A Case Study in Darwinian Ethics: The Ballad of Roy and Silo - Evolution News & Views

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A Case Study in Darwinian Ethics: The Ballad of Roy and Silo

So far as I know, there is no name for a particular kind of science article in which an observation is offered of some sort of animal behavior, and then, under the Darwinian assumption that humans are simply advanced animals, concludes that the behavior is somehow indicative of how humans too should be able to act.

This week's model for human behavior comes, via Scientific American, from the Central Park Zoo, and involves two male penguins named Roy and Silo.

The first order of business in such an article is to make the behavioral observation. In this case, we find animals engaged in deviant behavior. We go now to the action in Central Park: "Two penguins," says writer Emily V. Driscoll,

native to Antarctica met one spring day in 1998 in a tank at the Central Park Zoo in midtown Manhattan. They perched atop stones and took turns diving in and out of the clear water below. They entwined necks, called to each other and mated. They then built a nest together to prepare for an egg. But no egg was forthcoming: Roy and Silo were both male.

Robert Gramzay, a keeper at the zoo, watched the chinstrap penguin pair roll a rock into their nest and sit on it, according to newspaper reports. Gramzay found an egg from another pair of penguins that was having difficulty hatching it and slipped it into Roy and Silo's nest. Roy and Silo took turns warming the egg with their blubbery underbellies until, after 34 days, a female chick pecked her way into the world. Roy and Silo kept the gray, fuzzy chick warm and regurgitated food into her tiny black beak.

Where are the Anita Bryant's of the animal world when you need them?

After the behavioral observation comes the generalization. It is not only these animals who have decided to lead a life of bohemian extravagance: it turns out that such scandalous behavior is common in the animal kingdom:

Like most animal species, penguins tend to pair with the opposite sex, for the obvious reason. But researchers are finding that same-sex couplings are surprisingly widespread in the animal kingdom. Roy and Silo belong to one of as many as 1,500 species of wild and captive animals that have been observed engaging in homosexual activity. Researchers have seen such same-sex goings-on in both male and female, old and young, and social and solitary creatures and on branches of the evolutionary tree ranging from insects to mammals.

After the behavioral observation and the generalization comes the human application, which consists of asking why it is that humans are so out of touch with their more distant evolutionary relatives. Here it is (you knew it was coming):

These observations suggest to some that bisexuality is a natural state among animals, perhaps Homo sapiens included, despite the sexual-orientation boundaries most people take for granted.

This scientific reasoning procedure--from observation of the behavior of particular animals, generalization to the entire animal kingdom, and finally the application to human beings--takes the following form, when stated as a syllogism:

Proposition #1: Birds do it
Proposition #2: Bees do it
Proposition #3: Even educated fleas do it
Conclusion: Let's do it, let's fall in love (with someone of the same sex)

It is a forceful piece of logical deduction, I think you'll agree. And yet there are weaknesses in this line of reasoning that publications like Scientific American seem willing to ignore in the interest of social progress. For example, if humans are to accept bisexuality as normal because it is not uncommon in the animal kingdom, then wouldn't humans be forced to find acceptable other, less becoming behavior which is even more common in nature?

What, for example, about sexual promiscuity in general? In a March 18, 2008 story in the New York Times, Natalie Angier explains that our tendency to condemn acts of adultery like that on display in the famous case of New York Governor Eliot Spitzer ignore the prevalence of such behavior among non-human creatures:

It's all been done before, every snickering bit of it, and not just by powerful "risk-taking" alpha men who may or may not be enriched for the hormone testosterone. It's been done by many other creatures, tens of thousands of other species, by male and female representatives of every taxonomic twig on the great tree of life. Sexual promiscuity is rampant throughout nature, and true faithfulness a fond fantasy.

Of course, I'm against letting Spitzer off the hook simply because his behavior is reflected in other species, and yet there is something about the process of comparing his behavior to that of the great grey shrike and the freshwater flatworm, as Angier does, that seems to throw the universe into balance.

In any case, if we are supposed to accept bisexuality because of two penguins in Central Park, then why not promiscuity? Romantic sponges, they say, do it. Oysters down in Oyster Bay do it. What, then, is preventing us from doing it as a part of the normal course of human affairs?

And then there is cannibalism. Cannibalism too is a common occurrence among the brutes. In a National Wildlife Federation article titled, "Eating Among Friends," by Dave Brian Butvill, we are regaled with manifold examples throughout nature of animals whose diet includes even members of their own nuclear animal families. "Cannibalism is surprisingly common in the animal world," says Butvill, "and biologists are discovering that it often makes good evolutionary sense to eat what you are":

"I would say that the majority of animal species that are carnivorous might, at some point in their lives, engage in cannibalism if the right conditions are present," says David Pfennig, a biologist at the University of North Carolina who studies the behavior. And in some cases, he and other scientists are finding that it makes perfectly good sense to eat among friends--even when you're the meal.

Yes, I know. You are less appalled by animals eating others of their own kind than by the fact that there actually exist specialists in animal cannibalism in our universities. But there you have it: from the African Lion to the dime shaped fingernail clam, says Butvill, animals are having their close relations for dinner on a daily basis--and they are not surviving until the dessert course.

Cold Cape Cod clams, 'gainst their wish, do it. Even lazy jellyfish do it. They all do it. So what's holding us up? Nothing, if Darwinian ethics is all you have to go by.

Obviously, there are some forms of animal behavior that are already common among humans. I am thinking specifically of the female histiostoma murchiei, a mite, which tries to create her own husband. But using the behavior of animals as a model is a dangerous business. The Ichneumon wasp tortures other insects; the female rheobatrachus, an East Australian frog, takes her eggs into her mouth and swallows them; and then there is the hippopotamus (a species in dire need of an Emily Post), which attracts its mate by urinating and defecating.

Where are the articles in science magazines touting these behaviors as models for human beings?

Finally, I'm trying to recall if there has ever been a case in which a woman has, immediately after a particularly romantic encounter with her mate, turned on him and eaten him. But if it ever were to happen, can we expect the Darwinists to come to her defense by pointing to the female redback spider? This spider (and here is where Darwinian ethics meets its Waterloo), along with a number of other spider species, eats the male immediately after mating.

It is, admittedly, a dastardly reversal of the more normal sequence, in which the human female first has the male for dinner, and only then submits to the conjugal act, but it is normal for many kinds of spiders. Is there any reason then, from a Darwinian perspective, to consider it abnormal if it were engaged in by humans?

Of course, farmers have known about the strange things that animals do for millenia. My stepfather was telling me just the other day about taking my boys out with him to feed the cattle, only to find, when he reached the herd, one of his two bulls directing his romantic attentions toward the other. Farmers are fairly familiar with this kind of behavior, but, innocent of the advanced Darwinian perspective, they have never attempted to derive a moral lesson out such incidents.

Besides, why it is that the higher animals (that's us, say the Darwinists) should model their behavior along the lines of the lower animals? I mean, isn't that one of the benefits of being a higher animal: that you can look down on those lower than you in the natural scheme of things, shake your head, and feel smug about your more civilized behavior?

If you can't do that, then what's the point of being a higher animal? That's what I'd like to know.

So while I am happy to know that Roy and Silo have found some sort of domestic bliss, I think in the final analysis, that there are few human lessons we can draw from it, other than that maybe there are Central Park Zookeepers who need something else to do.