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On Barflies and Fruit Flies
December 15, 2012 8:39 AM   Subscribe

Promiscuous Males And Choosy Females? While previous studies have poked holes in Bateman's classic experiment, a recent study reveals fundamental methodological flaws. PDF slides with an excellent explanation.
posted by stp123 (56 comments total) 11 users marked this as a favorite

 
Comic sans just mated with potentially valid scientific inquiry. The offspring does not present increased credibility.
posted by zippy at 9:22 AM on December 15, 2012 [1 favorite]


So Bateman's study counted mutations in offspring (inherited from one or both parents) as a way of determining their parentage, but he made two wrong assumptions that led to systematic overcounting of fruitfly fathers and undercounting of fruitfly mothers.

The errors this study describes seem pretty elementary - can anyone with a bio background say whether that's true, and if so, why this hasn't been caught before now?
posted by LobsterMitten at 9:23 AM on December 15, 2012


It's almost like gender essentialism is crap or something.
posted by Pope Guilty at 9:25 AM on December 15, 2012 [18 favorites]


LobsterMitten: "The errors this study describes seem pretty elementary - can anyone with a bio background say whether that's true, and if so, why this hasn't been caught before now?"

From page 58 of the slides, the investigators have some good thoughts on that:

"We are left wondering why earlier investigators failed to spot the inferential problems with Bateman’s original study. Thus, the main implication we take from the current study is one earlier critics made: The paradigmatic power of the world-view captured in Bateman’s conclusions and the phrase “Bateman’s Principles” may blind investigators, obscuring from view methodological weaknesses and reasonable alternative hypotheses explaining VNM and VRS for both sexes."
posted by barnacles at 9:34 AM on December 15, 2012 [5 favorites]


Paging Thomas Kuhn!
posted by googly at 9:43 AM on December 15, 2012 [2 favorites]


Comic sans just mated with potentially valid scientific inquiry. The offspring does not present increased credibility.

Especially since the critique described on slide 19 has the whole thing backwards. Or perhaps that's just a mutation.
posted by absentian at 9:55 AM on December 15, 2012 [1 favorite]


It's almost like gender essentialism is crap or something.

Gender essentialism in humans is crap, but we're talking about insects here, and it's just as much a mistake to project our own egalitarian ideals onto them as it is to project their mating systems onto us.
posted by Pyry at 10:20 AM on December 15, 2012 [12 favorites]


Gender essentialism in humans is crap, but we're talking about insects here, and it's just as much a mistake to project our own egalitarian ideals onto them as it is to project their mating systems onto us.

I feel like most people with an interest in this story are going to be interested in it mostly for its use in wrongly extrapolating to humans, is all.
posted by Pope Guilty at 10:29 AM on December 15, 2012 [6 favorites]


It kinda makes the exact opposite of intuitive sense to think that males and females would have diametrically opposed biological urges.
posted by kittens for breakfast at 11:14 AM on December 15, 2012 [5 favorites]


PDF slides with an excellent explanation.

ALSO WITH CLOSEUP PICTURES OF FRUIT FLIES. Oh god why.
posted by grapesaresour at 11:30 AM on December 15, 2012


Oh gracious, Patty Gowaty and Wyatt Anderson, how very interesting. Gowaty was faculty and is now emeritus faculty at the UGa Odum School of Ecology (then the Institute of Ecology, "Institute" meaning graduate students only, no undergrads) where I ran the soil biology/stable isotope lab for a good long time. Didn't know Anderson, who was and is in genetics, but certainly knew of him; he's quite a big-name professor for somebody with no wikipedia page. Don't know Yong-Kyu Kim at all, haven't been at UGa since 2000. I'll be following the responses to this paper closely, thanks for the notice.


> It kinda makes the exact opposite of intuitive sense to think that males and females would have diametrically opposed biological urges.

Consider the preying mantis.
posted by jfuller at 11:57 AM on December 15, 2012 [1 favorite]


Pyry, human observers tend to project human social paradigms onto non-human animals. This is the methodological problem being pointed out in the Bateman study. If you see evidence of the same problem in Gowaty, Kim, and Anderson's work, maybe point it out to me because I'm not seeing it.
posted by Sidhedevil at 12:00 PM on December 15, 2012 [3 favorites]


Ugh! This article is really problematic. A single study has been shown to rest on faulty assumptions, and is being overturned. That's great! But please don't think this means that the entire premise of choosy females could possibly be overturned so easily, or that (GAH!) it's based only on antiquated anthropocentric notions. The idea has nothing to do with gender per se, all it says is that if there is an asymmetry in parental investment toward offspring, there is an asymmetry in the optimal evolutionary strategies of the two parents. Or, the parent that invests more energy in the offspring is the choosy parent. It is nothing more than the classic scientific argument "changing shit changes shit." It has nothing to do with the (possibly bullshit?) evo-psych theories that have been built upon it, and it certainly does not rest upon a single fruit fly study from the 50s. Nor does it rest on the (also possibly shakey) primate studies mentioned, nor would it be overturned by any Anthropologist's ethnology. Nor any other single study, because we're talking about a huge line of evidence.

This choosy sex idea is a general pattern that is widely observed throughout evolution, and can go either way. In cases where the male parental investment is greater, males are the choosy sex, as can be seen in seahorses, some birds, and giant water bugs. The manifestation of this concept is the nigh-irrefutable pattern of sexual selection we see throughout many organisms on earth. The sex with greater parental investment (yes, typically female) will benefit by ensuring the production of only quality offspring, and this can lead to selection that changes the opposite sex. It can lead to nuptual gifts (as in katydids and scorpionflies), to male competition (dung beetles, all sorts of deer type things), lekking and male ornaments (tons of birds), and many interesting sex-pheromone battles (seen commonly in insects including [ghasp!] fruit flies). This pattern of sexual selection is so strong in insects that it's one of the most reliable ways to delineate species: capricious sexual selection is thought to cause male genetalia often diverge rapidly between closely related species, which we think is why they are such useful diagnostic characters. The investment assymetry, the "choosy sex" hypothesis, is thought to lead to these things, so if you're going to overturn it, perhaps you can provide an alternate hypothesis for why males often have horns and give nuptual gifts? Perhaps you'd prefer Alfred Wallace's alternative explanation, which is that "greater male virility" leads to these ornaments and behaviors as a way to expel the excess energy that comes along with being the "stronger sex." Or maybe you were just taking a knee jerk response lacking evidence that is ironically very similar to the knee jerk acceptance you're condemning?
posted by Buckt at 12:01 PM on December 15, 2012 [32 favorites]


Back then DNA analysis wasn't available, so he couldn't link offspring with specific parents in that way. Instead, he reasoned that by using adult flies with [heritable, dramatic, and phenotypically obvious] mutations, he could trace an offspring back to a specific pair of parents

Honest question: since the his use of dramatic and maladaptive mutations to track parentage was flawed, has anyone tried to replicate his experiment using modern DNA analysis, which I assume can be done without relying on maladaptive mutations?
posted by cosmic.osmo at 12:37 PM on December 15, 2012


Bateman's principles have been confirmed in many species.
posted by Human Flesh at 1:07 PM on December 15, 2012 [4 favorites]


Consider the preying mantis.

