Keeping an eye on our behaviour

Chris Johnston - Political EvolutionOn holiday weekends along the Hume Highway, large mobile billboards appear showing a policeman looking down the barrel of a speed camera. The police believe these signs deter speeding drivers, and that they are effective, far beyond the simple reminder they provide that the traffic squad is on patrol.

A recent study by psychologists at the University of Newcastle in Britain might explain why. The researchers used a departmental tea room where an ‘honesty box’ system had been in operation for years. They posted a price list by the honesty box, and changed it each week. While the prices were always the same, the photograph at the top of the list was changed. Some weeks, the picture was of flowers; other weeks, pairs of eyes stared straight out at the viewer, Big Brother-style.

When the list was topped by eyes, the researchers found that people put nearly three times as much money in the honesty box for the amount of tea and coffee they consumed. The eyes dramatically affected behaviour, despite the fact that it was quite clearly a photo. The research team speculated this might be a hangover of our evolution as a highly social species dependent on vision—that humans have evolved to respond in a reflex manner to the feeling of being observed.

Another recently published study, this time from the US, shows that over confidence makes people more likely to wage war, but less likely to win. In this case, the researchers suggested that such optimism may have been an advantage bluffing opponents in our evolutionary past, but that it doesn’t play well in modern international relations. The link with the Bush administration’s predicament in Iraq was not lost on local commentators.

These stories illustrate why a sophisticated understanding of our evolutionary history is important—it can actually say something about present behaviour. But if it is to do this, public understanding of evolution is itself in need of a bit of evolution. At present it seems to have been caught in a time warp, and is sadly out of date.

Two misconceptions come immediately to mind. Those who have little understanding of the modern view of the way natural selection operates still talk in terms of something being ‘for the good of the species’, as if species had a collective will. But though it is true that species evolve, natural selection almost invariably works at the level of the individual.

Senate OKs $87.5 billion Iraq requestThose individuals who fit in best with their environments leave more offspring (who leave more offspring). As a result, they contribute more to the pool of characteristics that the species carries with it to the future. It’s an inherently selfish process, geared to the survival of children and grandchildren. That’s why evolutionary biologists are hung up on, and have so much trouble explaining, any act that smacks of altruism.

And despite the unfortunate way biologists sometimes talk about evolution, it is not an active process but a consequence. Once you have different individuals living in different environments, evolution happens, whether you like it or not. And, while the process of evolution has direction, it is neither necessarily for the perpetuation of species, nor towards an expected outcome.

That is one area where the new idea of ‘intelligent design’ often comes unstuck. Eyes are so complex, and have so many interrelated parts necessary for their effective operation, intelligent design proponents typically argue, they could not possibly have evolved bit by bit by natural selection. They must have been designed by a Higher Being or Level of Intelligence.

That is a strong argument only if you start from the premise that in the first instance somehow evolution set about evolving eyes. It doesn’t necessarily work that way. Biological structures build upon what has gone before, and this may have nothing to do with their present function. Take insect wings, for example. According to some entomologists, what insects now use as wings started off as flaps that captured sunlight to warm the insect’s body, and thus to facilitate movement earlier in the day. As these flaps increased in surface area and gained the ability to orient to the sun, they began to act like sails, catching the breeze and leading to inadvertent gliding. It is but a short step from there to controlled gliding and active flapping wings.

Solar SailorThis progression is made all the more fascinating by the evolution of the Solar Sailor, an Australian-designed, electrically-powered charter vessel now operating on Sydney Harbour. The boat has computer-controlled, foldable, solid sails covered in solar panels. The energy generated by the panels is stored in a bank of batteries, which can also be charged using a gas-powered generator. The batteries power the electric engines which drive the propellers.

The result is a boat with three power sources—sun, gas and wind. It uses between 10 and 50 per cent of the fuel of conventional craft. The inventor, Robert Dane, was inspired by the story of the evolution of insect wings.



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