Evolutionary selection by whom?


in Geek stuff, Science

In his latest book, Richard Dawkins points out a rather gruesome fact about angler fish, deep sea dwellers that use a lure to trick other fish into coming close enough to be eaten. The fish that end up getting eaten are effectively voting on the convincingness of the lures. This is a bit macabre for two reasons. Most obviously, the prey fish are ‘voting’ with their lives. Also, they are participating in an evolutionary process where better lures are rewarded, and thus become more common and a further peril to their peers.

He also points out many cases in which the traits of males evolve in response to the reproductive females of choices, in species where female willingness to mate is a key factor. He calls this the ‘selective breeding by females of males’ and it is often not to the benefit of individual males. A big bright tail might impress a female bird or fish, but it also catches the eyes of predators pretty easily.

{ 22 comments… read them below or add one }

Tristan September 29, 2009 at 9:34 am

“by whom” – I don’t understand the question. Evolutionary selection is not conscious intention. The “by whom” is just the propagation of life. Strictly speaking evolution is “by” neither the male or the female, it is “by” procreation, and the survival and procreation of that procreation. That’s why we say it’s the gene’s that are selfish, not the individuals involved.

Milan September 29, 2009 at 9:59 am

Actual selection is happening here. Females are choosing who to mate with, and deep sea fish are choosing what to try to eat.

Those choices are producing the selective pressure that drives evolutionary change in one direction or another.

Dawkins’ book has some much more detailed examples, such as how the predatory situation in streams affects the colouring of male guppies. They are balancing between being attractive to females and being easily seen by predators.

Emily September 29, 2009 at 1:09 pm

Hey, that’s like driving a Corvette, and wearing a flashy suit to impress women: you’re probably twice as likely to get mugged as a result!

Milan September 29, 2009 at 1:15 pm

If it gets you the mates you want, it is probably worth the occasional mugging, no?

Tristan September 29, 2009 at 1:19 pm

“Females are choosing who to mate with, and deep sea fish are choosing what to try to eat.”

I thought you didn’t even believe in human freedom, and now you are according choice to fish? Certainly there are forces at play, but I don’t think “choice” is one of them.

Fish “choose” their mates in the same sense that a particular tree “chooses” to fall under the concept “Tree”. There is always some formal possibility that the seed-matter which became tree-like could have morphed into something else, but there is no “choice” in these biological processes.

Milan September 29, 2009 at 1:24 pm

Note: Richard Dawkins is speaking in Toronto tonight at the Isabel Bader Theater at 7:00pm. It is at 93 Charles St. West, and tickets are $10.

Milan September 29, 2009 at 1:26 pm

Believing in free will just makes sense.

If there is no free will, we have no ability to affect what we believe anyhow. If free will does exist, we should believe in it. As such, in all worlds where we are able to have a belief, we should believe in free will.

That seems as true of fish as of people. Just as you or I would decide who at a party to talk to, they are choosing which wriggling morsel to try to eat.

Emily September 29, 2009 at 1:47 pm

He’s speaking at Victoria University…

Milan September 29, 2009 at 1:49 pm

If I lived in Toronto, I would definitely go.

Emily September 29, 2009 at 1:50 pm

If it gets you the mates you want, it is probably worth the occasional mugging, no? Depends on how many teeth you have left after the muggings.

Milan September 29, 2009 at 1:56 pm

I hear some ladies are into guys who’ve lost a few teeth in fights…

Plus, a life without teeth would be a lot more tolerable than a life without mates.

Tristan September 29, 2009 at 2:34 pm

“Believing in free will just makes sense.”

Fair enough. I mean, that’s the kind of thing I would say. For fish too. The problem with believing animals are free is how eerie cattle trains become. And that hot summer night in Kamloops when I had the window open and was passed by a truck of screeching, smelly pigs – surely on their way to you-know-where. Part of me wishes it weren’t wrong to breed, captivate, slaughter and eat free creatures. The weight of conscience is the cost of our ideals.

The Dawkins tickets appear sold out. Is he making just the one appearance?

. September 29, 2009 at 2:35 pm

The Pursuit of Sexual Happiness

What turns women on has long been an elusive question. The authors of a new book hope that understanding why women have sex in the first place could go a long way toward answering it.

