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The Alpha Myth

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Okay, I am going to be honest here. And it is going to hurt: I actually like urban fantasy as a genre. And specifically I might have, in moments of weakness, indulged in some borderline paranormal romance involving sexy werewolves. So to say that I have been wearily overexposed to the alpha myth is an understatement.

This ties into what I was talking about on Monday. When you change an animal’s environment, you force widespread changes in the animal’s behavior and even biology. Thus any observations you make about the animal in the new environment should be taken with a healthy dose of skepticism. When you don’t do that you get things like the alpha myth. In case you have somehow missed this: there is a widespread misconception that wolves have a hierarchical pack structure led by an “alpha”, and characterized by posturing and in-fighting. And this idea still perpetuates itself in popular writing despite being outdated.

So where did this idea come from? Well, a guy named Rudolph Schenkel was studying wolves. He formulated a hypothesis that wolf packs formed as isolated individuals came together at the onset of winter. To study this, he took a bunch of wolves from different zoos and put them all together in an enclosure, and the standard alpha model emerged. So he published a paper about his grand discovery on wolf social structure. Well, his hypothesis was wrong, and it took way too long to point out the flaw (which is that a similar structure emerges any time when you put a collection of unrelated animals in a restricted area and force them to fight over resources, this is what happens to humans in prisons). He took no pains to model the natural environment of the animals, and as a result is all that he proved was the way his subjects behaved under his improperly constructed experimental conditions. And while eventually someone disproved his theory with observations in the wild, the idea had already made its way into the popular consciousness where it remains.

So why does it prevail? Because most people find the truth less interesting. Wolves living in the wild tend to act pretty reasonably. They form a basic nuclear family structure or strike off on their own and it is all very ordered and elegant. And while that does have a certain beauty to it, it’s obviously less visceral and exciting. Not to mention that the misconception plays into our also outdated notion of “Nature, red in tooth and claw”. Not to mention that this is very similar to how we live and that goes against the deeply ingrained idea that we have a privileged place as a civilized species set apart from the savage world.

So why does this matter? Well, to begin with I am a pedant; however, my objection extends beyond that. If this were limited to fiction I could deal (when reading fantasy I just credit it to another part of the fantasy), but it spills over into other things. Numerous books exist pushing people to take lessons from a bungled piece of science and apply it to their relationship with their dogs. Which is a delightful two for one package of scientific misconception (modern dogs were not domesticated directly from wolves but rather from a intermediate species of “camp dogs” with, you guessed it, a different environment and different behavior set than their wild cousins). So take one bit of bad science, popularize it, and let society run with it to the point that they misunderstand and sometimes even abuse their pets. There is a reason we work so hard to get these things right, and the past mistakes of science should not be immortalized in pop-culture.

Sources & Further Reading

  • Obviously the original publication by Schenkel is interesting reading, if you can track it down.
  • For a dynamic view of this shift in thought, try looking up the works of L. David Mech. His 1970 book The Wolf: Ecology and Behavior of an Endangered Species, was largely responsible for propagating the alpha myth, and his recent papers have gone a long way towards disproving it.
  • No, I am so not going to tell you what urban fantasy I read. It’s bad enough that I admit to it at all.

Written by Caudoviral

02/09/2011 at 19:34

Blurring the Lines

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It is largely a Victorian myth that male gorillas would take a sexual interest in human females. Largely. No human has ever had to fear the sexual predation of (non-human) apes in the wild (dolphins, however, are a different story entirely). It is apparently rather a different story in captivity.

Reading Carl Sagan & Ann Druyan’s Shadow of Forgotten Ancestors, I ran across the following interesting passage:

“When raised among humans, they [Chimps] have been known to masturbate to pictures of naked people. (This is probably true only for those who, through prolonged contact, have come to consider themselves human. Wild chimps would no more masturbate to erotic images of humans than vice versa.)”

Now, if Sagan & Druyan have their information correct, this serves as a striking example of the dangers of observing animal behaviour in captivity.

