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Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Natural Selection and Its Absence

I went to look in on the kitten, and on the way, I saw birds circling overhead.

It seemed like a bad omen, even though they were probably just hawks hunting for mice.

In the barn, the milk I had left for the mother cat had not been touched. It had curdled. I began to fear for the kitten's life, thinking maybe something had happened to the mother. On top of that, it started meowing at me pathetically.

I cleaned out the bowl and brought it some water to drink, thinking that dehydration would be the first worry.

It drank from the water bowl, but clearly was asking for more. I was worried about giving it milk, as I know if they are too young, they cannot digest cow's milk. I consulted with a friend, and she said that by the look in the photos I sent, the kitten was about five weeks old and could eat solids.

In the evening, I brought is small serving of moist dog food -- dry mixed with a portion from a can -- and it the kitten ate hungrily.

All this while, I feel guilty for interfering. There has been no sign that there is a mother cat, but maybe she is there just out of eyesight and does not appreciate the gifts. I am not trying to tame or adopt the kitten. I just want to give it a chance to survive to adulthood, so that it can begin hunting the mice in the barn. Yes, there are mice. I saw them scurrying away, which is another reason I suspect the mother cat is not there. There are also gigantic beetles, almost as big as the kitten.

I would prefer not to interfere at all, but it's hard to stick to the Prime Directive when you have a  kitten meowing at you. I have not touched or petted it, and I hope it will not form an attachment.
You see, I worry about messing with mother nature and preempting natural selection, because I have seen what this has done to populations.

For the sake the individual cat, I am trying to keep it alive. But for the sake of all feline kind, this might not be a good idea. Is there some reason the mother cat is not here? Did she make some bad choices? Will this cat do the same?

The road to hell is paved with good intentions. The more care we give to others, the more dependent they can become. Sometimes there is a turning point when all this extra care to a population creates an avalanche of helplessness, disease and disability.

Take dogs. I have two dogs now: Leo and Brownie. And a few years ago, they killed all my chickens. Leo was the one who found the way to open the gate to the chicken yard. Brownie was the one who could not help catching them: he's a retriever. In the end, every chicken had its neck broken. Even the rooster. It was a massacre.

And the other day a friend of mine was reminiscing about how she had free range chickens back in the Philippines. I asked her, if the chickens were free to go anywhere, didn't the dogs kill them? She said that no, in the Philippines the dogs are also free to go where they like, so they don't bother chickens.

My first thought was a kind of:: Huh? You mean, all we have to do is free the dogs and free the chickens and then they won't bother each other? But don't try this at home! Because I think there's a missing step in this scenario: the process of natural selection!

Dogs in the Philippines are not aggressive. How do you suppose that happened? My friend just takes the nature of the dogs in the Philippines for granted, as if they were "created" that way. I believe her about the facts she is relating, because I saw similar dogs in Taiwan. But here's the back story: the reason the dogs are not aggressive and do not bother chickens, I suspect, is that every time a dog did bother chickens, it got shot or beaten or somehow taken out of commission, not just for the purpose of being around chickens, but for any purpose, including reproduction. So in time, there is a whole population of dogs who can be trusted to roam and not harm anything that local humans do not want harmed. Meanwhile, in the United States, with our humane policy toward dogs, we have dogs that have to be walked on a leash, fenced in a yard and kept well away from chickens. By protecting our dogs, we have made them a liability. They could have been an asset. They could have helped guard the chickens!

I know rhere are some dogs bred for herding, and there may be dogs who are bred for chicken work, but here's the thing: the free range dogs in the Philippines were not bred. They just naturally evolved that way. And no, we are not talking about tens of thousands of years, the way the animal rights activists explain dog domestication. You can probably get that result in just a few generations of natural selection with intense selective pressures.

Now look at what is happening to humans in the United States. A friend of mine had this meme posted on her wall: "Legislators want teachers to be paid according to how well their students do on tests. How about paying legislators according to their effectiveness -- as evaluated by job creations and economic growth?"

I could not tell if the meme meant to imply what it sounded like to me: "Teachers can't help it if students are stupid any more than legislators can help it if businessmen are stupid."

I never can understand the context of the other person, but being a free market proponent I just said: "How about we get the government out of both education and all other sectors of the economy and let the market decide?"

She answered something about letting the market decide being a race to the top, and eventually you get just a few wealthy individuals as we do right now.  She sounded as if she thought the free market was operating right now. But I decided to just share with her a concrete example from my family's past about how the free market worked in Palestine, before Israeli independence.

My father grew up in Palestine under the British Mandate, at a time when going to school was not paid for by the government. Some children were denied entry to some schools, even if their parents had lots of money, because they were not bright enough. Other children who did not have lots of money were accepted to those schools because they were exceptionally bright and got scholarships. The best schools got the best teachers, and those teacher did not necessarily get huge salaries, but they were happy to teach the best students. Lesser teachers and lesser students went to lesser schools, which cost less. Those who were not good enough academically got vocational training. Everyone got the education they needed and deserved without government intervention. Of course, all that changed after Israel became independent and education became mandatory.

Then she asked me a very astute question, one that leads back to our original topic here: natural selection. She asked me: What about special ed?

