Counterintuitive, Episode 4: Beauty & the Beast – Conceptions of Nature, Goodness, and the Evolutionary Reality

The fourth episode of my podcast, Counterintuitive, is online! Join me for a journeys into stories which are not what they seem to be. Episodes examine unusual concepts from a broad spectrum that will surprise you and then make you think. Because there’s always a layer beneath. You can find new episodes on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, TuneIn, YouTube, or SoundCloud. Below, you’ll find the transcript of this episode with some references / further reading hyperlinks. The music for this episode comes from FreeSound, specifically these pieces:

https://freesound.org/people/Dexnay/sounds/82310/
https://freesound.org/people/kangaroovindaloo/sounds/138288/
https://freesound.org/people/Setuniman/sounds/154907/
https://freesound.org/people/reecord2/sounds/85040/
https://freesound.org/people/bigmanjoe/sounds/365958/
https://freesound.org/people/fmceretta/sounds/426709/
https://freesound.org/people/tyops/sounds/443086/
https://freesound.org/people/tomtenney/sounds/125225/
https://freesound.org/people/LukeIRL/sounds/176020/
https://freesound.org/people/sofialomba/sounds/467936/
https://freesound.org/people/PSOVOD/sounds/416057/

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Transcript

In late 2016, seven penguins vanished from the zoo in Calgary, Canada. Well, not literally vanished. Their bodies were found after all. To the last of them, the seven penguins drowned. Imagine, penguins drowning. In water. In the summer of 2017, a pair of mountain goats got stuck on Brean Down cliff in Somerset, England. So badly, in fact, that they were trapped there for months. Some people were worried about the goats as the days passed by and they grew ever thinner. A few animal lovers even tried to climb up and carve a path to freedom for the stuck goats. Yet an unperturbed spokesperson of the National Trust remarked ‘It is common for goats to get onto ledges and rock faces and, while it can look as though the goat is stuck, they do tend to get themselves down when they are ready.’ Mere hours after this statement – imagine the sad irony – one of the goats jumped from the ledge, fell down, and died.

Introduction

My name is Daniel Bojar and this is Counterintuitive, the podcast about things which are not what they seem to be. This time we will zoom into a conviction, a bias, an intuition we all carry with us. It’s the naturalist bias or appeal to nature fallacy, glorifying all things natural and condemning everything artificial. I mean, just consider the emotions evoked by the words ‘natural’ and ‘artificial’ and you already see the problem we have at our hands. Because natural isn’t perfect and artificial isn’t bad by default. But, first things first. We’ll get to artificial in a future episode, so let’s focus on natural here. Since the naturalist bias is strongly anchored in most people, we have to exercise caution not to provoke backlash. So we’ll start slow, remote, perhaps insignificant. We’ll start with a humble beetle.

Main

We’re in Western Australia. It’s dry, it’s hot, and seemingly devoid of life. Well, not quite. In front of us flies a beetle, a large specimen of the species Julodimorpha bakewelli, also known as the giant jewel beetle. Not so humble after all. But giant indeed, as these insects can reach lengths of up to four centimeters of bright red or brown color. Like so many species, the survival of the giant jewel beetle is endangered because of our actions. But there’s a twist. We don’t hunt these insects, we don’t exactly destroy their environment, heck, in this case not even climate change can be really blamed for the slow demise of the giant jewel beetle. If you want to be mean, you could put part of the blame on the giant jewel beetle itself. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.

Our story will soon lead us to Harvard University, North America, and eventually the whole world. Yet for now, we’re still in Western Australia. Just a few meters from where we started, our giant jewel beetle has found what it was looking for. Or, rather, what he was looking for. Because, you see, it’s August and that means it’s mating season for the giant jewel beetle. And mating season means finding the best possible mate, to ensure maximal genetic fitness for the offspring of our beetle. That’s why he endured the blazing Australian sun and now his insectile eyes are locked on his precious prize.

