Cat adopts baby squirrel, proves existence of God

The Dodo reports a mother cat, with kittens, who happens to have adopted (and suckled) a baby squirrel.  I have a feeling that I posted this before, but I realized that it bears on one of the arguments for God: the Argument from Altruism. This has been made by many, most prominently by Francis Collins, who maintains that our instinctive moral feelings (what he calls “the Moral Law”) can’t be explained by evolution. Nor can human altruism, which, in biological terms, is the sacrificing of your reproductive output for a nonrelated individual.  A soldier who falls on a grenade to save his buddies could be one example.

Now of course there are biological and social explanations for such altruism. The soldier, for example, could be acting on instinctive feelings to save those familiar to him, which, in our early evolution, might be related—a type of kin selection.  Or it could simply be enculturated (not divine!) compassion, which we exercise towards those we know. Soldiers are, after all, trained to regard the members of their platoon as “brothers.” In other words, such sacrifice may be highjacking our evolutionary “help our friends and relatives” detectors.

One example of such altruistic highjacking is this cat (see below) who has adopted a squirrel. That’s the ultimate form of altruism, because she’s not even helping a member of her own species, and cross-species fostering is not something that evolution could ever favor. What is likely going on is that the cat is suffused with maternal hormones like oxytocin, and the squirrel is simply riding that wave of hormones. (Human adoption, an altruistic behavior, is similar).

Here’s the video:

It’s labeled as the cat teaching the squirrel to purr, but I’m not sure that’s true. What do you think.

In fact, after I watched the movie and wrote the above, I then read the article, which makes one of my points:

So why (if you are a bird or cat or other animal…hmmm, even human) would you put time and energy into caring for another animal’s offspring? Isn’t the point to promote your own genes? It could be that the risk of not caring for a hungry face that presents itself to you is greater than the cost of doing some extra nursing or care, just in case that baby animal has some of your genetic material. Hormones may play a key role in this as well, as oxytocin produced in mother cats after kittens are born help make caregiving a priority– and this caregiving may extend to baby squirrels, if they are presented at the right time (while the mom is nursing her own babies). And we humans, well, we are very susceptible to cuteness, which could in part explain why we take pets into our homes (but that’s a topic for another time!).

In the end, though, my point is that if human altruism proves God because evolution supposedly can’t explain it, then so does this kind of cross-fostering. It can’t be explained directly by evolution, but Collins’s mistake is assuming that naturalism can’t explain it. It can, just like it can explain this cross-fostering.  So, of course, my title is sarcastic, but the point is that we can see “maladaptive” behaviors in humans and other species due to the highjacking of evolved—or, in our case, also culturally inculcated—feelings and instincts. The existence of behaviors that evolution can’t directly explain is no evidence for God.

h/t: Joyce

50 Comments

  1. merilee
    Posted May 18, 2014 at 1:42 pm | Permalink

    I have trouble believing the purring bit, but the rest seems reasonable – and lovely;-)

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted May 19, 2014 at 5:05 am | Permalink

      It sounded like typical squirrel chitter. But maybe it’s adopted specifically to suit the squirrel’s social environment?

      • SESE
        Posted May 19, 2014 at 5:50 am | Permalink

        We raised three orphaned squirrels a few years back, and they do indeed purr. At least, our three did. (Would love to hear whether animal behaviorists have studied this.)

        As to the altruism argument, our cats have caught and eaten two baby rabbits and one chipmunk in the last week, so the altruism stuff is on again, off again, I’d say.

        • Diana MacPherson
          Posted May 19, 2014 at 6:36 am | Permalink

          I chase all the chipmunks away before letting my dog out. She doesn’t want to kill them, but catch them and it scares them to death. Bunnies are funny because they usually are only here at night so I will see one go hopping across the yard & under the fence several meters behind my dog. It’s like a Benny Hill show!

        • Merilee
          Posted May 19, 2014 at 6:39 am | Permalink

          Interesting about the purring…

  2. Mark Joseph
    Posted May 18, 2014 at 1:45 pm | Permalink

    Well, two consecutive posts have (a) disproved and (b) proved the existence of god, with which the law of non-contradiction is going to have a problem. We’re going to need philosophy!

  3. Linda Grilli Calhoun
    Posted May 18, 2014 at 2:00 pm | Permalink

    I’m a farmer.

    I take care of other species’ offspring all the time. L

    • SESE
      Posted May 19, 2014 at 3:00 pm | Permalink

      Hmmm — could you say that domestication is a form of “cross species fostering”? Seems to me like you could.

  4. Shwell Thanksh
    Posted May 18, 2014 at 2:33 pm | Permalink

    When my cat needs some head skritches, or comforting fingers during a thunderstorm, I’m happy to oblige. Likewise, when I’m feeling a little blue, he seems to sense it’s a good time to jump in with the needed headbumps and face nuzzles.
    Neither of us are going to be procreating in the future :)

  5. Stephen Barnard
    Posted May 18, 2014 at 2:41 pm | Permalink

    “… cross-species fostering is not something that evolution could ever favor.”

