googlef87758e9b6df9bec.html A Sure Word: Advantage After the Fact

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Advantage After the Fact

I was browsing online and came across an interesting article about the supposed “evolutionary advantage to tears.” Actually it was only mild interesting but it does give me an opportunity to demonstrate a key flaw in many such evolutionary scenarios.

The article states that humans are the only creatures that cry (I suppose they should say “only creatures known to cry”). The article begins by asking, rhetorically, “Why do we cry?” From there, it goes on to speculate that crying “evolved” as a mechanism that elicits sympathy from other people. To quote the article, Fundamentally, crying is a way to get what you want — that’s why babies do it. (Sorry, mothers.) Or, that clever turn of phrase adults use: 'The squeaky wheel gets the oil.'

I found this photo online. It's the same photo, side by side, except that the one on the right has had the tears digitally removed. I must say, I was a little surprised at the dramatically different impression given by the presence of tears. Perhaps there is something to the idea that crying provokes sympathy. So I will amend my earlier comment and at least admit the subject matter of the article is somewhat interesting.

Let me digress for a moment. I believe we have emotions because God has emotions and we are made in His image (Genesis 1:27). We are not like the animals (Genesis 2:20) and so I don't expect us to display (or not display) emotions the way animals do. This isn't really the point of my post, though, so let me return to the subject at hand.

The whole article is remarkably contrived and goes to great pains to explain to why crying supposedly evolved but misses a key point – namely, how crying evolved. You see, there's a lot more involved in crying than the production of tears. After all, tears are also produced to help clean the eye. Many animals produce tears for this purpose. Yet with crying comes an association with strong emotions, facial expressions, sobs, etc. Each of these had to evolve in order for the production of tears to be identified with a display of emotions. Furthermore, in order to garner sympathy, the observer must himself have already evolved the ability to recognize crying as a display of emotion.

Here's the problem: In hindsight, it's easy to speculate what survival advantages some particular trait might offer its hosts. However, evolution is not a directed process. It doesn't matter what advantage the end result might be; no trait will evolve unless there is some advantage for the host every step of the way. When some alleged ancestor first began over-producing tears, for example, it obviously did not garner sympathy from anyone or anything. “Evolution” did not know it would eventually be seen as a display of emotions and so that trait could not be said to have evolved to elicit sympathy.

The speculation about crying demonstrates the typical habit of evolutionists to proffer “why” some given trait has evolved. Birds evolved colorful feathers in order to attract a mate. Lions evolved thick manes to shield their heads and necks when fighting other lions. Some animals have evolved stripes as a means of camouflage. The list is goes on and on.

There's a sort of circular argument going on here. Animals that can run fast will catch more prey. Therefore, animals that can run fast evolved that ability in order to catch more prey. Do you see how that sounds a little silly?

The ability to identify the survival advantage of a particular trait does not begin to explain “why” the trait evolved. Even assuming evolution were true, I can say with certainty that crying did NOT evolve in order to elicit sympathy. To suggest any reason “why” a certain trait evolved ascribes a purpose to the process.

In this case, I know crying is the product of design. God made us emotional creatures. Perhaps we do empathize with people when they cry. However, whatever selective advantage might be realized from crying is not any kind of argument for evolution. It's merely an attempt to describe the advantage after the fact of it already existing.


Steven J. said...

I read of an experiment, once, in which researchers took a fish species, a close relative (at least on evolutionary terms; I don't know how a baraminologist would view the matter) of swordtail fish, but with no spine sticking out of its tail fin. Now, they knew from research with swordtails that the tail spines made males attractive to females. By grafting fake spines into the tails of males of this normally "swordless" species, they found that females of this species, also were attracted to males with tail spines. It is perfectly possible to have a built-in reaction to a trait that one's species does not normally have -- which would give natural selection something to work with if a random mutation produced that trait. Presumably birds could in many cases have such already existing quirks that could make some mutation affecting coloration advantageous.

Our ancestors might conceivably, as some pure quirk of brain wiring, been predisposed to interpret tears as a symbol of emotional distress before we had the ability to cry.