Finding a good mate is crucial for individuals of any species. Operating through natural selection of the fittest offspring, evolution usually occurs in species which reproduce sexually. Thereby, they accrue mutations which can improve or deteriorate the fitness of offspring, with fitness implying the number of their offspring. So, you would think that mate selection with its direct link to procreation is one of the processes where evolutionary investments would have the greatest payoff and which are therefore optimal to the highest degree possible. Having established this mechanism as a particularly well adapted process in the evolution of species, I will now spend a good part of the rest of this episode to dismantle this notion. Because if I can convince you that the intricately evolved mate selection system isn’t always working, maybe I can convey my broader argument, that natural isn’t necessarily good. Ready?

Let’s not quite yet return to our giant jewel beetle. After all, they had millions of year of evolution to adapt to their environment, so they should be fine for a minute or two without us. Instead, let’s go to Harvard University in Boston, Massachusetts. It’s September 29th, 2011. Darryl Gwynne and David Rentz have come here for an award ceremony. Specifically, their award ceremony. Several Nobel Laureates are present as well, together with other distinguished scientists, and of course the media. This prize captures quite some international attention. The scientific work Gwynne and Rentz will be awarded for was published nearly 30 years earlier, in 1983. At the time, they were stationed at the Department of Zoology in the University of Western Australia. See the connection? Their paper, of course, focused on Julodimorpha bakewelli, the giant jewel beetle, and its mating process. The prize which Gwynne and Rentz receive in 2011 is typically described as awarding ‘research that makes people laugh and then think.’ It’s the Ig® Nobel Prize, an award which honored research about kickstarting barbecues with rocket fuel, alarm clocks fleeing from you to aid waking up, or the science of sword swallowing.

Back in Western Australia, our beetle has proceeded in his mating mission and, while we were gone, reached his mating partner. He extends his aedeagus, the protrusion to release his sperm, and tries to insert it. I should have warned you that this will get steamy. After mating, the female giant jewel beetle will lay the fertilized eggs at the roots of Eucalyptus trees, where new beetles will hatch and joyfully populate Western Australia. But wait. Something’s odd. The mating partner our beetle has selected seems large. Too large. You could even call it gigantic. Instead of a length of four centimeters, typical for a giant jewel beetle, the mating partner beneath our beetle is 23 centimeters long. Granted, it’s brown, but if you look closely you’ll see that it’s not a female giant jewel beetle. It’s a beer bottle.

In their paper, which was honored with the Ig® Nobel Prize, Gwynne and Rentz found that properties of beer bottles – brown color, reflectiveness, and stubs or undulations on the bottle – are sensory stimuli which are extremely salient for male giant jewel beetles. These are features which those beetles typically look for in female beetles, yet they prefer Australian beer bottles in trials. The increased activation, or even overactivation, by these features, in this case by special types of bottles, is an example of what researchers refer to as ‘superstimuli,’ which are often artificial. To demonstrate that this really represents a genuine effect, Gwynne and Rentz presented their beetles with wine bottles, which didn’t impress the mate-seeking beetles much. Apparently, they’re discerning drinkers.

It may seem funny to picture giant beetles humping glass bottles in the desert, but researchers are actually worried this behavior might endanger the survival of the whole species. Next to the foregone mating opportunity, by choosing a beer bottle, giant jewel beetles engaged with their glassy partners have been observed to fall easy prey to ants which calmly start to dismember the occupied beetle. The beetle-bottle romance really seems to be an intense thing.

Now, is this an episode about the giant jewel beetle and its challenges in life? Yes and no. The preference of our beetle for beer bottles over female beetles represents an evolutionary maladaptation. Basically, this means that the salience of features overly present on beer bottles is a bad choice, in evolutionary fitness terms, in a world littered with beer bottles. Provocatively, it’s stupid of the beetle to like beer bottles better than real mates, there is no payoff to this in any way. The first objections to this will be that it’s our fault that beer bottles lie around and, also, it’s just been a few decades and evolution has basically no chance to catch up with changes that quick.

And I think we now have finally arrived at the core of this whole issue.

Of course it’s true that it’s our fault that the environment is littered with beer bottles and, for many reasons, we should try to remedy this unfortunate circumstance. But, abstractly, every animal changes its environment by its actions, humans included. The notion of a keystone species, beloved by conservationists and environmentalists alike, is exactly that it has a disproportionate effect on its environment compared to what would be expected based on its population. So animals hailed as the most important in an ecosystem change it the most. Naturally, we as humans do that on a gargantuan scale and destroy a lot in the process, but in principle change is nothing foreign to nature. That’s what evolution is for after all.

