Eusociality/How to Train Your Dragon in Behavioral Ecology

Like many people who know things, I often find inaccuracies in movies frustrating.  I’ve learned to let this go in most instances, but I still have a weakness around behavioral ecology, possibly because I spent so long studying it and use that knowledge so little now.  This week’s victim is How to Train Your Dragon (1 and 2).  The questions I want to answer: how/why are they so many different types of dragons, and what is their social structure?  The ecosystem as described by characters makes so little sense I’ll never come up with a plausible system that makes their statements true, so I’m going to focus on generating a system that could generate their observations without being constrained to make them actually true.  For example: real species always have variation between individuals, even if they’re all clones (because of environmental variation). Vikings indicate all dragons of a given type are identical.  So I will design dragons that have little enough variation that Vikings could plausibly mis-measure them as having none, but not actually none, because that would be dumb.

I’m also just going to ignore the fact that that ecosystem couldn’t support that many predators of that size, and the whole fire breathing thing, because those are just things you accept when you watch a movie.

Here are the observations I need to explain (enormous spoilers for both movies, although mostly not the parts anyone else cares about):

  1. There are a lot of different types of dragons that live together and appear to work cooperatively.dragons_crowd
  2. Nests with lots of dragons tend to be controlled/led by a single enormous dragon.
  3. Movie 1 had a queen dragon and Movie 2 had a king dragon.  Valka says that kings outrank queens.
  4. The nest with the queen (a Red Death) was in a volcano, lesser dragons hunted for her, and she ate them if they failed.reddeathfacereddeath-full
  5. The nest with the king (a Bewilderbeast) was located in an iceberg, and he fed the other dragons.bewilderbeast
  6. There was a second collection of dragons led by a different Bewilderbeast under the control of a human that we don’t know much about.
  7. Dragons react to human speech at a level that indicates understanding, not just keyword matching.  They pick this up without formal instruction.
  8. The kings are shown giving sophisticated commands to lesser dragons.  The queen did not do so on screen, but that may be how she compelled the lesser dragons to hunt for her.
  9. The bewilderbeasts breathe ice and can stay underwater indefinitely.  They can survive on land but do not fly.
  10. A number of underwater dragons are mentioned.
  11. The Vikings believe very strongly that dragons are groupable into distinct species where members have identical stats.  They refer to these as species, although it’s never mentioned how Vikings define that.
  12. Dragons vary enormously in size.  Bewilderbeasts are 520′ x 160′.  Terrible Terrors are 1.5 feet tall, and judging by their behavior, adults.
  13. For all their morphoological diversity, we see dragons doing mostly the same things.  This could be an artifact of their interaction with humans.
  14. Dragons appear to congregate in massive nests.
  15. There is some variation in morphology even among juvenilesDragon_hiddenability_baby

The mass nesting and single head sound a lot like bees/ants/termites, where thousands of sterile workers coordinate to support a single breeding individual.  The technical term for this is eusocial.  Eusociality was something of a puzzle to evolutionary biologists for a while because wait, individuals are not breeding?  How could that ever be selected for?

The answer is kin selection: workers bees are able to pass more of their genes onto the next generation by caring for eggs the queen lays than they would by raising their own offspring. In the particular case of Hymenoptera (bees, wasps, ants), this may be helped by the fact that females are more related to full sisters than they are to their own offspring (I’ll explain this tomorrow), but this is neither necessary nor sufficient to generate eusociality.   Eusocial animals have some variation in their breeding structure: ant queens mate once and store sperm for life, males die shortly after mating.  Termites, certain shrimp, and  Damaraland mole rats have a single breeding pair.  Naked mole rats and some bees have a queen and several breeding males.  Bees and wasps can have either either the first or third structure (and not all bees or wasps are eusocial).  However, and this is important, there’s no known (non-fictional) eusocial species with one male and multiple breeding females.  There are animals with a harem structure (e.g. gorillas, lions), and females may have some cooperative care (e.g. lionesses will nurse others’ cubs), but children are cared for primarily by their mother and immature siblings, and there are no permanently non-breeding females.

The sheer number of dragons, the size differential, the fact that they cooperate to feed the alpha (sometimes), and that they can be compelled to take orders points to eusociality.  However eusocial animals are usually pretty dumb.  Dragons are smart, and have relationships outside that with their alpha (e.g. Toothless trying so hard to impress Valka’s dragon).  This suggests they have a more complex social structure than a beehive.  Moreover, they actively work to understand what humans want and to do it: this suggests they’re something like wolves, where there is a complex hierarchy beyond a simple alpha, and that like wolves dragons have applied their ability to interpret intentions and respond to them to us.*  This doesn’t necessarily mean they view humans as alpha, they may view us as a senior pack member to be listened to.

