Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Animal Weapons: A Book Report

Animal Weapons by Douglas J Emlen. This book came out last year, and I finally got it from the library. Emlen investigates the various forms of natural weapons that animals have, and compares them to human weapons.

No surprises, really, about the comparison, because humans are animals, so of course we are going to parallel a lot of the same things other animals have come up with - especially eusocial animals such as ants and termites.

So, termites build hives. Monkeys build hives. We build fortresses, castles, battleships, bombers, all armored up and rigged to repel attackers from all angles. Of course, there are always game changers that make these weapons obsolete.

Emlen notes that weapons cost energy, and so one would expect most weapons to be small. Emlen lists three necessary ingredients for weapons to become large, for an arms race to occur, based upon the logic of economics:

1) Valued and limited (limited by scarcity or access) resource that,
2) is economically defensible (can be contained or constrained from others), and
3) is competed for in one-on one struggles

This is Emlen's recipe for arms races. Once a dueling tradition for resources exists, an arms race is inevitable. Emlen sites examples ranging from dung beetles to elk, sheep and deer.  From there, he moves towards human artifacts: armor, weapons, camouflage and subterfuge. The analogy only goes so far.

Interestingly, Emlen does not consider that other forms of competition are not arms races. He devotes a chapter to what he calls "Sneaks and Cheats". In other words, males that employ sexual reproduction tactics that do not involve one-on-one competition with other males (and why only males? surely there must be all sorts of intersex games going on that are not covered here).

Clearly, sneaking and cheating are valid and acceptable tactics to pursue. We need a better description.

Dung beetles.

Dung beetles that produce horns for dueling traditions are dung beetles that compete for the tunnel the female has dug. They can battle it out until a male is ejected from the tunnel, and invariably it is the larger - and larger horned - male that wins. There are sneaky male dung beetles that will dig a side tunnel into the females tunnel, wait for the opportune moment when the horned male is not vigilant, break through, and mate with the female.

I fail to see how arms race pressures make this particular form of competition any less of an arms race. It reminds me of the competition that occurs in between guards and prisoners in jails and prison camps, where increasingly clever means of escape are countered with increasingly draconian levels of surveillance and control.

There are species of dung beetle that do not develop horns. These beetles fight over the balls of dung, in rugby scrums. But even here there must be selective pressures for strength and stamina for a successful male to get a smaller piece of dung for a female. Therefore, my take is this type of arms race does not produce visible attributes, but is escalating nonetheless. The end of the race occurs with either dissipation and bankruptcy, or a new "cheat" that becomes a game changer.

The final three chapters look at human weapons. What Emlen does not cover is the most important weapon of all: brains. Clearly our giant Irish elk antler brains (compared to other primates) have been a result of an arms race.

I'll not describe the chapters save to point out that clearly the Cold War was an stupidly unthinking and inevitable arms race that should put us in our place as being not much smarter than a crab or a beetle or any other animal that grew horns or antlers or claws or teeth.

In fact, I would suggest that our ridiculous Irish Elk H-bomb antlers are testament to a monumental lack of wisdom and forward thinking. Deterrence is not what it is cracked up to be, and the so-called Fermi Paradox, in light of this, is not a paradox at all. Species that develop large brains wipe themselves out.

But I would observe that the current intrusion of behavior into the realm of computers and cyberspace is rather looking like massive antler building as well. I wonder if the game changer will be a sapient program that refuses to fight, or fights on its own terms.

Now that would be interesting. The end of WWIII might be Drone War I.

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