The presentation of self in everyday ecology

Apologies to sociologist of my youth Erving Goffmann for the title. Our friend Hanan, as always perceptive, e-mailed me with some quotes from a blog, or perhaps a conversation, on ecology:

Ecosystems adapt not because they’re in harmony, but because they’re in tension. Sometimes that tension yanks everything in a new direction when things are changed, and sometimes everything falls apart…

“Harmony” suggests that everything is working together. What’s really happening in an ecosystem is that everything is working on its own, and on its own, for its own reasons (so to speak), reacting to everything around it. Even symbiosis, like between bees and flowers, isn’t the bees and flowers working together, but the bees getting as much as they can out of the flowers and the flowers getting as much as they can out of the bees. They’re in tension with each other, each trying to get the most use out of the other while expending as little of its own resources as possible.

Hanan asks, “Does teleology require harmony? Or are harmony and tension mere human constructs that have no weight in the question at all?”

F1.largeMy first reaction to this question was that, in a highly complex system, one cannot sensibly attribute reasons to any one part of it from merely empirical observation. The system works as a whole, and everything affects everything else, both positively and negatively. So on what intellectual basis would one stop at the self-interest of the individual organism, rather than anything else, as “the key” to the system?

The only reasonable answer is that it’s a philosophical preference, a prior commitment to the principle of individual Malthusian struggle, which is then applied as an arbitrary rule of interpretation to everything. It’s saying, “I believe everything devolves to the principle of self-interest, and look – I can apply it plausibly to ecosystems.” But the fact is that if one were, instead, committed to a philosophy that each works for the others benefit, the data could be made to fit just as well. A system of mutual dependence will go in a new direction or fall apart when altered just as much as one that is under the tension of self-interest. It’s just a preference, arising from the metaphysical choice underlying a Darwinian view of life.

Margaret Thatcher was roundly condemned on all sides when she said, “There’s no such thing as society.” Too many took it to mean that everything can be reduced to the self-interest of individuals. That’s no more true in biology than it is in politics. This can be illustrated by even much simpler systems of interaction than ecosystems. A mother feeds her screaming baby. Why? You could interpret it as being loving concern that the poor dear is hungry. Or it could equally be a selfish (evolutionarily programmed?) desire to make the nasty noise stop. In this case one can’t ask the baby why it cries, but one can ask the Mum why she feeds, and no doubt she would answer because it’s hungry, and to stop the noise.

However, since my daughter has a new baby, the priorities of motivation are pretty fresh in my mind. She often says that the one thing childbirth classes didn’t prepare her for was how utterly besotted she would be with her baby. Feeding her is a joy for both, and though the crying is a signal to begin, it isn’t a distressing one. In daily context it’s more communicative than coercive. The only time I saw her upset was when baby had an unusual cry from colic, and she didn’t know how to stop that nasty noise. Even then her daughter’s unhappiness, rather than the decibels, were what she worried about.

A tacit assumption of the conceit that self-interest underpins ecology is that it is an explanation for it, that ecology boils down to the sum of individual self-interest, like some biological equivalent of Adam Smith’s Invisible Hand. But that is sheer nonsense. Self-interest only produces a balanced ecological system if the system is itself well-designed. Even the mother-baby example shows that. It’s all very well saying that mother’s self-interest in stopping noise serves the baby’s interest in being fed, but if so that’s only because it’s part of a finely-tuned relationship. Babies can equally be stilled by strangulation, which has the advantage of stopping the cries permanently.

In an ecosystem the tuning problems are multiplied exponentially. The only guarantee that self-interest would result in a stable, mutually beneficial, system would be the “emergence principle” I mentioned in a comment recently: the unfounded belief that complexity necessarily produces order. Without such a principle, it would appear that ecological meltdown is more likely than not – even at the global level. Self-interest may be compatible with ecology, but it is self-evidently not sufficient to ensure it.

