Why Tasmanian hens have two husbands

Survival Strategies
June 12, 1998

One of the advantages of studying subatomic physics must surely be that the novice or public at large rarely misconstrue what is meant by "boson" or "quark" or any other creature from that mysterious world. You either know what bosons are or you simply have no idea at all. This is not so with animal behaviour, despite its being a great deal more complex. To describe animals, a language of their perceptions, motives and predilections is firmly in place long before a child may ever come to science. And so to the extent that this language is misapplied, much of the progress of the ethology student and indeed the discipline at large is marked by the discarding of these folk explanations and starting afresh.

While poets and philosophers have drawn inspiration from the industry with which animals such as the bee work and the harmony that prevails in its society, at other times we choose to focus on the heartlessness of animals, on nature red in tooth and claw. Darwinism reconciles these contradictions of cooperation and conflict by stripping away the anthropocentric connotations that they carry, reminding us that the industrious bee can have no more idea of its virtue than can the selfish gene its malice.

For Darwinism, a mechanistic theory, whether behaviours are really virtuous or malicious is meaningless: the real "meaning" of animal behaviour is simply that some of it leaves behind lots of offspring and some of it does not. Incredibly, this is enough to explain the existence of animal behaviour and, indeed, the existence of animals.

The reverse fallacy is to judge ourselves by animal standards. It is poetic but misconceived to admire the altruism of bees, which raise their sisters instead of their own offspring. Certainly it would be admirable in us but that is because our chromosomes are not haplo-diploid and so, unlike the honey bee, we are not more closely related to our sisters than our daughters. Talking about bee behaviour thus requires a knowledge of bees: in short, ethology is a science, ie characterised by the privileged knowledge that empirical discovery brings.

Happily, Survival Strategies makes sure that the reader never gets wrapped up in the human connotations of cooperation, conflict and society and never loses sight of natural selection as the arbiter of all things natural and no things moral. "We need not feel compelled to draw lessons for ourselves from the knowledge gained about animal social life. Let us merely yield to the pleasures of curiosity", Raghavendra Gadagkar enjoins us.

What follows is a modest but well-presented exposition of the fundamentals of sociobiology. This rests throughout on classic studies of animals associated with each phenomenon under discussion: the aforementioned honeybees for kin selection; the "shocking behaviour of langurs" to illustrate infanticide; the peppered moth to show how the industrial revolution selected for sooty camouflage and so on.

The author's own work concerns social insects. Despite their being locked into cooperation by the queen-worker caste system, the simple fact of genetic differences in the colony means that conflict inevitably emerges. While primatologists peer into the intrigues of ape society through binoculars, Gadagkar sees much the same thing as he looms unheeded over his subjects' colony. Defections, revolutions and dynasties touch us with a sense of the epic, but again, what we are really witnessing, less human but equally intriguing, is bees dancing to the tunes of their relatedness coefficients.

Social insects aside, there is little new material here for the researcher. But this would be an excellent course companion for introductory lectures. Gadagkar's style is pleasant and although section headings such as "Why do Tasmanian hens have two husbands?" sound ominously like Christmas cracker jokes, a substantive point always follows. The author also tackles the more paradigmatic aspects of ethology, including the relationship between the causes of a behaviour and its function, the antagonism between different levels of selection (gene, animal, group), the question of genetic determinism, evolutionarily stable strategies, and the relevance of conscious experience to adaptive behaviour. These are perennial and oft-muddled issues at tutorials and of general interest beyond ethology.

In contrast to recent trends in popular socio-biology Gadagkar omits discussion both of sexual selection and human socio-biology. Perhaps Indian ethology follows different traditions? For those practising ethology, it is difficult to command a view of the discipline's assumptions and prejudices, but given ethology's domination by Europe and America and their philosophical traditions, a contribution from India is very welcome.

Thomas Sambrook is honorary research fellow in anthropology, Durham University.

Survival Strategies: Cooperation and Conflict in Animal Societies

Author - Raghavendra Gadagkar
ISBN - 0 674 17055 5
Publisher - Harvard University Press
Price - £14.50
Pages - 196

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