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April 12th, 2022
A peacock’s tail can seem very strange and out of place. An astute child can look at the bird and think about the house cat that can catch a much smaller and faster bird and wonder what exactly is going on with this extravagantly vulnerable creature we call a peacock. I remember thinking this as a kid, thinking about how I wouldn’t want to drag that plume behind me wherever I went.
Apparently a peacock’s feather made Darwin sick to his stomach because it seemed at odds with natural selection. That was, of course, before sexual selection was added as a subset of forces in natural selection. The basic premise is that a member of a species can gain a lot of mating status if they can quite elegantly support a whole bunch of meaningless luxury and beauty. In this sense, a peacock’s feather is no different than a Louis Vuitton handbag, or a a Lamborghini. They are all signals used in mating rituals.
There is a downside to this grandiose effort of evolution. The peacock’s tail can simply get too long to the point where it impedes other necessities. There are some extinct species of elk that drove themselves to extinction by selecting for antlers that were so big that the males couldn’t even lift their heads. Suddenly a strategy for mating dominance undermines…actual survival, and this is called Fisherman runaway.
The same concept seems to apply to a lot of ideology. A culture and cult arises around an idea or a set of ideas and the cult and culture supports and propagates these ideas despite their inefficacy. There’s a disturbing amount of present day thinking and debate that can fit -tragically- as an example of Fisherman runaway as applied to ideology.
We become so convinced of the goodness of a particular idea or belief, that it takes little else to bring us to war in the name of the idea. Just think of how many religious wars have been fought, where each side truly believed their particular god was the one true god. Regardless of your religious preference, you can still appreciate that the losing side of such battles may have faired better with a little . . . doubt. It begs one to wonder if a little doubt can go a long way when ideologies and beliefs become one-way trips to the gallows.
This might seem callous and dishonest, but faith might be the ultimate example of Fisherman runaway, because faith isn’t supposed to have a limit, and like a textbook example, it’s clipped quite a few branches of the human family. The question boils down this: is it better to die today for an idea, or live to see another day when a better idea might arise? Death need not even enter the picture, because most arguments and debates devolve into this kind of fatalism anyways.
The use of the Fisherman runaway principle here is to get at a deeper question. Given any particular belief or cherished idea, it’s crucial and perhaps even painful to ask: Why exactly do I hold on to this belief or idea? Is it because it’s actually true? Or are the reasons far more intertwined with my social network than I’m willing to admit?