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Bad evolutionary psychology

May 4, 2021

One of the silliest things to think about most any animal is that it wants to be an evolutionary success. Birds know no more about genes than they do about Russian literature or the internet. So it is disappointing to read in a Wired article about tanagers:

The fancy feathers he produces then serve as an honest signal, in the evolutionary sense, as his ability to consume a lot of carotenoids shows that he’s fit. And the female wants to pass those genes along to her offspring, please and thank you.

Stuff and nonsense. The female tanager just gets turned on by what turns her on. She likely is less aware of what that is than a teenage girl. The male tanagers that do better at that have more offspring. Regardless of how they do so. Sexual preference and satisfaction of it does indeed influence genetic change over generations. Darwin knew that could lead to traits that are not otherwise beneficial. Not because a female bird in making her choice of mate is deceived, but because the evolution of mating choice creates a game of its own.

summer-tanagerThis article about animals raising young that are not their own, and sometimes not even their own species, tries to pose that as a puzzle, and initially veers into the same fallacy. Animals don’t care for their young because they are trying to be an evolutionary success. They do that either instinctively, or from emotional attachment. Either can lead to raising young not one’s own. Now yes, emotional attachment can help a species survive, and that in turn may explain in part how our emotional facilities evolved. Once they evolved, that generates complex behavior that doesn’t necessarily align with gene propagation. That article does better in its conclusion:

Perhaps instead we may just have to accept that humans are not unique in their capacity to care for and help each other

Of course. Our emotions are not something that popped into being by magic. They are a faculty of larger brains, and ours of necessity are part of a continuum with those of related species.

Summer tanagers are one of my favorite birds to spot. I saw only one this spring migration.

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