Cheaters prosper! Yes, they really do. Hundreds of thousands of species are singularly devoted to some form of parasitic life strategy. It’s a strategy that involves one organism deriving all or much of its resources from a host organism to the detriment of that host. Many of these strategies make us cringe. For example the tapeworm living in the intestines of a mammal or the numerous horror stories of wasps that use other living things as hosts for their growing young.
However, many relationships that organisms engage in are for more subtle though no less selfish. Consider the many species of bees which obtain pollen and nectar from flowers. They are taking resources for themselves with no conscious thought to how their action may be helping the victim. In this case the resource stealing is a two way street since the flower is using the bees energy resources to transfer pollen to another flower.
My portrayal of this relationship may seem rather shocking because our typical anthropomorphic description of the relationship of flowers and bees is of a long-standing mutualism–a win-win love-fest. Plants producing flowers use some of their stored-energy resources to make sweet nectar. In exchange for producing this otherwise useless product to them the bees are enticed to obtain the nectar by climbing through the flower past the stamens (male parts) and carpels (female parts) of the flower. Plants sometimes even expend more energy to paint vivid ultraviolet roadmaps for their pollinating bees helping them find their way to the nectar pot at the end of the rainbow.
But ask yourself: are the bees and flowers taking advantage of each other and therefore acting solely out of pure self interest or are they helping each other in an act of altruism or neither? Darwin pondered this same question (see footnote) but let’s come back to that intriguing question in a moment.
If the bees follow the pathway that flowers have, speaking anthropomorphically, built for them, the flowers will be pollinated and have an opportunity to produce a bounty of seeds. Those seeds will in turn ensure that there is a new generation of plants along with a new batch of nectar for the next generation of bees. It’s a pretty sweet deal these plants and insects have going here even if both partners are only “thinking” of their own success.
If we grant that some bee and flower relationships are mutually beneficial, even if based on mutual self interest we can’t help but realize that not all organisms form such advantageous relationships. There is hardly a living species or biological system yet studied–including humans–in which cheating (or putting a positive spin on it we could call it opportunism or pragmatically using the system’s rules, such as tax codes) doesn’t exist or in which the cheater finds at least short-term success. The “tax codes” of life are the natural laws which govern the interactions of the physical universe. In this case these laws include those that govern how success is measured in reproduction (fitness) of one organism compared to another. We describe the rules in the form of processes such as natural selection and mutations that allow organisms to adapt to new circumstances and compete for resources.
Nectar robbers: cheating on the the long-standing mutualistic arrangement of bees and flowers
How then should we think about nectar robbing bees? There are many species of bee that slice, chew, or poke through the base of a flower to sip on the nectar. As a result they are not getting pollen on them. They are not getting the nectar the “right” way from the flower’s perspective. Nectar robbers have adopted strategies to forgo or “cheat” the normal nectar supply system that the plant has put into place to use the bees as their pollen ferries. As a result the flower may not benefit from its expensive nectar production service.
Nectar-bearing flowering plants aren’t oblivious to insects that are stealing their resources without any return. They have developed mechanisms to make it harder for nectar robbers to get away with their contraband. But cheaters find ways to cheat and will find a way around whatever new adaptations the plant comes up with.
Since cheating is such a prosperous way of life, naturally some plants have taken notice and taken to cheating themselves! (Wang and Wu, 2013) Many species of plants are non-secretors. They live among their cousins that are nectar secretors. They enjoy the benefits of bees who come thinking they will get a reward only to find that the flower has nothing for them. These flowers are pollinated and can use the extra resources they have because they didn’t “share” them with the bees to produce more fit seeds than their neighbors. But the bees aren’t dumb, after all the don’t like to be cheated and so they learn tricks to avoid and punish flowers that don’t produce nectar.
This sets up a vicious feed-back loop of adaptations which results in no single harmonious relationship being agreed upon but rather promotes the maintenance of multiple behavioral strategies at one time. One strategy may be more successful at any single moment in time but any winning strategy is temporary since by “winning” they cause a change in the dynamics of the system which assures that the same strategy will be less successful going forward.
I am reminded of a similar dance that teachers and some students play. The former are constantly devising new strategies to prevent cheating on exams while there is always a student that is willing to find and exploit a way around that system rather than putting in the effort to learn the material and take the test in the manner intended.
