[Tweeters] a question

Dennis Paulson dennispaulson at comcast.net
Mon Jun 28 14:36:50 PDT 2010

Hi, Connie.

I personally think there are no morals in nature, that morals are entirely a human invention. I also don't think that evolution is good, bad, moral, or unmoral - amoral does describe it.

Thus there is no "good" in a pack of male ducks attempting to copulate with a female and eventually drowning her (this has been recorded, I think fairly frequently). But there is certainly evolutionary significance. Gadwalls that mate do better on the natural-selection front than those that don't, so a mating urge is almost guaranteed in a natural world organized by evolution. Presumably some if not all of those males hadn't mated this spring (there are more males than females in most species of ducks), so they still had that strong mating urge, even though this late in the season it's possible that female wouldn't even build a nest. And even if they had successfully mated, the mating urge may still be there. The more mating, the more potential of genes in the next generation.

For the female, there was probably no winning at all. Because she couldn't protect herself against that many males, not even escaping by flying, her fitness was very likely lowered by the activities. Pain with no gain. From the writings of Richard Dawkins and others, and from straight logic, it would seem that the two sexes are in competition at times, parents and offspring are in competition, and siblings are in competition when it comes to actions that increase their individual fitness. If one accepts that, it explains a lot of what we see that we would consider immoral. Not only in non-human animals but in humans. Competition always implies a winner and a loser, and natural selection would favor behavior by the loser to "fight back," so there are evolutionary "arms races" between mates, among siblings, and between parents and offspring. If the male Gadwalls exercised a strong enough selective pressure on females, the females might evolve more effective ways at protecting themselves.

(Parenthetically, one of the biggest pressures on a female dragonfly laying eggs comes from harassment by males attempting to mate with her, and they have all sorts of adaptations to avoid that).

But we are of course social animals (just like many other species), and much of what we do involves cooperation rather than competition. We cooperate with one another in many ways to raise the fitness of all individuals in the social group. Even in animals that aren't as social as we are, both mating and parenting involve cooperative behavior. It's a good exercise to look at any species of animal and try to understand the selective advantages of their whole repertoire of behavior.

There is a lot of scientific literature on these matters and a smattering of popular books. Maybe one of our bibliophiles, for example Ian Paulsen, could furnish some titles.

I get tweeters only as a digest, so I am at a lack when responding to a message and not knowing what other responses have been. Sorry about that.

Dennis Paulson

On Jun 28, 2010, at 12:00 PM, tweeters-request at mailman2.u.washington.edu wrote:

> Date: Mon, 28 Jun 2010 09:28:42 -0700

> From: Connie Sidles <constancesidles at gmail.com>

> Subject: [Tweeters] a question

> To: tweeters <tweeters at u.washington.edu>

> Message-ID: <23D104F4-6C71-420B-94B5-57B11A54CCAB at gmail.com>

> Content-Type: text/plain; charset="us-ascii"


> Hey tweets, as I work to write my new book about the Fill, I thought

> of a question I would like to throw out to you (hoping it's not too

> far off-topic):

> Is nature morally black-and-white, or are there moral shades of gray?

> Or are there no morals at all, and if so, is there good and evil?


> Example: Two days ago I watched four male Gadwalls gang up on a lone

> female and attempt to mate with her. One male would mount her and push

> her head underwater, meanwhile trying to fight off the other males.

> One male would eventually push off the copulating male and take his

> place. This went on and on. The female kept trying to escape (and to

> keep breathing), but she couldn't get away from so many males. The

> whole gang disappeared behind some bushes on Main Pond, so I don't

> know the outcome, but it wouldn't surprise me if the males had drowned

> the female.


> Realizing that ducks aren't people, and that nature is "red in tooth

> and claw," still, what am I to make of this scene? Where is the good

> in such an action? Even evolutionary good.


> Nature has laws. Were those male ducks breaking the law? I'd be

> interested in your thoughts. - Connie, Seattle


> constancesidles at gmail.com

> www.constancypress.com

Dennis Paulson
1724 NE 98 St.
Seattle, WA 98115
dennispaulson at comcast.net

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