If they are eusocial, they’re going to be more like naked mole rats (where any individual can theoretically become alpha) than insects (where alpha-ness is designated at birth).  I believe this because we see three different dragon types as alpha (Red Death in the first movie, two Bewilderbeasts and Night Fury in the third), and because alphas obviously retain the capacity to be ordered around (by both humans and other dragons).

That’s social structure.  What about speciation?  We see an enormous variation in dragon morphology and behavior in the movies.  There’s a few ways to generate that:

  1. There are many closely related species, like whales.  This does not gel with the fact that dragons are clearly cooperative. While different species sometimes cooperate (e.g. humans and dogs), there’s nothing approaching interspecies eusociality.
  2. There are very different species with tight, possibly obligate, mutualisms (humans and dogs were probably this once, and gibbons and gazelles have some mutualism as well).  But those species tend to be good at very different things (dogs and gazelles have smell and we and gibbons have eyesight), while the dragons seem to mostly do the same thing.  This could be sufficient to explain them nesting together, but not following the alpha.
  3. They could all be the same species (meaning they can interbreed), but have diverged into semi-distinct genetic pools, like dogs.  Rare types could be hybrids. If hybrids are frequent and distinct enough to be recognized as their own type, it suggests morphology is controlled by only a few genes, or that all the genes are located on the same chromosome.  Otherwise you would just have a bunch of dragons that were intermediate between their two parents.
  4. Dragons are born having the ability to take many forms, and move through multiple forms in their lifespan or settle on one form based on the environment. This would be a good fit with eusociality, where drones often specialize in a single task.
  5. Dragons vary a lot and the Vikings more or less made up categories to shove them into

I suspect there’s more than one base form, because the babies in HTTYD2 were already bigger than the smallest adult dragons we’ve seen. But the different types must be able to interbreed, because different species don’t cooperate that extensively.  This points to 3 and possibly 4.

I also have to explain the feeding.  Eusocial alphas get fed, they do not feed their drones, which doesn’t match the behavior in movie 2.  The easy answer is that it depends on environmental conditions: when food is plentiful the alpha feeds their minions, when it’s not their minions feed them.  Since the sex making the larger investment in offspring is usually the one fed by the other, this suggests alphas are male in the water and female in volcanos.  Normally that would make no sense, but I’m about to get to a really satisfying explanation.

Let’s talk about reproduction.  Given the babies in movie 2, alphas must reproduce with members of their own nest, not an alpha from another nest.  All the examples I can think of with a single alpha that have that level of control (as opposed to a dominance structure with one member at the top) are eusocial and have a female leader.  This gels with the minions feeding the alpha in movie 1.  Or they could be like gorillas, with a single male keeping a harem of females.  That matches well with the fighting between the two alphas and the loyalty shifts, plus Valka would probably notice if her king laid hundreds of eggs.  It seems to me to be incredibly unlikely a species would have the ability to have alphas of either sex, so we have to choose one or choose hermaphroditism.  There’s only one reptile that could be called hermaphroditic, and that’s really more like being intersex than a true hermaphrodite.

But… hermaphroditism is really common in fish.  Fish also feature more morphological variation through their life than reptiles, and have more and more complex social/pack behavior.  And we know there are underwater dragons.  What if those came first, and they moved out of the sea later?  The intermediate step would look a lot like flying fish, which totally exist.  I’m not sure about the fire breathing thing, but it’s not like assuming they’re reptiles makes that so much easier to explain.  Dragons eat fish a lot, even the terrestrial ones.  While I said I was going to ignore the inability of that environment to sustain that many predators, the ocean comes closer to meeting their requirements than land. And it explains the variation in feeding behavior.

In conclusion:

  •  Dragons are descended from fish, and have a highly cooperative harem structure when food is plentiful and a eusocial one when it is not.
  • The alpha is a hermaphrodite who leans male when food is plentiful and female when it is not.   Either minion dragons are also hermaphroditic, or male and female forms exist and whichever complements the alphas goals gets to reproduce.
  • There may be other dragons that get an occasional shot at reproduction, who may or may not be considered part of the pack (a la the side-blotched lizard or marine isopods).
  • There are probably a lot of non-breeders of either sex, or dragons stay sexually immature until promoted by an alpha.
  • A given baby dragon can turn into many (but not all) kinds of dragons, and may be more than one over its lifetime.  Minion dragons are extremely intelligent and can understand complex instructions, but have limited ability to talk back.  They can be compelled to follow these against their will but also have a strong desire to follow them without compulsion.
  • Not all dragon types can be alphas, but more than one can.