Plants don’t just cheat by not providing the expected resource they can be parasitic on insects. Some flowers produce pheromones which trick wasps to copulate with them. It’s an effective use of energy (pheromone production) in exchange for getting pollinated but it’s hard to see how the wasp will benefit from its thinking it has found a mate. These plants have parasitised the wasp which is a bit ironic given that nearly all waps are parasites themselves.
Yes, cheaters often prosper—at least in the short term. At some point the student that cheats will find that their profits—a better grade—may become a liability since they didn’t learn the material and they will perform worse in future classes or careers. Nectar robbing can be a very successful strategy but that success can be short-term. If they are too successful the nectar producing plants may be less able to attract true rule-following pollinators. If this happens they will produce fewer seeds resulting in smaller future populations. Fewer flowers means fewer resources for the nectar robbers. In the most extreme situation, the nectar robber may cause its host to go extinct. Because many nectar robbers are generalists (able to rob from multiple species) that might not be lethal to those bees but it certainly has an effect on that plant species and other bees (not to mention other insects, birds, etc.) that had relied on that plant for pollen and nectar.
You might be tempted to say nectar robbers or flowers that are enticing insects to copulate with them aren’t playing by the rules or aren’t playing fair but what does that mean? If stealing nectar proves an effective strategy—meaning that it results in those bees more reliably obtaining a food source—those bees may have more offspring, which is evidence that those bees have profited from the strategy. Can we say they are doing something “wrong,” as if there is some rule that they are breaking that forbids them from taking the nectar in that manner?
Human nature and the image of God
Animals don’t cheat or steal or lie even if we might, as I have repeatedly above, use that language to describe their actions as if they had motives derived from conscious thought and planning. How can they be doing something wrong if they are not making conscious choices? Bees that rob nectar from flowers are not sinners. They have not committed a transgression against divine law. Rather they are acting within the rules the divine creator has established. Using terms such as “rob,” “steal,” or “share” are ascribing to them a capacity of purposeful or moral action that they do not possess.
I must stop here and point out that this is where we can see one of the distinctions between humans and other animals. Human beings aren’t simply driven by a natural code book that says that any strategy that helps us to survive is acceptable within the parameters of the created order. It’s not that we aren’t created as physical beings with biological operating systems like other creatures and thus have those same impulses as physical beings but we are also conscious beings capable of understanding how our decisions can affect others. We can plan for our future rather than being a slave to our biological present and past condition. We can consciously decide—though it may be difficult—to not engage in behaviors that we might find ourselves tempted to engage in knowing our negligence can lead to suffering of another individual or part of God’s creation.
As a Christian this is part of what we understand as being created in the image of God. In the functional and relational understanding of the meaning of this phrase we might sum it up as “the fact that we are called by God and able to respond to that call.” (Van den Brink, 2020) This speaks of our free will and ability to contemplate our origins and our purpose in being unlike the bees and flowers which have no such capacity.
Human beings do exhibit similar behavioral patterns and tendencies as we see in other animals and have a similar biological basis. Human beings do consciously cheat, steal and lie but we should not excuse our actions as just our nature—something over which we have no responsibility. Christians refer to this as our sinful nature. The inclination of a dog or bee or bird to “steal” from another is an amoral action for them but those same actions take on moral significance for us. We don’t call a dog’s acts sinful whereas we would call a similar selfish action by ourselves a sin because we have been explicitly commanded not to engage in such behaviors and can understand the consequences our actions will have on others. We have been granted the capacity to understand the impact of our actions and have been given the option to choose not to act on our desires. Despite this, we often act on selfish desires over those that benefit others.
At this point I’ve managed to stumble into a number of theological landmines including free will and natural evil. But why stop there! Let’s mix things up even more and contrast and compare the dynamics of nectar robbing to behavioral decision making processes by humans in similar complex sociological situations such as the questions about whether to vaccinate ourselves or wear a mask.
Part II up next with a tentative title: Cheaters or Prophets [sic]: MacArthur, Masks and Vaccinations
Addendum: Young-earth response to the origin of parasites in the perfect paradise ecology
How do young-earth creationists respond to the question of why parasites exist in the world today? For many the original earth was created as a perfect paradise in which no death and presumably no organisms took advantage of others for their survival. While they would agree that bees cannot sin, many still find the language of stealing or cheating by animals and plants as something that would not be expected in the initially perfect ecological state of the Earth.
