Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Josh's Extra New and Hot

Check out this article from the Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

Even though my last post was about animal sexuality, I just couldn't pass this one up (let's chalk this up to the "If it ain't broke..." philosophy).

A recent study by the London Zoological Society shows that female cheetahs in Tanzania are far more promiscuous than previously thought. It turns out that in a sample of 47 litter where there were multiple cubs, only 57% were all from the same father, leaving a whopping 43% of cheetah cubs familys with mixed siblings. The study took 9 years and 171 faeces (yes, I'm using the British spelling) samples to reveal that mommy cheetahs were not so chaste. This may even be an underestimate since "Cheetah cubs suffer high mortality on the first few weeks so it was difficult to get samples from all of them" according to Zoological Society scientist Gotelli in a BBC interview.

Why is this occurring? The best thoughts on this tie directly back to our good friend Darwin. Mating with many different males increases genetic diversity and thus ensures that if one of the cubs is not well adapted to his environment, then another of her cubs will be and can pass on her genes. Because cheetahs are endangered, this is considered a good thing because it cuts down on the possibility of inbreeding.

Zooming the scope from micro to macro, this also may be a good thing due to the psychology of cheetahs. Male lions and leopards are commonly known to kill off babies in the pride that are not related to them in order to ensure that their own genes get passed along. This is not seen in cheetahs probably because the males have a difficult time telling which cubs are theirs and which are not. This increases the number of cheetahs, which is important now that they are becoming rarer and rarer.

I'll have to be honest that another reason that this caught my attention was the fact that this article was about promiscuous cheetahs. My first reaction, upon reading the article, was envisioning a group of cheetahs on stage with Jerry Springer waiting anxiously for paternity tests and fighting over who fathered whom with a weeping girlfriend cheetah. Of course, I returned from my amused wanderings, and then wondered why I was trying to apply human morality and ethics to a group of cheetahs. Cheetahs breed in this manner due completely to the science natural selection without any regard for the beliefs and whims of any person (or deity for that matter!).

I'm reminded of the Darwin's comment on the problem of the ichneumon wasp which puzzled religious scholars, pre and post Darwin. The ichneumon wasp lays its eggs in moth larvae which, when hatched, will eat the wasp from the inside out, saving all the vital organs for last so as to keep the larvae as fresh as possible but incidentally inflicting the maximum amount of pain possible on the larva. In contrast to happy stories about God creating humans and puppies (or nice dinosaurs) to live in peace, this unfortunate example clearly does not tell the glory of God as the Psalms proclaim. Darwin had the following to say about it:

"I am bewildered… I own that I cannot see, as plainly as others do, and as I should wish to do, evidence of design and beneficence on all sides of us. There seems to me too much misery in the world. I cannot persuade myself that a beneficent and omnipotent God would have designedly created the Ichneumonidae with the express intention of their feeding within the living bodies of caterpillars. Or that a cat should play with mice. Not believing this, I see no necessity in the belief that the eye was expressly designed."
-Charles Darwin, letter to Asa Gray, 1960

So before we start attacking nature with our own morals, let's remember that the universe doesn't revolve around us and our silly conventions. Rock on, promiscuous cheetahs.


chickenpox said...

Nice post! -Julie

Erika said...

Wow- that wasp story is a pretty impressive story of cruelty in nature. I don't understand why people use the argument that things are "not natural" to justify human morality- you have great examples of amoral behavior here. And of course, people say that being gay isn't "natural" when there are gay penguins, among other species, as if that argument should matter anyway (