Imagine if we stick to our despicable habit of littering in the countryside. Male giant jewel beetles with an affinity for beer bottles will be removed by natural selection over the long-term and the evolutionary process goes on. Yet it’s not a given that the species as a whole will adapt. It may survive or it may go extinct if it can’t change fast enough. This depends on a lot of factors, pure chance in terms of mutating the right genes at the right time being one of the biggest. And if the species does change, the mate selection will be quite different than before and may even be worse than before. Because by accruing evolutionary changes to avoid beer bottles, you may need to sacrifice valuable salient attributes typically used in mate selection. You just can’t optimize everything at the same time. In the end, the product, if viable, will not be better but different. Evolution is goalless, so the assumption that evolved creatures accrue advantages in a continuous fashion over time is faulty.

The other major issue is speed. Environments change, and species will change accordingly, or die out. But importantly, this doesn’t happen at the same time. First environments change, and then species adapt, by selecting the few random individuals which by chance exhibited mutations that are now beneficial. Because pre-adaptation of a whole species to potential changes in the future would be too wasteful to sustain. This means that there is a time in between, in which environments already underwent significant change but the species in its entirety didn’t fully adapt to these changes yet. You can see this with our beetles. Their environment changed, but they haven’t yet changed accordingly. Since evolutionary processes typically take months, years, decades, or even longer, all dependent on the generation time of the animal, all we get is a snapshot of the whole process. As a consequence, the species and animals we currently observe are not necessarily well adapted to their current circumstances. We have no way of intuitively telling if what we see in any given species is a snapshot or a stable state. Our main fallacy is to view evolution as a result or a thing that happened in the past and now just fine-tunes species a bit further. Evolution, however, is a process, and frequently a messy process at that.

So to recap: in a fast-changing environment, natural oftentimes is decidedly suboptimal. And with climate change and the drastic influence we humans as a globe-spanning species have on the environment, changes occur with a mind-boggling velocity and with far-reaching consequences. Which means we really have to update our conception of optimized ecosystems and the species therein. Drowning penguins and plunging mountain goats may be a rare sight but they are currently entirely absent from our imagination and intuition. As we idealize and even idolize animal ability, conceptions of failure in their environment don’t even begin to enter our intuition.

If you’re still not convinced, take the island of Surtsey in the Atlantic Ocean, close to Iceland. Before 1963, no land existed at the coordinates which now harbor Surtsey. Yet by now, Surtsey boasts fauna as well as flora. A timespan of around fifty years may be sufficient to populate a virgin island, a process extremely fascinating for scientists to observe, but it’s certainly not enough to achieve evolutionary mastery over these fresh surroundings. Animals inhabiting Surtsey will have come from somewhere else and, on an evolutionary level, are still adapted to their previous environment and will continue on this route for a very long time. Therefore, current species present on Surtsey certainly can’t be seen as the embodiments of perfect adaptation to their surroundings. In fact, some of them may not even be categorized as ‘good’ in terms of their adaptation to the environs of Surtsey. But as long as no better adapted species comes along, desiring the same evolutionary niche for itself, the original maladapted species might be able to eke out a living thanks to a lack of competition, even though its adaptation to its environment is far from ‘good.’ In new environments, natural absolutely doesn’t go hand in hand with exhibiting good adaptation, as many species will die out because of a clear lack of adaptation.

Even in largely non-changing environments evolved doesn’t mean optimal, just good enough to avoid extinction. Consider the humble ant. You could easily see it as the embodiment of industriousness, on par with bees perhaps, constantly used in metaphors implicitly glorifying the natural world. It epitomizes the attitude of a selfless worker chugging along to sustain and further the colony. At least that’s what intuition will tell you. In 2015, researchers around the entomologist Daniel Charbonneau at the University of Arizona conducted a simple experiment: paint differently colored dots on each ant and track them. What did they find? Around 40 percent of ants don’t do anything; nearly half of the entire working force! They just sit around and watch the others do all the work. They’re lazy. Normally you wouldn’t notice that as an observer because ants are scrambling about in a dizzying mess, making it hard to track individual ants and compare between them. Currently, it’s believed that these slackers are forming a kind of workers reservoir. Remove the productive ants and, eventually, the lazy ants will step up their game and make sure that the colony has enough food and other materials. On a grand scale, this might make sense in terms of robustness in the face of adversity, though it appears to come at great cost. And it’s decidedly not in line with our intuitive assessment of industriousness and optimality.