As for the movie plots… yeah, they were pretty good.

*Wolves are obviously not dogs, but they’re much more trainable than other animals.

Links 6/19/15

Gross things.  What creeps me out is the branching.

Against tulip subsidies.  This covers two of my biggest fears with charity: that I’m reinforcing a bad system, and I’m redistributing wealth rather than generating it.  Note that an RCT won’t catch those unless you think to look for them.

How they genetically engineered bacteria to make cheese vegan.

For a change this week we will have an “Ugly theory killed by a beautiful gang of facts” award.  Anyone who’s taken psych 101 knows about the Zimbardo experiment (aka the Standford prison experiment, which proved all humans will descend into savagery given a modicum of power) and Asch’s conformity experiment (the line length experiment, which proved people will always choose agreeing with a group over the actual correct answer). Except… Zimbardo deliberately induced sadism in the guards, and 2/3 resisted it.  And more people in Asch’s study showed total independence than total conformity.  Somehow over the years these got severely exaggerated- not just in the popular media, but in textbooks.

I noticed this when I started checking citations in pop science books.  “People with trait A do B and people with trait X do Y” usually turns out to be “there is a 10 percentage point difference in how often people with A do B, relative to X.”

For another example of how to lie with statistics: “80% of Americans support labeling food with DNA”.  Which if you actually look at it shows that 80% of people believe in labeling and weren’t too hung on the specifics by the time they got to that part of the form.

Effectiveness Updates

Suicide Hotlines: One of the reasons I estimated crisis chat/suicide hotlines as having as high an impact as I did was visitors’ self-reports.  Since then I saw a discussion of leafleting on FB, where several people said they had high priors for it working because when they leafleted, some people seemed really interested and said they were going to change.  My reading of the quantitative research is that there’s no proof leafleting has any effect, so I should discount my own estimates of crisis chat.  I also completely failed to account for the damage a bad counselor can do.  I found one metastudy on the effect of suicide hotlines, and it appears debatable they’re accomplishing anything, much less have a good cost:benefit ratio.

I may also be pessimistic because I had two people initiate attempts while they were talking to me in a month.

Blood donation: I was hoping to talk to the actual blood bank, but they’re no longer returning my e-mails and this has gone on too long. I stand by the calculations for average effectiveness, but after a discussion with Alexander Berger I am retracting the claim for marginal effectiveness.  New donors can apparently be recruited rather cheaply.  There are concerns that the blood is more likely to carry infection (not all of which can be caught by testing), or that incentives will crowd out more altruistic donations, or that the marginal cost will grow with time, but these have the whiff of valuing moral purity over results.  You could convince me otherwise, but at this point it needs data.  On the other hand, blood donation may have health benefits, especially if you don’t menstruate (thanks to Kate Donovan for pointing this out).

Seattle Effective Altruist’s “Be Excellent To Each Other” Policy

Several months ago I started to write SEA’s anti-harassment policy.  It morphed a little bit as I realized that “no harassment” was a perfectly good goal for cons, but not sufficient for a group that sometimes discusses contentious issues.  We debated names for a while until  I finally arrived at the “Be Excellent To Each Other Policy.”  Several other groups have requested a copy of this and it’s hard to share as a FB doc, so I’m reproducing it below.

Looking at it now I’m shocked at how legalistic it is, I think it’s a combination of I was freshly worried from a QALY discussion and my mom’s a lawyer.

