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Re: Social Biology and Dinosaur Behavior



Larry Dunn wrote:
> 
> Please read these two excerpts:
> 
> Chris Campbell wrote:
> 
> <<You could look at it like that.  You could also look at it like:
> 
> "Food is scarce.  If you help we'll be more likely to catch our prey,
> and half a meal is better than none."
> 
> This scenario leads to less energy wasted on conflict and requires
> very little in the way of brainpower; it could actually all be done on
> instinct.>>
> 
> And archosaur@usa.net wrote:
> 
> <<Not only has the cooperative hunting been observed in
> nile crocs taking down large terrestrial prey, but
> it's also been seen in crocs eating large fish (NilePerch come to
> mind) The following information can be found in the book Crocodiles
> and Alligators.>>
> 
> I think we all need to find out a lot more about social biology before
> we start drawing conclusions like these (I include myself here, by the
> way).  These conclusions, I suspect, are often based on our inability
> to see that animals don't "get it."

What you have to keep in mind here is that you don't know what animals
"get."  We're on the outside of the looking glass, looking in.  We see
things happen, but we don't know why.  The best we can do is assume and pray
the universe operates according to some intelligible norms (and its
inhabitants as well).  We assume they have good reasons for doing things,
and try to decipher them.  But we don't know what they do or do not "get."
 
> What do I mean?
> 
> We often forget that we ourselves are members of that extremely select
> group, true cooperative hunters.  Not only do we cooperate in hunting,
> but in many other activities as well, leading eventually to the almost
> unbelievably sophisticated world we live in now.  It can be extremely
> efficient to cooperate, so can we really imagine that animals don't
> "get" this, don't see the efficiency?  It seems clear that that's the
> core of this problem: we see animal behavior and anthropomorphize it.

Not necessarily.  We also have to keep in mind that some forms of
cooperation are not only highly efficient but also extremely simple.
Experience can teach an animal an awful lot, including the value of
cooperation in some respects.  This experience must not be discounted.
 
> I've included Chris's quote because I think it indicates this tendency
> to attribute human thought patterns to hawk behavior as they dive down
> at the same rabbit.  

Not at all.  It was just written in that way for the benefit of the reader.
It's the same idea as talking about selfish genes; the genes aren't selfish,
but it's a good analogy and it's a good tool for understanding when the
reader interprets it as such.  Most biologists/ecologists don't have
problems with this, but such statements are often interpreted incorrectly by
the layman.  By saying it could all be done on instinct I was indicating
that the animal doesn't have to think this through for it to work;
responding to environmental cues would be enough to pull it off.

> It's bad netiquette, but I hope that Chris won't
> mind if I mention that, in an offlist exchange about Sue's "healed"
> leg, I directed Chris to Darren Tanke's post about healing (as opposed
> to healed) tyrannosaur legs.  Chris was interested in Darren's
> observations and commented that if he were a tyrannosaur he'd
> nonetheless have wanted to cooperate because times were tough back
> then.

I wouldn't mind if you'd actually observed proper netiquette and asked
permission first.  It wouldn't take much, and posting mail in this manner is
extremely rude.  Be that as it may, yes, I would want to cooperate if times
were tough, but not because I'd figured out why this is a good idea.  I'd do
it because it works.  Let's say I'm a tyrannosaur, and I'm chasing down
dinner (assuming, for the moment, that tyrannosaurs were predatory).  It's
getting away.  Oh, damn.  Then another tyrannosaur comes up and thwacks it
from another direction.  Now, I could fight him for it.  That'd probably be
my first inclination.  After all, I was chasing it, right?  But he does
something odd: he doesn't wanna fight, so he offers me half.  Well, he's
about my size, and I don't really wanna fight either.  The odds of me
winning, particularly tired as I am, don't look so hot.  So I take half.
And then, in both of our tiny brains, something clicks.  That's all it takes
for cooperative behavior of a sort to take off, and this doesn't require
thinking like humans.  It simply requires what Daniel C. Dennett calls "the
general nonstupidity of animals."  If it's a good trick they'll figure it
out, by trial and error if nothing else.  These things aren't typically
passed from one generation to the next; each animal would figure it out for
himself, and the clever ones would actually get to breed (but then, so would
the really big ones who just steal what they want, or the total clods who
live in times of plenty).  In some cases you'd get a rudimentary culture
going, as with birds who hang around their parents to learn how to build
proper nests and such.

