Saturday, August 29, 2009

Biological Exuberance

A journal article having the title A Note on the Apparent Lowering of Moral Standards in the Lepidoptera has a certain arresting quality. (Lepidoptera are butterflies, in case you didn’t know.) That was the title of a 1987 article published by W. J .Tennent in the Entomologist’s Record and Journal of Variation. It was about – shock, horror – male butterflies having it off with each other in the Atlas Mountains of Morocco.

Observations of same-sex activity in animals are recorded in Greek literature. That certain animals were sexually deviant was part of medieval world views – indeed, was incorporated in heraldry. Keen records the great story (pp 130-1) of a certain gentleman, granted arms by the Earl of Salisbury for valour on the field, being given a device of three partridges,
a bird of aberrant and abhorrent sexual practices with the male being known to mount the male, whence ‘to bear partridges in arms betokens the first bearer to be a great liar or sodomite’.
Over the last two centuries, scientists have observed, and documented, a wide range of animal homosexuality. Alas, scientists are not immune from the prejudices of their time, so a considerable amount of obfustication has been engaged in to ignore, explain away, deny or avoid same-sex and other non-procreative sexual activity in animals. A particularly honest biologist reported of his beloved Bighorn Rams:
I still cringe at the memory of old D-ram mount S-ram repeatedly…True to form, and incapable of absorbing this realization at one, I called these actions of the rams aggrosexual behaviour, for to state that the males had evolved a homosexual society was beyond me. To conceive of these magnificent beasts as "queers"—Oh God! I argued for two years that in [wild mountain] sheep, aggressive and sexual behaviour could not be separated…I never published that drivel and I am glad of it…Eventually, I called a spade a spade and admitted that rams lived in an essentially homosexual society.
The above is quoted in (p.107) Bruce Bagemihl’s Biological Exuberance: Animal Homosexuality and Natural Diversity. Bagemihl both amusingly details said obfustication while providing a wealth of material on the startling sexual diversity of nature. The lightness of the scholarly touch is one of the best features of the book.

And nature has it all: virgin births (parthenogenetic reproduction) by female-only lizard species who engage in lesbian sex. Same-sex parenting, either by adoption or outside fertilisation. Using tools to masturbate. Using gestures to communicate over sex. Non-procreative heterosexual activity such as oral sex, anal sex, mutual masturbation. Transvestites (animals who mimic the opposite gender but don’t necessarily engage in same-sex activity). Transsexuals (animals who change gender). Step parents. Blended families. Courting rituals specific to same-sex couples. Intersex individuals (animals who mix male and female characteristics). It’s all there, in a riot of diversity
If one is looking to sexuality, including sexual diversity, or gender diversity as an item to differentiate homo sapiens from other species, you’re out of luck. And if you think heterosexuality has some monopoly on being natural (or even close to it), you’re out of luck too.

Bagemihl points out that, while modern science has had, at times, great difficulty in observing such ideologically-charged elements of nature accurately, many indigenous cultures were well aware of the diversity of nature, something reflected in both their myths and their understanding of human diversity. Hardly surprising, millennia of close observation probably is going to impart some knowledge. Such ‘new’ and ‘modern’ phenomena such as transgender and intersex individuals, same-sex bonding and so forth have plenty of indigenous antecedents. Even hyper-masculinity within contemporary gay culture has indigenous antecedents – some Amerindian cultures held that some ‘two-spirit’ males had an overflow of masculinity and made particularly good warriors.

Bagemihl is not pushing some gooey New Age romanticism. He just thinks looking for kernels of truth in indigenous beliefs concerning the world around them might be well worth doing (p.242). They might actually have noticed a few things about the world around them, a proposition for which he adduces much evidence.

The last two-thirds of the book is entitled A Wondrous Bestiary: Portraits of Homosexual, Bisexual and Transgendered Wildlife. In it, Bagemihl provides almost 400 pages of summaries of the data for a wide range of animals. It is for browsing and dipping.

