November 17, 2013
often hear of someone being criticized for "profiling" someone
else. In that context, profiling (aka stereotyping) means failing to
recognize an individual for his or her personal qualities and instead
indiscriminately projecting general traits ascribed to a group onto
an individual. Among human beings, such behavior can have significant
consequences for both the profiler and the person being profiled.
some other species also use a kind of profiling. And as with people,
the consequences can be significant. Early scientific evidence of profiling
in nature was presented in the 1800s by Henry Bates, a British naturalist.
In the spirit of adventure Bates set out to explore the jungles of the
Amazon River. After spending more than a decade in South American forests
collecting birds, insects, and other creatures, Bates made a highly
significant scientific discovery - the phenomenon of animal mimicry.
the idea to science in a publication in 1862. He noted that insect predators,
especially birds, readily ate butterflies. Nonetheless, he observed
that a few species of butterflies flitted openly and languidly through
the Amazonian forests without being eaten or even attacked by anything.
He surmised that they must be unpalatable. Caterpillars feeding on plants
that produce poisonous chemicals that do not harm the caterpillar develop
into butterflies that are poisonous to predators. Bates noted that these
free-flying butterflies all had conspicuously colored wings that made
them readily recognizable. It was easy for a predator to make a quick
judgment call and avoid the poisonous insect. In other words, a butterfly
with a striking and identifiable color pattern was one not to be eaten.
The birds used profiling to keep from consuming the wrong prey.
Bates also determined that some species of a typically plain-colored
group of palatable butterfly species unrelated to the inedible group
could also fly around the forest with impunity. Why? Because some of
the edible species had evolved wing colors that mimicked the inedible
species. Even he was unable to differentiate between some of the species
when they were in flight, although they belonged to different families
than a century and a half, scientific debate has continued over Bates's
interpretations about mimicry, with many scientists dancing on the head
of a pin about one aspect or another. But it is beyond debate that some
butterflies can fly around protected from bird predation because their
appearance is similar to other butterflies that are noxious.
classic example of profiling is seen in predators that prey on snakes.
The harmless scarlet kingsnake of the Southeast with its colorful red,
yellow, and black body rings mimics the deadly eastern coral snake,
which has rings of the same colors. The arrangement of the rings is
different in the two species, but how many snake-eating birds are going
to make that determination on the fly? A field research project conducted
in areas where both scarlet kingsnakes and coral snakes occur suggested
that most predators will not take the risk. The researchers concluded
that predators were significantly more likely to avoid snakes with red,
yellow, and black rings compared to snakes that were plain brown or
longitudinally striped. In other words, most predators would consider
it more prudent to forfeit a meal of a scarlet kingsnake than risk trying
to eat a coral snake and ending up dead instead. Having a mental profile
that red, yellow, and black rings can mean trouble is a survival mechanism,
although the particular tricolored individual may be harmless.
these examples may simplify the behavior, animals indisputably use profiling
as a survival mechanism. So, since profiling is a natural phenomenon,
perhaps we should not criticize the conduct in humans. Perhaps. On the
other hand, among the other natural behaviors documented in various
animals are siblicide (birds), suicide missions (honeybees), and slavery
(ants) - not universally admired traits in humans. So perhaps we should
not apply Mother Nature's rules of behavior to people but should instead
judge human behavior by human standards.
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