In the case of the hawks quoted above the same idea applies.  The hawks
don't wanna fight if they don't have to; no animal really does unless it
knows it has a really good chance of winning or is desperate enough that it
has no other options (or is a ridiculously vicious critter, such as a
spotted hyena or a Savuti lion).  Sharing resources becomes an option,
mainly because it reduces the potential for conflict; the animals don't
reason this out, they just seek to avoid fighting when they can and wind up
with this as the inevitable result (cheetahs often use such a strategy,
teaming up when times are scarce; this mostly happens with young individuals
in sib groups, but the potential for separatism or cooperative behavior is
there in all of them).  They cooperate in a limited fashion because they
aren't hungry as much when they do.  They do it because it feels better and
they're not fighting much, not because they reason it out.  They do what
works based on trial and error and a little bit of memory.  They *learn*,
and occasionally develop clever tricks for getting by.  
 
> I think we all do this without realizing it -- we look at animal
> behavior and interpret it through human eyes, which of course are all
> we have.

Those trained in biology tend not to; that doesn't mean we write so that
comes across clearly, of course.  Room for improvement for everyone.
 
> I included archosaur's post because he's quoting from a book on
> crocodylians.  I read books by workers expert in their knowledge about
> their species (or genus or whatever, as the case may be) who make
> precisely the same mistakes non-specialists do, because they're not
> experts in social biology.

Part of this is also dependent on the reader; one must be extremely careful
with accusations of anthropomorphism, simply because the animals we're
studying aren't robots.  Saying they're angry or belligerent or thinking
ahead isn't necessarily anthropomorphizing.  Assigning motives to animal
behavior is generally a mistake (heck, it's generally a mistake in human
behavior; we're wrong more often than not), but characterizing a behavior as
cooperative is fine so long as we have our definitions straight.
 
> I think that this problem is especially prevalent in dinosaur
> paleontology.  Dinosaur paleontologists are primarily trained to
> reconstruct dinosaur biology and evolution, but they're frequently
> called upon to describe dinosaur behavior (that's what we're all
> really interested in, isn't it? -- that's the real puzzle of the
> dinosaur), with sometimes rueful results (see recent comments by Phil
> Currie about Giganotosaurus's lifestyle!).

True.  Unfortunately, a common response is a form of reductionism wherein we
claim a priori that no complex social behavior existed (or that there's no
reason to believe such existed) because we can't find hard evidence for it.
This is just as mistaken an approach, if for no other reason than the fact
that in most groups of extant animals there are at least a few members who
are cooperative in some respects (from spiders on up).  Chance alone tells
us that some therapods were likely social just because it's a darn good
strategy that most genera catch onto in some form or other.  The strategy
works, so someone's gonna use it unless the environment was so different
from what we have now that it'd just not be useful at all.
 
> A friend who is a paleolife artist suggested that I read a textbook on
> social biology by, if I recall correctly, Wilson.  It is apparently
> very dense and hard-going but extremely comprehensive and eye-opening
> and so I'm going to work through it, and I suggest that others who
> enthusiastically join in these discussions look for a similar book on
> this specific topic as well.

The best book on the topic is Wilson's _Sociobiology_.  The first and last
chapters are enormously controversial, but the bulk of the book in between
is quite excellent.  Other works to consider include anything from R. L.
Trivers, Nico Tinbergen, W. D. Hamilton, and R. D. Alexander.  These will
get you started nicely.
 
> Until then, and please forgive the vulgar phrase,  we're all talking
> out of our respective asses on this subject, and quoting experts on a
> specific species/genus etc. doesn't really help.  In the meantime, I'd
> propose that, in interpreting some of these quotes, the list reader
> keep the above in mind.

And, more importantly, that how you read a quote is at least as important as
what the quote actually says.  Remember that some on the list have actually
read the extant literature on social behavior and know what they're talking
about (though of course no one knows much about dinosaur social behavior;
all is speculation there).  You might not agree with their conclusions, but
that doesn't mean they're "talking out of [their] respective asses" on the
subject.

Chris