Well, they want the same things initially.
posted by kittens for breakfast at 1:30 PM on December 15, 2012 [5 favorites]


"all it says is that if there is an asymmetry in parental investment toward offspring, there is an asymmetry in the optimal evolutionary strategies of the two parents."

And that's not much, as a "parent" cannot have an "evolutionary strategy" since the "parent" is not evolving, nor can parents make an "investment" "toward" offspring lacking "anthropocentric notions" like investment, toward, and strategy. If statements about aggregated observed data are going to be made using a teleological anthropocentric vocabulary, its unlikely that any but the cognoscenti will react with much more than a "knee jerk response."
posted by carping demon at 1:56 PM on December 15, 2012 [1 favorite]


If statements about aggregated observed data are going to be made using a teleological anthropocentric vocabulary, its unlikely that any but the cognoscenti will react with much more than a "knee jerk response?"

Dude, only the cognoscenti can even read those championship Scrabble words.
posted by zippy at 3:26 PM on December 15, 2012 [5 favorites]


If statements about aggregated observed data are going to be made using a teleological anthropocentric vocabulary, its unlikely that any but the cognoscenti will react with much more than a "knee jerk response."

They'll still be wrong, though. ("parents" in scare quotes? Really? Grin.)
posted by alasdair at 3:27 PM on December 15, 2012 [3 favorites]


Tries to find a way to work Thurber's "Bateman Comes Home" into this, fails.
posted by JHarris at 3:49 PM on December 15, 2012


Look. Evolution doesn't happen in the future. It has already happened. Tomorrow it will have already happened again, and the next day, etc. If you talk about things that have already happened (and are thus data) in terms of things that are expected to happen in the future (which are not data,) a lot of people are going to be confused. Note the current popular attitude towards science in America today. If you're going to appropriate, for your own uses, the words the public uses to describe their own lives, you've got to make it clear that that is what you are doing. And in a lifetime of living with scientists and educators, I have almost never seen that happen. What do you expect people to do?
posted by carping demon at 4:32 PM on December 15, 2012


I appreciate the clarification, carping demon, and I'm glad I didn't hit send on the sarcastic response I typed to your initial (really irritating, I might add) comment. Reading this response, I'm still not sure I understand what your getting at. Is it that I shouldn't use present tense when I talk about evolution? These things I describe are happening right now, so far as we can tell; the present morphology or behavior belies a past and presumably present evolutionary pressure that lead to it. You're right that some people might get confused by this, or by using a word such as "investment," but do you really think that this is the cause for the negative public sentiment toward science? I think it is exactly the opposite; I think the sort of opaque language as in your first comment is why people disregard scientific information. Speaking in plain English has is a legacy of great popularizers like Feynman or Sagan, and I think that making scientific ideas familiar in this way has greatly benefited the public understanding of science. I also say this not as someone who writes only on Internet messageboards, but as someone who is passionate about insects and talks about them at public events regularly. Evolution is always my central concept, and very rarely do I have people who interpret words like "invest" as being anything other than the selection-honed instinct I imply them to be. But also as someone who cares about education, I'd love to hear your opinion, because you seem to feel very strongly about this and I always wish to improve.
posted by Buckt at 4:58 PM on December 15, 2012 [5 favorites]


As a sociologist, what I find most telling is the fact that Bateman's original article, more than half a century old, has been cited with ever-increasing frequency and continues to be cited all the time today. This is not because of ever-increasing interest in fruit flies. This is because the "Bateman Principle" is used to mount cultural arguments about "human nature." You should sit in on one of my sociology of sexuality classes and see how pervasive the belief is that men are naturally promiscuous and women naturally and universally driven to seek monogamy. (Thus, a promiscuous woman is "unnatural," and marital monogamy a trap or huge sacrifice for a man.)

The fact is that we do project understandings of animals onto humans, and we do equally project human cultural beliefs onto animals. Sarah Hrdy was a pivotal figure in primatology because she showed that earlier primate research had done just that--filtered research observations through a belief in the Bateman Principle and produced biased results. In fact, as many studies have since shown, most primate females mate with multiple males in a given fertile period (not to mention the fact that same-sex activity is also common). It's just silly to say that behavior that is natural for other primates is "unnatural" in humans--but we humans are prone to just-so stories and Aesop's Fables about things like coy and passive female fruitflies dealing with indiscriminate, sex-crazed male ones.
posted by DrMew at 5:12 PM on December 15, 2012 [15 favorites]


"but do you really think that this is the cause for the negative public sentiment toward science?"

Yes, I do think it contributes heavily. The public has been led, since the Enlightenment, to believe that science at least attempts to make verifiable statements about the real world (which they all believe they inhabit). When those statements are made in terms of goal directed (teleological) behavior, even in cases where human behavior is not the subject, even in cases where what is being described is not behavior at all, but the aggregated (gathered together and considered as a whole to be analyzed) observations of the results of generations' worth (in the case of fruit flies thousands of generations) of behavior, the public expects to be able to think about those statements in terms of goal directed behavior with which they are familiar from their own lives. And when that fails to work out, as it must, when things turn out not to be what they think they have been told things would be, when, in fact, science gives them no, or even false, guidance about how they can understand their lives, it is to be expected that their regard for science will decline, to be replaced with whatever fantasy is made available, by whomever, for whatever intent.
posted by carping demon at 7:26 PM on December 15, 2012


Look, man, evolutionary strategies are real. The individuals who are employing those strategies don't necessarily conceive of them as such, but the fact is that billions of years of evolution by selection (in both natural and sexual flavors) have created organisms that behave in such a way as to attempt to maximize their chances of perpetuating and propagating their genetic lineages. This can be easily understood through a simple tautology: the lineages of organisms that did not behave in such a way as to successfully propagate their lineages no longer exist because their genetic lineages were not propagated. The circularity of that statement does not invalidate it; rather, that is its strength -- selection operates in a positive feedback loop.

So, an individual fruit fly may not be thinking "OK, I need to find as many mates as possible so that I can maximize the number of offspring I have" or "OK, I need to find the best mates possible so as to maximize the chances that my limited number of offspring will survive" but they are nevertheless behaving in ways that can be summed up (assuming Bateman's Principles as true) in those terms. Evolution is not something that "already happened". Evolution is something that happened, is happening, and will continue to happen and the results of past evolution (by natural and sexual selection and the several other ways in which evolution occurs) inform the behavior of organisms in the present and the results of those behaviors in the future.

