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Parasitism and intentionality: lessons from the cuckoo

Parasitism and intentionality: lessons from the cuckoo

by David Veksler

Many species of the cuckoo and cowbird reproduce exclusively by sneaking their eggs into other birds nests, where their chicks kill or starve their nest-mates and so steal resources from the host mother, who often has to raise chicks bigger than her. So why doesn’t the host kick out the foreign eggs?

In many cases, the parasitic eggs evolve to match those of the victim species. Yet in other species, the intruder egg is clearly different yet is left alone. Why? It has been experimentally observed that the mother cuckoo regularly monitors the nests she invades and completely destroys them if she sees that her egg was rejected. According to the “Mafia hypothesis”, it is cheaper for the host birds to allow their nests to be parasitized than to have them destroyed in response to rejecting the egg.

Here is what I find interesting: neither the cuckoo nor the host bird have any notion of how to run a protection racket or make complex statistical calculations about whether it is worth rejecting the invader egg. Their minds are far too primitive for that. The host keeps the foreign egg because the gene for not rejecting the egg is reinforced by the higher survival probability of her chicks. And the cowbird destroys nests with rejected eggs because her gene for “revenge” behavior is reinforced by the higher reproductive success in the nests of victims who accept their fate. The two species interact by threats and bluffs through gene expression, without any real communication going on. The mechanism is imperfect – sometimes the parasite bird destroys innocent nests and sometimes the victim kicks the invader out and pays the price. Parasite and victim continually test each other to maximize their reproductive success.

Does this behavioral pattern have any analog in human society? Of course humans don’t need to wait for the slow pace of genes to engage in Mafia-like behavior. But whether the threats are communicated consciously or not, the behavior itself is reinforced for the same reason: because it works. In human society, money, not reproductive success is the reward mechanism which rewards and punishes certain behavior. Money is not a guarantee of reproductive success, nor can be it be exchanged for just any values. But it is the best and most universally convertible proxy for value that we have.

As with animals, activities which generate money are reinforced. And just as with animals, that reinforcement happens whether or not the participants are consciously aware of it. Socially, the majority of people disapprove of protection rackets. We teach our children to act morally and we spend resources to stop crime. Yet parasitism happens anyway, in many forms, in every society, and often without any conscious intent. It is a successful evolutionary tactic.

Is all this to suggest that humans are powerless against parasitism? Certainly not. We are only powerless to stop parasitic relationships as long as we don’t recognize them for what they are. Once they are exposed, we can do what no other animal can: replace a short-run reinforcing behavior (grab the loot and run) with a long-run rewarding behavior (we’ll all have more loot if we don’t steal from each other).

The point is this:

There are two forms of parasitism: explicit and implicit. In explicit parasitism, both parties are aware of the parasitic behavior. So it is with crooks and invading armies. They know they are criminals, but they don’t care because one of them has superior firepower. Explicit parasitism can certainly be very destructive and expensive to stop, but it is unsustainable, as human beings get better at diplomacy and policing.

But in implicit parasitism, one of the parties is not aware that they are the victim or aggressor. When our taxes pay for things such as farm aid or money to foreign countries or people on public aid or “social security”, or make-work schemes neither the parasite not the victim may be aware of the nature of their relationship. Or they may be aware, but believe that the parasitism is beneficial or morally justifiable. As we get better and better at stopping explicit parasitism, our peaceful and wealthy society becomes more and more ripe for implicit parasitism. That is the danger. But there is an upside: once implicit parasitism is recognized, it is much easier to stop than explicit parasitism, since the parasite is usually not able or willing to use superior force to continue the parasitism.

As we become more educated and form large-scale social-economic-political units, we learn to recognize and stop petty parasitism and form social taboos and laws against it. We imagine that we twitter away less funds on miracle cures, mass delusions, and Ponzi schemes. But by eliminating “simple” parasitism, we “reward” large-scale, hidden, and entrenched parasitism. The remaining parasitic relationships are able to deter their own exposition by using survival “tactics” such as very large scales (the lower the cost to individual victims, the lower the benefit to organizing against them), the spread of ethical principles defending the parasitism, and by embedding deeply in the social fabric.  Successful parasitic relationships in human society thus have two aspects: the physical act of redistributing values and the intellectual memes justifying that activity.

