The Hawking of Dawkins
By any criteria, especially Dawkins’s own concept of meme propagation, his theory of gene-centric evolution has been one of the most successful scientific theories of all time, dominating the field of genetics since he introduced it, with just one teeny drawback. To use his own words, Dawkins “got it totally and utterly wrong”.1 For a start, the title “The Selfish Gene” is just a bit of anthropomorphic teleological silliness. Even if a gene is positively throbbing with lust to rule the world, there is no known mechanism by which it can realise its ambitions, largely because it is dead; or, if you prefer, inanimate. More to the point, it is redundant verging on tautological to say that for a species to survive its genes must survive. There’s no alternative; that’s how it has to be done. And no, it is not a metaphor. 2 There is absolutely nothing in a gene’s makeup or behaviour that in any way corresponds to the human emotion of selfishness. Nonetheless, the underlying idea is not necessarily as trivial as it might at first appear.
First, however, a little background: evolution is not a theory, it’s a fact. The word comes from the Latin ‘volvere’, ‘to turn’, with the prefix ‘e-‘, meaning ‘out’. ‘Evolvere’ means ‘to turn out’, and since things are bound to turn out one way or another, evolution can be considered a fact. There are, of course, theories about evolution. “Shit happens” is one of them. “Things are the way they are because they got that way”3 is another, very succinct, expression of the official scientific view. Charles Darwin had one which has since itself evolved into the modern synthesis. Most religions, large and small, have their own, the major exception being Buddhism4 which, having neither gods nor creation, focuses entirely on evolution, although in their version, if at first you don’t succeed . . .
However, as far as we know, evolution selects for survival, and that’s all.5 There are no rules, so you can’t cheat. If you happen to make it through, no matter how you do it, you win and you go on to the next round. If not, not. And that is the whole of the law. In the words of the song: “If a tree don’t fall on you, you’ll live till you die.” It can be gross. The female Stegodyphus lineatus spider feeds her brood by the simple device of taunting and cajoling them until they kill and eat her, having first drained her of all her blood; a sort of combination suicide/matricide that guarantees them at least one good meal before they set out on their own. And you thought your mother was bad. Stegodyphus is not the only one, either. Other species of spider do the same thing, indicating some distant common ancestor who came up with this plan in the first place, so it’s obviously been going on for some while. It should also be pointed out that this is not Plan B, for use in emergencies only; no, this is just the way things are done in those circles. But you can see how it would work. Most mothers indulge in a little self-sacrifice to give the kids a good start in life. That’s the trouble with FAPs; if they work, they’re very hard to cancel once they’ve begun.
Animals’ behaviour for the most part is genetically determined, so selection occurring at the level of the gene should be able to affect the behaviour of the phenotype, the individual organism that is carrying the gene. If it does, we should find that the resulting phenotypical behaviour supports the gene’s need to reproduce and spread itself, and if not, not. The problem is that this is a circular argument, since you can’t get to be a species unless you can reproduce yourself, and you have to use your genes to do it, so successfully behaving species are bound to have successful genes. The question is: is the converse necessarily true? Do successfully reproducing genes produce successful species?
Turns out, not so much. The obvious and best way for a gene to reproduce itself is just to make a copy and send it out into the world. This is definitely an option; it is called asexual reproduction, but almost nothing uses it. Or to put it another way, the organisms that use it aren’t very successful. This is almost certainly due to the fact that asexually reproducing species are highly vulnerable to environmental change because they lack the genetic diversity that gives sexually reproducing species at least a chance of coming up with something useful to cope with the new conditions. So the primary mechanism for species’ evolutionary success depends on the failure of genes to reproduce themselves accurately. Hmmm.
Perhaps we’re going about this the wrong way. Let’s get back to phenotypical behaviour supporting the gene. The vast majority of species are born into a family, even if it’s just the kids and their mother. Families come in all shapes and sizes, and they radically affect the offspring’s chances of survival. The environment exerts evolutionary pressure, but it has to be local to do it. It’s not the butterfly in the Himalayas; it’s the storm over your head. Families, and social structures generally, provide a mini-environment that modifies the ecosystem outside it to create different, more benign internal pressures. It allows pups to move further up the food chain from prey to predator, where left to their own devices they would simply die, taking their species with them.