The quotations Hanan cited pitch “harmony” against “tension”. Hanan is quite right to question the use of such words in the scientific context of ecology, for both are human interpretations of what is, after all, observed as simply a stable interacting system. “Everything falls apart” if you remove my heart too, but that does not mean my body is a taut mass of self-serving organs. Even biologists, I think, see internal homestasis as harmony. But with that pointed out, the dichotomy is in any case an entirely false one.

charles“Harmony” is a musical term, is it not? And harmony in music is actually all about a dynamic tension. A simple major chord (the triad, doh-mi-soh) is a stable harmony – all is settled and peaceful. But in itself it isn’t music. Music is when all the different notes and chords interact with each other, thus creating harmonic tensions. That is especially true of those snazzy chords (9ths, 13ths, flattened 5ths etc) that are used in jazz. Like syncopation and swing, they are there to keep the thing tumbling over itself and moving forward in an interesting way. But the same idea is there in Mozart or Madonna, even in the key changes of sonata form. Most “ordinary” pieces of music end with a lead-in to a major triad from an “unstable” chord (called a “cadence”) to make you feel satisfied it’s all come to a proper end, after a worthwhile journey. Harmony and tension, then, are entwined, if they’re not actually different words for the same thing.

The biggest error of all in this view of ecology as “each trying to get the most use out of the other while expending as little of its own resources as possible” is that, in trying to do away with any possibility of teleology, it crowbars a completely teleological concept – self-interest – into the frame. Admittedly, in this it follows Darwin, whose “struggle for existence” has become so much part of the scenery that it’s easy to forget it is a rather inept analogy. If there is no teleology in evolution, then the “struggle for existence” means, de-mythologized, no more than that organisms’ activities, in some cases, differentially enhance their survival – or strictly, their reproductive success. They are not trying to further their own ends, but they happen to do so.

But by the same token, their activities may also further the welfare of other species (in the most efficient way = “as few resources as possible”), or the ecosystem as a whole. So “altruism” is no better or worse as a guiding concept that “selfishness”, since both are imported teleological terms. I would suggest that, in a naturalistic worldview, the only comprehensible story you can tell is to personify what are (supposedly) impersonal ateleological processes. “Trying to get the most out of the other for least cost” is the imputation of teleological aims to blindly-formed organisms. It’s therefore no more than a metaphor or allegory, and therefore, as Hanan rightly says, of no weight at all.

And needless to say an allegorical or metaphorical analogy has no power of causality at all – metaphorical self-interest doesn’t begin to explain why ecosystems work, and why the first life didn’t muscle its way to rapid mutual destruction.

In a theistic system, in contrast, it is by no means improper to invoke teleology. With God at the helm it might actually be true that there is a “maximum gain at least cost” internal teleology at work in every organism. But that could still be subservient to the Creator’s overarching desire for, and design of, a system for harmony and mutual benefit. A good teacher might deliberately stick a quiet kid and a boisterous kid together knowing that the noisy one brings the shy one out, and the quiet one calms the loud one down. Everyone benefits from their self-interest if the system is well-designed.

So even if baby’s cry were designed exclusively for mothers to want to make it stop, and even if it were prompted by baby’s entirely self-centred need, the desired result would still be a happy mum, a happy baby, happy neighbours and the increase of the human race and its brotherly interdependence. But in theism, there’s no necessity to strip down even the intrinsic teleology of organisms, as opposed to God’s external teleological providence, to a one-dimensional “struggle for survival”. It’s a good game, I suppose, finding ways to squeeze everything into that rigid mould, but the life we actually experience, unless we’re cynics, is far richer than that.

“Motivations” of self-interest and of service to others are not mutually exclusive. Once in another life I was a doctor. The hours were long, the stresses high, the heartaches frequent. But I did it to relieve ny fellow-humans’ suffering. No, I did it because it gave me occupational independence and paid well. No – there was no conflict between those sets of factors, and all the other motivations whose net result was that I did what I did. I grumbled if the government blocked a pay rise. I complained vocally if one of my patients was treated badly in hospital. Why, then, is it out of the question to attribute the sense of doing a job well to cleaner fish, to beavers or even to apex predators?