    I disagree with that. If there were a strong mutually advantageous relationship between species, evolution could favor cross-species fostering.

    I take your larger point, though. That’s not what going on here.

    • steve oberski
      Posted May 18, 2014 at 5:19 pm | Permalink

      I think it’s more likely that what we are seeing here is a behaviour that is strongly advantageous to the cat species being triggered by environmental cues that did not play a role in the development of the original species behaviour.

      But we do see many examples of commensalism between species, for example remora and sharks.

      On a scuba dive off of West Palm Beach in Florida I encountered a pair of remora, which I had never seen without a companion shark or manta ray before, and as I approached they seemed to more than willing to use me as a new travelling companion, in fact frantically eager to do so. If you have ever seen one of these sucker fish up close and personal this is not an invitation to be casually accepted, the remora mouth is something that H.R. Giger might have come up with.

    • Linda Grilli Calhoun
      Posted May 19, 2014 at 4:16 am | Permalink

      I disagree with it, too. What about species of birds that lay their eggs in other species’ nests, leaving the other species to raise their young as parasites? L

    • Mark Sturtevant
      Posted May 19, 2014 at 4:32 am | Permalink

      There are many cases of ‘cross-species fostering’, but those symbiotic relationships are simply two-way exploitation. Tick birds pulling parasites off of cattle, a goby fish guarding a blind, burrowing shrimp, etc. The fostering directly benefits both species.

  6. Posted May 18, 2014 at 2:49 pm | Permalink

    I recently saw video clip of a cat on an Ireland farm that had accepted a duckling among its kittens and the duck, as evidenced by the video, had learned to suckle.

    • gravelinspector-Aidan
      Posted May 18, 2014 at 3:12 pm | Permalink

      If you saw it elsewhere, it got posted here too. Fascinating, but not inexplicable behaviour.

      • Merilee
        Posted May 18, 2014 at 3:15 pm | Permalink

        I wouldn’t think it would be easy to suckle with a bill.

        • Stephen Barnard
          Posted May 18, 2014 at 3:22 pm | Permalink

          Not great for the cat, either. Pecked to death by ducks.

        • gravelinspector-Aidan
          Posted May 18, 2014 at 4:00 pm | Permalink

          Blondin frying an omelette on a wire above the Niagra Falls wasn’t easy. But it’s not inexplicable either.
          I didn’t claim that it was easy.

  7. Sarah
    Posted May 18, 2014 at 3:02 pm | Permalink

    Cats are famously maternal. I recall that silver fox farms have (or used to have) a few female cats around for times when the mother foxes (who were not famously maternal) abandoned their cubs.

  8. gravelinspector-Aidan
    Posted May 18, 2014 at 3:21 pm | Permalink

    Well, the fostering of one species by another which is stoned out on oxtyocin (and such like hormones) isn’t either uncommon or inexplicable. But one question :
    The narrative says that the sqrl’z finder found it in their yard after it fell out of it’s dray to the ground. Then, because the finder was too aged/ infirm (not clear which) to climb back up to put the sqrl back in the nest, there was (paraphrasing) nothing to do but take it to an adoption/ animal rescue centre.
    Huh on the last bit?
    OK, I accept the aged/ infirm excuse. But would it have been impossible to put the sqrl back on a (lower) branch of the same tree, and let it’s parents look after it until it can climb back up? Or is there an “it’s fallen out of the nest, it’s no longer my sqrl” response in squirrel adults?
    If I put myself in the same situation, and add a nice whole leg plaster cast to give me somewhat restricted motion … if I could catch an animal as active as a sqrl kit, then I could come up with about a half-dozen ways of at least putting sqrl and squirrel adults into closer proximity and at least trying to get it back with it’s kith and kin.

    • Linda Grilli Calhoun
      Posted May 18, 2014 at 3:50 pm | Permalink

      That business about offspring being rejected if they are handled by a human is a load of nonsense.

      Think of how many baby birds get banded for research.

      And, I have personally had experiences in that regard. I once had a phoebe nest, which is usually stuck to a wall, come loose during a very hot and dry spell. There were three chicks in the nest, and they all survived the fall to the barn floor. I put them back in the nest, climbed to the top of the haystack, and stuck the nest and the three chicks in a rafter. Their parents returned, and raised all three to fledging. Since they were inside the barn, I got to watch their progress.

