The Music of Life

Moose Fight – Kincaid Park

Boys will be boys.

Happy Wife captured this recently while at work. She leads bike tours for tourists. They’d just descended a long hill when all of a sudden a startled cow moose crosses the trail, and then further into the woods here comes two would-be suitors. Considerable head-butting and gnashing of antlers ensued. All the while the cow looked on from a cautious distance to see which bull would emerge victorious.

It doesn’t have to be this way you say? Well, no, I suppose not. But there it is. So I presume the boys fight because, well…how else are they to work out their differences? And the girl? She will prefer to mate the winner because nobody wants to fck a Loser.

That’s the layman’s explanation of what’s going on.

Ask an evolutionary biologist for an explanation, and you’ll hear that moose just want to make more moose. Pushed to say more, the biologist might grudgingly say that if you insist on imputing “wants” and “desires” to a moose, or any organism for that matter, from mold to man, then there is really only one desire, one “as-if” goal* of every organism, and that is to reproduce successfully. Hence, all the traits and behaviors an organism expresses are in service to that one, simple goal, period. Further, if Theodious Dobzhansky is to be believed, as I assume most biologists do, nothing in biology makes sense outside the viewpoint of evolution.

And yet, for our two uni-goal warriors up there, there’s a problem; there are not enough girls to go around. And they’re picky. And so the deeper explanation in biology for why the boys fight, is to exhibit to the on-looking girl his superior constitution, essentially, “mate with me, honey, and our brood will be large and fecund!” And that second feature of the would-be children is important – fecund. Because evolution “cares” about sustainability, merely having lots of children isn’t what makes an organism the winner in the game of life, having lots of grand kids does.

OK, all that is boilerplate evolutionary biology. But there’s one more thing to get to, something called the modern synthesis. It’s basically an update to Darwin’s original theory of evolution to include the discovery of DNA (genes) as the particle of inheritance. Darwin proposed that organisms evolved over time into new forms, but he had no idea how that worked. Now we do. In sexual reproduction, roughly equal portions of seed DNA are contributed by mom and dad, then variably mixed (recombined) to constitute the genome of the child. This is now proven molecular biology, the stuff of modern genetics. Nothing importantly controversial about it. Until….until! Along comes selfish gene theory. On this view, it’s not the organism whose only goal in life is to reproduce, no, it’s actually the DNA itself! Stay with me.

There are, to say the very least, some chinks in this theory. For starters – DNA that makes a boy a good fighter makes him a good dad? It’s not the least bit obvious to me why that would be. Even assuming biologists knew which parts of the DNA (genes) those were – and take my word for it they don’t – DNA is invisible to the girl moose, just as it is to every other organism on earth. I can’t read the sequence of your genes, nor you mine. Moose can’t do it either. DNA is tightly packed away in the nucleus of the cells. Invisible to organisms and natural selection. So the belief that our fainting princess, whose only goal in life is to make babies, is off trembling in the woods, “selecting” the victor who will get to lay her based on her measure of his superior genes, is not only wrong, it’s ridiculous. It’s simply not possible for an organism to asses the quality of another’s genome. It’s this kind of silliness far too many biologists engage in when they forget metaphors are not science. Worse is when science writers and others who should know better believe it’s true. Tell me you haven’t read articles or books where the author goes on and on saying something to the effect of “This is of course what our genes want us to do, which may or may not be what we want to do.” For a theory that purports organisms are nothing more than a bag of genes, it’s hard for me to understand how the two could be different?

Or take for instance this article reporting on a study of moose behavior during rut in Alaska (emphasis mine)

The biologists spent four autumns tracking and observing moose in Denali, listening to grunts and moans and recording behavior, including fights. They concluded that the females actually foment male-male aggression.

“It’s indirect control,” Bowyer said. “They’re manipulating a mating system in which you think they didn’t really have choice.”

Finding the right mate at the right time is critical for successful reproduction, the study points out, because of the “extremely synchronized manner” in which cows give birth in May and a restricted growing season, which limits young moose’s opportunities to eat enough food to survive the harsh winters.

The “right” mate? Not just any mate, no, the boy moose with the best genes for reproducing more re-productively successful moose, of course! And turns out the girls instigate the fights! The boys don’t by nature want to fight, no, they’re goaded into it by girls in estrus. Why on earth would girl moose do that? Duh. So she can see which one is the best fighter. But why is victory in fight a proxy for superior reproductive genes again? Couldn’t it be the Loser who has better genes for reproduction?

Are you a creationist?

I am not.

Oh, you just don’t believe DNA is inherited by the child?

Of course DNA (genes) is the particle of inheritance. But it’s not the particle of selection as proposed by selfish gene theory.

But you believe moose have an innate desire to reproduce, right?

Of course.

Then what’s your problem?

The problem is that metaphors are not science. The theory that every organism is under the spell of natural selection, where the ultimate “as-if” goal of life is to get one’s genes into the next generation, and everything an organism is, is in service to that single goal, is nonsense. Selfish gene theory, is bullshit. There are countless examples in nature that contradict the theory metaphor. You need only to make good observations, be skeptical, and challenge prevailing assumptions.

*The word “goal” is used here in a metaphorical sense (thus the “as-if” part), merely as a way to talk about the outcomes of natural selection, even as everyone agrees there is no goal in the usual sense attributable to evolution. At least, for the evolutionary biologist there isn’t.