I suppose the answer would be that it’s attributing teleology to dumb organisms. Quite so. We mustn’t do that – so let’s stop talking about organisms “trying” to do other impossible things, like serve their own interests.


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About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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5 Responses to The presentation of self in everyday ecology

  1. Lou Jost 2 says:

    Jon, this is yet another post that falls into a standard pattern here: you charge scientists with being philosophically biased on some subject, and then you make a claim, based purely on your own philosophical bias, that contradicts huge amounts of evidence and standard theory on that subject.

    You claim that harmony fits the evidence just as well as tension. All you would have to do to refute that is to look carefully out your window. As I look out my window this morning, I have in front of me a nice hibiscus that is hummingbird-pollinated. Several hummingbirds vie to own the bush, and fight constantly to try to get control of it. They also fight the flowerpiercers, small birds whose beaks are too short to reach the nectar through the flower’s entrance. This bird has evolved a specialized beak to break through the back of the flower, making a hole and taking away nectar without pollinating the flower. The hibiscus, in turn, evolved an armored backside to the flower. That defense is an inevitable consequence of population genetics, since the loss of nectar to robbers like the flowerpiercer (and some big bees which can do the same) will reduce its pollination probabilities and hence its reproductive success.

    Does harmony describe this situation as honestly as tension? I don’t think so. All the actors here are in it for themselves. And this is generally the case in nature. Indeed one can show that the kind of group harmony you suggest cannot evolve except under very special circumstances, because organisms with altruistic strategies would have lower reproductive success than selfish organisms. Harmony is unstable. Real altruism is vanishingly rare in nature. When we do see it, as in social insects that readily die to save the hive or colony, it almost always turns out to be genetically selfish. There is lots of evidence that natural selection and inclusive fitness explains most instances of apparent altruism.

    If you think otherwise, you can try out your theory by making a population-genetic model of the interactions and see what happens. Scientists have done that. You have not. Whose answer to this question is more biased by philosophical views?

    • Lou Jost 2 says:

      A few other phenomena also strongly suggest tension over harmony. Ancient ecosystems were very different from today’s; many plant species seem to have distributions that move independently of each other over time, so that sometimes Species X and Y are growing in the same place, and then twenty thousand years later as climate changes, they end up in different places. Ecosystems are dynamic. Extinction is very common in the fossil record.

      Furthermore, species do “muscle over” each other regularly. The invasion of South America by North American mammals is a good example of the selfish nature of species interactions.

    • Lou Jost 2 says:

      I should add that the standard non-teleological explanation in terms of selfish genes, natural selection, and inclusive fitness yields precise quantitative predictions, and when these have been tested, they have usually been confirmed. Your view has no experimental backing that I am aware of, and the success of the standard theory suggests that no teleological effect is in play, or if it is, it must so weak as to be undetectable.

  2. Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:


    despite your three comments, I don’t see that you’ve touched any of the major points of my post. As readers can check for themselves, you’ve given no answers to the issues of Hanan’s quotes:
    (1) Picking one element of a complex interactive system as “the sufficient cause is simplistic,”
    (2) Falsely dichotomising “harmony” from tension neglects that harmony involves tension,”
    (3) Introducing the teleological concept of “self-interest” into what is purported to be an atelological process is inconsistent, and
    (4) Failing to appreciate that even species evolution *entirely* driven by self-interest could be completely consistent with ecologies being designed for mutual benefit, given an overseeing intelligence.

    But I only want here to address your strong emphasis on population genetics as proving the dominance of self-interested competition in eco-syestems. Population genetics, as far as I am aware, is a way of modelling mathematically the fate of genes that are beneficial, neutral or disadvantageous to the organisms that carry them. That being so:

    (a) Population genetics is related only secondarily to phenotypes, and cannot in itself comment on *why* a phenotypic trait is, accordimg to the model, advantageous: simply that it is. That has a relatively minor bearing on the point in question, but means that there are big gaps to fill between tracking a gene in a population, pinning down its precise role in a possibly ecologically significant trait, attributing its spread to the effect of that trait on the ecosystem and concluding, finally, that only the benefit to the original species was significant.

