Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Spiders and aggression

This is not good news for those of us who oppose social Darwinism.

But really, this is all about spiders.  While they might appear frightening and downright evil to many among us, it turns out spider dispositions mete out into two basic camps: docile and aggressive.  As new research has found, it is the aggressive spiders that usually survive.

Gentle spiders tend to stick near home and build new colonies.  The aggressive types, however, venture much further out and are ready to scrap at a moment's notice.  Surprise surprise, the aggressive spiders tend to be the last arachnids standing.  Why then, does nature persist in spawning spiders of the docile variety?  That was what behavioral ecologist Jonathan Pruitt wanted to determine.  As reported in Discover magazine:

"What he found was striking: the best spider personality depended on the prevalence of predators. When predators were around, lineages founded by docile spiders, though they produced many more babies, were eight times more likely to go extinct. These spiders spent their time reproducing instead of defending their webs, and so they were eaten by invaders or their prey was stolen from their webs."

Ultimately, the colonies of docile spiders all died out.  At the same time, over 75% of the aggressive spiders remained alive.  Yet what Pruitt found is not entirely damning of docility, at least in evolutionary terms.  As with most things in nature, it turns out that there needs to be a balance.  Too many docile spiders and things won't last long for spider-kind.  Aggressive spiders may be able to better multitask in terms of both fighting and reproduction, but that is biologically taxing in the long run.

Seems like there is a lesson in there for us.  Something along the lines of "it takes all kinds."  Moderation and all that.  So next time someone whines about having to take biology or something like that, tell them the story of the spiders.  It's not about knowing all the inner workings of all species, it's about knowing how it applies to us and our lives.  There it is, a spider-centric sitcom...a pasquinade of our work-a-day lives using spiders as projection.  

Then again, given the strong presence of spiders in the mythologies of many cultures, it may be a lesson we once learned but have since forgotten. 

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