superficially scientific way to legitimize one group’s feelings of superiority over others. That would justify subjugation over them, whether they be other classes or nationalities or races. Has this popped up again, this time on the Internet by Libertarian types?

Stephen Jay Gould, somewhere in his various writings about evolution has written articles pertaining to all this. I do not have his books here to point exactly where, but his collections of essays would be informative in many regards, to Larmarkism and social determinism misapplied from Darwinism. THE MISMEASURE OF MAN is the sad saga of various attempts to misuse science to justify prejudices.

Any inaccuracies here are due to my own faulty memory, misunderstanding, or insufficient writing skill to get across my point. I just felt a need to write a response. I hope somebody does better.
Aug 26, 2013
i have heard of two different areas where genes have shown to be effected by experience. First, alcoholism has been shown to alter the genes of offspring in some cases. Second, extreme PTSD has been shown to alter the genes of offspring in some cases. But what you are describing seems like something else entirely.

I dub it to be a new version of modernism.
1. classic modernism-- people are inherently good and will eventually make the world perfect.
2. technological modernism (this is YOU, scott)-- technological development will so alter the world that all problems will cease to exist (until evil robot aliens or evil local robots destroy the all life on earth).
3. Aspirational Evolutionary modernism-- succeeding generations will perfect the world by becoming what their parents hyper-wished them to be.

interesting idea, but only in the sense that baloney is interesting.

also, as contradictory evidence, i would submit the existence of every person on the planet who did not make their parents proud.
Aug 26, 2013
Beats me. Interesting proposal, though.

One of the questions to ask is, is height (or length, in the case of mice) directly or inversely proportional to lack of nutrition? It's generally accepted that earlier generations of humans were smaller than those of today, and it is thought that this is largely due to improved nutrition and the understanding of supplements, et. al.

So the query becomes, was that due to genetic changes, or just an individual's reaction to the type of nutrition they receive? Were the genes (or at least how they activated cellular growth) changed in some way, or was it just a natural survival mechanism, not related to anything directly connected to gene expression?

One of the experiments I seem to remember involved cutting off the tails of mice (even more cruel than Scott's starving the little critters - watch out for PETA, Scott!) to see if future mice generations would be born without tails. The result of this and similar experiments led to the broad statement that, and I'm quoting from memory so forgive any mistakes, 'acquired characteristics are not inherited.'

The other question involves how smart mice are. Would they realize in their mousy little brains that if they were taller, they would have more food, or would they just ignore the food that was unavailable after a while? Would future mouse generations have bred mice that could get by on less food, and if so, would that prove or disprove Scott's thesis?

There have been some interesting fruit fly experiments (they breed very quickly, so you can track many generations in a short amount of time). One involved disease susceptibility. When fly populations were given viruses that killed off most of their group, the ones who lived were genetically different such that they were resistant to the disease. However, when those flies bred over the next few generations, the genome appeared to revert to the 'general' fly genome rather than continuing to breed all flies with the altered virus-resistant genes.

That would seem to contradict the general theory of evolution, and is one of the many reasons why scientists are beginning to question the completeness of the theory. There are things in the theory that don't fit the facts. Scott's hypothesis, if proven correct, would be another.

In areas like these, there is no such thing as settled science. When the facts begin to contradict the theory, then the theory needs to be modified or discarded. It's good to question conventional wisdom, as Scott has done here.
Aug 26, 2013
Interesting post. Are we the experimental group or the control group?

Aug 26, 2013
Here you go - and the answer broadly yes...............
+12 Rank Up Rank Down
Aug 26, 2013
I think a more likely outcome of the mouse scenario would be that one slightly more creative and intelligent mouse will convince the other mice that the mouse creator has spoken to him and told him that if he prayed to the creator while standing on the backs of the other mice then he will then be given access to the additional food. Once this occurs this mouse will be hailed as the great spiritual leader of the group and will be worshiped and given complete authority and power over all the other mice. Creating a permanent hierarchy class structure among this group of mice, and over time lead to an environment of complete and utter madness and chaos.
-5 Rank Up Rank Down
Aug 26, 2013
So I suppose this implies that you now believe in evolution. That's good.
+7 Rank Up Rank Down
Aug 26, 2013
I'd be more interested in the inventiveness of the mice to Adapt and Overcome.

If endless wanting of something that cannot be obtained had positive results - then a supermodel would occupy every Engineers bed instead of an imaginary Fantasy Robot-Girl.
Aug 26, 2013
[Still just as scientific as the nonsense Scott is spouting above.]

I dunno, there are enough problems with the theory of evolution that Scotts idea doesnt look so crazy by comparison. http://www.programmed-aging.org/theories/evolution_issues.html provides a few, but I myself would like to add this: how does a species evolve to have a different number of chromosomes than it did before? For that to happen a male and female mutant with the new chromosome set would have to come about in the same place and would both have to be successful enough to reach maturity.
+22 Rank Up Rank Down
Aug 26, 2013
Isn't the prevailing theory that the mice will have offspring with a variety of randomize characteristics, including increased height - the ones with the height will thrive and reproduce, reinforcing the gene.

I think it's called "evolution" :-)
Aug 26, 2013
Pinebot: my understanding of epigenetics -- I'm not a biologist, so salt/grain etc. -- is that it says what Scott is suggesting is "possible" only in the sense that it does not preclude it. That's a far cry from confirming it. (Not to imply that you said it did confirm it.)

The problem with this idea is that it involves a SPECIFIC response to a non-specific stimulus, i.e. getting taller due to hunger. You'd have to do another study as well where the food was, for instance, hidden under the floor in such a way that the mice could get to it by digging, and see if future generations grew stronger claws. You could imagine a whole range of similar experiments. I highly doubt any of them would demonstrate the effect, however.

Much more likely outcomes for the future would include a reduced sense of smell (since being able to smell food would no longer be an evolutionary advantage) or smaller size (a common adaptation to ongoing hunger). Both of these would cover any way that the food could be made detectable but not reachable.
+8 Rank Up Rank Down
Aug 26, 2013
the field of epigenetics allows for this. Here's a study where restricted diet in pregnant mother mice changed the metabolism of the offspring. There are some other related references in there as well.

Aug 26, 2013
Then you continue the experiment. Gen 2 can reach the food. When they have offspring, the Gen 2 parents pull the food down for the little ones. Gen 3 becomes lazy and fat. When they're full grown, they can reach the shelf, but want mom and dad to keep getting the food down for them. Ultimately the parents get too old to provide, and the kids are too lazy, so the kids kill off the parents for the insurance money. Or maybe I've been watching too many episodes of 48 Hours.
Aug 26, 2013
Reminds me of a primary school insult.

"It is not her fault she is that ugly, her mother was frightened by a horse when she was pregnant".

Happiest days of our lives, apparently. Still just as scientific as the nonsense Scott is spouting above.
+15 Rank Up Rank Down
Aug 26, 2013
Mice can jump.
Get the new Dilbert app!
Old Dilbert Blog