Wednesday, July 17, 2013

The Unselfish Gene

Richard Dawkins wrote The Selfish Gene in 1976. It represented some of his greatest writing and was much less antagonistic toward other philosophical and theological perspectives than his later writings. The book described a gene-centred view of evolution and was not a treatise on whether or not organisms are selfish. Yet, a persistent problem in the genetics of evolution has been the concept of cooperative behaviour. Social insects such as ants and honey bees have often perplexed researchers and evolutionary theorists. If the primary goal of an organism is to see that more of its genes are passed to the next generation than the genes of competing organisms, how do we explain social behaviour? As one journal article asks, "In what way can the self-sacrificing sterile ant be considered to 'struggle for existence' or to endeavor to maximize the number of its descendants?"1 One way around the problem of cooperation in the social insects is to view the entire colony as a single organism. This allows us to explain the entity with the common models of evolutionary research.

But what about cooperation between species? Ecological scientists studying the behaviours of coyotes and badgers in the National Elk Refuge in Wyoming have noted that badgers and coyotes collaborate to catch burrowing rodents such as Richardson's Ground Squirrels (commonly known as gophers).2 On the surface, this cooperation might look like altruism; yet a closer look reveals why the two species work together. Badgers dig after gophers and pursue them underground while coyotes chase them above ground. The researchers noted that "coyotes, which are faster and have a larger range, would scout, and once they spotted a [gopher], they would signal to the badgers."3 Then, if the gopher escaped underground, the badger would dig and corner it in a burrow. If the gopher stayed above ground, the coyote (or in some cases, coyotes) would give chase and run it down. The ecologists said the data suggested that coyotes hunting with badgers caught 34% more gophers. Since the badgers caught and ate their prey underground they could not confirm an advantage for the badgers who worked with coyotes; but, intuitively, it would make sense that they too benefitted from the cooperation. This an example of something that looks like altruism that can be explained by typical concepts of survival of the fittest? A more fit coyote is a coyote that can work out how to cooperate with a badger? The study is all the more interesting because, given the chance, a coyote will eat a badger and a badger will eat a coyote pup that it corners in a den.

In the polarizing discussions of evolutionary theories versus non-evolutionary theories of creation, such cooperative systems have been used to suggest that there are deficiencies in the evolutionary explanations. Yet, we must not be quick to use a particular system as a proof for our point. We must carefully observe data, draw tentative conclusions, and then move on to greater research. The integrity of science, theology, and philosophy requires honesty and transparency at all levels.

1 Hamilton, W. D. "Altruism and Related Phenomena, Mostly in Social Insects." Annual Review of Ecology and Systematics 3 (1972): 193-232.
2 Haemig PD; Badger-Coyote Associations. ECOLOGY.INFO 11; (; date accessed: 2013-07-17)

Works cited:
Haemig, P.D. "Badger-Coyote Associations." Ecology, 2012: Info 11.

Hamilton, W. D. "Altruism and Related Phenomena, Mostly in Social Insects." Annual Review of Ecology and Systematics 3 (1972): 193-232.

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