Major pressure for behavioural change occur at boundary regions. This is one of the things that makes ecotones such a fascinating field of study. However, not all of these boundaries are terrain based. When two species are placed in close proximity, they tend to each adapt towards the presence of one another. The boundary between the species selects for adaptation. An excellent example of this is the Endler guppy experiments. Guppies placed in tanks with no risk of predation become brighter and more flamboyant to attract mates. Guppies placed in tanks with risk of predation become duller and more easily camouflage themselves in the substrate. In no way is either of these populations no longer a guppy, but the differences are striking. No animal exists in a vacuum. There is no eidos of any species. Take two populations of the same creature and put them in radically different circumstances, (if they don’t die) their behaviour and biology will begin to diverge (if this divergence continues long enough, speciation might occur). And the presence or absence of an entirely new species (a.k.a. the presence or absence of human observers) is one hell of a change in circumstance.

People like to draw a nice firm line between ourselves and the rest of Animalia, and it is just not merely wrong to do so, but actively misleading. It is fairly clear that people who interact with other animals in their daily lives are affected by the experience and they change their behaviour to match (entire myth structures have been built upon a human tribe’s native flora and fauna). So what does all this mean? Well…the practice of working with animals in any kind of setting where there is direct interaction between humans and animals is not of necessity accurate to the behaviour and condition of those animals in the wild. Your presence is going to cause an observer effect in them, and in all likelihood prolonged exposure will cause certain adaptive behaviours in you.

Of course, given that there is no eidos of a species is this such a bad thing? Not if you realise it. If you don’t, it can cause problems. We will look at a case study of this on Wednesday.

Sources & Further Reading

  • Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors by Sagan & Druyan, 1992
  • Finding a free full text of John A. Endler’s articles doesn’t look like it is going to work. Although it may be possible to get access to his work, and especially his 1980 Natural selection on color patterns in Poecilia reticulata through your libraries.

Written by Caudoviral

02/07/2011 at 18:40

Posted in Behavior & Cognition, Biology

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“Is there a doctor in the fish?”

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Mental disorders are a hobby of mine, not a field of study (and we evil reductionist biologists generally look askance at the actual field devoted to studying them). But some of them are a little too odd not to pay attention to. I include in this the entire spectrum of factitious disorders.

Factitious disorder, sometimes and sometimes not synonymous with Münchausen syndrome, is characterised by exaggerating, faking, and sometimes even producing symptoms of a disease for the perceived emotional and social benefits of being sick. That last bit is important, someone who employs chicanery for an external benefit: money, draft-dodging, etc. is a malingerer and deemed not mentally ill. The genuine factitious disorder is considered difficult to treat and recovery is low (although notably some people do suffer from intermittent episodes of the disorder rather than being chronic sufferers).

There are several variants on the basic theme of the syndrome: Münchausen by proxy, in which the sufferer induces disease symptoms in another (usually a child). And the modern variant of Münchausen by Internet, in which the sufferer pretends to have a disease in interactions with individuals or communities over the Internet. It seems likely, given the relative lack of risk, that this latter expression has become the most common in recent years. Indeed there may even be several undocumented subtypes of Münchausen’s by Internet, consider the modern wave of so called “Internet Asperger’s” sufferers.

But why does this occur? It’s an interesting object of speculation. Dishonesty has been suggested as an individually beneficial, albeit ultimately self-limiting social behaviour (more details on this can be found in the works of Robert Trivers, and to a lesser extent Richard Dawkins). And it is easy to see the simplistic explanation of why: Organisms work for the benefit of their genes, meaning that we are skewed towards A) breeding, and B) survival. If we deceive others we are more likely to outcompete them, which is good on the gene scale. However, the genome (not the individual gene, sorry Dawkins) is the unit of evolution, and so we serve the propagation of those with similar genomes as well, thus kin-selecting behaviour arises. Kin selecting behaviour leads to the formation of society and society provides a certain base-line benefit to us all. So a little deception goes a long way to individual success, but a lot of deception leads to destabilising society, screwing over ones kin, and generally being more self-detrimental than it is beneficial.

That said, the urges for deception should naturally be towards staying alive and comfortable and getting laid. Münchausen’s sufferers fail at this. There deception is, evolutionarily speaking, faulty. Sickness is not sexy (to most people). A great deal of cosmetics and beauty involve providing the appearance of health (making eyes look wide and alert, lips fuller, hiding blemishes, etc). What we as creatures generally like to see in mate selection is evidence of health. So excluding a subset fringe, Münchausen’s sufferers seem to be lowering their chances of propagation for temporary creature comforts. Yet another manifestation of the fascinating way that individual consciousness can subvert evolutionary drive. Albeit a disturbing example.

