Thursday, March 24, 2011

Darwin Is Alive and Well In Tanzania!

Do Animals Trust?
Or, Why Animals Would Die If They Trusted, and Why Humans Would Die If They Didn’t

Polls say something like 40% of Americans don’t “believe in” Darwinism. It’s safe to say that here in Tanzania 100% of life not only believes in Darwinism, it also practices it and depends on it.
Rule #1: All life wants to live and will do everything in its power to stay alive.
Rule #2: A mutations either contributes to the ability of a living plant or animal to survive—or it doesn’t.
Conclusion: Nature is the ultimate pragmatist. What increases the capacity of a living thing to survive—what works in evolutionary terms—itself survives. What doesn’t, doesn’t.
Look at a plant, a bush, a tree, an animal, a bird, and you will find clues as to what has helped it survive.
The whistling thorns on the acacia have two lines of defense against hungry giraffes. The first are the thorns designed to discourage hungry giraffes from grazing on the tender green sprigs of the acacia. But giraffes evolved with lips and tongues capable of nibbling around those sharp thorns. So next came gull-shaped bulbs that sit between the thorns—and are filled with attack ants. When the bulbs are shaken, disturbed, moved in any way, the ants swarm out and attack whatever has caused the gull-shaped bulbs to move. For instance, the tender tongue and lips of a hungry giraffe.
Or take the honey guide, a bird that uses its distinctive song to attract the attention of human hunters from the Hadza tribe. The men of the Hadza tribe depend on a supply of honey as part of their hunter-gatherer diet. The honey guide sings to get the Hadza’s attention (and sometimes the Hadza whistle the honey guide’s song to see if any are around) and then lead the Hadza to nearby trees where bees have hidden their honey combs.
It’s easy to see what the Hadza get out of this arrangement, but what in Darwin’s name do the honey guides get?
The answer comes when you watch the Hadza harvest the honey and what happens next.
The Hadza stick their arms into the honey holes, ignoring the stings of the bees—or trying to numb the bees by smoking them out with a punk fire. Then they pull out comb after comb of the bees’ honey and eat it right on the spot, slurping down the deliciously sweet honey, eating the larvae, and spitting out the wax.
But it’s the wax the honey guides want! Without the help of the Hadza, the honey guides wouldn’t be able to get to the honey combs in the first place—the birds have no way to get inside the trunks of the trees to access the combs. And then without the Hadza chewing up the combs and spitting out the wax, which the humans don’t want, the birds wouldn’t be able to get the one part of the combs they want, the wax.
It’s all existentially pragmatic, on both sides. If it didn’t work, it wouldn’t survive. And if it didn’t survive, it wouldn’t work.
Which brings us to the topic of trust.
Do animals trust each other? Is trust a survival instinct for animals?
When a herd of zebras is grazing together, do they stand so that the stronger ones can protect the weaker? When the leaders start to run and the rest of the herd takes off instantly, is that a measure of trust?
My friend and mentor Richard Leider says yes.
Animals do, in fact, trust each other. Look at how younger elephants learn to look up to, to respect and to trust the older ones. Look at what happened some years back when young male elephants had no older males to teach them the ropes. The herd was running riot, and it wasn’t until some older, mature males were introduced into the mix that the younger males settled down and learned the ropes. Trust, he says, is part of the animal kingdom.
I say no.
What we’re seeing in animals, what he’s describing, isn’t trust. Animals don’t know about trust, much less practice it. What we’re seeing, what they’re practicing, is behavior that results from millions of years of evolution.
Their leaders aren’t leaders because the other animals “trust” them. They’re leaders because they are the biggest, the strongest, the toughest, the fastest.
If you are, say, a zebra, and you are none of those things—not the biggest, strongest, toughest, fastest—and one of the zebras who is all of them starts to run, you don’t ask yourself whether you trust him. You don’t call a meeting of the other lesser zebras to see what they think. You run. He runs, you run. Otherwise you’ve just increased your chances of being eaten.
Or try flipping it the other way: for animals to be capable of trust, they also have to be capable of not-trust.
Can you honestly imagine a herd of wildebeest who stop as their leader starts to run, and engage in thoughtful wildebeestian dialog as to whether or not they trust this particular leader? Should they run? Or not run? He’s been wrong before, you know. Remember that time he thought he smelled something, but it turned out to be nothing? This is a pretty nice grazing spot. And if we run, and it turns out there’s no reason to run, we’ll have left it for no good reason!
Of course, if the leader was right, the weakest of the wildebeest is now jackal fare. So much for not trusting the leader!
But what about humans?
We have a problem very different from the other animals.
We are small and relatively weak. We do have opposable thumbs and a great big brain. We have a fight or flight mechanism like the other animals, but we also come equipped with an over-ride switch: our left-sided, problem-solving brain. Our consciousness. Our social networking skills. Our ability to work with each other, plan with each other, depend on each other. In other words, to trust each other.
We need to be able to trust each other to survive. Animals need not to have to trust each other to survive.
Darwin is alive and well and surviving in the Serengeti of Tanzania. It’s where you go to see how the world really works, how life works, what it takes to survive.

All Rights Reserved 2009 (c) Alan Webber, Rules Of Thumb