Organisms do pursue evolutionary strategies. That is not to say that they consciously choose to behave in a certain way in order to "evolve better" or something. What is means to "pursue an evolutionary strategy" is to behave in the ways that one's evolutionary heritage has shaped one to behave and which have been shaped (through the winnowing and reinforcing process of selection) so as to maximize one's genetic potential, i.e. one's ability to propagate one's genetic lineage. Just because an organism does not make a conscious choice to be promiscuous or choosy or what have you does not mean that its behavior is not strategic, nor does it mean that it does not have evolutionary ramifications.
posted by Scientist at 10:41 PM on December 15, 2012 [13 favorites]


Also, Buckt's first comment is awesome and says most of what I originally came in here to say. Suffice it to say that the "female choice, male competition" model hardly rests on the findings of a single paper, nor is that model the last word in sexual selection. Sexual selection is a complex phenomenon and the parameters vary a great deal from species to species.

I find it particularly infuriating when people apply Bateman's principles to humans, though. It's seriously distressing to hear a sociologist (DrMew) say that they have currency in that field -- I had assumed that the misapplication of that model to humans was something that was relegated to pop-psychology and that real social scientists naturally dismissed it as an obvious and unsupported ploy to justify sexism by dressing it up in the trappings of evo-psych.

Where Bateman's principles break down for humans in incredibly obvious! No, males do not spend nine months gestating offspring, but human parental investment does not end at birth. The next eighteen years count! Parental care of young counts toward parental investment, shocking but true! If both males and females exhibit high parental investment in offspring, then there is no reason to expect that Bateman's principles would hold. You would naturally expect both sexes to be choosy and to try to find the best possible mates to be the best possible parents for their young.

Plus, trying to naively apply Bateman's principles to humans ignores another tiny detail, namely the entire phenomenon of human culture. Evolutionary psychology, even when correctly applied, does not wholly predict human behavior because humans have cultural adaptations as well as evolutionary adaptations and cultural adaptation changes human behavior on a dramatically faster timescale than evolutionary adaptation does.

It also ignores such trivialities as free will, self-determination, and individuality. Not all humans are alike! Human psychology varies tremendously from individual to individual, perhaps more than in any other species, and our individual behaviors vary accordingly. Human beings pursue a multitude of behavioral strategies, as can be observed just by paying a little attention to the people that one meets from day to day. Some males are promiscuous, as are some females. Some males are very choosy, as are some females. Some humans don't reproduce at all and instead choose to raise other people's offspring through adoption. Some humans put all of their investment into helping their family members raise their offspring. Some humans are homosexual (but may choose to adopt or to reproduce through a host mother or sperm donor). Some humans forgo reproduction and child-rearing in order to further causes that improve the human condition for all. Some humans forgo reproduction and child-rearing in order to pursue their own personal enjoyment of life. There is no single human evolutionary strategy, either for a particular sex or for the species as a whole.

Seriously, it takes like five minutes to think of a multitude of reasons why applying Bateman's principles to humans is a terrible, terrible idea. I could understand it as a bit of pernicious pop-psych because doing so affirms the "right" of the dominant gender to fuck as many people as they want while simultaneously admonishing the marginalized gender to not be such a bunch of dirty sluts. I really hope that I have badly misinterpreted your comment, DrMew. I would hate to think that real sociologists think like that.
posted by Scientist at 11:33 PM on December 15, 2012 [9 favorites]


Where Bateman's principles break down for humans in incredibly obvious! No, males do not spend nine months gestating offspring, but human parental investment does not end at birth. The next eighteen years count! Parental care of young counts toward parental investment, shocking but true! If both males and females exhibit high parental investment in offspring, then there is no reason to expect that Bateman's principles would hold. You would naturally expect both sexes to be choosy and to try to find the best possible mates to be the best possible parents for their young.

Quoted for truth. There's also the little issue of concealed ovulation, which from an evo bio perspective means a lot of what you can apply to other animals really doesn't fit with humans. Human women can get away with being reasonably promiscuous, with no one male being certain of the paternity of his offspring. That has lead to a whole slew of social frameworks throughout history that have often limited a woman's ability to choose her partner. The social aspects of our reproduction are easily as important, if not moreso, than any inherent biological cues. We have a complex social heirarcy and complex social models that make it difficult to use insect studies to evaluate our sexual behaviour.
posted by Jilder at 12:00 AM on December 16, 2012


Scientist: I am also trained as a sociologist, what part of DrMew's assessment is sitting badly with you? Basically the way I read it is that scientists have in the past projected their own biases onto the data and produced findings that support then current dominant understandings of sexual behavior in humans, and have in turn reinforced the norms of the period. You seem to be otherwise in agreement.
posted by Jilder at 12:05 AM on December 16, 2012


Jilder, I get that the problem you describe happens embarassingly often in the sciences but I thought that science in general and social science in particular tried really hard these days to be hyper-aware of that pitfall and to avoid giving credence to obvious bullshit simply because it affirms dominant power structures. DrMew's comment seemed to be saying that Bateman's principles are frequently held by Real Sociologists to apply to human beings. If I, an undergraduate biology student, can immediately think of three crushing and blindingly obvious reasons why that is a spectacularly dumb thing to do, how is it that practicing sociologists with terminal degrees can go around believing that Bateman's principles apply to humans?

The implications of this, if true, are what disturb me. It wouldn't speak well of the level of scientific rigor and intellectual honesty in sociology if many sociologists were to hold such a dumb, obviously wrong, and incredibly sexist belief.
posted by Scientist at 12:29 AM on December 16, 2012


They don't believe that Bateman's Principle applies to people. That's not the point:

"Sarah Hardy was a pivotal figure in primatology because she showed that earlier primate research had done just that--filtered research observations through a belief in the Bateman Principle and produced biased results... It's just silly to say that behavior that is natural for other primates is "unnatural" in humans--but we humans are prone to just-so stories and Aesop's Fables about things like coy and passive female fruitflies dealing with indiscriminate, sex-crazed male ones."

It's generally not held as true by sociologists. It's held true by the lay (and even then not all of them).

Sociologists in general believe that all science is filtered through bias (including our own) and that it's paramount that we make sure that our own frameworks of understanding do not get in the way of our science. In hard sciences, it's considerably easier to remove bias through careful controls in your experimentation. You can't apply controls as easily to the social sciences, so it becomes a greater imperative for us to identify and watch for that bias. It's fairly ground level stuff. It's pretty much first semester, first year stuff.

Laypeople however cling to things like the Bateman Principle because it reaffirms the norms of the society they were raised it. It allows them to reaffirm their world view, and it normalises beliefs and values (in this case that male sexual promiscuity and female monogamy) as being inherently true, and that's basically what I understood DrMew as saying.
posted by Jilder at 1:22 AM on December 16, 2012


I think that DrMew was also pointing out that even in biology (eg. primatology; not sure if you are including biology in the "hard sciences" or not - I've heard hard science used as non-social science, or as just physics and chemistry), there have been numerous examples where the scientists' cultural assumptions human behavior have affected their interpretations/data analysis. That is, that not only laypeople cling to the pop-psychology version of the Batemen Principle, but it is one of the biases that you mention among scientists as well.
posted by eviemath at 1:54 AM on December 16, 2012


Scientist-

"Evolution is something that happened, is happening, and will continue to happen and the results of past evolution (by natural and sexual selection and the several other ways in which evolution occurs) inform the behavior of organisms in the present and the results of those behaviors in the future."