As with evolutionary patterns, there is no need for there to be any direct causal connection between, the act of parasitism and the formation of social structures, memes and taboos that defend it. For example, wealthy people can support the redistribution of wealth to the poor even though it does not benefit them materially. It may in fact lead to more poverty, the discovery of which feeds altruistic memes and thus encourages more wealth distribution. (This is just a hypothetical example – the cause & effect and the spread of ideas can have much more complicated relationships.)

Entrenchment in social-intellectual structures is key to parasitic relationships which display high evolutionary fitness. It’s hard for the victim of outright robbery and fraud to justify as morally proper or necessary. Parasitism engrained in basic social functions such as schools and roads is much harder to end. It may not be necessary for government schools to be run by parasitic (in the sense of demanding above-market-rate resources) teacher’s unions, but it is much harder to reorganize educational institutions than to stop gambling or seeking fortune tellers.

I have here tried to use relevant but non-emotionally or politically laden examples, but it is impossible to speak of this topic without engaging the defensive mental mechanisms of my audience, as aspects of the parasitism tied to ethical memes and group identity politics trip mental circuit breaks as part of their defensive mechanism. As with the birds, without any grand conspiracy, malice or even conscious awareness, all of civilization organizes in a way that opposes both the anti-parasistical behavior and the very recognition that the relationships are parasitical. Even by writing these thoughts, I am acting against the parasitic memes and so both opposing my own social-educational worldview and alienating myself from the mainstream intellectual dialogue that enables the parasitic behavior.  The evolved behavior+meme entities have done their job well: the chance that I or anyone will affect the mainstream is extremely slim.

I hope the above does not sound too pessimistic. After all, as a global civilization, humanity is doing pretty well.  Parasitism is bad in the sense that it a wasteful allocation of resources, but there are many other forms of inefficiency. If you want a simple takeaway, it is that destructive relationships can develop without any malicious intent, and that by examining all our relationships, including the “voluntary” ones and those that we see as “essential,” we might discover that many of the premises we held for granted are false.

6 Comments

  1. We are only powerless to stop parasitic relationships as long as we don’t recognize them for what they are. Once they are exposed, we can do what no other animal can: replace a short-run reinforcing behavior (grab the loot and run) with a long-run rewarding behavior (we’ll all have more loot if we don’t steal from each other).

    This seems to make sense to me on 1st pass, but I feel like I have a lingering question that isn’t well-formed.

    If someone is selfish and doesn’t care about increasing the amount of wealth for others (only for himself) then doesn’t loot-and-run still have more appeal for him? Also, what is the relationship between helping to preserve the genes of your species and helping to preserve your own genes. Are they two competing processes? It seems like screwing over everyone else and hoarding all of the loot to yourself would be a great strategy for passing on your own genes (so long as you could do it in a way that didn’t get you killed by all of those you crossed) and preventing the “competition” for passing on theirs.

    I am sort of just thinking and typing. It could be that my question is just a misunderstanding of how natural selection works.

  2. If someone is selfish and doesn’t care about increasing the amount of wealth for others (only for himself) then doesn’t loot-and-run still have more appeal for him?

    Loot-and-run is not a good strategy. Repetetive transations is key to wealth and good reputation is required for that. Having increasing the wealth of others as a goal is never a good strategy on the other hand.

    Also, what is the relationship between helping to preserve the genes of your species and helping to preserve your own genes. Are they two competing processes?

    All genes are “selfish.” No gene ever acts for the “welfare” of the species.

  3. All genes are “selfish.” No gene ever acts for the “welfare” of the species.

    I suppose this depends on how you define “selfish”. I have heard that the genes for homosexuality, for example, may confer a survival advantage, not to the homosexual individual, but to close relatives, like siblings and siblings’ offspring. So it is not “selfish” in terms of the individual itself, but in terms of others that share much of the same genetic material.

  4. “I have heard that the genes for homosexuality, for example, may confer a survival advantage, not to the homosexual individual, but to close relatives, like siblings and siblings’ offspring. “

    In this case, the gene is expressing its selfish interest in its copy present in it’s sibling. But any given gene only has a 50% chance of being present in a sibling and much less in a more distant relative, so this kind of gene will be rare and only apply to close relatives.

  5. I think that it is important not to lose the distinction that no gene literally “acts selfishly,” or purposefully, as it lacks the consciousness required in order to initiate purposeful action. For the sake of convenience, it is fine to gloss over, but the notion that genes or plants or stars actually “want” to do anything or that they have any particular goals or objectives the achievement of which they direct any sort of purposeful effort toward is erroneous, or at least this is the conclusion that we should draw at present based on what we know about the laws of nature.

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