The title of this post is a reference to two things on my mind. The first is that, as our lives get more complicated somethings inevitably, if unfortunately, fall by the way side. One example of this is the 5-year gap in posts to this site! But a conversation with a new student reminded me that things like an updated publication list are useful, and it will one of my goals to post to this website more regularly. This site is meant as the web presence of my lab and my own thoughts, our other web site, Bugs In Our Backyard, is aimed at outreach and education for a broader audience. But hopefully there will be the opportunity for cross-posting content.

Cover of the first edition of Brave New World, by Aldous Huxley.

The real reason for this post however, is to share a bit of history I was reminder of today. Classes start here at Colby tomorrow, and today I’ve been sitting down to talk with my first-year academic advisees. After talking about classes and research in our department, one student asked me whether I thought genes determined ability for people. That’s a loaded question to ask someone studying plasticity, but he mentioned that he was reading Aldous Huxley‘s  Brave New World. (For those who’ve never read the book, the plot is set in a dystopian future where people are raised for specific caste-like roles in society through the application of alcohol during embryonic development. It was written in 1932 just as popular thought was turning against eugenics and similar ideas.) The historical coincidence here is that Aldous Huxley is the brother of the biologist Julian Huxley, and Julian’s ideas on plasticity in development had a huge influence on the focus of Aldous’ writing. It’s no coincidence that Julian Huxley’s most famous book, Problems of Relative Growth, features ant castes on its cover.

Julian Huxley is known for forming the mathematical foundation of developmental biology. His work considered the how differences in the rate of organ growth, relative to the entire body, could change during development, leading to differences in the structure of animals and plants at different life stages. This is a phenomenon known as allometry. He also considered how this process of growth regulation could differ between the sexes, giving rise of male and female differences in the body. Sometimes even producing asymmetries.

Julian Huxley’s power law, showing the relationship of an organ to the entire body.

Huxley also considered how difference of growth could evolve. This work put a mathematical framework to many of the ideas that were suggested by D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson.

In “On Growth and Form” Wentworth Thompson suggested that the diversity of animal and plant forms could often be explained by differences in the relative growth of different parts of the body.

In a way, I think the Huxley’s exemplify the interaction of genes and the environment. Neither would have had the same success (or at least the same trajectory) in life without his brother.

My own recent work owes a lot to Julian Huxley. We have been examining the regulation of wing growth in soapberry bugs, where the environment (specifically juvenile nutrition) plays a determinative role.

Static allometry of adult wing lengths for soapberry bugs on different host plants on a log-log scale. Head width is used as a proxy for overall body size. (Fawcett et al. 2018 Nat Comm, Fig S1)

So, my answer is definitely that the environment is important. Genes are important too, but they must work together.

It’s a small world. As we grow, it can be helpful to return to old ideas and put everything into a new integrative whole.