You are absolutely right.

I cannot see what you think you add to that by imputing strategy, which presumes a sentient striving towards a preconceived end, to the process. Being strategic, and having evolutionary ramifications are in no way comparable. Results can be observed. Strategies can only be projected onto results. Confusing one for the other leads to the idea that "such trivialities as free will, self-determination, and individuality" are somehow part of a natural process. They are not. They are constructs.

The claim that something is "natural" is tantamount to the claim that it has been "revealed." There is no basis for it, and it has been endlessly destructive, as "tabla rasa", eugenics, "master race", "efficient markets", "naturally promiscuous", "not good at math", and on and on show.

This is not just some "mistake" that scientists made in the past and are being careful about now. This is one of the fundamental errors that has dogged much of Western Society (at least) since the dawn of western science. It will continue to dog us until we begin basing our decisions on what we can actually demonstrate about things, and not on similes that we are comfortable with at this stage of our cultural development.

I do not mean to irritate anyone. I simply can't see any other way to put it clearly.
posted by carping demon at 2:00 AM on December 16, 2012 [3 favorites]


If I understand carping demon correctly, a clearer example of their point might be how many folks (especially in the US) reject the conclusion of global warming because they, personally, had a cold winter. Which, yes, is due to an incomplete and inaccurate understanding of the science in the first place, since weather is not climate and the climate scientists are talking about aggregate effects with much local variation (and increases in variation eg. in the sense of intensity of storms - including winter snow storms which are memorable to folks - due to greater energy in the atmosphere (roughly) is part of the climate predictions). Which misunderstanding is due in this case in large part to much money being spent to give people in the US such false notions. But I read somewhere a few years ago that popular science presentations in the US tend to contain less information (yet, somewhat paradoxically, assume more background knowledge initially) than similar presentations in other countries such as the UK. It is possible that not taking the time to explain or not trusting laypeople to be able to understand the full complexity of scientific ideas contributes to this tendency for laypeople to dismiss science because they see obvious contradictions between their observed reality and their understanding of the scientific idea.
posted by eviemath at 2:03 AM on December 16, 2012 [1 favorite]


This.
posted by carping demon at 2:08 AM on December 16, 2012


So, evolution is a similar case, in that the language in which the theory of evolution is presented in many grade school textbooks and popular science venues is a language of intentionality and progress in a "positive" direction. A popular misconception of evolution is that it produces more fit individuals. But it doesn't. It says that less fit individuals tend to be killed off before they are able to reproduce. This may seem like a subtle distinction on the surface, so that the use of intentionality and progress language might seem harmless, but it does have some important implications. For example: as a secondary effect, evolution tends to produce, over longer periods of time, populations that are more fit - more adapted to their environment. But not always! Witness the manatee. Evolution produces the good enough, not the best fit.
posted by eviemath at 2:11 AM on December 16, 2012 [2 favorites]


This too.
posted by carping demon at 2:17 AM on December 16, 2012


> the language in which the theory of evolution is presented in many grade school textbooks and popular
> science venues is a language of intentionality and progress in a "positive" direction

See teleology vs. teleonomy. Historical (aka "causal") description emphasizes the antecedent conditions that lead up to whatever you're describing, while teleonomic description focuses on the end state as a sensible way to order and unify the events that led to it. Teleonomic description can be a useful (because more concise) explanatory style that cuts down on the tedious circumlocution needed to phrase descriptions as exclusively historical/causal. Teleonomic descriptions do not necessarily (in the logical sense) require that one impute conscious purpose or decisions to anything for which that is not appropriate.

Once the teleonomic descriptive style gets into the hands of people who are not using it with awareness and care it does encourage loose talk, sho'nuff. However, just because a tool is being misused, that by itself isn't enough to warrant tossing it out.

P.S. I put "causal" in scare quotes because I don't believe valid causal accounts exist. Historical accounts are the best we have and the best we're ever going to have.
posted by jfuller at 6:48 AM on December 16, 2012 [2 favorites]


Thanks for clearing that up for me, Jilder. I had misinterpeted DrMew's comment above. I feel much better now.

I disagree that the phrase "evolutionary strategy" implies conscious decision-making. Maybe this is a bit unorthodox, but I see the goal-directed language surrounding the discussion of evolution as being both a useful shorthand and also as a valid way of describing the emergent behavioral properties of organisms that result from the shaping and directing forces of evolution.

It is ridiculous to me to say that a worker ant does not have the goal of gathering food for her colony, or that a beaver does not have the goal of building a dam, or that a male bowerbird does not have the goal of building a bower that will help him attract a mate. Restricting concepts like "strategy" and "goals" to sentient, conscious creatures (by which most people mean "humans only") strikes me as needlessly anthropocentric. I think it does a disservice to genuine understanding of the natural world to conceive of less mentally complex species as being nothing but mechanistic automatons with neither goals nor a strategy for achieving them.

Evolution by selection provides organisms with both goals and strategies. Even the most mechanistic of single-celled bacteria have characteristic behaviors that serve to enhance the ability of their genetic lineages to persist through time. What is such a characteristic behavior if not a strategy?

Now, it would be idiotic to say that the strategy of a bacteria or a fruit fly or an ant or beaver or bowerbird or chimpanzee is the same as a human's, but it would be equally foolish to declare that we can never learn anything about our own species' behavior from studying the behavior of other species. Applying Bateman's Principles to humans is wrong not because it is always wrong to apply ecological models to humans, but rather because there is a great deal of both theoretical and empirical evidence which strongly suggests that they do not apply in this case.

Educating the public to believe that humans are not subject to the same forces and influences that shape the behavior of the rest of the world's life-forms is just as dangerous, to my mind, as educating the public to credulously accept whatever non-human behavioral model best confirms their personal biases or those of the dominant cultural power structure. As ever, it is more difficult than that. People need to be educated to be able to think critically about these issues and apply the lessons of ecology (as all other branches of science) in an appropriate way -- otherwise we place the burden entirely on the publicizers of science to make sure that the public never hears anything wrong or dangerous or that could be misinterpreted, and while I do of course think that scientific communication can be and ought to be greatly improved, I also think it is clear that the problem should be addressed on both ends.

The problem here is not that Bateman's Principles do not apply to humans, nor is it that science educators use imprecise and misleading language to discuss evolution and its behavioral ramifications (although I do agree that that happens and that it is problematic). The problem is that we have a public that has not been taught how to think critically about scientific issues, and a patriarchal power structure that is happy to use that to its own advantage.
posted by Scientist at 9:28 AM on December 16, 2012 [4 favorites]


"...teleonomic description focuses on the end state as a sensible way to order and unify the events that led to it."

