Influence the Influencers

By Wilco Lam

October 2017

In pursuit of style, quality and individuality, we take action and manipulate our environment to claim control and triumph over the end result and ‘to be on top of the world’.  However, in light of evolution theory, we, humans, cannot consider ourselves as autonomous beings.  We have been subjected to countless years of hereditary traits that do not find their origins in mankind itself.  This integrates us unequivocally into the fabric of life and a wider natural system.  What then is this idea of claiming control, and is it validated?  In order to create a better understanding of, in our case winegrowing historically, we have to be conscious of this obvious bi-lateral relationship and the facets affecting it.

For supporters of the above theory, animal and plant ancestry is not difficult to imagine and accept.  This concept is now generally acknowledged, including mainstream organized religions, though humans are removed out of the equation.  Some still adopt the viewpoint of resistance, and whilst worthy of consideration, we will set this aside for the purpose of this discussion.  Historically, new scientific findings are often first met with skepticism and resistance.  Many early scientists found even their own discoveries irreconcilable with religious scripture or their own theories and adjusted their findings to avoid persecution.  However, over time, the gap between science and religion is closing, and both find ways to mutually respect one another.  This is highlighted by the ideas of one of the grandfathers of evolution theory, William Wallace, who expressed “I am thankful I can see much to admire in all religions”.  These unifying words emphasise and validate the interaction of the two viewpoints.  Though this musing is neither a scientific nor religious text, it will take a separated viewpoint of the two through the lens of evolution.

Simply speaking in biology, evolution is explained as the variation upon descent from a common ancestor.  This can be seen as a family (phylogenetic) tree branching out giving rise to the diversity in species of life we see today and showing the relationship between them.  Noteworthy is that the phylogenetic tree is circular, which dismisses the notion of a hierarchical structure of nature in a genetic sense.  Fundamental to the process of change are the genetic variations within species and the long time span to achieve this.  Several different mechanisms are classified that work to achieve this diversity. The most commonly known is natural selection as proposed by Charles Darwin.  

Change over time induced by mankind can possibly influence the course of evolution too.  Though evolution is not to be mistaken for simple change over time, like the formation or eroding of mountains.  When we look at our own sector, farming has seen many revolutions historically; the selection of cultivars and species, the introduction of animals on the farm for further mechanisation, repeat selection for performance, and lately the Green Revolution.  At the basis of much of this change is another well-known mechanism of evolution: artificial selection.  For example, the evolution of farm stock and crops is a result of only allowing certain animals and plants to reproduce to favour certain characteristics.  Due to long time cultivation of Vitis vinifera (grapevine), growers have selected favourable traits in grapevines relevant to them, whilst spreading them around the world.  As a result we have the many grape varieties for table wine we see today.  Due to this successful selection of grape cultivars, we have also believed to be in control of this (genetic) change.  Scientific research now challenges this perception by the discovery of mobile genetic elements, so called jumping genes, in grapevines.  These are now suspected to be responsible for the mutation and formation of the different grape varieties and clones. 

The notion of artificial selection is at work on a micro scale too, close to home.  Here at Dry River we select the best performing Pinot noir vines from our oldest vineyard, further cultivate their cuttings and plant them in our own empty vineyard sections.  This is primarily to continue the (Dry River) story and maintain a unique style, but also to further promote any positive genetic mutation to adapt to their direct surroundings.  Through the discovery of these “jumping genes”, it can be alleged that grapevines perform and evolve to suit our needs and environment (cultural or physical) in order to guarantee their survival. 

Transformations within society have also affected people’s attitudes. Mainly in respect to the role, trends and perceptions towards food, language, skills etc.  For example, diverging perspectives towards alcohol (wine), farming (winegrowing) and proximity to the world, can claim to have resulted in the particular varieties planted and the subsequent wine style.  This is apparent in wines like Sherry, Port, Madeira, but also New Zealand Sauvignon blanc.  These evolving or emerging products are believed to be influenced by socio-cultural and environmental evolution, but can for example partly be linked to differing methods of metabolism of alcohol in humans.  It can therefore be argued that changes in behaviour and even physical make up of human bodies, can be responsible to drive our own evolution, or at least influence it. 

Lastly in an economic sense, industries also react to external changes and evolve alongside them in order to guarantee their survival.  Though no gene modification precedes any of this change, succession planning for a new generation of leaders and staff will generate a different gene pool, bringing their own interpretations and attitudes.  We experience this first hand, here at Dry River, with the departure of founder and previous owner Neil McCallum and the appointment of a new team six years ago.  From a business perspective, we are very much in control of who drives internal progress regarding vision and strategy, though much else remains at the mercy of external influences.

So, are we in control and ‘on top of the world’?  Whether it is natural or artificial selection, the line on who is in the driving seat is evidently blurred.  In order to achieve our own goals we will have to be conscious of the concept that evolution penetrates every aspect of life; culture, society, the physical and non-physical world.  Perhaps we now have the tools and understanding to acknowledge we are not immune to life’s forces. However, we know we can at least influence the influencers and have a humble approach towards this relationship.