The Philosophy of Batesian Mimicry

By R.N. Carmona

Before I talk about the philosophical depths and conundrums of this type of mimicry, allow me to define it. Batesian mimicry is when one species adapts the features of another, usually poisonous species, so as to protect itself from predators. The most common example is the viceroy who adapted the wing patterns of the monarch for sake of avoiding its predators; note: this might actually be an example of Müllerian mimicry. Evolutionary biologists and geneticists have a handle on the genomic going ons that contribute to this, but philosophically speaking, this form of mimicry is intriguing. It boggles my imagination.

Let me preface my remarks by saying that I’m far from sympathetic to pseudoscience and as such, I don’t think creationism gets any closer to explaining the why of Batesian mimicry. Intelligent design doesn’t either. I highly doubt that the god of the Bible is siding with the prey and therefore, harming the predator. The height of benevolence would want what’s best for both prey and predator and wouldn’t actively harm one or the other. There’s also the case of imperfect mimicry, so if one wants to imagine that a designer is writing code into the fabric of reality, the designer isn’t the perfect designer of monotheism. With that said, my philosophical hold up has nothing at all to do with creationism and/or intelligent design.

My question is this: how did the viceroy know that a monarch’s pattern would protect it from predators? Does it have enough intelligence to understand its surroundings that well? Did it, in other words, survey its surroundings to the degree that it understood that birds avoid monarchs because of their wing patterns? Assuming we relinquish our tendency to belittle animal intelligence, how did the viceroy have the power to put these genetic changes into motion? That, that (!) is a question science doesn’t seem to care to answer. We can vaguely say that nature made this happen, but that moves the question of agency into a vague, mindless concept. Furthermore, it doesn’t explain the power of an animal to rewrite its genome.

Philosophers from Plato to Kant suggested that there may be more to reality than we realize. Before the advent of quantum mechanics, philosophers understood that reality might not be as simple as it appears on what Kant called the phenomenal level. There may be more to it. The powers of mimicry may be a hint. In Doctor Strange, the Ancient One, portrayed by Tilda Swinton, suggested that cells can be made to repair themselves and organize in all sorts of ways. She also implied that doctors like him are accustomed to one known way and are unaware of others. Humans do not have powers of genetic changes that are directed to a given end in the way some animals do. Batesian, Müllerian, and acoustic mimicry might be a most unexpected vindication for thinkers like Kant.

Westworld inclines me to ideas of competing engineers coding and recoding the fabric of our reality. Perhaps the true nature of reality is an elaborate game, a desperate reach for data, a simulation aiming to remap history before the present the engineers find themselves in. Perhaps not. Not everything makes sense; not everything has to. The Ancient One was right about that as well, but there are aspects of nature that don’t appear to be confined to nature and certainly can’t be readily explained by nature in and of itself. The noumenal, the Hegelian Absolute is the overarching objectivity that humans, in all their subjectivity, are striving for. There are phenomena available to our perceptions that may suggest that our arms are much too short to reach up and grasp that object of our desire. Perhaps we are doomed to decades of subjectivity, an existence that never apprehends truth. For some of us, there’s certainly no comfort in that.

Maybe this is the price we pay for being aware of our consciousness. In being aware of our consciousness, we have been disconnected from the full fabric of reality. Because of this awareness, maybe we are veiled from that which lies behind the curtain. We believe ourselves to be on the stage performing in the most meaningful way and in the only way that’s considered significant when in actuality, we are the audience that sees but the shadows of the performance. We can explain mimicry in our very limited ways, but we’ve apprehended only shadows. We have nothing in the way of why and nothing in the way of explaining to what is nothing short of a super power. We have nothing in the way of explaining the will and agency that drives such mimicry and much less the awareness necessary to accomplish it. Plato may have been right. Here we sit in the cave…

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