Milan September 29, 2009 at 2:41 pm

I think the way people reflexively use ‘animals’ as a category excluding humans is both scientifically inaccurate and morally problematic. It is better to say ‘humans and other animals’ than ‘animals and humans.’

As for the ethics of interacting with non-human animals, I have never thought it credible to say that they are automatons and, as such, we can do whatever we like with them. Whatever kind of freedom we have, it seems virtually certain that they have too.

The Dawkins talk in Toronto is a one-off. His next is on October 2nd, in California.

His new book is both rather interesting and widely available, however.

Milan September 29, 2009 at 2:43 pm

Of course, the ethics of interacting with non-human animals involves a lot more than just the choice to be vegan or vegetarian. It also involves matters like habitat preservation, endagered species, genetic engineering, bestiality, etc.

Milan September 29, 2009 at 2:48 pm

On a related note, Dan Savage maintains the internally consistent but rather rare perspective that meat-eating is more unethical than bestiality (though he is not a vegetarian). He thinks that he cannot condemn people who engage in bestiality, because it would be hypocritical for a non-vegetarian to do so.

Tristan September 29, 2009 at 3:06 pm

I wish I’d found out about the Dawkins talk earlier. It would have been good to be able to ask him a question. Perhaps I should write instead.

You are right that my usage of animals was inaccurate. It might even be right to stop using the term altogether.

Milan September 29, 2009 at 3:11 pm

What would you have asked? He is probably completely deluged with correspondence, so lining up at a live presentation might provide a person’s best chance of asking something.

Tristan September 29, 2009 at 3:40 pm

Just my normal concerns re: Dawkins.

Basically, taking for Granted that the idea of “God” as a first cause or as a characteristic of existence as is put forward by the vast majority (especially the vocal majority) of “Christians” – is nonsense, not worth responding to – is that a reason to think that it is nonsense to speak of “being” (“being itself”, not the totality of beings or a particular being) as having something like a “character”. Does any determination of “Being” necessarily result in nonsense-theology, i.e. “the determination of Being as finite”.

I would obviously have to work this into a question that makes sense to someone who isn’t me. Perhaps I could parse it in relation to Kierkegaard – start by pointing out that the critique of Christendom is not the critique of theology, and that the idea of theology that he critiques (everywhere I’ve seen) is one that simply fails to correspond to what a lot of people (including significant theologens) actually think about “existence” or “God”. And then, what that is (re – pantheistic wing of British Church, God as finite, suffering, or Schelling – God as yearning, Schism in the absolute), and whether all of that is to be dismissed as on the same level as spaghetti monsters.

It seems to me that if I were able to get something like this question through, he would have to either dismiss all the philosophy I brought up as nonsense, or admit that there is something relevant to the question of “God” which he hasn’t dealt with in his work.

Milan September 29, 2009 at 3:43 pm

Did you read The God Delusion?

Milan September 29, 2009 at 3:44 pm

In it, Dawkins states that he is disputing the position that “there exists a superhuman, supernatural intelligence who deliberately designed and created the universe and everything in it, including us.”

He may not be interested in more philosophical issues, relating to god.

. October 9, 2009 at 11:28 am

“During ovulation, women prefer men with symmetrical, masculine features. These men are aggressive, compete with other men, and in some cases exhibit “creative intelligence,” write the authors. More importantly, their major histocompatibility complex genes – the ones that build our immune systems – are considerably unlike the individual woman’s. According to earlier research, being attracted to a person with a different immune system is advantageous because the baby will inherit a larger arsenal to combat disease.

But during the infertile phase, women appear to prefer men who are more genetically similar to their relatives. Others opt for men who exhibit more “feminine” characteristics and have the means to invest in child rearing, Dr. Alvergne said.

The researchers say this dual strategy allowed ancestral women to “maximize their reproductive success.”

To put it another way: “You fall in a long-term relationship with the caring, investing wimps and then you poach the good genes from the highest-status [masculine] guys. And the wimps hopefully make good stepdads and raise your kids,” said Geoffrey Miller, an associate professor of human sexuality and evolutionary psychology at the University of New Mexico.”

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