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Friday, March 30, 2012
Nature ... Society ...

Here’s a little shout-out to my friend Mary, who has been keeping me posted on the second season of the Decorah Eagles. For those few of you who don’t know about the Decorah eagles . . . last year a conservation group called the Raptor Resource Project set a web cam up in a tree on a nature preserve in Decorah, Iowa, where eagles usually made a nest. So you get a “birds eye view” of an eagle couple at work bringing new eagles into the world, from egg to fledgling. This web site turned out to be a hit, and a lot of people got hooked on watching the domestic aspects of an eagle couple’s lives. Year 2 looks to be just as popular.

I take a look at the site now and then, and . . . well, it’s like human family life. I.e., nothing much happens most of the time. For a summary and some images of those moments when interesting stuff does happen up in the tree in Decorah, there are various sites that keep track of that. One of them is a Facebook site, which I checked out the other day. I noticed that the discussion wall on this site is dominated, if not owned outright, by the female gender of the human species. So, the Decorah eagle show is something of a “chick flick” (you might think that I’m taking a bad pun and making it even worse by referring in the alternative to the hatchlings in the nest; but no, baby eagles are technically “pips”, not chicks).

One reason why an eagle nest might be popular with female human viewers is that eagles are a “pair bonded” species. I.e., they mate for life, and the male is totally committed to his mate and family, no second thoughts. The polar opposite of a pair bonded animal is a tournament species. Under tournament reproduction, there is no commitment whatsoever. Males compete amidst each other in a ‘tournament’ of sorts for sexual access to females. A small percentage of males, the ones with the best genetics, get to mate with the females. Their mating habits are quite promiscuous; not surprisingly, males have little involvement with the child-rearing process. They fight, fornicate, and then flee when the responsibilities of parenthood get too heavy.

This is not a digital thing; various species mix both influences, some more to one side, some to the other. The human species is . . . NOT a “pair bond” species. We are somewhere in the middle of the continuum. Our mating and child-rearing behaviors have aspects of both pair bonding and tournament selection. We maintain monogamy and stable families as our ideal, and then break that ideal right and left. As neuro-psychologist Robert Sapolsky says about the situation in his popular lectures, human mating and family life is “tragically conflicted” between pair bonding and tournament selection.

Footnote, this “middle of the spectrum” status for human kind is genetically confirmed by the number of “imprinted genes” in our chromosomes. Pair bonded species have few if any imprint genes; tournament species have a lot. Humans have . . . some. These genes are sex-specific, different for men versus women, and have opposite effects on child development (pregnancy) and child rearing behavior. The male imprint genes try to force the mother’s body into putting all of her energy into the developing child, at risk to her long term health. The mother’s versions try to limit her commitment, as to allow her to get pregnant again in the future. Given that the next pregnancy will be with a totally different guy, the evolutionary imperative for the tournament male is to get all that he can for his child RIGHT NOW; the next time this woman gets pregnant, it will be with some other guy’s sperm. He could care less about that, since he will be long gone.

It is my own observation that the “tournament” part of our genetic heritage can be seen in our dating rituals. These are sometimes called “The Rules” (there is a book about this). Under “the rules”, men must strive to impress a woman, must put some real effort and resources into it, before she will start getting comfortable with him. The man must act as if he is fighting with other guys for access to her reproductive potential. Forget about just being friends and finding things in common to talk about. That is NOT how romantic relationships get off the ground in a partial tournament species world.

And of course, even after a human couple has bonded and has kids, the temptations to return to the old tournament instincts never go away (although in the better situations, both members of a couple can control and suppress these instincts given the human capacity for rationality and emotional maturity). The man may want to go back to his days of competing, just to show he could still beat other guys . . . and the target for his competing affections will of course be a younger, more fertile woman than his aging mate. Guys have a lot of stray cat in them. But even the human female can be tempted by the thrill of being the subject of the tournament, of seeing if she can attract a new guy who will “fight” for her attentions and affections once again. No wonder around 40-45% of marriages fail.