Not all animals love their families. When they do, it gives them an enormous evolutionary edge. It protects the young at their most vulnerable, and the family as a whole by uniting it against external threat. Them against us. But it doesn’t have to be so. Families are not vital for producing offspring. Sea turtles have survived for millennia largely providing crunchy snacks for other sea creatures, but with enough leftover progeny to keep their own population going. Works fine as a strategy, but there’s no moral to this story, I wouldn’t have thought. No tales of maternal self-sacrifice here, and no family as such.
We, on the other hand, do love our families. Not all of them, and not all the time, especially in large gatherings, but we do. And a good thing, too. Imagine when the first generation of our race was being born. No genetic memory, no FAPs, no understanding of the world; completely helpless infants, not just for a few weeks but for years, slowing the tribe down more and more as the mutation took hold. It’s a wonder they let us live. Perhaps if the tribe had been larger, and life less precious, they wouldn’t have, but they did, fortunately. Parents love their babies and will fight to protect them. Siblings bond together. Families are at the heart of the tribe and, if pushed, will unite against it,6 so ultimately it was probably wise just to accept us. Or perhaps in the end they didn’t, and it was Adam alone who pushed on, recruiting more or less willing females to provide future generations. One way or another we got our start.
The difference between creatures that love their families and those that don’t forms the basis for what’s called r/K Selection Theory. I now have a confession to make. Unfortunately for me, but perhaps fortunately for you, I am one of those people for whom number is just the stage between numb and numbest; useful on a Polar expedition when people ask, “How’s it going?” but not otherwise, really. So I promised myself and thus, unwittingly, you, that I would try to eliminate all formulae from this book. I have just failed.
This is the Verhulst equation for population growth. Read it and weep, as I do.
Actually it’s not that bad. N is the size of a population, r is the rate at which it grows, and K presumably stands for the Karrying Kapacity of the environment, otherwise known as the population’s upper sustainable limit. Any species that relies for success on producing large numbers of offspring, but with a low probability of individual survival, are called r-strategists, and those that produce only a few progeny, but ensure a high probability of survival by looking after them until they grow up, are called K-strategists. r-strategists are supposed to be small and short-lived but fertile, while Kstrategists, like us, for instance, should be big and long-lived, at least long enough to raise their offspring. In practice, however, even though they do include bacteria and small rodents, r-strategists can also be sea turtles, while ants make really good parents, so not so accurate. Still, the basic idea, regardless of size, is that in an unstable environment where you don’t know what is going to happen, there’s no point in putting a lot of effort into the kids’ upbringing; if they’re not going to live long enough to see the benefit, the numbers will just have to do it for you. At the same time, in a stable environment, where the formula has had time to work its magic and population numbers are at or close to optimum, then you need to give children a proper education if they’re to compete. If either of these families sounds familiar, welcome to the club. However, the main point for me is that for the r-strategy to work you just need to be fertile, but for the K-strategy to work you need, guess what? A mother’s love.
Scientists just seem to hate love; not only altruism, but love generally. I think, like little boys, they find it all too soft and sissy to suit them. This distaste is a shame, because love in its various forms is probably the most powerful evolutionary force among species that reproduce sexually. How animals love is built into their genes, and it engages the entire limbic system, all four Fs that form the most basic survival responses. Its effects range from autonomic releases of hormones to complex FAPs involving concealment strategies, all to produce and rear offspring. Yet most scientists would much prefer to be able to pass the whole thing off as the work of obscure forces in the sperm, or even at the phenotype level that, like the gene, is supposed to be driven by the urge to reproduce itself through the act of procreation.
Alas, I have to break it to you that there is no such urge, either at the level of the gene or the individual, not counting us, of course. We know the sea turtle, for instance, does not give a two-way flying ‘act of procreation’ about her offspring; a couple of scoops of sand and that’s it, maternal duties done, so it’s unlikely they were on her mind when she was happily copulating with their father(s) a few weeks earlier. No, it’s love that makes the world go round,7 its two great drives being the sex drive, which the sea turtle does have, that makes unrelated members of the species seem so attractive, and the family bonds that unite closely related members of a species.