I.e., it is projected onto data. The order and unification are exogenous to the actual (what happened whether we know it or not) as opposed to the historical (what we think happened) set of events being considered.

Teleonomy was a kludge put together in the fifties when information science began to see both biology and computing as areas to explore. You can do a lot with a kludge, as the history of industrialization shows. Still, there are things you cannot do with it, and it can fail in unexpected ways as it is applied to a widening range of jobs at times further and further removed from the events it was designed to deal with.

A tool being misused need not be tossed out, but it needs to be put down by those who don't know how to use it. If the tool looks nearly identical to another tool, it needs to be kept out of the hands of those who do not know how to use it until they can be educated to recognize it and use it safely. Your straight razor should not be kept beside your butter knife, and you should not let the kids see you use it to spread butter on your bread. They'll think that's what its for, and hurt themselves and others, possibly by just reaching for it, let alone misusing it.

The problem is that we have a public that has not been taught how to think critically about scientific issues, and a patriarchal power structure that is happy to use that to its own advantage.

You got that right, Jack.
posted by carping demon at 9:56 AM on December 16, 2012


(I mean that as a figure of speach, not an implication that you didn't get other things right also, or that your name is "Jack".)
posted by carping demon at 9:57 AM on December 16, 2012


Educating the public to believe that humans are not subject to the same forces and influences that shape the behavior of the rest of the world's life-forms is just as dangerous, ... I also think it is clear that the problem should be addressed on both ends.
I totally agree with this.
It is ridiculous to me to say that a worker ant does not have the goal of gathering food.... I think it does a disservice to genuine understanding of the natural world to conceive of less mentally complex species as being nothing but mechanistic automatons with neither goals nor a strategy for achieving them.
I also agree with this. But here you are talking about short-term individual goals and strategies for the survival of the individual organism. Behavioral patterns might be a more neutral term for the purposes of the present discussion? Yes, the fact that individuals from less complex species exhibit certain behavior is a result of a combination of the evolution of that particular species as a whole and the particular genetic and environmental influences on that individual in particular. But that doesn't mean necessarily that the individual organism has goals or strategies, or behavioral patterns, that serve the purpose of furthering it's own genetic line in quite so direct a way. Salmon's instinctual behavior of returning to a river to spawn with other salmon might fit the description of a behavior that directly leads to reproduction. From what I've read, the sort of nurturing behavior toward young offspring that is common among mammals is caused more by empathy, with increased reproductive success being a side benefit (for the species as a whole) more than a "goal" of the individuals involved.

Even if we agree on what saying that something is a goal of an individual organism means (I would interpret "goal" as meaning that the individual either intends the result, or that the outcome is a direct, rather than secondary, consequence of a behavior; it seems we're not all agreed on this however), the language of goals, intentionality, and progress is not solely a technical shorthand misunderstood and misused by laypeople though. These relate to actual questions about the mechanisms of evolution. You know of the Darwinian versus Lamarckian debate, for example? (It was covered in my high school biology class, so I assume other folks in this discussion do know the ins and outs of the different arguments, but please let me know if this is a bad assumption and I should explain how I think this connects to the discussion.) Different assumptions or paradigms - which are connected with the language that scientists use to describe their field - affect the type of experiments that they design, the facts and results that they observe, and ultimately the conclusions that they draw.

For a more recent example, there is the long resistance to the idea of epigenetics. Many biologists studying evolutionary processes completely overlooked inheritance of traits through epigenetic mechanisms (even when, in retrospect, this was directly suggested by their data), and disbelieved early research and results in this area. This resistance stemmed in large part from the fallout of the Darwinian versus Lamarckian debate a century to a century and a half earlier. The discovery of DNA as the main (thought at the time to be only - see the central dogma) mechanism of inheritance reinforced the arguments against Lamarckian evolution, further solidifying the then modern understanding that grew out of Darwin's ideas since the idea of inheritance. The idea that inheritance could occur through means other than changes in DNA sequence reminded scientists too much of Lamarckian claims imputing intentionality to individual organisms.

On another note, I like that you (Scientist) have brought up the term "emergent". Evolution, however, is an emergent property of populations, not of specific individuals within a population. Were you referring to what I would prefer to call secondary effects or consequences of an individual organism's behavior, like my mammal caring for it's young example?
posted by eviemath at 11:01 AM on December 16, 2012 [2 favorites]


I think we're close to agreement here, eviemath, and perhaps most of the differences between us come down to semantics. Addressing your last point first, I don't really see evolution as being an emergent property of populations. I see some of the results of evolution -- increased fitness, for example -- as the emergent products of a fundamental and essentially random process (mutation) that is shaped by certain constraints arising from the interaction of the molecular mechanics of reproduction and the environments in which organisms reside. Evolution is inevitable -- the patterns and results of evolution are emergent. That's how I see it, anyway.

People are quite right to say that organisms do not evolve, but I think it is a bit of a misconception to extend that to say that organisms do not participate in evolution through the reproductive process. Individual actions do have evolutionary consequences, even if those consequences cannot affect the evolutionary heritage of the particular individual in question (due to simple cause and effect).

Would you feel more comfortable if rather than saying that individuals pursue evolutionary strategies, I said instead that they participate in the emergent evolutionary strategy of their species? That shifts the focus of agency to the species or population level rather than the individual level, and while I personally see little difference between the two I am perfectly comfortable with either phrasing. (The reason I see little difference is that I view species/population-level behavior as essentially fractal and existing as the result of a logical chain of consequences stemming from the aggregation of individual behaviors. I recognize that there are many complex echos and reflections of cause and effect moving backward and forward across the chain such that population-level phenomena often influence individual-level behavior [and vice-versa], but I recognize individual action as the fundamental behavioral unit.)

For what it's worth, I am also not so sure that I buy the argument that salmon returning to spawn is inherently instinctual (and therefore primarily reproductive) whereas mammalian nurturing of young is inherently emotional (and therefore primarily a product of free will and empathy) and that therefore one is part of a species-wide evolutionary strategy while the other is not. While it is easier for us humans to empathize with the reproductive behavior of mammals than that of fish, I think that both have elements of both instinct and intentionality embedded in them (both behaviors have significant hormonal components, for instance) and that it is anthropocentric of us to assign intentionality to mammalian mothers but deny it of fish.

