...Darwinian selection to be more than a law about biology, and turn it into a metaphor for life itself, as if all that matters is conflict and the struggle to survive, so that love and beauty and even birdsong are robbed of their innocence and reduced to genetic instincts and drives.
Thought for the Day has come up trumps as an inspiration for a blog post and for me this one touched all the bases; Darwin, evolution, covert creationism and intellectual dishonesty all in one three minute segment. So where to begin?
Well, Lord Sacks has decided that the account of a revised understanding of the sexual mores of birds in a new book The Wisdom of Birds by ornithologist Tim Birkhead is sufficient to impugn the scientific understanding of evolution because it now transpires that Darwin’s assertion that female birds are faithful and monogamous and the promiscuous males sing to attract mates has proved to be less than universally true. It is now recognised that female birds are also opportunistic in their mating strategies and that some species have females that are as vocal as the males as evidenced by genetic studies of wild populations and observation by ornithologists.
The first thing to say about this is that Darwin was wrong about the specifics of many things, most importantly from an evolutionary point of view he completely misunderstood the true nature of inheritance, ignorant as he was of even the Mendelian laws of inheritance being developed around the same time. This is both understandable and widely recognised by biologists who do not see this as a reason to reject what is arguably the most powerful explanatory scientific theory of the millennium. Given that context, minor observational errors on sexual selection in birds should not be a big issue. Although in fact Tim Birkhead says this of Darwin who, as a pigeon fancier, would most likely have been aware of the truth of the matter.
He was probably playing it safe. In Victorian England it simply wasn’t appropriate for a well-respected gentleman scientist to draw attention to the existence of female promiscuity, let alone to justify it in biological terms.Be that as it may avian female promiscuity and vocalisation does not lead to the conclusions that Lord Sacks would like to infer with this:
A century and a half ago Darwin argued that birdsong was all about sexual selection. It was males who did the singing, hoping to make female birds swoon at hearing the ornithological equivalent of Justin Bieber, giving the most tuneful males a better chance of handing on their genes to the next generation. Well, it turns out to be not quite like that after all, because scientists have now discovered that female birds do almost as much singing as the males, and it has less to do with sexual selection, than with simply saying: I’m here.and this:
Not all is wrong in a world where birds sing for the joy of being alive.Birdsong fulfills several functions not, or only partly, related to mating strategies. For some species it is territorial, a signal to deter members of the same species from invading its feeding and breeding grounds. In flocking birds it can be a means of maintaining colony cohesion and for warning against predators. Singing has to be explainable under natural selection as making a noise can be a risky strategy for a prey species and would only persist in a population if it had other survival advantages: saying "I'm here" just for the sake of it could result in "the joy of being alive" a very short experience. Skylarks for example, while on the wing, will use song as a form of defense against predator birds. By singing, the skylark signals that it is in good condition and will be difficult to catch as only a fit skylark can afford to sing whilst being chased by a predator.
Moreover even if both males and females are singing to attract mates it does not negate sexual selection as both sexes would be advertising their fitness to potential partners which is still true even if strict monogamy were not the expected outcome. Lord Sacks seems to be suffering from the delusion that it can only be sexual selection if the male is behaving like a peacock and the female is a coy recipient of his advances which may say more about his cultural biases than about his grasp of biology. After all, both partners will usually be involved in feeding the brood so fitness, for which singing is a proxy, is advantageous to both birds.
Lord Sacks cannot make any of this mean what he would like it to mean which is birds sing because of God.
[…] like all those psalms that speak of creation singing a song to the creator, and the wonderful closing line of the last psalm of all: Let everything that breathes praise the Lord.Birds sing for survival and not to praise a deity that only human minds can afford the luxury of inventing and no faux pas of Darwin’s changes that. However that does not render the dawn chorus any less uplifting or appealing, in fact the complex twists and turns of natural selection that have granted the birds their vocal abilities are mirrored in our own to appreciate them. Which is a much deeper and richer truth that it may benefit the good Rabbi to contemplate.