Journal club of one: ”Give one species the task to come up with a theory that spans them all: what good can come out of that?”

This paper by Hanna Kokko on human biases in evolutionary biology and behavioural biology is wonderful. The style is great, and it’s full of ideas. The paper asks, pretty much, the question in the title. How much do particularities of human nature limit our thinking when we try to understand other species?

Here are some of the points Kokko comes up with:

The use of introspection and perspective-taking in invention of hypotheses. The paper starts out with a quote from Robert Trivers advocating introspection in hypothesis generation. This is interesting, because I’m sure researchers do this all the time, but to celebrate it in public is another thing. To understand evolutionary hypotheses one often has to take the perspective of an animal, or some other entity like an allele of an enhancer or a transposable element, and imagine what its interests are, or how its situation resembles a social situation such as competition or a conflict of interest.

If this sounds fuzzy or unscientific, we try to justify it by saying that such language is a short-hand, and what we really mean is some impersonal, mechanistic account of variation and natural selection. This is true to some extent; population genetics and behavioural ecology make heavy use of mathematical models that are free of such fuzzy terms. However, the intuitive and allegorical parts of the theory really do play an important role both in invention and in understanding of the research.

While scientists avoid using such anthropomorphizing language (to an extent; see [18,19] for critical views), it would be dishonest to deny that such thoughts are essential for the ease with which we grasp the many dilemmas that individuals of other species face. If the rules of the game change from A to B, the expected behaviours or life-history traits change too, and unless a mathematical model forces us to reconsider, we accept the implicit ‘what would I do if…’ as a powerful hypothesis generation tool. Finding out whether the hypothesized causation is strong enough to leave a trace in the phylogenetic pattern then necessitates much more work. Being forced to examine whether our initial predictions hold water when looking at the circumstances of many species is definitely part of what makes evolutionary and behavioural ecology so exciting.

Bias against hermaphrodites and inbreeding. There is a downside, of course. Two of the examples Kokko gives of human biases possibly hampering evolutionary thought are hermaphroditism and inbreeding — two things that may seem quite strange and surprising from a mammalian perspective, but are the norm in a substantial number of taxa.

Null models and default assumptions. One passage clashes with how I like to think. Kokko brings up null models, or default assumptions, and identifies a correct null assumption with being ”simpler, i.e. more parsimonious”. I tend to think that null models may be occasionally useful for statistical inference, but are a bit suspect in scientific reasoning. Both because there’s an asymmetry in defaulting to one model and putting the burden of proof on any alternative, and because parsimony is quite often in the eye of the beholder, or in the structure of the theories you’ve already accepted. But I may be wrong, at least in this case. If you want to formulate an evolutionary hypothesis about a particular behaviour (in this case, female multiple mating), it really does seem to matter for what needs explaining if the behaviour could be explained by a simple model (bumping into mates randomly and not discriminating between them).

However, I think that in this case, what needs explaining is not actually a question about scope and explanatory power, but about phylogeny. There is an ancestral state and what needs explaining is how it evolved from there.

Group-level and individual-level selection. The most fun part, I think, is the speculation that our human biases may make us particularly prone to think of group-level benefits. I’ll just leave this quote here:

Although I cannot possibly prove the following claim, I consider it an interesting conjecture to think about how living in human societies makes us unusually strongly aware of the group-level consequences of our actions. Whether innate, or frequently enough drilled during upbringing to become part of our psyche, the outcome is clear. By the time a biology student enters university, there is a belief in place that evolution in general produces traits because they benefit entire species. /…/ What follows, then, is that teachers need to point out the flaws in one set of ideas (e.g. ‘individuals die to avoid overpopulation’) much more strongly than the other. After the necessary training, students then graduate with the lesson not only learnt but also generalized, at which point it takes the form ‘as soon as someone evokes group-level thinking, we’ve entered “bad logic territory”’.


Kokko, Hanna. (2017) ”Give one species the task to come up with a theory that spans them all: what good can come out of that?” Proc. R. Soc. B. Vol. 284. No. 1867.