February 23, 2006 | David F. Coppedge

March of the “Selfish Darwinians”?

Penguins: are they moral models, or evolutionary examples?  Ever since last year’s surprise blockbuster documentary March of the Penguins, the well-dressed seabirds and their harsh lives have provoked empathy and commentary.  Marlene Zuk (UC Riverside) took issue in Nature1 with those who try to moralize about monogamy from taking their cues only from the movie.  She pointed to instances of apparent homosexual behavior and mate-swapping, to say nothing of the variety of sexual antics in the animal kingdom.  Launching into moral lessons of her own, Zuk demonstrated what radically different lessons one can take from observations of nature:

Tom Turnipseed, writing for the website Zmag.org, suggested that the real message lies in the penguins’ “cooperating with one another and sacrificing their own lives and individual gain for the common good and survival of their own kind” – behaviour that executives at Enron, the US energy company involved in an infamous corruption scandal, should have emulated.  Other reviews also allude to this supposedly altruistic behaviour and the “inexplicable love” shown.
    Were we watching the same film?  In fact, the penguins are perfect little darwinians, selfish as can be.  No one seemed to question why the birds took such pains on their return to the breeding grounds to find their own mate, their own chick, in a crowd of thousands of look-alikes.  It seemed human, after all, like sailors returning from war eagerly seeking their families among the throng on shore.
  (Emphasis added in all quotes.)

So what is the darwinian explanation for this behavior?  Zuk anticipates one objection, then brings evolution to the rescue, ending on a moral lesson of her own:

But if the penguins simply needed to save the species, surely any chick would do, and feeding the nearest hungry beak would save all that tramping through the snow searching for one’s special little one.  Why bother?  Evolution supplies the answer: only scrupulous discrimination of your own kin will perpetuate one’s genes.  How the penguins manage such sophisticated feats is a fascinating area of study, one that will yield much more than a consideration of whether they are good role models for monogamy.
    If we use animals as poster children for ideology, we not only end up in meaningless arguments over whose examples are more significant (cannibalistic mantids or promiscuous bonobos?), we risk losing sight of what is truly interesting and important about their behaviour.  What the executives at Enron are supposed to learn is another story.


1Marlene Zuk, “Family values in black and white,” Nature 439, 917 (23 February 2006) | doi:10.1038/439917a.

This article provides a case study on the self-refuting nature of Darwinian explanations.  The commentary that follows is not going to defend anthropomorphism and moralizing from animals – Zuk is right that you could pick and choose between extremes and find any moral lesson you want out there in the wild.  According to the Judeo-Christian tradition, morality requires a rational mind and personhood.  A knowledgeable theologian would not make the mistake of attributing penguin behavior to rational moral choice and forethought.  Object lessons from penguin behavior might prove useful as pedagogical aids, as long as one does not really believe the birds are rationally choosing moral actions.  The intelligent design perspective would be that animals operate according to internal programs designed to preserve the species in a dynamic environment.  But how can Zuk, on the other extreme, claim that the emperor penguins are “perfect little darwinians, selfish as can be?”  Her explanation might sound reasonable to a high-school biology student, but is unworthy of scholarly readers of Nature, because a careful look reveals that it falls into the same anthropomorphic, moralizing trap.  Worse, it overlooks the most important aspects of the march of the penguins that need explaining.
    Zuk tried to pre-empt the objection that “any chick would do,” so let’s consider her answer.  Why wouldn’t any chick do?  Within a strictly Darwinian picture of the scene, the objection she sweeps away so dismissively seems valid.  Why would natural selection go to the extra cost of evolving strict pair-bonding?  That would require heritable genetic mutations leading to accurate discrimination of specific calls from one mate out of thousands, and behaviors that defer compensation till the correct mate is found.  Let’s call one pair Homer and Marge, and their little chick Maggie.  Wouldn’t it make much more sense in evolutionary terms for Marge to go direct to the fittest-looking chick in the crowd?  Suppose Marge finds Homer, only to see that little Maggie is a sickly, scrawny youngster not likely to last long in the struggle for life.  If evolutionists talk about “mate choice” and “choosy females” as part of the process of passing on one’s genes, then certainly we can ask about “chick choice.”  It seems that would make even better sense in a Darwinian world, where the individual doesn’t really matter in the long run.  The fittest chick is going to be the one most likely to carry on the genes of the population.  Why wouldn’t penguins evolve toward a behavior where all the chicks go running out to the mothers, and the fastest ones get the food?  By this time Homer’s work is done.  He may not even link up with Marge next season.  If a male is needed for another month of rearing, any of the nearly identical tuxedo-attired dudes could do the job.
    The only way Zuk could claim her answer is better is to violate a Darwinian principle and commit a logical fallacy.  She has to admit to a moral standard and commit anthropomorphism, the very errors she set out to debunk.  The moral standard, perverse though it is, is that individual selfishness is good.  Notice her words, “perfect little darwinians, selfish as can be.”  By implication, selfishness is a good thing because it contributes to survival and the passing on of one’s genes.  But that begs the question of why these are good values.  The logical fallacy is to imagine that penguins can be selfish, or exercise enough forethought and self-control against the severe rigors of their harsh environment to decide, in penguin-English, “If I can just manage to hold on against these hardships, I will be rewarded by passing on my genes.”  If penguins cannot care about monogamy, they cannot care about what happens to their genes.  If nobody cares, though, then the cheaper way for evolution to keep the penguin population booming is to reward the top contenders; line up the 90th percentile of fittest chicks with the females that have the most food, and let the rest die off, regardless of who the parents are.
    Zuk completely ignored a more serious problem.  She only addressed the individual pair-bonding behavior, not the origin of the penguins themselves (see also 11/10/2005 and 10/27/2005 entries).  How did the bones, wings, scuba gear, ears, eyes, waterproof coat, muscles and tendons, and organ systems evolve?  She assumes that we will accept the Darwinian mechanism for all the wonders of nature just because she can concoct a story about how selfish genes produced individual pair bonding.  This is so typical of evolutionists.  They seize the gnat and claim ownership of the camel.  Finding one customer willing to say he feels better after taking Darwin’s Finest Natural Selection Snake Oil, they advertise it to the world as the panacea for the universe.  Also, she herself points to the fact that sexual behaviors in the animal kingdom are extremely diverse.  If Darwin fulfilled the Newtonian Dream of finding a natural law for biology, how can it explain opposites?  Where are his equations?  Why would not Darwin’s mechanism steer all populations toward uniform behaviors, instead of producing cannibalism among mantids, promiscuity among bonobos, and monogamy among birds?  By explaining everything, it explains nothing.  Evolutionary theory does not predict the behavior observed among emperor penguins, but only tries to attach a story to it after the fact.  The Darwin Party has replaced the science lab with a storytelling pub for lazy scientists (see 12/22/2003 commentary).
    A nice film like March of the Penguins may stir our hearts, but whether or not penguins make good role models for humans is completely beside the point.  Darwinism fails to account for the origin of all living things, not just penguins.  Evolutionary explanations are speculative, anthropomorphic, and inadequate.  By moralizing herself in a somewhat haughty tone, Zuk has only reinforced the reality that humans care about right and wrong.
    As for the penguins, they are getting pretty tired of all this evolutionary speculating, too.  See Eco Inquirer for the story….

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