(Roughly) Daily

Posts Tagged ‘animal behavior

“The conundrum of free will and destiny has always kept me dangling”*…

… as it’s kept thinkers dangling for centuries. Dan Falk considers two new books– one arguing that free will is an illusion; the other, that free will is the (very real) result of evolution…

You’re thirsty so you reach for a glass of water. It’s either a freely chosen action or the inevitable result of the laws of nature, depending on who you ask. Do we have free will? The question is ancient—and vexing. Everyone seems to have pondered it, and many seem quite certain of the answer, which is typically either “yes” or “absolutely not.”

One scientist in the “absolutely not” camp is Robert Sapolsky. In his new book, Determined: A Science of Life Without Free Will, the primatologist and Stanford professor of neurology spells out why we can’t possibly have free will. Why do we behave one way and not another? Why do we choose Brand A over Brand B, or vote for Candidate X over Candidate Y? Not because we have free will, but because every act and thought are the product of “cumulative biological and environmental luck.”

Sapolsky tells readers that the “biology over which you had no control, interacting with the environment over which you had no control, made you you.” That is to say, “everything in your childhood, starting with how you were mothered within minutes of birth, was influenced by culture, which means as well by the centuries of ecological factors that influenced what kind of culture your ancestors invented, and by the evolutionary pressures that molded the species you belong to.”

Many scientists and philosophers beg to differ. Prominent among them is Kevin Mitchell, a neuroscientist at Trinity College in Dublin. In his new book, Free Agents: How Evolution Gave Us Free Will, Mitchell argues that although we’re shaped by our biology, it’s that very biology that made us, over the course of billions of years of evolution, into free agents. Even the earliest and most primitive creatures had some capacity to control their destinies. When a single-celled organism moves toward a food source, or away from danger, it has entered, however meekly, into a new world of agency and freedom. Simple organisms, Mitchell writes, “infer what is out in the world” and “make holistic decisions to adapt their internal dynamics and select appropriate actions.” He adds: “This represents a wholly different type of causation from anything seen before in the universe.”…

n a universe where the mindless laws of nature push bits of matter around, it might indeed seem miraculous that free will—agency—can emerge. As I made my way through Free Agents, I thought of a New Yorker cartoon where two scientists are at a blackboard filled with equations. In the middle, instead of an equation, the first scientist has written, “Then a miracle occurs.” The second guy says to him, “I think you should be more explicit here in step two.”

But emerge it does, according to Mitchell, and he’s adamant that there is nothing miraculous about it. Rather, in living creatures like us, freedom is enabled by the underlying biology…

Yes, there are physical and chemical processes operating within the brain—how could there not be?—but that does nothing to take away our freedom, he says. “It comes down to the idea that if we can find the machinery inside the brain that is active when we’re making a decision, then maybe decision making just is being done causally by that machinery,” he told me. “I don’t think that view is right, because I think you can have a completely different view, which is, yes, there is some machinery that we use to make decisions; but it’s machinery we use to make decisions. We’re making the decisions.”

A fascinating look at a volley of new insights that has reignited the debate over whether our choices are ever truly our own: “Yes, We Have Free Will. No, We Absolutely Do Not,” from @danfalk in @NautilusMag.

As Eistein observed, “I am a determinist. As such, I do not believe in free will…Practically, I am, nevertheless, compelled to act as if freedom of the will existed. If I wish to live in a civilized community, I must act as if man is a responsible being.

To which Stephen Hawking added: “I have noticed even people who claim everything is predestined, and that we can do nothing to change it, look before they cross the road.”

* that well-known philosopher, William Shatner


As we muse on motive, we might send categorical birthday greetings to Konrad Zacharias Lorenz; he was born on this date in 1903.  A zoologist and ornithologist, he founded the modern field of ethology.  His work– popularized in books like King Solomon’s RingOn Aggression, and Man Meets Dog– revealed how behavioral patterns may be traced to an evolutionary past and explored the roots of aggression.  He shared the 1973 Nobel Prize for Physiology and Medicine for developing a unified, evolutionary theory of animal and human behavior… which was, overall, determinist.