Nor do I think that intentionality is necessarily the fundamental component of strategy! I do not see any reason why an organism like an ant, which so far as we know behaves almost totally mechanistically, cannot be said to behave in a strategic fashion. How else can we describe such complex, purposeful, effective behaviors? What do we gain by declaring that the operation of an ant colony is not strategic?
posted by Scientist at 11:51 AM on December 16, 2012 [2 favorites]


Oh, and I agree completely with you that the sciences have long been plagued by confirmation bias and an unwillingness to accept the inevitable conclusions of research when those conclusions contradict dominant paradigms. If anything though I think that this strengthens my position -- I think that one dominant paradigm which scientists are reluctant to challenge is human exceptionalism, and that this tends to lead to circuitous arguments in which people try to erase the intentionality and purposefulness of non-human animals by creating some fairly tortuous logical workarounds and circumlocutions.

Even many people who accept the intelligence and free will of some of the more human-like intelligences in the world (great apes, cetaceans, elephants, etc) have a tendency to draw a circle around those animals and put free will on the inside and instinct on the outside. I've never seen how this could possibly hold up to honest and open-minded logical scrutiny.
posted by Scientist at 12:00 PM on December 16, 2012 [1 favorite]


> I.e., it is projected onto data. The order and unification are exogenous to the actual (what happened whether
> we know it or not) as opposed to the historical (what we think happened) set of events being considered.

How is that not true of all kinds of explanation? Building one, of whatever style, has to start with an unexplained (or in someone's view wrongly explained) state of affairs, and the explainer then has to sift through and examine as many antecedent conditions as possible and cherry-pick the ones that seem most directly relevant to the process that led to the state of affairs being explained. *takes breath* That looks like projecting onto the data from here, and it also looks end-state-oriented whether that's acknowledged or not.
posted by jfuller at 12:28 PM on December 16, 2012 [1 favorite]


It may, in fact, actually be true for all kinds of explanations. I would have to think about it more than I can right now.

If by "building one" you mean building an explanation, what you describe is indeed end-state-oriented, but the end state orientation is supplied by the explainer. It does not reside in the antecedent conditions, hence the cherry-picking. The explanation may serve admirably to suggest further investigation or hypotheses, (or just to be happy.) But if it is used to assign attributes to natural behavior, and then repurposed to promulgate particular standards for future behavior to be accepted as "natural," that is to say, used to justify policy, it can easily become destructive. That type of assignation seems readily indulged in by an indifferently educated public, indeed, by main stream science writing. Needlessly so, is my feeling. Though, to paraphrase D. Rumsfeld, you do science with the public you've got, not the one you wish you had.
posted by carping demon at 1:24 PM on December 16, 2012


I just checked back to find this wonderful conversation. I'm glad you took up the torch, Scientist, because you did it better than I could have.

carping demon, we must be trained in different fields. I don't fully understand much of what you say, and I think at least some of it is a shoehorning of ideas applicable in one field to another. You are probably technically correct in these issues, but I do not think they represent a glaring hole in my discipline, and I don't expect that distinguishing teleology and teleonomy will make me a better scientist.

eviemath, I think that many of the things you said are extremely important. I especially appreciate the note about "not trusting laypeople to be able to understand the full complexity of scientific ideas," and how this leads to problems. The "dumbing down" of science is extremely dangerous, as seen by the jackass at every party who thinks he gets quantum mechanics. BUT using a different set of words is not the same thing as dumbing it down. I like to believe that my word choice makes these things more readily understandable; that people don't agree with what I say because I use familiar words, but that my use of familiar words allows people to understand what I'm saying and this then causes them to agree with me. It's a fine line, and I have fallen on the wrong side of it before. I always wish to learn. I've been thinking carefully about what you and carping demon are saying, and I do not agree with most of the critiques, but I appreciate your both taking the time to clarify them to us.

I would also say that it isn't just laypeople who we don't expect to understand complex scientific ideas. I gave two hour-long research presentations this fall, one to a chemical ecologist and one to a few geneticists. I had to carefully choose which details to explain (skimping on the genetics for the one and the chemical ecology for the others), what things to burden them with understanding, and what things I could gloss over. These were all collaborators, whose names may be on the papers, so I wasn't trying to persuade them or anything. I wanted the best chance of getting a useful critique, and the optimal dissemination of information requires making these choices. I don't doubt that they have been made poorly in the past.

The Khunsian things about frameworks and implicit assumptions are really important, and I see how one could construe the use of human-seeming diction as belieing an incorrect understanding of nature, but I've already stated that I don't think this the case with a conversation about evolutionary strategies. A lot of the Khun stuff makes people think that obstinate scientists are so set in their ways they can't see the true answer starting them in the face, and that's probably true a lot of the time. But it's also true that in the optimal execution of science, things like epigenetics should be questioned for a time, until sufficient evidence accumulates to accept them. This is best encapsulated by Carl Sagan, "extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence." The originally researchers might actually have been fabricating their data. So don't be so quick to take examples of good ideas being initially rejected as a bad thing - sometimes it will be a part of the optimal execution of science.

And the last note: my impression from your comment here is that short-term, individual actions with obvious outcomes may be considered "goals," but not the more statistical, emergent patterns? If I understand you correctly, then I think that's wrong, even semantically. Everything in biology is emergent and statistical. Any behavior we see is the end of a long, long chain of chaotic, poorly-understood biochemical interactions that result from varying products of genes. This idea is encapsulated in Dawkins' "extended phenotype." It makes no sense to bin things into a category with obvious outcomes and non-obvious ones. There are only genes and phenotypes, and then the butterfly perturbations that somehow lead from one to the other. An adaptive phenotype, to me, can be referred to as an evolutionary strategy and be thought of as the product of its gene's goals. This includes the child rearing of a behavior, its food or sex seeking behaviors, but also the dam, the shape of its den and the amount of time it spends sleeping every night. Who cares if the child rearing has an intermediate cause of empathy in the brain, or if the dam building has an intermediate cause of water flowing downstream? So if you want to talk about things that are only primary and never secondary effects, I guess you could only attribute agency to the binding of transcription factors to DNA.

Ok, I sat down to look at some emergent statistical phenomena, and I haven't done any of it! On to that...
posted by Buckt at 1:45 PM on December 16, 2012 [3 favorites]


Damn it, ran out of editing time. In my third to last sentence, I meant beavers, not behaviors.

"This includes the child rearing of a beaver, its food or sex seeking, ...."
posted by Buckt at 1:52 PM on December 16, 2012


> Well, they want the same things initially.

I think there may have been some miscommunication right from the start. He was expecting a fuck and a smoke and she was expecting a fuck and a snack.
posted by jfuller at 3:53 PM on December 16, 2012 [1 favorite]


Scientist, when I say that evolution is an emergent property of populations, I mean what you said in your second paragraph. I very much like your phrasing in your third paragraph. We do indeed seem to be primarily arguing semantics:)
posted by eviemath at 6:51 PM on December 16, 2012


And the last note: my impression from your comment here is that short-term, individual actions with obvious outcomes may be considered "goals," but not the more statistical, emergent patterns? If I understand you correctly, then I think that's wrong, even semantically. Everything in biology is emergent and statistical. Any behavior we see is the end of a long, long chain of chaotic, poorly-understood biochemical interactions that result from varying products of genes.

