Posts Tagged ‘evolution


Civilized Ruthlessness

Perhaps most people will agree that societies have become more civilized now compared to 100, 1,000, or 10,000 years ago. During our cavemen ancestors’ days killing, stealing, and robbing must have been commonplace in their struggle for survival, but in today’s “civilized” societies such acts are being prohibited and offenders are heavily penalized.

However, while we were somehow able to curb barbaric behavior, we still display our savage tendencies in other aspects of our social lives. In business, for example, executives are hired to kill the competitors, grab their market share, steal their customers, and even pirate their key employees. And these executives – educated and civilized – actually enjoy the “killing” in the marketplace as if it satisfies some deep evolutionary urge. And maybe it does.

In the caveman days ruthlessness would be a necessary trait not only for survival but also for propagating one’s genes. Those who survived the longest got the most chances of dominating the gene pool; those who could gather the most food were most able to rear a large number of offspring; and those who gained the most territory could sustain the best security for their clan.

In today’s civilized world – a world where the rules are set by big money and influence instead of big muscles and spears, where business, politics, and religion are the battlefields for power – the people who have evolved to rise above the others must have descended from the great warriors – smart, quick, strong, adaptable, and ruthless. Today these same qualities are as important as ever although quick and strong would now refer to the mind instead of the body. People still have ruthless tendencies, although it is more of a civilized ruthlessness. So while we no longer kill each other for food, we are still trying to “kill” each other in many different ways.


The Ant and the Spider

Whenever I see a tiny emaciated spider hanging on its web on the corners of the wall, I leave it alone. Perhaps it’s because I respect the life in it, but more importantly, I am in awe of its struggle for life.  For 250 million years it has not significantly changed in shape and lifestyle. (Actually it should have been 300 million years, but spiders then had their “spinnerets placed underneath the middle of the abdomen, rather than at the end as in modern spiders”. Imagine lying down, facing the sky, hanging by a thread that comes out from your navel. Doesn’t seem like a very effective position to catch prey, does it? As such, these early spiders were thought to be ground dwellers.)

As much as I try to do no harm to spiders, I cannot say the same for ants. And I’m not only talking about those ants that march in the hundreds to attack our food, contaminating it with germs and parasites from whatever surfaces they had stepped on – including bathroom floors, garbage cans, and dog poop. I would kill even a single ant whenever I had the chance. Why? Because that single ant is a patroller on a reconnaissance mission, as explained by the National Geographic article Swarm Theory:

“When a forager has contact with a patroller, it’s a stimulus for the forager to go out,” Gordon says. “But the forager needs several contacts no more than ten seconds apart before it will go out.”

To see how this works, Gordon and her collaborator Michael Greene of the University of Colorado at Denver captured patroller ants as they left a nest one morning. After waiting half an hour, they simulated the ants’ return by dropping glass beads into the nest entrance at regular intervals—some coated with patroller scent, some with maintenance worker scent, some with no scent. Only the beads coated with patroller scent stimulated foragers to leave the nest. Their conclusion: Foragers use the rate of their encounters with patrollers to tell if it’s safe to go out. (If you bump into patrollers at the right rate, it’s time to go foraging. If not, better wait. It might be too windy, or there might be a hungry lizard waiting out there.) Once the ants start foraging and bringing back food, other ants join the effort, depending on the rate at which they encounter returning foragers.

So that single ant you did not kill will eventually bring in a whole battalion of foragers, which will contaminate your food with germs and parasites from whatever surfaces they had stepped on – including bathroom floors, garbage cans, and dog poop.

And so whenever I see an ant, I carefully pick it up so as not to squish it. Then I look for the nearest spider web and flick the pesky ant towards it. Bon appetit, poor little skinny spider! Eat well and grow. You’ll be handling cockroaches soon.


A Cynical View on Attraction

I remember a Darwinian article in Time (Asia) Magazine’s special issue, The New Age of Discovery (January, 1998) because it tried to answer questions like why do we find certain human body figures sexy. It said that most men find a specific waist-to-hip ratio (WHR) of women sexy (now I won’t tell the exact figure to avoid causing unnecessary insecurities) because that ratio signals fertility. Men don’t consciously know this, but evolution somehow programmed it in our instincts to ensure the perpetuation of our genes.

In another article, I read about an experiment on human scent. It involved a certain number of men and an equal number of women. The men were made to shower using only unscented soap (no cologne or deodorant either) and sleep with a white shirt on. They would shower again on the second night but would wear the same shirt to bed. Then the shirts would be sniffed by the women, who would each try to determine which shirt smells the “sexiest.” After their genes were tested, it was found out that the sexiest scents for most of the women belonged to the men whose genes were very much dissimilar from theirs. Parents with diverse genes often bear stronger offspring, and once again evolution has hardwired this into our physiology to help us find a suitable mate – and perpetuate our genes.

But in this overpopulated modern society of ours, procreation is no longer the primarily purpose of sex. In one of our joint articles, a fellow freethinker wrote:

Sex may lead to pro-creation but the two are still two totally distinct acts, no matter how much some belief systems may insist that they’re one and the same. When you start a fire, you aren’t obligated to go cook something. Sometimes, it’s enough just to enjoy the warmth of a blazing fire on a cold night. The same goes for sex. It’s a social activity and a recreational sport as well. From a liberal point of view, it’s not even that different from a couple going dancing (that’s why it’s also called the horizontal tango).

Still, our instincts kick in when a genetically suitable specimen from the opposite gender walks by even if having kids is the last thing on our minds. But as we get to know a person, after a while we get attracted to non-physical traits like kindness and a sense of humor. Perhaps we instinctively know that certain personal attributes are preferable for long-term companionship, especially when it comes to the point when procreation and even sex are no longer possible.

But the beauty of these personal qualities is that they can be enjoyed now as much as in the future. Being the most highly evolved among all creatures, humans interact in ways beyond touching and smelling. A nice conversation between humans connects them more profoundly than two chimps grooming each other. Although touching is nice, it is often meaningless unless coupled with an emotional bond. And so while evolution already dictated what we should find physically attractive, it is our longing for a deeper connection that needs to be satisfied if we are to truly enjoy being human.

inner minds

Attempts at uncovering the underlying simplicity beneath apparently complex concepts as well as the core complexity within seemingly straightforward issues

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