Turned up to eleven: Fair and Balanced

Thursday, August 22, 2002

Ev. Psych., Animal Behavior, and a dose of Rationality
No big comments here, but an interesting review of biologist Marlene Zuk's new book, Sexual Selection: What We Can and Can't Learn about Sex from Animals. The book review (pointed out in brief by Chad Orzel), is titled "Sometimes a snake orgy is just a snake orgy", which gives you some idea of its rather whimsical nature. The book sounds pretty good to me, though (the review even has some Gould bashing in it, which oughta make Godless Capitalist happy). The book points out some of the rather more ridiculous anthropomorphic tendencies people have when learning biology, and the difficult to avoid tendency to "draw lessons" from the behavior of animals with little, if any, rationale. A brief excerpt from the review (obligatory);

Then there's the little matter of infidelity -- rather, "extra-pair copulations" -- in many species of birds hitherto thought to cleave only unto one another. Zuk writes that the fact that this happens pretty often upsets her students more than any other material covered in the class. Fuzzy animals eating their fuzzy babies, ghastly flesh-eating parasites, close-up photos of earwigs -- apparently none of these is as upsetting as the news that Betty and Billy Bluebird might be indulging in quickies with Jimmy and Jessie Bluebird.

But as Zuk tries to convince her students, "It isn't cheating if there are no rules to break." It's only in cartoons that Betty and Billy stand up before Judge Bluebird or Reverend Bluebird to say their vows. Zuk criticizes the fact that not only the popular press, but also some scientific articles, use terms like "illegitimate" or "wife-sharing." In one example, researchers refer to "female promiscuity" in red-winged blackbirds despite the fact that the females could not have been tangoing alone.

"[T]hese are our categories, not theirs ..." she points out, as her students vibrate in distress.

I would encourage you to read the whole thing. I am off for a much needed, and deserved, but much too short vacation up to Big Bear, so I only hope that the world can somehow carry on without me.