And the answer is that there wasn't any special ed! I'm sure there were some instances of developmental delay, and those people were institutionalized, like the son of an acquaintance of my father one genration later,but by and large you did not have the current situation where almost every family seems to be touched by autism. There was no special education because the demand for it did not exist.

People used to worry about having enough to eat, about war and devastation, about a child not being quite smart enough to go to the top school, but they did not worry that they would have to support their children all the rest of their lives and beyond. And now they do. How did this happen?

One possible answer is  environmental toxins or even preservatives in vaccines. But the medical community is certain it is not that. They tell us that autism is genetic in origin and there is no use looking for a scapegoat toxic substance to explain everything. How could a genetic epidemic become unleashed in less than two generations?  One answer, surprisingly, could be vaccines. No, not in the "poisoned by thimerosal" sense. But in the sense that if vaccines work the way they are designed to work, their function on the population as a whole is to reduce the pressures of natural selection.

One of the ironies of  politics today is that people who champion individualism are actually more open to policies that would allow natural selection to take its course, while people who favor the good of society are the proponents of individual survival at any cost when it comes to public health decisions.

But if we take cognizance of the fact that natural selection is hard on individuals and easy on populations, that it kills innocent little children, but leaves an adult population of healthy specimens, you would think it would be the champions of "society over the individual" who would deny vaccines to children at risk!

Before Olivia Dahl was exposed to measles in Britain in 1962, her parents begged the doctors to be allowed to vaccinate her, but they were only permitted by the government to have the vaccine for her brother Theo, who had suffered a brain injury. (Patricia Neal, As I Am, pp.230-233). Theo lived, and Olivia died of complications from the measles. She had a weak immune system and had struggled through other childhood illnesses. She was a person at risk who was denied access to a vaccine by the State.

As a libertarian, I believe Olivia -- and her parents Roald Dahl and Patricia Neal -- should not have been denied the vaccine that they wanted in order to save their child. By the same token, if another couple wants to prevent their own child from being vaccinated, I think that, too, should be their right.

But what I wonder about is how wrong- headed the arguments on both sides are in terms of "the good of the individual" versus "the good of society." As individuals, the Dahls suffered immensely from Olivia's death. As a nation, though, Britain was untouched by the deaths of the minority of children who died of the measles in 1962. In fact, it is quite possible that the population was made more healthy thereby, at least if it's true that genetically transmitted immune malfunction is the cause of autism. But then again, I don't know if that's true.

A perfectly harmless research project based on this hypothesis would be to follow the next generation of Dahls and of all the other families in Britain who went through the culling effects of the measles in 1962 to see how many autistic offspring they had, and then compare those numbers with the numbers in families just a few years later who had all their children vaccinated for the measles. If the grandchildren of the vaccinated families had many more instances of autism than the grandchildren of the families that lost a child to the measles, then it might be that a genetic explanation for autism based on vaccination could hold true. If not, and there are no other types of selective pressure whose lessening  correlates meaningfully with the rise of autism,  it's probably not genetic, but environmental. This is the kind of reasoning you are not going to hear in the medical community or in the anti-vaxxer camp. In fact, I have not heard anyone besides me say this.

Just in case you are wondering, I went through the measles in Israel when I was about five. My mother thought I was going to die, but I was never hospitalized for it, just seen at home by our family doctor, and I survived. My daughter was given the MMR vaccine in Taiwan. My doctor took me aside, telling me that an unsafe version of the vaccine was available  free from the government, but if I wanted a safer version, I would have to pay out of my own pocket. Naturally, I paid.

It is hard to tell what the truth is. It also seems clear that different institutions have a different stake in the matter. What is astonishing, though, is how the "pro-society" people come out in favor of reducing natural selective pressures, thereby making society weaker, whereas the individualists opt for higher selective pressures, endangering individuals in their family, but strengthening society.

So how about that kitten? Is it wrong of me to try to help it survive? I hope not. It is just one drop in the ocean of feline beings, and I hope it survives long enough so it can learn to hunt and provide for itself.


  1. I do not think helping the kitten survive or adopting it is a conservative or liberal thing. Someone who loves cats would adopt it, and I have many conservative friends who love cats, and adopt them. Now if a stray dog wandered onto my land, I would probably just try to find it a home. I am more inclined towards cats. My sister, on the other hand, think cats are the bane of the universe. She thinks they make houses smell, but our house does not smell. She now has adopted a puppy, but seems to believe it is less work than a dog. To me it is not about politics at all, but more about what types of animals we like. Some people love snakes, and adopt those. I am not in the camp of eradicate all the snakes, but I would probably have a hard time feeling bad for a baby snake without a mom.

    1. What sorts of animals a person most likes is just a personal preference, Julia. I agree. But all the stuff about we should do, what we must do or must not do, that starts to get political.

      I just fed the kitten and it seems to be doing well.

    2. It can be political yes, but at the end of the day, I do not think most people care that deeply about the political aspect of this. I am not saying the political side does not matter, but sometimes people just want to have a cuddly kitty. Some people just want to play with a dog. Most people think their cats rock, and most people only like their dogs. In general I think most people care more about the beings they know and love than others in general. I am glad you cat is doing well.

    3. Hi, Julia. I totally agree that most people care more about the beings they know and love than others. And that is quite as it should be.