Ecker's Little Acre

Reflections on Life and Other Stuff

by Ronald L. Ecker

July, 1999; updated April, 2007

Even Cowbirds Make the News

The most important thing in life, according to evolutionary psychology, is looking out for number one. Specifically that means, beyond mere survival and physical and spiritual well-being, looking out for number one's genes. After all, our genes are going to outlive us, or, in a sense, even let us live on, assuming that we reproduce. They warrant being looked out for.

One modern definition of evolution is differential reproduction or, to put it another way, change in gene frequencies. It's the natural outcome over time of creatures looking out for their genes, passing them on into the next generation, which will pass them on into future generations after that, so that hopefully one's genes may survive, splashing competitively around in the gene pool, always ready to be naturally selected, to be favored by environmental change, through any and all variations, for as long as there's life on the planet.

That's as close as any of us can get (this side of Glory, that is) to living forever. Our genes--that is, the hereditary information they contain--are potentially immortal, as some of that data will live on in our descendants. So the more descendants the merrier from the gene's point of view, as the best way to ensure that one's genes get passed on is naturally to spread them around. Ideally that means having as many mates as possible, just like the alpha male in a troop of chimpanzees, or like a king of ancient Israel. The wise king Solomon, for example, had 700 wives and concubines. Ah, could we all be as wise as he! But we can't, which is why every one of us, whether we like it or not, is sexually repressed. So many genes, so little time! Monogamy is not a natural state of being. And celibacy? Downright ridiculous.

Ironically the selfish gene makes us appear to act morally. Indeed it is the basic unit of morality. For looking out for number one also means looking out for number one's young ("parental investment," that is, looking out for number one's genes); caring for relatives ("kin selection," or looking out for those who share lots of number one's genes); and being good to friends, neighbors, and even strangers whom one may meet again ("reciprocal altruism," or you help me look out for my genes and I'll help you look out for yours).

We therefore act morally, when it is in our self-interest to do so. But we never have to look far to see how utterly ruthless the selfish gene can be. "Nature in the raw," as my dad likes to say (quoting an old Lucky Strike commercial), "is seldom mild." Watching lions chase down gazelles, or crocodiles surprise watering zebras, on the Discovery Channel is enough to drive home the point. Sure, the critters are just after a meal. So are ichneumon larvae, little beasts that helped Charles Darwin lose his religious faith. Ichneumon larvae are parasites that feed inside live caterpillars. Darwin said he couldn't believe that a benevolent deity designed ichneumon larvae, or designed a cat to play with mice.

But so much for meals and design. Back to sex, or the ruthlessness that makes the difference in differential reproduction. The selfish gene can be seen starkly in the courting male lion who kills any and all of a lioness's infants by a previous mate. It is to his, the killer's young, about to be conceived, that the lioness must now devote her time and attention. Such selfish infanticide has been found to take place even among those lovable, intelligent mammals the dolphins. (Is it not found, for that matter, among those lovable, intelligent mammals, us humans? Are there not far too many news stories about child abuse and children murdered by stepfathers or mothers' boyfriends?)

Consider also nature's deadbeats, too busy reproducing, spreading those genes, to take care of their young themselves. They fool someone else into being parental. This is called (among non-humans) brood parasitism. The female African catfish, for example, releases her eggs just when a female cochlid releases hers, the unwitting cochlid then scooping into her mouth all the eggs--the catfish's included--to brood. Well, no harm done, you may say. But forget about fishes. Consider the cute little cowbird. The female of the North American brown-headed species has this nasty habit of flying into the nest of some other bird species before dawn, laying an egg in a matter of seconds, and promptly disappearing. The owner of the nest comes home and winds up tending and feeding the cowbird's nestling in addition to, indeed often at the expense of, her own little nestlings. This deadbeat practice of the cowbird has been credited with the decline and endangerment of at least five rare bird species.

Female brown-headed cowbird. (Photo © April 2000
by Peter LaTourrette. Used with permission.)

Why don't the other species fight back, destroying the cowbird's intrusive eggs or nestlings? Some, such as Baltimore orioles, do, but for others, call it "evolutionary lag," biologist Stephen Rothstein opines. They simply haven't had time yet to evolve defenses. We may hope, then, they eventually will, in which case cowbirds will have to evolve more instinctual responsibility to survive. On the other hand, there is evidence that cowbirds will retaliate if species fight back. In a study of warbler nests, researchers have found that when they remove cowbird eggs from the nests, more warbler eggs are later damaged or carried off than are eggs in nests with cowbird eggs in place. Researcher Jeffrey P. Hoover calls this "the first evidence of gangsterlike behavior in cowbirds."

What does all this say about us? Like all creatures, of course, we are born selfish. The selfish gene is, religiously speaking, our state of original sin. But we humans have a saving grace, if you will. We are not purely instinctual creatures as are lower life forms such as larvae and catfish, or even cowbirds, who can hardly be said to rationally plan their brood parasitism. We humans have evolved a limited capacity to go against genetic bias when need be. Though we carry in our genes the heritage of our evolutionary past, we are also, to quote Robert Wright, "the moral animal," able to make moral choices--to will free will, as it were. Our moral challenge is to rise above our selfish nature, to thwart, when appropriate, the selfish designs of our genes, for the sake of a higher good. Why, one may even choose to be celibate, if for whatever reason one perceives that as good, genetically suicidal though it be.

So nature in the raw, though seldom mild, is wonderfully instructive. One of the marvelous things about evolution, about common descent, is that we humans can learn something about ourselves from observing such relatively distant kin as catfish, cowbirds, and lions. We are far from angelic, but to see some of the worst in ourselves, reflected in the behavior of other animals, can at least help us search for, and nurture, what Abraham Lincoln called "the better angels of our nature."


Dawkins, Richard. 1989. The Selfish Gene. New Edition. New York: Oxford University Press.

Ecker, Ronald L. 1998. "The Call of the Gray Tree Frog." Ecker's Little Acre, July 12.

Greene, John C. 1959. The Death of Adam: Evolution and Its Impact on Western Thought, p. 303. Ames: Iowa State University Press.

Milius, Susan. 1998a. "Cowbirds Get Head Start with Egg Tricks." Science News 153:135.

_____. 1998b. "Stealth, Lies, and Cowbirds." Science News 153:345.

_____. 1998c. "Infanticide Reported in Dolphins." Science News 154:36.

_____. 2007. "Mafia Cowbirds." Science News 171:147-148.

Wrangham, Richard, and Peterson, Dale. 1996. Demonic Males: Apes and the Origins of Human Violence, pp. 156-158. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Wright, Robert. 1994. The Moral Animal: The New Science of Evolutionary Psychology. New York: Pantheon.

Copyright 1999, 2007 by Ronald L. Ecker

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