More Misjudging Nature?

Last week I wrote about how science interprets animal behavior through the lens of natural selection.  Every behavior must somehow fit into this very limited understanding of our world, thereby excluding any other explanations.  Scientists struggle to make sense of things like altruism in humans, looking for evolutionary causes rather than the possibility that we actually are altruistic at times.  And if humans can’t be allowed to actually be altruistic because it has no reliable natural selection explanation, then animals certainly can’t be credited with such complicated motivations.

We are accustomed to assuming that scientists are right, and that animals have no such emotions or motivations, and rather are more strictly and simply motivated by survival instincts that have needed to become masked and made more complicated in human beings alone – for no readily explainable reason.

So this video of two hippos driving off a crocodile about to drown a wildebeest, must have natural selection explanations.  The hippos couldn’t possibly have just decided to save the wildebeest.

The explanations in the article hold the natural selection line by denying any possible altruistic motives.  The croc was too close to the hippos is the first hypothesis, which triggers their aggressiveness.  But it’s clear in the video that this is not the case.  The hippos close on the crocodile from far more than two meters.  The second theory, that the splashing triggered their territorial urges, also seems unlikely.  Most of the splashing occurred earlier, and the hippos were nowhere to be seen.  What size is the territory that a hippo stakes out?  Do two hippos stake out the same territory and work together within it?  If they are sub-dominant males, are they acting on behalf of the dominant male?  Isn’t that his job?  And if they share the watering hole anyways, why would territory need to be staked out if the basic relationship between the two species is live and let live?

Of course, there are lots of questions for the altruistic explanation that are just as slippery to answer.  Why save this wildebeest and not every wildebeest?  But I don’t think the behavior of two individuals in a singular situation need dictate a policy of sorts among hippos.

I don’t intend to (or even wish to!) completely undermine and dismiss all scientific observations.  But it seems to me that the lens of natural selection forces scientists down a very narrow path when interpreting animal behavior.  Maybe it’s helpful to just admit that they are more complicated than we often give them credit for, something that ultimately makes creation that much more amazing.

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