The divorce for second and third marriages are higher and higher still. One reason is that tournament males don’t naturally get along with a female’s children from another mate. In the wild, tournament males sometimes kill the children of other males. That makes for more food for their own progeny, or affords more opportunity for a mother to have children with them. Unfortunately, many human men seem to feel something of the same urge (but hopefully not a homicidal one), even if never understanding the genetic logic behind it.

Most eagle marriages fail only because of early mortality. Given our “tragic conflicts” between the desire for stability (i.e. “a love you can depend on”) versus our need for “the thrill of the fight”, it is nice to see a species at work which has no such doubts and second thoughts. This holds especially for human women, who are more concerned with and invested in raising children then men are (in general). They can see that it would be better for our kids if our species could be “pair bonded” like the eagles. But for whatever reason, nature has decided that our species is stronger and more proliferate in the long run through some mix of commitment and promiscuity. Nonetheless, we just gotta try to make the best of it all by using our brains to resolve the conflicts imposed by our genes. Given our huge intellectual advantage over all the other species, “it doesn’t have to be this way”. The Decorah eagle cam can give our brains a strong hint of what we humans should strive for in terms of mating and family life.

PS — Despite their firm commitments to nest and kinder, eagles do have something of a wild mating life in their youth. One mating practice is for the courting male and female to fly high together, then swirl around each other and lock their talons, making them hurdle downward. In a game of romantic “chicken” (another bad bird pun here), one of them finally unlocks and flaps its wings furiously to avoid smashing into the ground. Ah, even those stodgy eagle couples have something to remember from their younger days!

◊   posted by Jim G @ 10:54 pm      

  1. Jim, Thanks for the shout-out. Just a slight correction–or maybe it’s not a correction: This may be the 2nd year the Decorah Eagles have been POSTED; but if I understand correctly, the eagles themselves have been followed for what seems now several years as they are counting to the 13th eaglet with the last egg hatching today or even last night. (Seems they have 2 or 3 eggs per year. And last I looked the last egg this year had a huge hole in it, and one could see the eaglet moving around inside the shell.) Then too, it may be that the nest has been on a website for much longer. I’ve only followed them for 2 years now.

    One point re all the “tournament species” vs. “pair-bonded species”: OK, maybe it all boils down to that. But I know why *I* watch the Decorah eagles. I watch them for the same reason I love to watch plants grow (know anybody else like that?): It’s lovely watching something (whatever it is) grow, develop into what it’s supposed to be, and even grow old and die. It’s cycle of life, and it’s beautiful watching it. I think it’s that simple.

    One thing you seem to omit about the “tournament species”: Aren’t most of them matriarchial? Lions are; elephants are, for 2 I can think of. Maybe the tournament species are basically matriarchial, while the pair-bonded species are more patriarchial?? Just asking. But its a tho’t that occurred to me.

    Then too…I wonder about comparing humans to these animal species. OK maybe we DO fall somewhere in between. But I’ve often wondered about all the “dating” stuff. Never found much use for all the “dating stuff” myself. I just have treated men like they were human beings–same as women are human beings; and then let what happens between men and women happen. Sometimes they find nothing in common and go their own way. Other times they become friends. Other times they become lovers. Sometimes they become married lovers. (Sometimes they just become married. Had to add that one.) I’ve always found that treating men like regular human beings works well. All that other “dating stuff” seems manipulative: You do this; then I’ll do that, etc. Ugh! Not for me.

    And also can’t resist: I like the business about the courting ritual of the eagles–locking talons and hurdling downward. Seems quite passionate to me. Maybe it’s not just for the “younger” eagles, as this Decorah group was found doing just that soon before they set up “houskeeping” again! at their nest. Who says passion is only for the young, even in eagles? MCS

    [Jim G comment: Mary — would make sense that an extreme tournament species would be matriarchal — the males just ain’t around too much! As to pair bonded species — could be either, I guess. Would you say that the Decorah eagle couple is “patriarchal”? They seems kind of co-equal to me; which makes them all the more appealing as an example to shame the “superior” human species.]

    Comment by Mary S. — March 31, 2012 @ 2:19 pm

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