Let’s talk about sex for a moment. For the vast majority of species sex has nothing to do with procreation. Don’t get me wrong. I love the idea of ducks sitting around worrying about family planning, finally opting for the rhythm method, but I have to tell you that that’s not what they do. Basically what ducks want to do is find another duck and do stuff that rhymes. There’s a bizarre notion going the rounds that humans and Bonobo chimps are the only species that have sex for fun. In fact we‘re probably the only ones who do it for any other reason. Humans actually know it makes babies, so we have a choice, but it’s still fairly basic: family versus fun. Bonobos are infinitely more imaginative. They think sex is the answer to everything. Life is just one long orifice party. They even use it to apologise. If they think they have offended someone, in a row over food, say, immediately afterwards they’ll rush over and offer to stroke his willy, which as apologies go seems pretty sincere to me. I wouldn’t do it. You’ll not be surprised to learn that there is relatively little lasting aggression within Bonobo bands.8
Clearly, it’s better to be a Bonobo9 but, for all their sexual inventiveness, even Bonobos resist incest,10 which is the next topic. If genes are supposed to be driving this whole process, why the whole incest taboo? From a gene’s point of view incest vastly improves the quality of its copies, while standard sexual reproduction reduces it. A father/daughter pairing will give you a good 75% matching copy instead of just 50% with her mother. In theory this might damage the delivery system somewhat, but for the gene to care would be uncharacteristic (see sea turtles above), and anyway, the famous Cleopatra was the product of half a dozen generations of brother/sister marriages and she was sharp as a whip and beautiful to boot. So why don’t we roll our own? After all, if Flegr is right, most species must have got their start through some level of incest.11 They certainly do if we need them to. Humans have been breeding animals for centuries, and inbreeding is an essential part of the process. So too, unfortunately, is culling, either by the breeder or evolutionary pressure, but again, why would a gene care about the fate of poor copies so long as the good copies make it through?
Nonetheless, most species, ourselves included, are against the idea, and that is in our collective genetic codes, together with quite elaborate FAPs to make sure it doesn’t happen, regardless of the obvious advantages of incest for our genes. It is true that many top predators, lions for instance, are finding it necessary to mate with close relatives, but it is unlikely that it is out of choice. It’s just that the food web12 that supports a predator demands a lot of acreage at the lowest, grass-producing level, and that acreage isn’t available even in the conservation areas. Also, lions cannot get from one area to another, so they can find themselves fighting one set of cousins for the right to mate with another set. It can’t be much fun, but it is the only game in town.
This is the point at which it all gets a tad unlikely. Geneticists talk and teach about ‘fitness’, as if evolution actually had something to do with the survival of the fittest, and it’s not just scientists who need to know about it.13 The females of all species, no matter how small and dim, are supposed to ponder the qualities of potential mates in terms of their long-term suitability as parents of the offspring they somehow know will result from the proposed mating, prompted all the way by their genes’ private agenda. Doubtless they discuss all their suitors with their girlfriends during the usually brief interval between flirtation and copulation. There is even a theory called the Sexy Son Hypothesis which says that the reason females like to mate with attractive males (think peahen and peacock) is that that way their joint offspring will be more attractive and thus pass on the parents’ genes to the next lot who will also bonk the ones they fancy, but just for the good of the species, mind, just doing their duty.
One extraordinary example of this kind of rationalisation is known as Handicap Theory. A great many species are dimorphic, which basically means “two-shaped”, i.e. the males and females are physically different to a greater or lesser extent (think peahen and peacock again). Obviously males and females differ in their primary sexual characteristics, their sex organs, so those don’t count in dimorphism. Any differences between the sexes that are not directly involved in reproduction are called secondary sexual characteristics, and that covers everything from size and horns to manes and plumage. Horns, antlers and so on are called, not surprisingly, weapons, and the rest are referred to as ornaments. The weapons, of course, are used as weapons and they a) keep their owner alive to mate, and b) drive off alternative suitors. In species where that works, that’s usually pretty much it for sexual selection; the females get to select the big male who just won, whatever they look like. Where the ornaments kick in is when the female has a choice of mate, and that’s basically birds. Birds are the worst.14 They really are suckers for a pretty face or nice outfit. Birds of paradise and peacocks are obvious examples, but even the Bowerbird qualifies. Come the season, the male builds an elaborate bower and then carefully decorates it using bits and pieces it finds around the forest. It spends hours doing this, occasionally stealing the good stuff from other birds’ bowers, because it’s really competitive out there. The females go around like shoppers in a mall, often returning to see the short-listed bowers several times. It seems so sensible at first, choosing a mate that way, handy at DIY and so on, but does he build a nest like that? Does he heck. He bonks her and buggers off, leaving her to put together her own rather dull nest, and raise the kids on her own. In fact, they all do, because she’ll mate with all the males whose bowers pass scrutiny. Not much thought for the next generation there, I would suggest. On the other hand, they seem to be good mothers, despite not having much of a clue who the actual father is, nor where the kids’ genes came from, as if that mattered.