Ok: a plant turning it's leaves toward the sun is a more immediate, direct response by an individual organism to a stimulus. I'm not uncomfortable using the language of intent and goals in that context by saying something like, "the plant turned it's leaves toward the sun." Especially when it comes to more complex organisms, something like, "the adult salmon returned to it's home river to spawn" (the "to spawn" being the goal part) may indeed be more accurate - I personally think it's unlikely that salmon have complex thought processes, but it's entirely plausible that on the simpler, more emotional level on which I think it more likely that their brains operate, an individual salmon connects feelings around returning to it's home river with feelings around spawning; that these two behaviors don't just happen mechanistically. In any event, the question is still open, and yeah, hopefully the scientists studying salmon don't make assumptions one way or the other.

Let me try to give a more precise taxonomy of what I personally understand a "goal" to be in the context of behavior of individual organisms. I want to talk about several issues: reacting to local versus global information and the idea of emergent behavior; immediate versus secondary, tertiary, or farther removed effects; the degree to which individual organisms respond to external stimulii versus following a pre-set program; the complexity with which organisms respond to stimulii; generational and time scales.

Local versus global information and emergent behavior:
In the case of migrating geese flying in a V formation, or a slime mold moving toward greater nutrient sources, are the individual geese or molds acting based on a knowledge and sense of the entire group? Geese are more complex, so while their behavior in this respect can be reproduced as emergent behavior of individual agents in a computer program following a small set of localized rules, that doesn't mean that actual geese don't somehow have a sense of the group, in some way feeling or thinking "it's my turn to break trail; ok, I'm getting tired, now it's the next guy's turn."

My understanding of research on slime molds, though, is that the overall behavior of the group - the slime mold colony - is due to individuals reacting to their immediate local surroundings. Individual spores sending out different chemical signals in different quantities based on the availability of nutrients, signals received from neighboring individuals, or other environmental conditions at their specific location, which then disperse amongst the group. Like cells in Conway's Game of Life, individual mold spores react only to these localized signals, and so I would say that describing this process as "individual mold spores work together for the benefit of the group" is inaccurate in that it implies that individual mold spores have and react to information about the group as a whole. Geese can look around at the whole group and have such information at the group level. Slime mold spores don't.

In the couple of articles that I read on the topic a while back, it sounded like it took a while for researchers to figure out the mechanism by which slime mold colonies moved because they were looking for signals that could provide individuals with global knowledge of the colony, and weren't thinking along the lines of individuals reacting to local knowledge producing emergent group behavior. Which is one reason why I think it's important to use language, especially between scientists themselves, that can distinguish between the varying levels of local versus global information (i.e. the physical scale of external stimulii) that individuals react to. Emergence means something specific, and far from everything in biology is emergent.

Immediate versus farther removed effects
To clarify my earlier comments, I mean this in the causal, not temporal sense. ("Causal" as in causation versus correlation.)

Level of response to external stimulii
Some very simple organisms mostly follow a pre-set pattern. Very primitive protazoa lacking even the most basic of organelles to help them direct their movement don't have much choice. Most organisms do x rather y at a given time based on the interaction of external and internal stimulii though. So there's the issue of the extent to which organisms respond to external stimulii.

Complexity of response to external stimulii
There's a great deal of variation in terms of how organisms respond to external stimulii, from knee-jerk autonomous and immediate physical responses to the hypothesis that consciousness comes from emotions which come from increasingly internalized and complex or delayed responses to stimulii.

Generational and time scales
Most external stimulii are fairly immediate. Internal stimulii come from this "long, long chain of chaotic, poorly-understood biochemical interactions that result from varying products of genes" along with the environmental influences on an individual organism's ancestors. An individual's behavior is its response to this combination of influences. But many organisms are capable of fairly complex behavior which can be time-delayed. Some organisms, not just including humans, can anticipate future external stimulii to varying degrees, and exhibit pro-active rather than reactive behavior. Many less complex organisms cannot, however.

What I think of when I hear something described as an individual's "goal"
When you say that an individual organism does something because it has the goal of [insert effect of action here], I understand that to mean that the individual:
(i) is exhibiting a complex and not immediate reaction to some stimulii;
(ii) this language doesn't seem to me to restrict to either external or internal stimulii, but I think baring more specifics that I would tend to imagine some external stimulii being present;
(iii) the goal - that is, the effect reported - will be a causally (not necessarily temporally) immediate effect of the behavior that the goal is associated to in the description;
(iv) the effect is on the same physical scale as the information available to the individual organism: if the organism only has local information, I would say that it can only have local goals; if it has more global information, I'm (more) comfortable talking about more global results of its behavior as goals;
(v) for temporally immediate effects, I guess I would use the language of cause and effect; to me, a goal implies that the result or effect is temporally removed from the action, implying some level of ability of the individual to anticipate the future, eg. to anticipate future stimulii; I would describe something as the goal of an individual's behavior only if it were within that organism's ability to anticipate the future as far in advance as it would take for the goal/end result to occur - this is really the key criterion for something to be a "goal" as I see it.

Baring evidence of some sort of group-mind in any species, I would say that populations (i.e. groups of organisms) can't have goals, since they don't as a unit anticipate stimulii. So I don't use the language of goals when talking about population-level effects like the processes of evolution. To me, goals are tied in with some level of intentionality, which something like a slime mold colony lacks even though it exhibits cohesive group behavior via emergence. Buckt, your web site indicates that you study ants - I imagine this gives you a different perspective on this question, since from my much less knowledgeable understanding, animals like ants and bees that live in complex colonies but also are relatively complex as individuals may be the exception to this.

At the same time though, I am comfortable with saying that human cultural or social institutions evolve - because humans can communicate on a sufficiently complex level to develop a "sense of the meeting." (My understanding is that primate research at the least indicates that humans are not unique in this ability.)
posted by eviemath at 8:29 PM on December 16, 2012 [1 favorite]


(Oh man, I got into this discussion because I thought I could clarify a misunderstanding between a couple participants, and now I've slid into debating specifics with fellow Mefites whose profiles I have just now looked at and realized mostly have equal or greater background in the relevant scientific discipline as me (noting that my background does involve a small amount of molecular/population biology research). I should probably be a little bit more careful about claiming relative expertise in technical subjects here on Metafilter:P)
posted by eviemath at 10:17 PM on December 16, 2012


(To your most recent comment, I happily give the same caveat. I don't know shit.)

I think it's completely a semantic thing at this point. I totally get where you're coming from. I've been galvanized by this conversation, but I do actually tend on the side of caution with these words. But!: I think that this whole debate of agency or whatever is missing the point, which I'll briefly try to clarify, then bow out.