But let’s go back to changing environments, because as we’ve seen they’re the norm. When humans entered North America via the Beringia land bridge from Siberia a couple of ten thousand years ago, they dramatically changed the environmental framework resident animal species were operating in. Being expert hunters, early humans relentlessly culled unprepared animals, which before this had no reason whatsoever to prepare themselves for this onslaught. Most affected by this were species constituting the megafauna, animals weighing more than 40 kg. And by ‘most affected,’ I of course mean that they went extinct. A lot of them. Species dying out in North America shortly after the arrival of humans include the Western camel, the mammoth, all forms of wild horses, all variants of North American tapirs, and the American lion. That’s just a tiny fraction of the species our ancestors hunted to extinction. You add naturally evolved humans to naturally evolved animals and what do you get? Certainly not perfection.

But wait for it, the most insightful piece of information is still coming. Obviously, not all animal species in North America went extinct in prehistoric times. Survivors included the grizzly bear, bison, bighorn sheep, and grey wolves. What did all of these animals have in common? Their ancestors coevolved with humans in Asia. By slow natural selection of fit animals via an increasingly skilled population of human hunters, for these species the descent of humans into North America didn’t represent a radically new environment. They were prepared.

There are hardly any species which you could point to that survived the megafauna extinction and whose ancestors did not coevolve with humans. One of these remarkable exceptions is the pronghorn, colloquially known as the American antelope, even though it technically isn’t even an antelope and is more closely related to giraffes. The pronghorn and its ancestors didn’t spend any time in human-populated areas and still survived the incoming human hunters. This is remarkable. And it only could do that with an extraordinary ability it possesses. Because the pronghorn is the second-fastest mammal on our planet, inferior only to the lightning-fast cheetah. Even then, three of the four pronghorn genera in existence succumbed to the evolutionary pressures of hordes of human hunters. So in effect, to even have a chance at survival as a species, you either need to be already familiar with your surroundings or you need to be world-class in something which incidentally is beneficial to your survival once change is underway.

This unlikely constellation of factors doesn’t bode well for the infallible quality we often bestow upon nature and all things natural. Especially if you consider that this sequence of events is not limited to North America. Here’s an incomplete list of habitats in which the arrival of enterprising humans in prehistoric times led to mass extinction events in the megafauna shortly thereafter: Australia, Tasmania, New Zealand, Cyprus, Japan, Madagascar, and South America. As Carl Sagan already noted, ‘Extinction is the rule. Survival is the exception.’ Most species fail, precisely because they were not good, in terms of their environment. Evolution makes species only as efficient as they have to be for their current environment, not as much as they could be in theory. Adapted instead of optimal. Being complex creatures with multiple needs, animals aren’t perfect and sometimes, if change occurred relatively recently, they’re not even good. And for better or worse, change is underway, with increasing temperatures, ocean acidification, deforestation, extreme weather events, and much more, so even if we can slow it down we better get used to some of the natural losing its splendor. As for the giant jewel beetle, its current adaptation to its new environment certainly can’t be described as good and won’t be for a long time if beer bottles remain in the plains of Western Australia. If it survives this struggle, the giant jewel beetle won’t be the same as before. But, and this is crucial, it won’t be better, just different.

Outro

I hope you’ve enjoyed this instalment of Counterintuitive! If you did, join me next time where we’ll talk about the fascinating multitudes of our personalities. You can find references and further reading for this episode in the show notes. If you like Counterintuitive, please recommend it to your friends and give it a 5-star rating on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, or wherever you get your podcast from. It really helps. A new episode will be uploaded every two weeks. My name is Daniel Bojar and you’ve listened to Counterintuitive, the critical thinking podcast about things which are not what they seem to be. You can follow me on Twitter at @daniel_bojar or on my website dbojar.com, where you will find articles about more counterintuitive phenomena. Until next time!

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