A population doesn't become faster "in order" to catch prey. Now, books on evolution tend to be full of figures of speech (e.g. "natural selection"), but they usually explain that, of course, evolution and natural selection do not desire or anticipate results. If a mutation results in greater speed at a small enough cost (most changes involve trade-offs of some sort), this will make the mutant more likely to either catch prey, or avoid becoming prey, or both; this will make the organism more likely to survive, win a mate, and pass on the mutation to a new generation.

Nothing needs to know that this advantage will accrue after the fact, any more than a bacterium, or an antibiotic, needs to know that when the antibiotic is added to the bacterial colony, a mutation for antibiotic resistance will be highly beneficial. In such cases of increased speed, or increased resistance to environmental poisons, pathogens, or parasites, or better camouflage against predators, surely there is no great difficulty in seeing how some mutations could create an advantage without any intention on the part of the individuals in the population or in its environment?

Steven J. said...

An article on the evolutionary advantage of tears in humans is, of course, dealing with a situation in which emotions already exist: other primates show fear, greed, anger, and what often looks like sympathy, affection, even joy. So strictly speaking, why we have emotions is a separate question from the main point of your article (how we might evolve one particular way of expressing one particular emotion).

From an evolutionary standpoint, emotions are a supplement to thought; fear of danger eliminates the need to reason out "that could reduce my reproductive fitness, so I should avoid it -- and why am I concerned with my reproductive fitness, again?" If you're afraid of danger, you don't need to consider, or care, that succumbing to danger makes you less able to pass on the genes you probably don't know you have. If you love your child, you will protect that child even if it never occurs to you that the child is a "genetic investment." Hence emotions can improve fitness, hence species that are capable of learning -- whose mental lives are richer than those of a washing machine -- generally have at least rudimentary emotions. A richer and more complex emotional range is a concomitant of a more complex and richer intellectual life.

Arguably, any rational being would need emotions: pace Gene Roddenberry's Vulcans, logic by itself dictates nothing; one needs some non-rational (not necessarily anti-rational or irrational) motive for preferring some goals before it makes sense to use logic to get the ones you want and avoid the ones you don't. So a Creator God would presumably have something analogous to emotions. But it seems unlikely that a unique, all-powerful God would feel, e.g. fear, or sexual attraction, or some other emotions that play a rich role in our lives and are closely tied to our finite, biological nature.

RKBentley said...

Steven J,

You said, “So strictly speaking, why we have emotions is a separate question from the main point of your article (how we might evolve one particular way of expressing one particular emotion).”

It would be very interesting to see an evolutionary explanation on the origin of crying because it's my understanding that emotions don't fossilize well. Such an explanation would be mostly conjecture and very little science. But anyway, that's not really the main point of my article. I was merely highlighting the false impressions evolutionists give the lay population through their careless descriptions. As I said in the post, it's a “habit” of evolutionists to say things like this.

Here's the danger I see in using terminology like, “why” some feature evolved: natural selection (which is sometimes – erroneously – equated with evolution) is often summarized as “survival of the fittest.” So when some feature is described as having a survival benefit, it immediately gives the impression that feature is the product of natural selection. Since natural selection requires competition, some human characteristics, like altruism, aren't explained well by evolution. When someone proposes some selective advantage derived from altruism and says, “Here's 'why' altruism evolved...” he is 1) presupposing altruism is an evolved trait, 2) engaging in conjecture and oversimplification, and 3) merely inventing a plausible scenario to help altruism fit within the evolutionary framework. Perhaps the most incredible thing is that all this is accomplished without really ever having to explain the origin of altruism!

You said, “books on evolution tend to be full of figures of speech (e.g. "natural selection"), but they usually explain that, of course, evolution and natural selection do not desire or anticipate results.”

I don't think they are careful at all. Perhaps some books might take more time to explain it correctly but most other times, like in the article in question, they're rather cavalier about how they describe their theory. From the crying article we find this careless sentence: “according to scientists who study evolution, crying has likely evolved to be a tool — a leg up in natural selection — to help the species persist.”

Do you see what I mean? “Crying evolved to be a tool...”? That's about as silly as saying, “Michael Jordon grew tall in order to play basketball.”

Thanks for visiting. God bless!!