The problem for geneticists is that birds make really bad choices. They’ll invariably go for the Pretty Prat who’d be useless in a fight and may well leave them flat when it comes to raising the little ones. Even if they do find a good partner who’ll stick by them for the long haul, the females themselves, chickadees and barn swallows for instance, are perfectly capable of sneaking15 off for a quickie with his boss. Overall, biologists are finding that “…between 10 per cent and 70 per cent of the offspring in a nest [do] not belong to the male caring for them.”16 So where is the gene-centric ‘fitness’ in all this? The argument goes like this: “You think that a sensible female would try to mate with a male who was healthy, thus likely to live longer, and faithful, taking his share of the chick-raising burden, so that her offspring, the bearer of the couple’s genes, would be equally likely to live long and prosper. But that’s what they’re expecting her to do, so the male’s cunning plan is to look and behave as though he couldn’t outrun a three-toed sloth, thus proving that he can afford to mock the obvious handicap of that useless tail, and by a tortuous chain of reasoning is therefore fitter than a bird that doesn’t have the tail in the first place. And to Hell with whose genes they are.” The idea behind this is similar to the idea that the only way you can tell someone is really rich is if he or she squanders their money. It’s a thought, but unlikely. My own experience of the very rich is that they are the first to query a bill, while those who airily pick up the tab are on an expense account and it’s not really their money.17 Personally I don’t think the females get much beyond the plumage. Birds are probably not very deep, and it doesn’t matter because the plumage is self-perpetuating on its own merits. In life generally, if females really fancy you, you get to bonk them. It doesn’t matter if that’s a sensible thing to do. Ask any rock band.
The two major problems with this idea that females see themselves as guardians of the species’s evolutionary heritage are a) at the phenotypic, and b) at the genetic level. At the level of the individual, even human beings, who do actually know that sex can result in pregnancy, have a hard time remembering that when it comes time to have sex. Even today, a hundred and thirty years after the presumably welcome birth of Marie Stopes, we still have a huge number of unwanted births that could not occur if we had an innate drive to think it through on the night. More to the point, beautiful people get laid a lot, usually by other equally beautiful people, and there is no established correlation between beauty and parental qualities. If ‘fitness’ as defined above genuinely meant anything, nice, dependable people would get laid more than pretty ones, and would be more successful at getting successful mates. You wish! If we humans don’t choose our mates that way, it seems to me unlikely that all of Rabbit’s friends and relations would.
The other problem is at the genetic level. If what genes want out of life counted for anything we’d never have got as far as sex; we’d have stuck with asexual reproduction and be done with it. That, of course, didn’t happen, and why not? Because what genes want, even assuming they were capable of wanting, is of no account when it comes to survival. Nor is what species want. The only thing that counts at all when it comes to wanting stuff is what the individual organism wants, because that is what drives its behaviour, and it is its behaviour in any given situation that determines its survival or otherwise. And even that doesn’t matter so long as its behaviour helps the group to survive, because evolution will select for that by definition, and we’re back to altruism.
In fact, this might be a good time to give up on the whole gene-centric thing. Gene-centric evolution in many ways resembles the geocentric model of the cosmos. It is the current orthodoxy, and mathematical models support it, but you end up with the biological equivalent of planets going backwards, giving rise to the kind of elaborate and implausible rationalisations that would stop the entire village of Ockham in its tracks, never mind Oor Wullie. At the heart of them all is the concept of the future.
Dr. Endel Tulving of the University of Toronto has called consciousness of the future “one of the most powerful ideas ever to emerge from the human brain/mind”. Certainly, the need to invent the future may well be the single most significant consequence of being set adrift in a world without genetic memories. Tulving calls this human sense of time, the ability to imagine oneself in past and future situations, chronesthesia. He also divides our knowledge of the past into what he calls episodic and semantic memory, ‘episodic’ signifying the memory of, and mental ability to replay, past episodes in their full context, and ‘semantic’ signifying the kind of memory that consists in an updated model of the world, the ability to remember what experience or others teach you.
