Can co-evolution be applied to intelligent life forms?

This morning, I opened my email and found a press release about how insects and plant co-evolved, each one changing to adapt to life with the other. Here’s a video that explains the concept:

As I was listening to the video and reading the press release, it struck me how the same process could have created a variety of other traits beyond flavor. What if, I thought, co-evolution could explain some symbiotic rise of intelligence on another planet.

Now, the idea of co-evolution is not new. In 1964, biologists Peter Raven and Paul Erhlich published a landmark study that introduced the concept. And, at this point — if you’re a Star Trek fan — you might be saying “Wasn’t co-evolution used to explain the Trill?”

Yes, but the concept wasn’t explored to its depth. And, what is notable about the information brought to light by the University of Missouri team is the underlying genomic mechanism that is responsible for this phenomenon. That wasn’t tapped for Star Trek, because this is new information. At the time those episodes were written, co-evolution was simply mentioned to explain how the symbiotic relationship of Trill worm thing and humanoid host came to be.

But, in light of the new insight into the genetic basis of co-evolution, wouldn’t it be interesting to tell that kind of story on a deeper level? What kinds of adaptations would plants need to have to encourage the rise of intelligence in a humanoid species? Or could something like that even logically exist? What other kinds of genetically grounded stories of co-evolution could us “what if?” writers dream up now. I challenge you to explore!

Writing Prompts

What if …

  • Intelligence was an adaptation to improve a species’ ability to survive in the face of its food source’s own adaptations against being eaten? The co-evolution of butterflies and broccoli was essentially a chemical battle of survival. Plants evolved toxic chemicals to keep the insects away. Then the insects evolved the ability to handle those chemicals anyway.
  • The study of genomics uncovered that some of our own adaptations were the result of this same kind of give and take between the plants and animals in our environment and our ancestors? What might that look like?
  • We could use this process to create a more sustainable food source for here on Earth or even on other planets we colonize? “If we can harness the power of genetics and determine what causes these copies of genes, we could produce plants that are more pest-resistant to insects that are co-evolving with them — it could open different avenues for creating plants and food that are more efficiently grown,” said Chris Pires, associate professor of biological sciences in the College of Arts and Science and a researcher in the Bond Life Sciences Center at the University of Missouri.

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