[ExI] Etymology of Critter's Dilemma

Lee Corbin lcorbin at rawbw.com
Thu Aug 21 01:18:50 UTC 2008

BillK writes

> There is a new paper out that you might find of interest.
> <http://www.physorg.com/news138381419.html>
> Published: 16:16 EST, August 19, 2008
> Fear of predators may be a bigger killer than the predators themselves

Honestly, a quick glance through this paper proves to
me with about 90% probability that the reasoning and
inferences drawn are completely fallacious.

The basic reason is quite simple: the authors fail to account
for a rather powerful theory developed in the late 1850's
by the English biologist Charles Darwin, who suggested that
species evolve to occupy "niches" in which their structural
adaptations and behavioral strategies over time will converge
optimally, with the only proviso that his new theory, called
"evolution" often requires many tens of thousands or even
millions of years for the optimal solution to be reached, during
which time the environment changes only very little.

> When biologists consider the effects that predators have on their
> prey, they shouldn't just count the number of individuals consumed.
> According to a University of Rhode Island ecologist, they must also
> examine the effects of fear.

The human emotion of fear has indeed been known under
certain circumstances, usually those brought about by modern
or semi-modern conditions, to actually work *against* survival.
For example, the very fear so pronounced that the subject
"freezes", while evolved to raise survival rates (when for example, 
suddenly encountering a predator who responds to motion),
in many modern cases simply delays a human being from
taking needed immediate action.

We may very well in this paper see the unwholesome effects
of projecting human psychological processes into the minds
of, say, insects.

> URI Assistant Professor Evan Preisser said that fear of being eaten
> can reduce population densities as much or even more than the actual
> quantities of individuals killed by predators.

What Professor Preisser should consider is exactly *why*
this "fear of being eaten" evolved in the first place, and exactly
why---according to his own novel theory---the creatures in
question would be better off without it. He may wish to study
the original work entitled "Origin of Species" by the above-
mentioned C. Darwin, who explained the idea of differential
reproduction. To wit, if there is a distribution within a species
of some trait, e.g. fear, then the quantity or degree that the
trait makes itself manifest in individuals of the species naturally
varies from little to great. Those members or colonies which exhibit
too little of the quality produce fewer viable offspring, while
interestingly enough, those members or colonies which exhibit
too much of that quality also produce fewer viable offspring.

> "Prey are far from helpless victims of predators," said Preisser.
> "They employ a wide array of defensive strategies to protect
> themselves. But the costs of these strategies may have a larger
> impact on their population than the direct effect of being eaten."

Were this actually the case, then over time the species would
"relocate" to the proper equilibrium. It's entirely possible that
the professor has encountered this phenomenon in a new 
environment to which the species has not yet accommodated
itself. Given the professor's evident lack of acquaitance with
this old English theory, it wouldn't surprise me if he had placed
species adapted to one environment into a slightly different
environment superfically the same.

It's also rather clear to me that the peer-review process has
fallen into pretty desperate straits, for while my observations
here might seem pointed to us amateurs, professional 
biologists of the caliber of Dawkins or Hamilton would find
all of this quite elementary.

> This effect reminds me of how in the US fear of terrorism is causing
> much, much, more damage than any actual incidents of terrorism.

It's entirely possible that with human beings, or nations, who have
not had enough biological time to adapt to a particular modern
situation, ancient evolutionarily derived emotional responses are
non-optimal. But it's extremely difficult to second-guess the built-in
game theory strategies of complex human interactions. For example,
"revenge for the sake of revenge" may at first seem quite irrational,
just as "altruistic punishment" http://www.pnas.org/content/100/6/3531.full.pdf
at first seems completely nonsensical. But like anger itself---an irrational
emotion---Darwinian ends can sometimes be served.

We have no way of knowing, for example, if the American "overreaction"
to terrorism has helped check further attacks on the Americans. It could
even be, for example, that since a relatively small attack on the U.S. having
direct costs of around 3000 lives and fifty billion dollars, provoked a
response of this magnitude, then a serious attack causing 500,000 lives
and a trillion dollars would provoke a retaliatory attack of corresponding
magnitude, and that this deters future attacks. Or, on the other hand, it
could be precisely as you say. We probably will never know with any
certainty which is the case at this point in history.


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