We know that animals can learn things, which means they must have semantic memory; their OMs are constantly updated. The question is, can they remember learning them? More to the point, why do we care? Well, we care because of W.D. Hamilton,18 who was hugely influential in achieving acceptance of gene-centric evolution because he solved the problem of altruism. He proposed that, even though an individual who sacrifices him or herself for others might appear to be acting counter to the interests of their genes, that wouldn’t be the case if the others in question were close enough relatives, and therefore carried copies of the same genes. His formula, known as Hamilton’s Rule, was
where r is the degree to which the beneficiary is related to the altruist, B is the benefit they get, and C is the reproductive cost to the altruist him or herself. Much rejoicing ensued in the world of genetics, and gene-centric evolution came to rule the roost, along with its companion theory of Kin Selection.
There are, however, a couple of interesting things about this theory that should give us pause. One is that it fails to take into account altruistic behaviour between non-incestuous pair bonds, otherwise known as the mummies and daddies, where r=0; and the other, far more important, is that in more than half a century since Hamilton came up with this formula, no one has bothered to check whether anything like it actually happens. Like Aristotle and women’s teeth,20 the Rule was immediately accepted as gospel without anyone thinking to verify that it accurately describes behaviour in the wild.21 To be fair, you wouldn’t expect it to apply down at the ‘r’ end of the r/K spectrum, but that’s largely by definition. Stegodyphus may be small and have a large brood, but her single act of self-sacrifice must surely move her up the scale; she must get points for that. And what about the ants and the bees? The entire hive or hill consists of brothers or sisters, and their whole life is based solely on self-sacrifice and tending to the young, so they qualify to be at both ends of the spectrum. At the same time, the Rule seems inadequate to explain some of the more complex social structures that are just up at the ‘K’ end.
Returning to the parents, they are the genes’ primary mode of reproduction, but they don’t obey the Rule at all. Thirty years before Hamilton, J.B.S. Haldane said he would only lay down his life to save two brothers or eight cousins, which is essentially the Hamilton Rule, but no one asked him about either of his wives. And why is the lion we mentioned earlier so reluctant to lay down his wife for his sons, when that would be a much better solution from the genes’ perspective? Think of the points they’d get: r would be at least 50% for the son, plus whatever we count for the mother being involved twice; for B you have to add together the son’s opportunity to breed this time and the father’s continued availability for subsequent times, and then there’s the whole ‘not dying’ component which is definitely a reproductive benefit from everybody’s point of view; and C is basically just a bit of embarrassment.22 It’s a great score. Still, that’s not how it goes in practice. They just get all possessive and kill each other.23
The big problem is that the mechanism needed for Hamilton’s Rule to work requires a built-in Mendelian value kin assessment function to determine the value for r, and then a projective modelling function that would enable the would-be altruist to envision competing scenarios of the consequences of his actions or lack thereof, yielding all possible values for B and C, and only then make the appropriate judgement. All in the heat of battle, of course. I don’t know. It just seems unlikely to me. Bear in mind that even Darwin had no idea what genes were, so the idea that beetles are factoring them into their sex life seems farfetched. Fond though I am, I’d be surprised if any animals possessed this level of chronesthesia, largely because the ability to invent the future pretty much includes the ability to invent anything, and we’re the only species that does that.24
“Wait a minute,” you say. “I’m sure there’s a gene for altruism modified by kin selection, because we know ground squirrels have it.”25 Well, we know that ground squirrels and prairie dogs, among others, will warn the group generally of danger, thereby attracting any predator’s attention, so very brave stuff, and they do do it more enthusiastically if they have close family nearby,26 so perhaps there could be a gene for that kind of inadvertently inclusive altruism. An even better candidate for selection, of course, would be the gene for hanging out with relatives of the squirrel on watch but never actually warning anybody yourself, thus avoiding all risk of predation, but still getting the head start you need. What game theorists would call a ‘defector’ gene. Hang on! I’ve got an even better one. What if there were a gene for oxytocin? Wait another minute! We already have oxytocin! And dopamine!27 Well, that’s a stroke of luck, because if we have those two, then all these kin selection issues just go away.