“ALLIGATOR, n. The crocodile of America, superior in every detail to the crocodile of the effete monarchies of the Old World”*…



Lunch at the California Alligator Farm, Los Angeles


Judging by the popularity of the Jurassic Park franchise—five feature films, with a sixth blockbuster scheduled for 2021, three “Lego” Jurassic Park shorts, various theme-park attractions, some forty-six theme-related video games, even a Jurassic Park Crunch Yogurt—dinosaurs (once the province of paleontologists and children) have had a stranglehold on our collective imagination for more than a quarter century. Michael Crichton’s 1990 novel sold more than nine million copies; three years later, the first mega-film, directed by Steven Spielberg, became the second highest-grossing film of all time, earning over $1 billion worldwide.

Though less enormous, less voracious, and lacking dramatic soundtracks to pave their entrances and exits, formidable flesh-and-blood, non-animatronic prehistorics do actually walk among us.

Alligators have been around for some 200 million years, which is 135 million years longer than their dino contemporaries. It wasn’t until the twentieth century that that extraordinary longevity was threatened. Pretty impressive, given all the environmental changes that have ensued in the interim, and the fact that their brains are about the size of a walnut…

Biologically, Crocodilia (alligators, crocodiles, caimans, gharials) are closer to birds, dinosaurs to snakes and lizards, but they share a common ancestry. Fossils reveal that back in the day, some alligators grew to nearly forty feet in length, weighing in at 8.5 tons. Simply put, Crocodilia are the closest living examples of the Jurassic’s ancient denizens.

“Dinosaurs and man, two species separated by 65 million years of evolution, have just been suddenly thrown back into the mix together,” notes Jeff Goldblum’s character, Alan Grant, in the 1993 film. “How can we possibly have the slightest idea what to expect?”

In the case of their alligator cousins, it wasn’t just suddenly. Throughout the American south, they’ve always been pretty much unavoidable.

On the big screen, our relationship to Crichton’s creatures is set and predictable. We enjoy the terror they inspire from the dark safety of our upholstered seats. Alligators, in cinema, have always been as dependable in their villainy as Nazis. What better way to dispose of pesky early Christians or enemy Russian spies?

In the real world, the relationship of humans to ancient apex predators is far more complex

Hermes handbags, roadside attractions, carwash poachers, mail-order pets, “The Florida Smile”– B. Alexandra Szerlip on the contradictory dance between gators and men: “21st Century Prehistoric.”

* Ambrose Bierce, The Devil’s Dictionary


As we ruminate on the reptilian, we might spare a thought for Warder Clyde Allee; he died on this date in 1955.  A zoologist and ecologist who researched the social behavior, aggregations, and distribution of both land and sea animals, he discovered that cooperation is both beneficial and essential in nature. The “Allee effect,” as it came to be known, describes the positive correlation between population density and individual fitness of a population or species.  While his findings are in tension with those of another  another ecologist, George C. Williams who stressed the importance of individual selection, Allee’s emphasis on groups and cooperation remains influential.

90px-Warder_Clyde_Allee source


Written by (Roughly) Daily

March 18, 2019 at 1:01 am

Life imitating Art…

… imitating life (readers will recall Thurber’s “cast-iron lawn dog”).

Your correspondent’s daughter, exercising caution

Officers in Independence [MO], a Kansas City suburb, responded to a call on a Saturday evening about a large alligator lurking on the embankment of a pond, police spokesman Tom Gentry said Thursday.

An officer called a state conservation agent, who advised him to shoot the alligator because there was little that conservation officials could do at that time, Gentry said.

As instructed an officer shot the alligator, not once but twice, but both times the bullets bounced off — because the alligator was made of cement.

[Reuters, June 3, 2011]

As we get in touch with our inner Pygmalion, we might light animal-shaped birthday candles for zoologist and ecologist Warder Clyde Allee; he was born on this date in 1885.  Allee is best remembered for his research on animal behavior, protocooperation– he’s considered by many to be the “Father of Animal Ecology”– and for identifying what is now known as “the Allee effect”: a positive correlation between population density and the per capita population growth rate in very small populations… an effect that might well impact the seemingly-frozen alligator population in Missouri.