Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Personalities versus Trees

Also my tendency to make predictions based on flimsy knowledge, and my perception of accuracy.

Scientists have discovered that crabs have personalities. Specifically, some crabs are bolder than others and take more risks.

"Crabs apparently can have different personalities from one another, the first discovery of personality in crustaceans."

They talk as if this is unprecedented. (Read more of the article to confirm this.) Instead, I could have told them that. Actually, even trees behave this way. Right now, it's fall in Canada. If I look outside, most trees are just turning. However, some aren't turned at all, and others have dumped their leaves entirely. The same analysis applies; if there's no early frost, then the bold trees will have more energy to grow. If there exists an early frost, the timid trees will suffer less damage and will get an advantage next spring. Trees don't have anything analogous to a brain so they don't really have personalities, just personality analogues.

In other words, scientist fail at thinking. Again. Admittedly, this is the exact reason scientists rant on and on about the importance of definition, something I wholeheartedly endorse. It's an easy mistake to make.
"He added that personalities might perhaps be found even in organisms with very simple nervous systems. "Maybe vertebrates or even humans aren't as special in this respect as people often assume," Briffa said."
Since personality can be found in trees, I bet that's a safe assumption. A rather bolder claim would be that everything with a genome displays personality. This is because behaviour is affected by genome, and genome varies slightly even between organisms of the same species. Even viruses come in risk-tolerant (virulent and deadly) and risk-averse (cold viruses) types; the first risks killing the host before a new one can be found.

This idea even has a practical application. If you're worried about a branch falling on your house, first check whether the tree is bold or timid. If it's timid, you're safe barring lightning. (My neighbour in my hometown was concerned about one of our trees. Of course, they also thought having their kids walk from our place to their during a rainstorm significantly risked getting them struck by lightning.) If the tree is bold...then you probably have cause to worry. The early frosts probably won't destroy a branch outright, but repeated frosts against leaves could stress and weaken a branch, leaving it vulnerable to high winds.

I'm making this prediction based on no information at all, other than basic physics. I should be right no more often than chance. I do this often; I find this is not the case. Generally I'm either right or simulating right - my wrong conclusion leads to the right predictions. When I'm wrong it's usually because there's a very good reason I wouldn't be able to guess, like suddenly finding out that trees are secretly reinforced with iron. Still, grain of salt on this one.

Further reading at a surprisingly not-bad MSNBC article.

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