Actually, we’ve had oxytocin or a reasonable facsimile thereof for an awfully long time, about half a billion years or so, so when I say “we” in this case I’m including quite a variety of predecessors, not to mention every other vertebrate on the planet, so it’s not rare. Also we’ve known about it for over a hundred years, so it’s not new either. In 1909 Sir Henry Drake found that it made a pregnant cat’s uterus contract, and to this day it’s used to stimulate contractions during childbirth. Then it was found, along with dopamine, doing its stuff earlier in the process during conception, providing the contractions that make orgasms such fun for both parties. Not content with all this, it is also needed to release breast milk to the nipples so that the newborn can suckle. Literally vital stuff, but slightly off the point for this stage in the argument, you might legitimately be thinking. Quite right. The important thing about oxytocin is that, along with its plumbing functions, it also provides the sensations of love and affection that help form pair bonds in the first stage,28 and bind mother and baby after its birth. If a man still basking in the oxytocin-induced post-coital afterglow tells his partner he loves her, he is almost certainly not lying, but she’d better be quick to respond; oxytocin wears off within minutes, along with the dopamine that has been providing all the excitement. It also wears off after childbirth, but so long as the bonds it induces have time to form, they can last forever.29
Now, we know that mothers love their babies, so no change there, then; the question is, though, do the babies have to be theirs? Do they have to be genetically related? Can we test this? Well, I can think of one way, with humans at least. This will sound a bit cruel, but what if we give a brand new mother the wrong baby, and see what happens? Not on purpose, of course. What kind of person do you think I am?30 Nonetheless, it has happened, and each time the mothers at least want to keep the baby they’ve bonded with, although they usually want to keep their own genetic child as well. The children, too, if they are old enough to choose, want to stay with the mother they’ve always loved, although they have been known to change their minds later, several times in some cases, but that may just be a rehearsal for finally leaving home.
Still on humans, Edvard Westermarck, a Finnish anthropologist writing at the end of the 19th century, noted that unrelated people who are raised together and have thus bonded as small children are not sexually attracted to each other when they grow up. This is now rather unimaginatively called the Westermarck Effect, and it has been seen in children of the kibbutzim in Israel who never marry others raised in the same kibbutz. They behave towards each other like brothers and sisters even though they are not related. Brothers and sisters, on the other hand, if they are not raised together but meet later in life, can find each other hugely sexually attractive, even more so than unrelated people. At first blush, and I use the word advisedly, this might seem to indicate that some level of kin recognition is at work, and indeed the effect has been called genetic sexual attraction (GSA for short). In fact the reverse is true; it’s just assortative mating without the kin recognition that is supposed to prevent incestuous pairing. So no genetic component.
Now that I come to think about it, it looks as though all supposed kin selection is just a combination of assortative cue recognition and bonding, with the bonding being the dominant component. As in the kibbutzim, if the bonding takes place, the individuals involved don’t have to be at all related. Or even alive. Duck and goose hatchlings, among others, imprint on the first moving thing they see, which statistically is probably going to be their mother, but as has happened on at least one famous occasion, turned out to be someone’s Wellington boot. In that particular case it all worked out well because the welly in question was being worn by Konrad Lorenz, the co-founder of ethology, and he took good care of them.31 If, on the other hand, neither family nor pair bonding occurs, then preferences will be based on assortative cues.
Just to give the gene-centric theory one last kick at the cat, so to speak, W.D. Hamilton came up with a thought-experiment32 known as the Green Beard Effect. To quote from Wikipedia:
A green-beard effect occurs when a gene, or linked genes, produce three phenotypic effects:
- a perceptible trait — the hypothetical “green beard”;
- recognition of this trait in others; and
- preferential treatment to those recognized.
The idea is that such a gene or genes would proliferate so long as the phenotypic effects were there, even if that means promoting other sets of genes that are not exact copies of themselves and so, according to the gene-centric view, should not prosper. The green-beard gene was proposed purely hypothetically, largely because no single allele could possibly produce all these effects, so you can imagine the excitement when it was discovered that red fire ant queens with a particular gene configuration are killed as they hatch by the workers in one type of colony, and are the only queens allowed to live in the other type. Not quite the cooperative, altruistic version that Hamilton and Dawkins had in mind, but it seems to show that some sort of green-beard gene could exist.
All very interesting, but if I were to say to you that any species you care to name has perceptible traits, can recognise its own kind and gives them preferential treatment, that wouldn’t exactly make it stand out from the crowd. It, too, would prosper precisely to the extent that it could maintain those characteristics. This is the problem, or at least my problem, with gene-centric evolution. It takes the perfectly obvious and straightforward functioning of evolutionary processes and makes them highly improbable and mysterious. Back in the old days in Ockham, you’d never have gotten away with it. But then, back then, the driving creative force behind the universe was presumed to be love.
