Monday, April 7, 2014

The Brutality of Life

I recently watched Life in the Undergrowth with David Attenborough and Darwin in the City with Carl Zimmer here. The former, as always with Attenborough, contains beautiful cinematography and interesting information that is spooned out slowly. The latter provides an articulate and stunning presentation of how we directly cause real-time evolution in the animals and plants around us. I found Zimmer more striking, because he shows that Darwinism refers not to remote processes that emerge over long periods, but to nearby processes that are occurring right now. For this post, however, I will concentrate on Attenborough's presentation of the social insects, because it is germane to many aspects of human behavior that interest me.

The social insects, which include wasps, bees, termites and ants, at one time operated as independent individuals. By chance, some adult females began to form collective nests, and this provided an evolutionary advantage which allowed them to leave the nest in search of food while others remained at the nest to fend off intruders that endangered their offspring. This is the basic structure of eusocial behavior: cooperation makes life easier for everyone. Homo sapiens arrived at eusocial behavior through an entirely different path, but the same logic is there, and it can be instructive to examine social insects in search of human parallels.

One thing that I learned is that there are tensions within the nests of social insects, and life there isn't always harmonious. The example I liked best was that of the honeybee. Every spring, a fertilized queen sets out to start a nest. She finds a site, often a hole in the ground, and begins to lay eggs. The queen emits chemicals that cause all of the eggs to become females that do not reach maturity. The nest then becomes a factory where the queen continues to lay eggs and her daughters tend to the eggs, find food and defend the nest. Toward the end of summer, the queen stops emitting the chemicals that control the development of her eggs and offspring. Some of her daughters mature to adulthood, and some males are born. The daughters start to lay their own eggs. Initially, the queen attempts to eat all of the eggs laid by her daughters, but eventually, her mature daughters attack and kill her. The mature daughters that have been fertilized leave the nest seeking shelter for the winter. In the spring, the process starts again.

In some of my posts I've discussed dysfunctional families. My family was dysfunctional while I was growing up, but I think it may have followed a pattern that isn't uncommon. My mother makes a good case study, because she was very much an instinctive and spontaneous person. Moreover, she was uprooted from her original family setting at age 21 when she moved from Greece to England, and then again at age 31 when she moved from England to the U.S., so she did not have the continuous immersion in one culture that would make cultural explanations for her behavior more plausible. As mentioned earlier, she was on the whole a competent parent about until the time that her children reached puberty. From that point onward, she was of little help to any of us, and in fact was often spitefully competitive with my older sister. One might say that her attitude, at an instinctive level, was that she was ready for us to leave the nest and spontaneously lost her interest in child rearing. As stated on a previous post, I was not close to her during my adulthood, and my sisters were often in conflict with her.

When you look at fathers from a eusocial perspective, their interest in raising their offspring can range anywhere from never existing at all to starting strong and declining or ending later. In the case of honeybees and many insects, the only important role the father plays is in the fertilizing of the eggs. I think that you can say that human couples, when they are young, are generally obsessed with mating, and the dominant culture carefully prescribes acceptable conduct in that domain. Culture plays a decisive role in defining how strong instincts that could potentially disrupt society are to be expressed. However, once children reach adulthood, the relationships between parents and children are usually less critical biologically, and cultures often allow greater flexibility from that point onward. If the children are in fact capable of fending for themselves, depending on cultural expectations, a father may push them out of the door, support them through college, or expect them to start taking care of him. There may also be a genetic predisposition encouraging parents to assume the role of grandparents, but I think there is also cultural variation here. Perhaps there is a parallel between male social insects that have performed their function and die and dissolute fathers who take to drinking and die prematurely.

In the context of my blog ramblings, there are a couple of connections that I've made. First, many children feel betrayed by one or more of their parents because they behaved in a manner that did not optimize the children's outcomes or even worsened the outcomes through negligence of one kind or another. I am an advocate of forgiving parents in most cases, especially when the perceived deficiencies can be explained by ingrained biological processes over which we have limited control. Second, this relates to what I feel is the inadequacy of current literature that intentionally excludes advances in science. Fiction that explores human relationships only within the narrow literary framework that conceptually predates contemporary scientific understanding of our behavior is relegating itself to an antiquated form of mannerism. Some may argue that, as an art, literature has no responsibility to reflect scientific knowledge, but in my view, when there is an explosion of research that provides new insights, its omission tends to make literature artificial and pointless. We know more about ourselves than we did a hundred years ago, and pretending that we don't seems delusional to me.

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