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Endangered by Evolution: What Women Can Learn From Pandas

Morning at the Panda Research Center in Chengdu

All this time, I thought pandas were threatened by humans crowding them out of their natural habitat. I expect that is what most people think. But when I visited the Chengdu Panda Research center this week, I learned a harsher truth: the pandas were doing it to themselves.

A species’ viability depends on a balancing act between their food supply and their reproduction, what Keynes called “the basic economic problem.” Pandas eat only one thing in the wild: bamboo. However, they are built like carnivores and can digest only 20% of this particular food. So, they sleep most of the time, apparently to conserve energy. In the research center, they have been introduced to two new foods, apples and “panda bread” (a special food designed for them by the scientists), so they are healthier, but still quite lethargic.

Significantly maladapted, pandas spend all their time either eating or sleeping--mostly sleeping.

Pandas are extremely unsociable. In the wild, they live alone, in areas they map out for themselves, and eat from the bamboo nearby. Since they live alone and don’t move around much, their chances of finding a mate are low, though they do tend to group together for the five day mating season they have each year. However, since the females are only in estrus (that is, only able to concieve) about three days a year, the odds of conception occurring are low.  Even given these low odds of finding a mate during estrus, pandas are nevertheless very choosy and will frequently reject the mate who happens to come along, even at the right time.

This panda pup is about six weeks old and can soon be given to its mother without fear of being carelessly killed.

When the babies are born, they are hairless and not much bigger than your finger. All panda newborns are essentially “preemies” who cannot yet live on their own. The newborn creature (which looks nothing at all like a “cub”) must crawl from the birth canal to a pouch on the mother’s abdomen, so it can grow strong enough to survive.  The mothers do not help them make their way. In fact, the mothers appear to have little instinct to nurture them, at least as newborns. Sometimes, the mothers do not seem to know they have given birth. If they notice the baby at all, they are likely to poke at it, bat it around like a toy, and, through sheer casual cruelty, kill it–if they don’t just simply smush the newborn by unknowingly rolling over on it first. In the research center, scientists often have to take newborns away before they are killed by the mother.

The survival rate for these fragile little creatures is so low that they now routinely spend their first five or six weeks in incubators, tended by humans.  By taking the newborns away from their mothers and nurturing them in this artificial way, the Chengdu center has been able to increase the number of babies that make it to toddlerhood.  Once the baby is bigger and has grown a bit of fur, it can be given to the mother for care and teaching.  The cub stays with the mother for a very long time. In the wild, the offspring would eventually go away or be forced off on their own to start this whole dismal cycle again. But in captivity, the cubs stay with their contemporaries, having become more sociable by virtue of the close quarters and care.

So. An unsuitable, narrow diet. An unsociable nature. No pack, no den. A short estrus.  A long period of infant vulnerability. A limited maternal instinct. It is a formula for extinction, if there ever was one.

Pandas have been around so long, in spite of their poor adaptation, that some biologists refer to them as "living fossils."

Yet pandas have been around for eight million years, nearly twice the average life span for a species.  So, we can infer that they were at one time advantageously adapted.  Then one of two things happened.  Either their environment changed or they themselves evolved into a maladaptive way of life.  I don’t really think it is the first, since so much of the problem lies in their social and reproductive habits, not only in the limited food nor in some vulnerability to predators.  And the fact that the center’s researchers have been able to change their behavior so quickly and radically (new foods, sociable cubs) indicates much of the behavior was learned, not hard-wired. So how much of this situation was just a series of poor evolutionary “choices”?

And why am I going on about this, anyway? (Other than for the obvious reason that I have my new panda photos and want to show them.) Well, it is this: I have been thinking a lot about human evolution these past few months, especially since reading Malcolm Potts and Thomas Hayden’s Sex and War.  These authors argue that human gender norms are a product of  evolution. Our behaviors and social arrangements were once adaptive, but Potts and Hayden show convincingly that we have long since become a danger to ourselves. And certainly the global gender data confirm that (1) sex norms are rooted in something that is common to all humans and (2) we are killing ourselves with this stuff.

Pandas in the center live lazily, their every need attended by the staff.

Potts and Hayden make a compelling case that the chimpanzee-like “raid and rape” behavior which typifies human males poses significant risks in this era of terrorism and gangs.  They argue eloquently for the untapped resource of female subculture as an antidote to this species-destructive behavior.  Analyses of global gender data link gender inequality with negative outcomes like conflict and disease. Even in the developed nations, the conservative countries, like Italy and Japan, find themselves with declining populations because they have doggedly adhered to policies that make it impossible for women to be productive (that is, to have jobs) as well as reproductive (that is, to have babies).  So we head toward disaster because we live under the foolish delusion that this arrangement is “natural.” The pandas probably think the same thing about living alone, eating bamboo, and killing their offspring.

Humans have intervened to save the pandas.  No one is likely to intervene on our behalf.  We are going to have to save ourselves.


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