Not that it’s all romantic and happy families out in the wild. At the r end of the r/K spectrum there’s just lust,33 as I’ve said. The next stage, according to Professor Fisher, is supposed to be ‘attraction’, intense feelings of romantic love that cause pair bonds to form, followed by ‘attachment’, the mature love for a long-term partner that is needed at the K end. This, of course, is the ideal, but in practice in the wild, and with that I include much of South London, the next stage after lust is motherly love, which usually kicks in, if at all, round about parturition, leaving a lot of single mothers raising their kids. Cheetahs, for instance. The cheetah population is dangerously small and not genetically very diverse, but they don’t pair bond, which is unusual for that size of animal. At the same time, cheetahs may be single parents, but family is still crucial to their survival. The mother has to teach her cubs to hunt. It’s not a FAP, which is surprising because you’d think it would be basic to a cheetah’s existence; just the sort of thing you’d expect the genes to look after if they could.
Lionesses, too, have to teach their cubs to hunt, but in their case the fathers stay with the pride for as long as they can before being ousted by a different set of males. In a pride, all the lionesses are related more or less directly, and stay with the pride in the same territory for generations. At about 3 or 4 years old, if they live that long, the young adult males are kicked out to fend for themselves. There are usually about three or four of them in the gang, known as a coalition, and they go off to find a different pride and take it over from the resident coalition. If they succeed, they promptly kill all the existing cubs which has the effect of making the lionesses go into oestrus, and thus be available for mating. Lions are not sexually jealous. All the new males get to mate with all the existing females. Now, it could be argued that, since all the males are brothers and all the females are related, this is a good strategy for gene replication, and thus there is no reason for sexual jealousy. However, successfully reproducing prides require up to four males just for their defence, so the next coalition to leave any pride and take over any other may well have different fathers, and their mothers may be no closer than cousins. Given the shallowness of the gene puddle top predators tend to find themselves in nowadays, they are probably not much more related than any random group of lions in the neighbourhood. They will, however, have grown up together, so will have bonded as cubs, and may thus be more willing to share.
From the gene’s point of view, lion copulation is famously ineffective. Like the woman with the six sets of twins, hundreds of times they get nothing at all.34 Out in the wild, there is no selective pressure for gene friendly versions of the family unit. Packs, herds, flocks and broods run the gamut from committed and nuclear to diffuse and unclear. It’s hard to find a representative example, but wolf packs are fairly typical of the nuclear family. They consist of the parents, otherwise known as the alpha pair, their offspring, and the occasional friends who come to stay. The parents get all the sex, at least officially, and they enforce the rules very strictly. Amazingly, the rules don’t always apply to them, and both mother and father are up for the occasional bit on the side. The kids also do their best to get some, but the penalties for discovery are severe, including banishment at the very least. As for the friends, some are welcomed and others are instantly driven away, although the criteria for that decision are obscure. Just like in your house.
Packs are generally single families, but two or three families may get together. The rules are still strictly applied within the family units, but conflict between the alphas is rare so long as they don’t themselves break the rules. Overall it’s a really good system, especially for the cubs. It’s certainly one of our two favourite schemes, this and polygamy.35 The multi-pack structure is at the base of all our societies and communities, essentially with the care of the kids in mind, as we’ll explore later. Its only possible drawback is that it’s just not great from the genes’ point of view. There are just too many missed opportunities, as I’ve said, with all that enforced virginity. Polygamy is better, and there are many examples of harems in the wild, but they come down towards the r end of the r/K spectrum.
Up at the K end, especially in herds, individual family relationships become less and less important. Migrating herds of wildebeest, for instance, are made up of hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of small families, and all the calves are kept in the middle of the herd, surrounded by all the adults. Each calf’s own parents are there somewhere close by, of course, but its safety is the responsibility of the herd as a whole. Millions of people have seen the clip on YouTube of the calf crossing a river and being attacked by a crocodile and then lions. After a peculiarly touching moment of hesitation that emphasises the courage of their decision, the herd turns and returns to attack and drive off both the crocodile and the lions, one of whom can be seen performing a graceful backward arc after being tossed by a furious wildebeest. This little scene of courage and devotion presents an insoluble puzzle to geneticists and ethologists, but is completely transparent to the tourists watching and filming. As often happens in science, it takes years of postdoc slog just to be unable to understand the obvious, all of which will be discussed later.