The fun is in the first third of the book. Chapter 1 The Birds and the Bees establishes the startling diversity of nature. Chapter 2 Humanistic Animals, Animalist Humans demolishes delusions of homo sapiens’ uniqueness in this area. Animal breeders have often been much more aware of such activity than the scientific community, even developing special terminology (p.81). Chapter 3 Two Hundred Years of Looking at Homosexual Wildlife covers the long, troubled, history of scientific observation of such things (I particularly liked the studies which just assumed [p.94] that the animal on top was male and the animal on the bottom was female without checking further). Chapter 4 Explaining (Away) Animal Homosexuality looks at the attempts by scientists to pretend they weren’t seeing what they were seeing, or to reduce it to something else, to keep heterosexuality as the unchallenged norm or otherwise make the phenomena fit preconceived ideas. Chapter 5 Not for Breeding Only: Reproduction on the Periphery of Life is, in some ways, the most challenging chapter to conventional Darwinian viewpoints pointing out that a very wide variety of animal behaviour, including heterosexual behaviour, has absolutely nothing to do with reproduction, though that does not mean it does not have evolutionary benefits. Treating animals as a gene’s way of making more genes leaves out huge amounts of what goes on in nature. The issue is not what genes determine (they are a recipe not a mould) but what they permit. A wide range of behaviour, including sexual behaviour, clearly.

Chapter 6, A New Paradigm: Biological Exuberance in part takes us on a tour of indigenous beliefs about such things, concentrating on the anthropologically best-documented areas of New Guinea/Melanesia, Siberia/Artic and Amerindian cultures, demonstrating on how indigenous beliefs about sexual and gender diversity in other species do indeed often have a significant kernel of truth in them. This section I found to be heaps of fun.

Bagemihl then attempts to articulate a new way of looking at nature to incorporate this amazing diversity. Chaos theory and James Lovelock’s Gaia hypothesis get a guernsey. This is, as one might expect, the weakest bit of the book, though it has some striking quotes. I particularly liked
evolution is chaos with feedback (p.247).
Where I was more impressed was when he cited Georges Bataille’s theory of General Economy concerning excess energy needing to be discharged. Not because I have any time for Bataille, but because what of Bagemihl seems to be groping towards. The point about excess energy can be easily made more cogent.

For animals to have access to energy in excess of the needs of immediate survival is highly desirable for survival, as individuals who are constantly on the edge of starving would have very poor survival chances. Storing excess energy as fat is clearly a very limited option. Other ways to discharge such energy will be required. So species with access to energy optimal for survival will be able to support a wide range of behaviour that have nothing to do with either immediate survival or reproduction. Such behaviour can then be a ‘bank’ of displaceable energy able to be sacrificed if survival requires it. The selection pressure such behaviour will be subject to will be of a more ‘second-order’ variety due to their surplus-to-immediate-requirements nature: they already have a survival function. So a range of behaviour that is not about either immediate survival or reproduction will be supported without being genetically determined. Non-procreational sex and other forms of play would be particularly useful for this. They are pleasurable, so will be engaged in; redundant to immediate survival, so can sacrificed; and subject to motivational cut-offs, so will be sacrificed (hence hierarchy of motives as per Maslow). Being subject to ‘second-order’ selection, such behaviour is likely to tend towards considerable diversity. Hence biological exuberance way beyond simple niche-filling.

Rescuing natural selection from Malthus
Which means Bagemihl provides a compilation of striking evidence that Darwinism, as originally conceived, is false, an embarrassing truth despite (failed) attempts to prove it not so. But Bagemhil also points the way to the solution to the same. The problem for Darwinism as originally propounded (particularly in Darwin’s rhetoric) being that it is based on Malthus’s principle of population, which is false. Malthus’ principle of population is that food increases arithmetically while that population tends to increase geometrically. This is open to the elementary objection that food supplies are typically themselves populations. (This is hardly the only objection, nor a new one, but it will do.) The reverse also applies – populations are food supplies: a point not germane to Malthus’ original thesis as it only pertained to homo sapiens but very relevant if you want to extend it to other species.

Pausing here, I do not wish to deny the fact of evolution, still less the brilliant notion of natural selection. Merely that Darwin and Wallace wildly overstated the level of constraint organisms actually operate under, or need to operate under, to provide the motive power for natural selection.

All they needed was (1) inherited variance and (2) budget constraints. If individuals within species vary (as they do) and if some of the variances are heritable (as they are), then as long as there is some constraint on the resources available for sustaining life (as there is) there will be selection processes. The greater the constraint, the more intense the selection processes, but as long as there is some constraint, there will be (non-random) selection processes. Which is all you need for evolution. Particularly given the very long time-frames available. That Malthus’s principle of population is overstated does not mean that species never come up against resource limits, still less than they cannot. Darwin avoided the “arithmetic/geometric” problem by holding that all living populations can increase geometrically, it is the limitations of the natural world (sun, weather, moisture, extremes of hot and cold, seasons, etc) which generate the ultimate constraints.