The “Be Excellent To Each Other” policy

It is the goal of Seattle Effective Altruists that all members feel safe and respected at all times.  This does not preclude disagreement in any way, we welcome differing points of view.  But it does preclude personal attacks, unwanted touching (unsure if a particular touch is wanted?  ASK), and deliberate meanness.  This policy applies to all members, but we are conscious that some people have traveled a more difficult road than others and are more likely to encounter things that make them feel unsafe, and are committed to countering that.
If you are wondering if something you are about to say follows the policy, a good rule of thumb is that it should be at least two of true, helpful, and kind.  This is neither necessary nor sufficient, but it is very close to both.
If you find something offensive (including but not limited to: racist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic, ableist, etc) or it otherwise makes you uncomfortable (including but not limited to harassment, dismissal, unwanted romantic overtures), we encourage you to speak up at the time if you feel comfortable doing so.  We hope that all our members would want to know that they have said something offensive.  If you do not feel comfortable speaking up at the time, please tell a membership of the leadership (currently John, Elizabeth, and Stephanie) as soon as possible, in whatever format you feel comfortable (in person, facebook, e-mail, etc).   Depending on the specifics we will address it with the person in question, change a policy, and/or some other thing we haven’t thought of yet.
If someone tells you they find something you (or someone you agree with) said offensive, you do not have to immediately agree with them.  But please understand that it is not an attack on you personally, and quite possibly very scary for them to say.  If you did not mean to be offensive, express that, and listen to what the person has to say.  if you are a bystander, please convey your respect and support for both people without silencing either.
If you did mean to be offensive, leave.  Deliberate personal attacks will not be tolerated.  Repeated non-deliberate offensiveness will be handled on a case by case basis.
SEA is not in a position to police the behavior of our members outside our meetings and online presence (e.g. the facebook message board), and will not intervene normal interpersonal disagreements.  But if you feel unsafe attending a meeting because of a member’s extra-group behavior (including but not limited to threatening, stalking, harassment, verbal attacks, or assault), please talk to the leadership.  We will not have group members driven out by others’ bad behavior.
This is a living document.  We can’t foresee all possible problems, or remove the necessity for judgement calls.  But we hope that this sets the stage for Seattle Effective Altruists as a respectful community, and encourage you to talk to us if you concerns or suggestion

Blender Bottle pitfalls

When I endorsed the Blender Bottle I said the top was super secure, which was important because you need to shake it pretty vigorously.  It turns out I was subconsciously putting my hand over the flip lid, and if you don’t do that it will explode at the worst possible time.  Possibly when you are late for a wedding and your boyfriend is making you soylent because he is dressed and you are not and you literally just said “I shake it harder than that all the time and it has never exploded.”

Links 6/12/15

LEGO MMO’s penis detection problem.

Ocean Exploration Trust livestreams their Remote Operated Vehicles adventures.  Here’s a video they captured of a sperm whale at -2,000 feet.

On Shoulds:

A true should feels like executing a Screw The Rules I’m Doing What’s Right trope.  In fiction, a true should feels like the moment when the villain reveals that doing the Right Thing will start a war, and you set your jaw, and you look them in the eyes, and you say “so be it,” and you do the right thing anyway.


Not an external obligation whispered down from the heavens, but an internal fire, a defiance of the natural order, a need to make the world different from the way it would be otherwise.

Cognitive behavioral therapy is getting less effective over time.  There are a lot of possible explanations for this, but my favorite is that as CBT techniques have been integrated into the mainstream (therapy or helpful articles your mom sends you on anxiety) they become less useful.  I’ve heard the same thing suggested for Freudian analysis: that when it was invented it really was a revelation and helped a lot of people, but now everyone knows to ask about your subconscious feelings so there’s no value add.

Boring explanations include therapist skill, wider application, publication bias, changes in measurements.

I’m pleased to announce the return of the Beautiful Gang of Theory Killed By An Ugly Gang of Facts award.  This week’s recipient is The Bloop, an enormous sound recorded by underwater microphones over 3000 miles apart in 1997.  If you believe the video youtube showed me after the sperm whale one. it’s completely unexplained but probably some sort of sea creature orders of magnitude larger than any we have ever discovered, that only made detectable noise this one time. It might also be Atlantis.  If you believe NOAA, it’s an iceberg cracking.  Bor-ing.

Meeting protocols don’t scale

I covered a lot of really heavy things with no good solutions in group organization the last three days.  Now I’d like to talk about one easy thing that we solved brilliantly.

When Seattle EA first started, all meetings were discussion meetings that operated with discussion norms.  One person came prepared to lead a discussion, which meant both presenting information and steering the conversation.  This worked great with 8 people and was increasingly creaky at 15.  Physically it became harder to find spaces where everyone could hear and no one had to shout.  Conversationally, a tangent rate that led to charming new discoveries with 8 people led to huge snarls with 15, increasing the brain power required to moderate just as presenting got difficult.  We solved this by splitting moderation and presenting into two different jobs (often two people trade off between them in the same meeting), and shifting meetings to be more presentation and questions, and the moderator steering tangents back to the meeting purpose.  These are not the same as the old meetings, that’s not possible, but they are just as good at what they do.