Tuesday, 31 May 2011

Altruistic Squirrels or Gullible Beliefs?

From here...
Arianna Huffington herself posts an opinion piece which includes this bit on the possible evolution of an, "altruism gene."

...when faced with a predator in the vicinity, some squirrels would cry out to attract the predator's attention, thus sacrificing themselves so that other squirrels would be spared. This behavior would seem to contradict evolution, because such altruism would not be genetically passed on and would thus be selected out. But, as Trinh explained:
'...it is the gene or the genome that is 'trying' to survive, not the individual, nor the species. Thus if a squirrel perishes but in doing so saves his brothers (those who share much of his genome), his genes still survive and are still the fittest. The study offered to the scientific world the evolutionary basis of altruism.'
The first obvious red flag here is the word, "trying." Evolution cannot 'try' to do anything; the theory is that it is a completely random process where mutations that benefit the species are preserved within the species, and animals who possess this successful mutation will flourish while others without it may eventually die out.

Secondly, it would be interesting to hear whether only, "some" squirrels do this, while others more selfishly keep silent. Clarification would be helpful.

Thirdly, it would seem just as reasonable that such crying out may be just a natural reaction of fear in the face of a predator. Dogs bark or growl, cats hiss. People shout out ,"Holy ....(whatever)!" Perhaps squirrels just do what squirrels do.

In any case, one of the commenters posed this seemingly sensible comment:
If there is an altruistic gene, arising by mutation in whatever creature first exhibited the trait, and that creature sacrifices itself for the sake of the species (who do not yet carry this mutation), then the mutation is not passed on. Even though the altruistic­ally mutated creature sacrifices itself to ensure that the genome survives, what survives is the genome without the altruistic mutation. This is not an explanatio­n for how the so-called "altruism trait" has evolved.
To which another, obviously a true believer, answered:
You are assuming there is only one squirrel with that gene. If many or most squirrels have that gene, making yourself the target of a predator will, in fact, enhance the survival of the gene and the species.
Which raises the obvious question (although perhaps not so obvious to who blindly accept what they are told); Do you really think that the same mutation would have occurred simultaneously in more than one squirrel? Or did he miss the plain point of the previous commenter that if this mutation occurred in one squirrel, and that first altruistic squirrel cried out to warn of a predator, and if that one special squirrel was then enjoyed by said predator for dinner, then the genealogy of said mutation would have ended right there and then.

Evolutionarily speaking, altruism would have lived a very short life.

Take care

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