Sources & Further Reading

  • Seriously, pretty much everything Robert Trivers has written. Even if I don’t 100% agree with him the guy is a genius with fascinating theories.
  • By the same token, most Dawkins (although the guy is an ass, and has a gene, as opposed to genome, focused view of evolution).
  • A solid review of Münchausen’s by proxy.
  • A 2010 review of Münchausen’s by Internet.

Written by Caudoviral

02/06/2011 at 17:13

Posted in Behavior & Cognition, Health

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The Alarming Hypothesis

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For reasons outlined yesterday this is going to be pretty short.

In 1994, Francis Crick published a book called The Astonishing Hypothesis. While I find this hypothesis a little less than astonishing (indeed, I feel that any serious reflection on neurobiology makes it apparent and wholly unsurprising), the book is a fantastic overview of evidence and experiment towards demonstrating this principle (and one I will write a proper review of as soon as I can find the time to finish reading it).

Let us accept this hypothesis. Consciousness is wholly rooted in biology. Now, we do the evobio thing, and things look less astonishing and more alarming. What causes selection for consciousness? And what could cause selection against it?

To understand why that is chilling, we need to first redefine the way we look at things. I often accuse humans of being anthropocentric, but if you limit the system to our own bodies, we are sapiocentric. We think of the “I that is I” as our minds more often than we think of it as our flesh. But in truth the conscious mind does incredibly little. You don’t need it to breathe, you don’t need it to pump your blood, you don’t need it to digest your food. On a lower level the conscious mind has absolutely no control over the cellular workings of the body, or say the immune system, or growth. Indeed repetitive tasks can be done without the conscious mind, take your daily commute or any routine chore. As another example walking does not require that we thoughtfully place each step. Tossing something onto your desk from across the room requires no kinematic calculation. The conscious mind does make some decisions, but it does not make, and indeed cannot make many more (and recent cognitive research even makes this suspect, it has been suggested that the impulse is sent to the muscles to move before the brain even decides to, this is something I should explore in more detail and with proper citation at a later date). Complicated ideas and even mathematical equations can work themselves out best when we are actively not thinking about them. And as for memory, the conscious mind hardly has any. It can only hold a very small number of variables  before shunting them off to the unconscious to be recalled later (with varying degrees of success). So it seems apparent that the conscious mind is not necessary for action, even so-called intelligent action.

Feeling it yet?

Now, it cannot be the case that there is no benefit to consciousness. If it were merely an anchor around the neck of our body it would (most likely) have been cast off long ago. Consciousness gives you up to the minute control over a certain limited subset of systems. And in a number of cases this could be useful. For instance it is unclear how well the unconscious can do foresight and preparation. Similarly making logical jumps and providing important feedback to what systems it has a say in (as a for instance realising through cues other than sense that an atmosphere is poisonous and taking respiration into conscious control). Moreover, there could be certain actions best performed by the union of conscious and unconscious into a unified whole: creativity and technology development come to mind as potential examples.

All of that said however, it does seem in some ways to be horribly detrimental. Let’s take paraphilia. The sex drive serves an evolutionary purpose to push us towards reproduction. A number of fetishes involve pleasure taken from something other than the actual sex act, this separate act cannot lead to the passing along of genes. The conscious mind has developed a hangup to the detriment of the body’s reproduction. Let it be clear I am not saying that sexual fetishes are bad (I personally have a few…dozen >_<). However, it seems absurd to argue that they stem from anywhere but the ‘self’ or have any evolutionary benefit. I use sexual fetish as an example because the line is very easy to draw, but one could say the same of any entertainment. There is no biological requirement for entertainment, or aesthetics, or indeed even philosophy. But the mind stagnates without them. Any way you slice it, from a biological standpoint this is a flaw. We can hypothesise that this flaw crept into the schema over time, or that it was there all along and consciousness was selected for anyway because the benefit outweighed the cost. For the sake of the “us that is  us” let us hope for the latter. because if not, it seems like there is a very troubling possibility, that the age of the “I that is I” will be a footnote in the history of life.