    (b) There is no justification for invoking PG to draw an inference from the fixation of a gene to imputing a teleological “self-interest” either to a phenotype of its genes. It occurred, it benefited the species, it spread – end of story. Analogically, the progressive rise in Saudi Arabian per-capita income doesn’t necessarily say anything at all about Arab self-assertion, and may instead say a lot about the chance discovery of resources valued by, and of benefit to, the world the world. If I discover the way to feed the world and give it away free, the world will feed me as a result.

    (c) Population genetics, being designed specifically to track the success of genes in a population, provides no tools for measuring any benefits of the gene to the ecosystem as a whole, nor of identifying benefits that might accrue back to the organism by dint of such benefit. It’s self-evident, however, that all species will benefit from a sustainable ecosystem and the genes that “happen” to further that, and conversely that collapse of the ecosystem guarantees maladaption of the species within it. So it’s hardly surprising if PG is consistent with the individual species-advantage view of ecology, since that’s what it was designed to investigate. Now design the tools to study ecological benefit.

    There are no humming birds or orchids to see out of my window – if they were they’d be cut down by the gales and sleet today. But the introduction of US grey squirrels in the nineteenth century provides a famous UK example of ecological damage, the native red squirrels now being restricted to isolated pockets. But the received image of hunky greys “muscling aside” the reds in their own interests, whilst perhaps giving an emotional edge to eradication programmes, is now known to be scientifically completely unhelpful. Greys happen to be larger and more robust, and more able to digest nuts with a high tannin content. They are also asymptomatic carriers for squirrelpox virus, which was already reducing red numbers, which carriage is said to have increased the replacement rate by 17-25 times. Individually, they’re nice guys, even to red squirrels they meet in bars, as far as I know.

    Genetically, give or take changes over the century, our greys are genetically like yours, and are presumably no more or less assertive. They are different enough from the reds not to be direct replacement, and so have other deleterious effects on our ecology (eating immature nuts, and a few other things). Neither is it the case that back in the US, where they fit in just fine, they have more vicious, “selfish” competition and predators. It’s just that they just have the *right* competition to make the system as a whole prosper.

    Self-interest requires a self.

    • Lou Jost 2 says:

      “Self” is well-defined in evolution. As I said, the standard view leads to quantitative predictions which are generally verified. We can actually test our non-teleological theory to see what is optimized, and these tests generally confirm our theory.

      I fail to see what you are getting at with your squirrel or baby examples. For the squirrel, you say “It’s just that they just have the *right* competition to make the system as a whole prosper.” You are just making that up. Again, population genetics shows that any genome which reduced an individual’s reproductive success in order to stabilize the community would not be favored. Your comments about the connection between genotype and phenotype, and about the difficulty of singling out the effects of particular genes, are irrelevant, and your insinuation that population genetics is incapable of giving any other answer “by design” is false. Pop gen does show under what circumstances ecosystem-favorable (or even species-favorable) genotypes might prosper at the expense of purely selfish ones. The problem is that those circumstances are very specific and fragile, and the results are generally unstable with respect to selfish genes.

      There is no justification for invoking PG to draw an inference from the fixation of a gene to imputing a teleological “self-interest” either to a phenotype of its genes. It occurred, it benefited the species, it spread – end of story.

      There I agree with you, sort of. When we say “selfish” we are not describing motives or teleology. Pop gen gives a non-teleological causal explanation for why genes which favor an individual’s reproductive success must spread in the population (if the population is large, so that drift is unimportant, and if non-genetic factors such as culture are unimportant).

      But you want to cover all bases, so you say

      With God at the helm it might actually be true that there is a “maximum gain at least cost” internal teleology at work in every organism. But that could still be subservient to the Creator’s overarching desire for, and design of, a system for harmony and mutual benefit.

      Tails you win, heads any other theory loses. If any possible world can be made to fit your preconceptions about god, you are not really saying much except that you are very good at insulating your beliefs from reality.

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