Sunday, December 5, 2010

John Maynard Smith

In Essays in Animal Behavior, Amotz Zahavi writes:
I am grateful to Maynard Smith, who agreed to publish my paper on the handicap principle (Zahavi 1975), even though he did not believe in verbal models. I am also grateful to him for publishing his own paper rejecting the principle (Maynard Smith 1976b). By doing so he drew the attention of the scientific community to the controversy.
I've read about half of The Handicap Principle, and have since found several other books that mention the idea as well (see list).  Of these books, it was Maynard Smith's Animal Signals that finally provided a lucid counterpoint to Zahavi's interpretation.  Refreshingly, he questions the universality with which Zahavi applies the Handicap Principle to signals.  After reading large portions of his book, I am led to believe that costs are avoided whenever possible, and "costly signalling theory" is not a universal explanation.  Maynard Smith clarifies the terms used to describe categories of signals, including: signal, cue, ritualization, handicap, cost (efficacy cost, strategic cost), index, minimal-cost signal, icon, and symbol.  The distinction between an index and a handicap is particularly important.  He links the study of animal signals to the field of semiotics, the communication of meaning, but of which Eco wrote "semiotics is in principle the discipline studying everything that can be used in order to lie."  Charming.  Eco further proposed that every cultural phenomenon can be studied as communication. 

So where do we go from here?  I have a sense that while the Handicap Principle is dramatic, and attractive due to its paradoxical nature, and that this may have led popular authors to overestimate it's importance (Maynard Smith p32), it is not the only, and almost certainly not the most important method by which organisms communicate.  Animal communication, a subject within the field of ethology, occurs by a variety of methods.  In 1984, Richard Dawkins, probably the most famous ethologist alive, characterized animal signaling as an arms race between signalers as 'manipulators' and receivers as 'mind-readers' (Maynard Smith p3).  My interest in biological communication can be seen as it relates also to goal oriented behavior, particularly when this involves social interaction.  As a psychologist, Tim Pychyl continues to study this subject, with humans instead of animals, but I think a clearer understanding can arise from viewing it through the lens of evolutionary biology.  How do signalers manipulate the behavior of receivers?  How do receivers read the minds of signalers?  And how do these processes of "signal selection" stoke the engine of evolution in the formation of new and novel traits?  The answers to these questions are varied and complex.  They are also very important. (Partly due to how fascinating these questions are, I might even say it can be fun to manipulate and "mind-read" each other, within limits.)

Game Theory and Animal Behavior, by Dugatkin and Reeve
An Introduction to Behavioral Ecology, by Krebs and Davies
The Origins of Virtue, by Matt Ridley
Essays in Animal Behaviour, by Jeffrey Lucas
Narrow Roads of Gene Land, Volume 2: Evolution of Sex by W.D. Hamilton
Animal Signals, by John Maynard Smith and David Harper
and maybe:
Songs, roars, and rituals : communication in birds, mammals, and other animals by Rogers and Kaplan
The Evolution of Animal Communication: Reliability and Deception in Signaling Systems by Searcy and Nowicki

No comments:

Post a Comment