Okay, s I suck at being brief. Also, credit must go to Peter Watts and his novel Blindsight for planting this line of inquiry in my mind.

Written by Caudoviral

01/25/2011 at 16:22

Necker Cubes & Multiple Worldviews

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So this didn’t really start out as an idea for a blog post, rather I was just explaining something to a friend of mine earlier today and decided to put it down in writing. She expressed a concern that she lacked a natural aptitude for physics to which I responded that I thought that the concept of natural aptitudes for particular fields of science was largely hokum. Except for claims of sucking at quantum physics and relativity. We all suck at quantum physics and relativity. Oh sure, you can train yourself in the thought patterns necessary to excel in those fields, but it is an uphill climb. While there are many things that are non intuitive, very few things actually as counter intuitive as these two fields (well, okay we can probably toss in some non-Euclidean geometry as well).

To understand this, we have to start with vision. A simple and elegant explanation for this involves the Necker Cube.  The cube is, to begin with, not really a cube. Take a look at the picture and your brain will fly into action interpreting it. And it will be wrong. The first thing our brains are programmed to do is to grant the illusion of depth to a two dimensional image, and interpret as right angles several lines that are really no such thing. This is a perfectly understandable reaction for an organ that has evolved to function in a world with more than two dimensions. The more interesting error comes after we have granted depth to the figure. If you look long enough, behold! It inverts! In fact, with the least amount of effort the cube can be shifted back and forth at will. What’s going on here?

As Peter Watts puts it (and I haven’t heard a better summation of it than this): We are, as a species, incapable of holding multiple simultaneous worldviews. That is to say that when we are confronted with an ill-posed problem (a problem with multiple equally valid solutions barring the addition of any additional information) our brains arbitrate and select one possible solution. We are incapable of holding all possible solutions as simultaneously true. Oh, of course we can know that they are all equally valid, just as we know that no one view of the Necker cube is more valid, but that has no bearing on what we see. It should here be noted that the Necker cube is one of the best examples of this phenomenon because it is simple and relatively un-‘sticky’. Certain other demonstrations of the same thing, such as the spinning dancer illusion, can be much harder to swap back and forth or even see the other possible interpretations in the first place.

It should be fairly apparent why this is. We are machines with two very specific operating parameters: survive and reproduce. Neither of these is aided by coming across an ambiguous situation and standing there overwhelmed at all the pretty interpretations. In the interest of action, our brains pick an interpretation for us. Presumably this is based on certain hard wired precepts like the ones Helmholtz outlined (faces are usually viewed upright, light generally comes from above, we often don’t look at objects from below) mixed with lessons learned from personal experience. Now, such quick and some may even say arbitrary decision making in the face of ambiguity might in fact be lethal for an individual, but natural selection works on populations. For instance with the dancer illusion above, about 2/3 of people see the dancer as rotating clockwise, research into this has pointed to a bias to interpreting things as viewed from above. Which makes sense for creatures known for their upright posture, in the wild it seems likely that many things early man was interested in were located below eye level (food, spawn, the breasts of early woman, etc.).

What this has all been getting to in a roundabout way, is that one of the reasons many people struggle with relativity with its multiple shifting reference frames and quantum physics with its wave equations and probability, is that we are biologically predisposed to pick one interpretation and act on it. To beat a possibly dead cat, lets examine Schrödinger’s  classic illustration: to the human mind the idea that something exists in two states simultaneously is absurd. To truly understand that situation it would be like seeing both interpretation of the Necker cube, or being able to see the dancer moving both clockwise and anti-clockwise simultaneously. When we look at the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum theory, and are told that there is a superposition of possible states that only resolve when an observation takes place, we find that we are simply not wired to think in that fashion however true it might be.

However, we are very clever. Over the years many people have trained themselves to work quite dexterously within these realms of physics despite this vestigial limitation of the mind (In some ways it is very like how we can discuss the mathematics of occurrences in any set of dimensions ‘n’ despite not being able to picture or indeed work within physical dimensions beyond the familiar three). Although I can’t but wonder if our cognitive limitations are related to the fairly slow going in physics these days.

Written by Caudoviral

01/13/2011 at 20:15

Posted in Behavior & Cognition

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