      And, I had a squirrel kit that got trapped inside my house once (long story). Its mother was outside calling for it. I gave it a little milk from a dropper, and put it outside close to the opening of their den. She cam and got it, no problem. L

      • gravelinspector-Aidan
        Posted May 18, 2014 at 4:07 pm | Permalink

        That’s what I was expecting too. But not knowing the details of (grey?) squirrel behaviour, I granted the possibility that there was something I didn’t know about them.
        So … with a bit of care and attention (and minimal handling, mainly to avoid “socialising” the wild kit to human contact), there should have been a way to re-unite parents and kit in the wild.
        I’m not criticising the original people involved – they did what they thought best at the time. But this sounds like there’s an urban myth that deserves squashing.

      • MZ
        Posted May 20, 2014 at 7:01 am | Permalink

        Yes, that myth is bizarrely widespread. When I used to teach a vertebrate zoology course, disabusing them of the “mothers will reject their babies if humans handle them” notion was one of the things the students always said was most memorable about the course. This may say something about the rest of my teaching, however.

    • Stephen Barnard
      Posted May 18, 2014 at 4:38 pm | Permalink

      I once found my young Golden Retriever (an adorable d*g)in the back yard carrying something in his mouth. It was a baby squirrel, covered in dog slobber and utterly terrified, but unhurt. It was Arlo’s new best friend. I put it in a box on top of a fence post and an adult squirrel retrieved it in seconds.

      The thing about animals, and especially birds, abandoning their young after they’ve been handled by humans is hogwash. I’ll second that.

    • Mark Sturtevant
      Posted May 19, 2014 at 4:34 am | Permalink

      I doubt the squirrel would survive on a lower branch. It was too little to climb. And the nests are waaaay up there.

      • gravelinspector-Aidan
        Posted May 19, 2014 at 1:27 pm | Permalink

        I was thinking more in terms of (1) getting away from ground-based predators and (2) getting to somewhere where it’s parents can bring it some sustenance.
        If infant primates can grip onto a mother’s hair to support their body weight, I’d be pretty surprised if a toddler squirrel kit couldn’t handle itself pretty well on a tree. I’ll add a qualifier for “reasonably rough bark”, but I suspect that even a silver birch wouldn’t be a problem to a squirrel. I’ve never noticed whether they have a preference against smooth-barked trees, but the question will lurk at the back of my mind for a while now.
        A propos nothing at all, I saw a flying fish this afternoon. Doing 30+m flights, I think there was something nasty in the water.

        • Merilee
          Posted May 19, 2014 at 1:29 pm | Permalink

          Where, pray tell, did you see this flying fish?

          • gravelinspector-Aidan
            Posted May 19, 2014 at 1:54 pm | Permalink

            From the anchor-watching station under the helideck. You can almost see the bit of hand rail above the anchor here.
            The exact coordinates are on the other computer, but it’s about 2deg south and 7deg east. Off the coast of Gabon.
            Prof CC has apparently worked on Principe or Sao Tome, the islands a little north of here. Doing something unconscionable involving fruit flies, no doubt.

  9. robkraft
    Posted May 18, 2014 at 4:01 pm | Permalink

    There is usually this implication in everything I read that caring for your own offspring makes evolutional “sense” because you want your own genetic material to proliferate, and caring for the offspring of others of the same species or other species implies altruism because others don’t carry your genetic material. But I have always thought the premise that we want our own genetic material to proliferate to be flawed. When I have sex I am not thinking about my genetic material; I am only thinking about the pleasure I derive. I think scientists and lay people both need to abandon the idea that individuals seek to see their offspring survive for selfish reasons, and that when individuals seek to see the offspring of others thrive it is due to altruism.
    If I raised a child to the age of eighteen and then discovered that my child had been swapped at birth and this other child were my true offspring, I would not immediately, or probably ever, feel more desire for my true offspring to thrive than the child I had raised for eighteen years.
    I think it seems more likely that birth increases our levels of oxytocin and other hormones, causing us to feel nurturing toward helpless infants, and that since our own offspring are usually the ones immediately present our minds associate the emotions with those offspring.

    Am I the only one that believes individuals don’t care about their offspring simply because their offspring carry their DNA? Has my premise already been proven false?

    • Prof.Pedant
      Posted May 18, 2014 at 5:26 pm | Permalink

      I’m comfortable saying that I would like to have “children of my own”, but I know for a fact that any child I raise I will consider my own – no matter how clear it is that we are not closely related. I think you are probably right that “the desire to take care of our relatives” is inaccurate. I strongly suspect that the actual “selection push” is for a trait of ‘taking care of the people we share our lives with’ and that this works to facilitate the success of ‘our genes’ because for most of human history ‘the people we share our lives with’ were either relatives or very important in the survival of our relatives.

    • Posted May 18, 2014 at 6:26 pm | Permalink

      The pleasure you derive from sex is what your genes have constructed in your nervous system to further your reproduction. You really do need to read Dawkins’s “The Selfish Gene.” The genetic impetus for favoring one’s own offspring is well accepted in the scientific community.

