Wednesday, August 02, 2006


The brief excerpt below exemplifies how genetic information can spread through species by some combination of selfish and/or altruistic genes. I’m passing this on from Richard Dawkins in The Selfish Gene, pp. 102-104

[OPEN QUOTE] An example of a deliberately engineered misfiring of the maternal instinct is provided by cuckoos, and other 'brood-parasites'-birds that lay their eggs in somebody else's nest. Cuckoos exploit the rule built into bird parents: 'Be nice to any small bird sitting in the nest that you built'. Cuckoos apart, this rule will normally have the desired effect of restricting altruism to immediate kin, because it happens to be a fact that nests are so isolated from each other that the contents of your own nest are almost bound to be your own chicks. Adult herring gulls do not recognize their own eggs, and will happily sit on other gull eggs, and even crude wooden dummies if these are substituted by a human experimenter. In nature, egg recognition is not important for gulls, because eggs do not roll far enough to reach the vicinity of a neighbor’s nest, some yards away. Gulls do, however, recognize their own chicks: chicks, unlike eggs, wander, and can easily end up near the nest of a neighboring adult, often with fatal results, as we saw in Chapter I.

Guillemots, on the other hand, do recognize their own eggs by means of the speckling pattern, and actively discriminate in favor of them when incubating. This is presumably because they nest on flat rocks, where there is a danger of eggs rolling around and getting muddled up. Now, it might be said, why do they bother to discrimi¬nate and sit only on their own eggs? Surely if everybody saw to it that she sat on somebody's egg, it would not matter whether each particular mother was sitting on her own or somebody else's. This is the argument of a group selectionist. Just consider what would happen if such a group baby-sitting circle did develop. The average clutch size of the guillemot is one. This means that if the mutual baby-sitting circle is to work successfully, every adult would have to sit on an average of one egg. Now suppose someone cheated, and refused to sit on an egg. Instead of wasting time sitting, she could spend her time laying more eggs. And the beauty of the scheme is that the other, more altruistic, adults would look after them for her. They would go on faithfully obeying the rule 'If you see a stray egg near your nest, haul it in and sit on it.' So the gene for cheating the system would spread through the population, and the nice friendly baby-sitting circle would break down.

'Well', it might be said, 'what if the honest birds retaliated by refusing to be blackmailed, and resolutely decided to sit on one egg and only one egg? That should foil the cheaters, because they would see their own eggs lying out on the rocks with nobody incubating them. That should soon bring them into line.' Alas, it would not. Since we are postulating that the sitters are not discriminating one egg from another, if the honest birds put into practice this scheme for resisting cheating, the eggs that ended up being neglected would be just as likely to be their own eggs as those of the cheaters. The cheaters would still have the advantage, because they would lay more eggs and have more surviving children. The only way an honest guillemot could beat the cheaters would be to discriminate actively in favor of her own eggs. That is, to cease being altruistic and look after her own interests.

To use the language of Maynard Smith, the altruistic adoption 'strategy' is not an evolutionarily stable strategy. It is unstable in the sense that it can be bettered by a rival selfish strategy of laying more than one's fair share of eggs, and then refusing to sit on them. This latter selfish strategy is in its turn unstable, because the altruistic strategy which it exploits is unstable, and will disappear. The only evolutionarily stable strategy for a guillemot is to recognize its own egg, and sit exclusively on its own egg, and this is exactly what happens.

The song-bird species that are parasitized by cuckoos have fought back, not in this case by learning the appearance of their own eggs, but by discriminating instinctively in favor of eggs with the species typical markings. Since they are not in danger of being parasitized by members of their own species, this is effective. But the cuckoos have retaliated in their turn by making their eggs more and more like those of the host species in colour, size, and markings. This is an example of a lie, and it often works. The result of this evolutionary arms race has been a remarkable perfection of mimicry on the part of the cuckoo eggs. We may suppose that a proportion of cuckoo eggs and chicks are 'found out', and those that are not found out are the ones who live to lay the next generation of cuckoo eggs. So genes for more effective deception spread through the cuckoo gene pool. Similarly, those host birds with eyes sharp enough to detect any slight imperfection in the cuckoo eggs' mimicry are the ones that contribute most to their own gene pool. Thus sharp and skeptical eyes are passed on to their next generation. This is a good example of how natural selection can sharpen up active discrimination, in this case discrimination against another species whose members are doing their best to foil the discriminators. [CLOSE QUOTE]

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