But wait! There’s more! On the great transmigration across the Serengeti, the wildebeest are accompanied by hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of zebra. They are not the only ones; elephants, buffalo, antelope and ostriches also tag along, but the zebra are interesting. The obvious advantage of joining forces is that zebra eat the long grass – they have the teeth for it – and the wildebeest prefer the short grass that’s left once the zebra have finished the major mowing. So it’s sensible to pair up; it’s a long trip. At the same time, wildebeest are really good at finding water, which is equally crucial. So far, so good, but it turns out that zebra are also better migrators. They remember the good routes and, most importantly, the better river crossings. Where the wildebeest have a tendency to blunder across wherever they hit the river, zebra are more selective. Furthermore, when they think they’ve found a good spot, one of them volunteers literally to test the waters, and swims across alone while all the others – wildebeest, elephants, ostriches – stand and watch. If he makes it safely, only then do the rest follow.
This level of altruism, by which I mean bravery and potential self-sacrifice, refutes all the theories. This is just one zebra. He is not even related to all the other zebras, let alone the ostriches. Of course, as I say, we can understand what is going on because it follows the first rule of observation, the wysiwytys rule: What You See Is What You Think You See. Now, I’m not suggesting for one minute that the wildebeest held a meeting: “Hey, these guys are really good at this. I vote we follow them.” “Yeah, except when we’re thirsty.” “OK then, except when we’re thirsty. All in favour?” But it’s not hard to imagine that wildebeest would follow anyone who is clearing the brush for them, or that zebra will follow wildebeest when they themselves are thirsty and the waterhole they remember from last year is no longer there. Nor is it difficult to see that the collective behaviour of the migrating herds, including the selfless act of the zebra volunteer at each crossing, is going to promote the survival of the group as a whole, and the rule is that behaviour determines survival, and survival is the only criterion for membership of the evolutionary winners’ circle. Remember, we’re talking about millions of family units spread across dozens of species, all getting that extra edge from each other’s behaviour, whatever its motivation.
There is one final point to be made, and who better to make it than the bonobos who started this whole section? As you may know, bonobo society is a lesbian gynarchy,36 not exclusively or there’d be no little bonobos, but in general. It’s not a matriarchy, as that would imply a fairly conventional nuclear family structure, just with the mother in charge. Bonobos are ruled by females who are not related and whose primary sexual and pairing relationships are with other females. The males’ position within the group’s overall hierarchy is determined by their mother’s position in the female hierarchy. And very successful it all is, too. Remember, they, not the Neanderthals or any humans but us, are still here, which is the definition of evolutionary success. Now, I don’t know how you personally feel about homosexuality, but you have to admit, from a procreative point of view, it ought to come a very poor second to heterosexuality, and when I say “poor second”, I mean it ought to have been eliminated from the genes’ playbook of survival techniques very early on. However, no one has told the bonobos nor, for that matter, the giraffes, who regularly practise homosexual mating.37 In fact, according to recent research which, it has to be said, consists largely of reclassifying old research, around 20% of sexual contacts in most species are homosexual. By this measure, humans with their globally estimated 3-4% of homosexuals are relative pikers, but then we are the only species that thinks there is anything wrong with it, so there may be a certain amount of under-reporting.
The point is that, while it is obviously impossible to reconcile this behaviour, involving as it now appears a fifth of all sexual activity, with any form of gene-centric view, it is quite easy to see how a slight shift in focus on the part of oxytocin38 could cause attraction between same-sex couples. It is the ultimate form of assortative mating, after all. The whole imprinting process is far less reliable than people think.39 Zebra mares, for example, go to great lengths in the first few days after giving birth to make sure their foal imprints only on them. They don’t want it wandering off with some passing stranger just because it sees them first. And let’s face it, Manolo Blahnik has made a good living out of humans’ tendency to fixate on footwear,40 although why we can’t keep things straight, I’ve no idea. No pun intended.
To sum up, different social structures alter the odds of survival in different ways, and succeed or fail depending on the environment they find themselves in. Furthermore, successful strategies tend to last, while failure is rapid. As a result, at any given moment what you are looking at are the successful solutions to the great evolutionary problem of survival, and they will last, to the exclusion of other possible solutions, until the problem changes, and their solution is no longer valid. Then they die out. We are the only species with the power to adjust the solution to match the problem, the one major drawback being that we have no idea whether we are getting it right or not.