This quote of yours (below) shows that we're just coming at it from a totally different direction: when I say the the salmon returned home to spawn, I really don't care or think about the mental process that got it there. It returned home to spawn because returning home at this time of the year in combination with all these other factors promotes survival. The fact that it promotes survival, that the behavior exists precisely because it does so makes me comfortable saying "the salmon does X because of Y." And that was the point of my tenuous chain argument. I don't care about any emotional behavior in their brains in the same way that I don't care about the behavior of proteins X, Y, and Z. Mostly, I don't concern myself with those sorts of questions (ie, emotion, choice), because I think they're unfalsifiable. The line between where emotion exists and where it's mechanistic is, in my opinion, effectively impossible to draw, and is just a fat false dichotomy. I don't think I got that point across very well before (my post was already way too long!), but that's what I mean. Thus, I'd say that the emotional whatever is just a link in the chain from gene to phenotype. It's the same thing in both: input -> magic happens here -> output. Thus, I'd say either allow that any adaptive behavior is goal-oriented, or basically say nothing is. Here's maybe another way I could illustrate why I think this. What if it were discovered, as many people have long believed, that human beings don't actually have any semblance of free will? It seems to me that, by your statements, we could no longer refer to anything humans do as goal-oriented. And the obverse is equally absurd - by how I'm interpreting your argument, does that mean referring to human behaviors as goal-oriented implies they have free will? It's not an assumption I'm comfortable making, not for cats or ants. When I use these words, I'm not talking about anything deeper than "this happens because it works, and Chucky Dee made it so." So thus is the difference in meaning, and why I think your way is wrong. = P.

Especially when it comes to more complex organisms, something like, "the adult salmon returned to it's home river to spawn" (the "to spawn" being the goal part) may indeed be more accurate - I personally think it's unlikely that salmon have complex thought processes, but it's entirely plausible that on the simpler, more emotional level on which I think it more likely that their brains operate, an individual salmon connects feelings around returning to it's home river with feelings around spawning; that these two behaviors don't just happen mechanistically.
posted by Buckt at 10:46 PM on December 16, 2012 [1 favorite]


Oh, don't bow out of the conversation please! Unless you're actually tiring of it, of course.

I think we do have a more than semantic disagreement, Buckt. You say that
It returned home to spawn because returning home at this time of the year in combination with all these other factors promotes survival. The fact that it promotes survival, that the behavior exists precisely because it does so....
This is materially different, in a falsifiable way, from saying that "the salmon returned home to spawn at this time of the year in combination with all these other factors because random chance developed that pattern, and it hasn't been harmful to survival." Traits and behaviors developed through evolution don't have to promote survival, they just have to not hinder survival past a certain threshold. The behavior exists due to random chance, not due to its effect on salmon survival. The behavior has continued to exist for many generations of salmon not because it necessarily does anything proactively helpful for salmon survival or reproduction, but because it doesn't fall below some ecologically-determined threshold of actively preventing salmon survival and/or reproduction.

The world would almost certainly have a lot less genetic variation if that threshold were higher, and especially if it tipped over to the requiring traits to be actively helpful side of things. It's the difference between voting the worst reality show contestant off the show each week, versus voting for the best contestant in the first week. It allows greater time for mutations that aren't too harmful but not specifically helpful either to further develop into other mutations, some of which may be specifically helpful. Like spreading the reality show out over an entire seasons allows time for the voting viewers to gain a more complete impression of who each contestant is and how they behave under a greater variety of potential conditions. It allows mutation to sometimes reach something closer to a global maximum of fitness, rather than only being able to reach local maximums based on wherever the process started. I'm following the same method now by throwing out a whole bunch of different permutations of my explanation and hoping that one makes sense - fortunately, I don't have to come up with the perfect explanation in order to convey my idea, I just have to come up with one that's good enough in the "ecological" context of this discussion:P
posted by eviemath at 11:53 PM on December 16, 2012 [1 favorite]


"When I use these words, I'm not talking about anything deeper than this happens because it works"

With sincere due respect, that is still too deep. This does not happen because it works. It happens to work. If it did not work, there simply would be no salmon.

Here is why that is important. As the public decide who should get what in society, they conjure up "the law of the jungle," which they probably learned from Disney, and proceed to conflate it with a flickering evolutionary concept they remember hearing about, that is, "survival of the fittest." They think these are two natural forces they can use to demonstrate that the domination of the weak by the powerful is a natural, and thereby justifiable result. In fact, there is no law of the jungle. Some happen to eat, some happen not to. There is no more law to it than that. The "fittest" have simply produced more offspring than the less fit, in response to circumstances over which the fittest had little or no control. The authority that "the law of the jungle" and the "survival of the fittest" is thought to lend to the domination of the weak by the strong evaporates, usually unnoticed.

It doesn't have to be there in the first place, if we will stop saying that "things happen because they work" and admit that things just happen to work.

If you are explaining a concept to half a dozen prospective co-authors, you are working in a rarefied atmosphere in which you all communicate at the pretty much the same level. You can say things in whatever fashion gets your point across. But you are not likely to get your point across to the general public in any case, so why not refrain from using language that suggests the existence of aspects of nature which in fact do not exist.
posted by carping demon at 2:40 AM on December 17, 2012


Yeah, I'm just tiring of this.

Your point here is true, but not helpful.

the salmon returned home to spawn at this time of the year in combination with all these other factors because random chance developed that pattern, and it hasn't been harmful to survival.

Of course I don't think that every behavior in nature is adaptive, and there is a high bar to reach when you call something adaptive. Give me some credit here! But throughout this conversation when I call something "adaptive", I have assumed that whatever trait we're talking about has been demonstrated to be evolutionarily beneficial. I made that assumption because this is pretty much unrelated to what we were talking about before. That's why I said in my previous comment that I think either "adaptive behavior is goal-oriented, or basically say nothing is." I wouldn't call it an adaptive behavior unless I thought (or assume, for the purpose of argument) that the behavior had been demonstrated to be adaptive. But that's really not what I'm talking about, does it relate to your previous argument in some way? All I'm trying to say is that it makes no sense to limit goal-oriented vocabulary to organisms that have a brain similar to humans. Firstly because I don't like it aesthetically, but my more recent claim has been that any sort of so-called direct jump in humans from stimulus to decision is hopelessly indirect, statistical, and emergent, so it's really the same as in other organism, regardless of whether emotions are a part of the chain. I think this "conscious choice" thing is a red herring. I also think that if an organism continues to do something because, via selection, it benefits from doing so, we can use goal-oriented language. The ant goes outside to look for food because it keeps the colony alive. The male competes for females because he invests less energy in the offspring. I think it's very strange to read conscious choice into those statements (or to think that if conscious choice were there, it would make a difference), but eh. I see why you would.

And to carping demon, I can't follow. It continues to happen because it works. It happens to work, yes, and because it works, all of the other things that didn't happen to work wouldn't happen. I don't expect that anyone can read that.
posted by Buckt at 9:22 AM on December 17, 2012


Peace.
posted by carping demon at 10:03 AM on December 17, 2012


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