So what caused parasitic and cheating behavior to break into and disrupt the perfect harmony of that prelapsarian world? Many young-earth creationists respond that this aberrant—in their judgement—bee behavior is the product of irreparable damage to the original “good” creation caused by Adam’s sin (Answers in Genesis speaking of parasitic wasps for example: “These horrendous life cycles were not in existence at the beginning. They are part of God’s judgment.”) and now instead of playing by the rules they now go about seeking to thwart God’s original intention for them to pollinate flowers? I don’t think there is merit in this viewpoint. Cheating—from a human perspective—strategies amongst living things are nothing more than the intricate dance of natural selection operating as part of God’s good creation. The nectar stealing bees’ actions are amoral rather than good or evil in the same way that a plant is not being amoral or evil for producing flowers with no nectar and “fooling” bees into pollinating them.
Generally, creationists view the plant-pollinator interaction as “good’ and an original “design” for the creation despite the fact that both parties in that interaction are unable to consciously enter into the relationship for the good of the other. For example, Ginger Allen in 2010 stated in an AiG article: “The plant and pollinator have adapted together under God’s original design. Some species, you will have to agree, have very unique harmonious relationships that could not have arisen randomly.” The “harmonious relationship” is designed while mutations and other “decay” of creation after sin entered the world are the reason why this harmonious relationship has nectar robbing cheaters today.
Dr. Gordon Wilson is probably one of the most nuanced creationist’ biologist today. He writes for AiG: “Natural selection acting on divinely programmed variability adapted each plant species to be suited for one particular type of pollinator. Likewise, certain insect pollinators were able to develop adapted anatomy and behavior to forage for the pollen and nectar of “their” plant species so the plant could be successfully pollinated.”
Dr. Wilson is invoking natural selection here in part because insects and plants were created on different day and so not together and because he knows that the Flood would have drastically changed the number and distribution of species of both plants and insects and so the current tight relationships of some pollinators to specific plants species must be relationships built both after creation and after the Flood. Notice that pollinators have developed anatomical and behavioral characteristics to match the present-day world. He does go on to assure us that this isn’t the result of any new information in the insects but rather the divinely programmed variation installed at creation. Presumably successful pollination would entail a designed relationship formed through natural selection on variable traits but could the nectar robbing characteristic also then be part of the original package of variation God made? Or would he invoke mutations that had degraded information and thus “created” a new maladaptive behavior of nectar robbing?
The variations on this line of thought are endless because, as I have already pointed out, nectar robbing is only maladaptive from the perspective of the plant. It can give the bee a fitness advantage so I don’t know how a creationist would characterize such features that are both helpful and harmful at the same time as a close examination will reveal virtually all interactions are. For me I find such distinctions to be less than useful. All of these different behaviors of bees and plants are the products of the rules God has established that govern the interactions of the elements of his creation. As such they are all good products of his sovereign will.
Footnote and references
Darwin wrote about this very thing: “Natural selection cannot possibly produce any modification in any one species exclusively for the good of another species; though throughout nature one species incessantly takes advantage of, and profits by, the structure of another. But natural selection can and does often produce structures for the direct injury of other species, as we see in the fang of the adder, and in the ovipositor of the ichneumon, by which its eggs are deposited.” http://darwin-online.org.uk/Variorum/1859/1859-200-dns.html
Aksoy, Billur, and Marco A. Palma. “The effects of scarcity on cheating and in-group favoritism.” Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization 165 (2019): 100-117.
Genini, Julieta, L. Patrícia C. Morellato, Paulo R. Guimarães Jr, and Jens M. Olesen. “Cheaters in mutualism networks.” Biology letters 6, no. 4 (2010): 494-497.
Ghoul, Melanie, Ashleigh S. Griffin, and Stuart A. West. “Toward an evolutionary definition of cheating.” Evolution 68, no. 2 (2014): 318-331.https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/epdf/10.1111/evo.12266
Smithson, Ann. “A plant’s view of cheating in plant–pollinator mutualisms.” Israel Journal of Plant Sciences 57, no. 3 (2009): 151-163.
Van den Brink, Gijsbert. Reformed theology and evolutionary theory. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2020.
Wang, Yuanshi, and Hong Wu. “Invasibility of nectarless flowers in plant–pollinator systems.” Bulletin of mathematical biology 75, no. 7 (2013): 1138-1156.