Moreover, Darwin et al got their notion of constraint the wrong way around. Darwin clearly felt and, given the riotous variety of life, it was an understandable belief, that he needed some desperately powerful and restrictive motivating force to get natural selection to work. But this is not so. Consider (the admittedly controversial) notion of punctuated equilibrium. Development of new species is not necessarily a constant process. There appear to be periods when there is a sudden mass extinction followed by an explosion of new species. The best explanation is that some catastrophe occurs (a comet strike, say) which wipes out most species. That is to say, there is a sudden, catastrophic, increase in budget constraints so natural selection operates far more viciously than normal, selecting out vast array of species.

Darwin himself was arguing against a catastrophist (Noah’s flood) theory. Since he rejects the notion of past catastrophes suddenly wiping out lots of species (Noah’s flood scientised), he had evolution proceeding at a consistent, gradual, but inexorable pace varying over time only with any variance in the rate of mutation. In order to drive this inexorable change, Darwin characterised the struggle for existence as relentlessly intense.

After the major catastrophe has happened, there is an enormous loosening of the budget constraints facing species. Natural selection becomes positively indulgent and an explosion of new species occurs as all sorts of variations suddenly (in evolutionary terms) get a guernsey. Natural selection never becomes absolutely indulgent, of course. A certain basic functioning is required even in the most lush conditions. Natural selection is always operating, it just operates at different levels of intensity at different times. But far from the development of new species being favoured when natural selection is most intense, said development is favoured when natural selection is least intense.

Which, if you think about it, makes perfect sense. Who is going to be the most innovative: the person on the margin of existence, with nothing spare, or the person with a reserve to fall back on if things go wrong? The question answers itself and is regularly demonstrated in human affairs. In the modern world, which are the most innovative societies, the wealthiest or the poorest? Again, the answer is obvious. The development of species seems inherently likely to be more frequent in lush conditions as beggars can’t be choosers. If things are desperate, you choose the first mate that comes along. If things are more relaxed, more discrimination is tolerable, so population drift would appear to be more likely. Biodiversity happens most in the lushest areas, not the most arid.

In the words of Richard Dawkins
natural selection exerts a braking effect on evolution. The baseline of evolution, in the absence of natural selection, is the maximum possible rate. That is synonymous with the mutation rate
which is a bit confused (since the mutation rate surely does not always operate at its maximum possible rate, even in the most favourable conditions), but will do.

Note that even the ‘populations are food, food are populations’ notion of species inter-actively policing each other’s numbers cannot get to you ceaseless struggle for existence. It can get you to it might happen at any moment (which is true) but it certainly can’t get you to it happens at all moments (which is false). No doubt the way constant and ceaseless can be ambiguous between always can and always does accounts for much of why a patent falsity is so widely adhered to.

And the problems of Darwinism that philosopher David Stove took such witty delight in demolishing flow from Darwin having picked a mechanism of excessive intensity – Malthus’s struggle for existence. All Darwin needed was a mechanism of constraint sufficient to have selection occur. Food is not unlimited, living beings have to be sufficiently functional to eat and reproduce, things can go wrong. That will do. You certainly don’t need a ceaseless struggle for existence or, in Darwin’s own words
every single organic being around us may be said to be striving to the utmost to increase in numbers
owing to the high geometric powers of increase of each species, some age, season or year, a severe struggle for life, and this certainly cannot be disputed
with a
constant struggle for life among conspecifics
which is just as well, because none of this is true.

And the existence of animal play proves they’re not true. If you’re constantly struggling for existence, particularly with your fellow whatevers, you don’t stop and play with them. Nor engage in non-procreative sex. And so on. So the phenomena that Bagemihl takes such enjoyable delight in enumerating show just how punctuated the so-called struggle for existence really is. And, what’s more, by drawing attention to the excess of energy beyond immediate survival available to living organisms he makes it easier to see that energy redundancy is beneficial to survival and will generate a riot of behaviour which is not, of itself, driven by a constant struggle for life but nevertheless is explicable in terms of natural selection.

So, natural selection (inherited variance + constraint) is true, Darwinism (inherited variance + Malthus) is not and Bagemihl helps us see both the former and the latter. Even better, it indicates why the Malthusian principle becomes less and less apposite the more complex organisms, and their behaviour, become.

I originally bought Biological Exuberance because of my interest in the homosexuality-is-unnatural argument. Biological Exuberance certainly shed very revealing light on that, and more, but above all, it is simply a lot of fun to read. Talk about the wonders of nature …

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