    • Diane G.
      Posted May 21, 2014 at 4:55 pm | Permalink

      robcraft, the “wanting your own genetic material to proliferate” phrasing is just a sort of scientific shorthand for the ultimate reason kin selection succeeds. Almost any time you read that an organism “wants” to do anything in an evolutionary sense, it’s just shorthand for something like, “these behaviors have produced more surviving offspring for the individual and thus been selected for.” Of course you are right in the proximate sense. :)

  10. phemto
    Posted May 18, 2014 at 4:07 pm | Permalink

    The mistake that is ofter made is to think that an any observed feature of behavior of a species must be explained as being either evolutionarily advantageous or proof of God. Evolution can have many side effects that don’t really have a “purpose” to them (e.g. men’s nipples). Also the behavior of a domesticated cat is hardly a model for a species evolved in nature.

    If we accept the premise that ANY behavior that harms your chances of passing on your genes is proof of God, than there is no explanation for homosexuality short of “God made them that way.” I rather suspect making that point would cause some backpedaling and searching for loopholes in their own logic.

  11. Jeffery
    Posted May 18, 2014 at 4:11 pm | Permalink

    I used to live on a communal farm where we had a Guernsey milk cow and raised a few pigs every year. One year, one of the piglets figured out that there was good milk in the cow’s tits, and the cow would let it suckle whenever it wanted to, which was constantly (it relieved the pressure on her udder and triggered the release of “feel-good” hormones). We couldn’t break either one of them from this behavior, so we ended up having to raise the pig in “solitary confinement” in an adjoining pasture; the other piglets never did figure it out.

  12. Diana MacPherson
    Posted May 18, 2014 at 4:49 pm | Permalink

    I think many of us are of the George Costanza gene preservation type. :D

  13. Hempenstein
    Posted May 18, 2014 at 6:43 pm | Permalink

    Plenty of examples of this cross-species nursing, too.

  14. rlwemm
    Posted May 18, 2014 at 8:23 pm | Permalink

    The process of evolution works on the “near enough” principle. That is why we, and other animals, do things that we similar, but not identical, to other things that help our species survive. That is why we develop things like a love of art and music which has no direct impact on survival but are overflow from “near enough” principles that do directly affect our ability to survive.

    So the squirrel-suckling cat does not prove that anyone’s version of god is correct, or that there is any god in existence at all.

    By the way, why is it that everyone assumes that it is THEIR particular version of “god” or the supernatural that is being “proved” by such anecdotes? Or that there is only one divinity (necessarily theirs, of course)? The whole argument is blinded by cultural bias and the unquestioned givens of early childhood upbringing.

    • Diane G.
      Posted May 21, 2014 at 4:58 pm | Permalink

      “By the way, why is it that everyone assumes that it is THEIR particular version of “god” or the supernatural that is being “proved” …”

      …when so obviously, in this case, it proves the Squirrel God.

  15. Posted May 18, 2014 at 9:43 pm | Permalink

    this was a beautiful video :) !!! and the whole incident is just mind-blowing!!

  16. Filipe
    Posted May 19, 2014 at 5:10 am | Permalink

    These things don’t always end up nicely. One of my cousins had a very small d*g and she used to raise the occasional semi-feral kitten. When they got big and independent she’d hunt and kill them.

    • John Scanlon, FCD
      Posted May 23, 2014 at 11:25 am | Permalink

      Many d*gs, and possibly all small d*gs, are psychopaths.

  17. Posted May 19, 2014 at 9:03 am | Permalink

    so, if people are nasty to each other, this means that there is a virulently awful god?

    Once I was sitting in my garden quite drunk and distraught after just losing a particularly beloved cat. A feral cat, that occasionally frequented my garden but never let me get near him, came right up to me and let me pet him while he purred. He hasn’t let me pet him since.

  18. nilou ataie
    Posted May 19, 2014 at 12:05 pm | Permalink

    Human adoption, I would say, can be different, because the mother may not be suffused with hormones.

    • Merilee
      Posted May 19, 2014 at 1:37 pm | Permalink

      As one who has been lucky enough to have adopted two 3-day-old infant humans ( 22 months apart ) I wonder if some of these mothering hormones are generated by the act of nurturing. I don’t have anything to compare it with, but I cannot imagine feeling/being any more motherly than I have been to these two over the past 27 and almost 29 years ( give or take short periods during their teens…)

      • nilou ataie
        Posted May 19, 2014 at 2:09 pm | Permalink

        So the act of nurturing, and reasoning, can also take you to great altruism and love.

    • gravelinspector-Aidan
      Posted May 19, 2014 at 1:59 pm | Permalink

      because the mother may not be suffused with hormones.

      I wouldn’t be so sure. Not without blood tests.
      People can think themselves into some extraordinary states of mind – and of blood chemistry. I’m sure cats can too.


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