Sunday, January 15, 2006

A flaming hero: Do-or-die rescue by super[step]dad

A major (albeit unwebbed) story in today's Sunday Times (Western Australia's main Sunday newspaper), is of a stepfather who risked his life to save his stepchildren from a fire which gutted their house, while his partner, the children's mother, was thousands of kilometres away.

"A FATHER rescued his two stepchildren from their blazing house fearing he would only find their corpses. But Jeff Piefke's hopes soared when he heard his daughter's cry - a shout that sounded like "the voice of an angel". Speaking for the first time about his harrowing ordeal this week, the Dampier dad said he feared the worst when he woke to find his Portland Cres house ablaze in the aftermath of Cyclone Clare. Mr Piefke, 37, smashed his way through cyclone-proof shutters and a window before braving a virtual inferno to rush Justin, 4, who was unconscious, and Nikita, 7, to safety. "They're two innocent little kids. I would have gone first before letting them die in that fire," he said yesterday, choking back tears. "I wouldn't have been able to live with myself if I'd lost the kids. "I almost dropped to my knees and gave up. I thought they were dead and I froze. I started falling apart. "Then I realised I had to get them out or I wouldn't be able to face life any more. "I was screaming to the kids, but I couldn't see them. Then I heard a shout and I tell you, it was the voice of an angel. It was a voice from above." Mr Piefke's partner of nine years, Paula Oliver, said her children would be dead if not for his courage. "He's amazing, he deserves a medal. He's the type of guy who would do that for anyone," she said. "Those kids wouldn't have survived without Jeff." But Mr Piefke played down his heroic role. "I'm not a hero; instinct just kicked in and anyone else would have done the same," he said. But Mr Piefke played down his heroic role. "I wake up at 3am every night thinking maybe I could have done more, maybe I could have been quicker. I'm just so thankful they're alive." Justin and Nikita are being treated for minor burns and smoke inhalation at Princess Margaret Hospital. They are expected to make a full recovery and doctors hope they will be released from hospital in weeks. Mr Piefke, a mechanical fitter, was treated for wounds to his left arm, which was badly lacerated when he smashed the window. The drama unfolded at 10.30pm on Tuesday when a candle lit by Ms Oliver's other daughter, Myrissa, 14, ignited a bamboo shelf filled with books. Rescue efforts were hampered and the house was gutted - with $350,000 of damage - because phone lines were down and the property was shuttered in the wake of Cyclone Clare. Ms Oliver was in Perth to buy a new family car. Mr Piefke had worked a long shift at Pilbara Iron as staff at the minesite battened down ahead of the cyclone. When he returned home, Mr Piefke put the children to bed and fell asleep in front of the television. "I've woken up to the smoke alarm and then the plastic runners over the carpet went up like petrol. They went up in a flash," he said. Within minutes the house was "roaring" with fire. Flames blocked the entrance to the children's room, forcing him to run outside and smash a window. The couple - who were not insured and lost everything in the blaze - plan to return to Dampier. "The kids are alive and that matters above all else, but it's a big shock. The kids have no clothes, no toys. I don't even have workboots," Mr Piefke said. The local community is rallying support. ... Mr Piefke said he was overwhelmed by the support offered by neighbours, friends, family, police, hospital staff and Pilbara Iron. "That's the main reason I'm telling my story, to thank everyone so much for their help and support," he said. ... " (Paddenburg T., "A flaming hero: Do-or-die rescue by superdad," The Sunday Times, January 15, 2006, p.4. My emphasis)

But obviously this poor `fool' (and the journalist, editor, and the readers, who think he is a "hero", as well as the "neighbours, friends, family, police, hospital staff and Pilbara Iron" who have been overwhelming in their support) have not heard of Darwinian "selfish-gene" evolutionary psychology theory, which maintains that not only should Mr Piefke not have risked his life for his stepchildren (which not only don't bear his genes, but bear a competitor's genes and also use up his and his partner's parental resources, which could be better spent in having and raising his own children) but he should have been trying to kill them. That is because, as evolutionary psychologist Robert Wright, citing research by leading EPs Martin Daly and Margo Wilson, "In Darwinian terms, a young stepchild is an obstacle to fitness, a drain on resources" and "selection must favor those parental psyches that do not squander it on nonrelatives":

"There is one other kind of fallout from current marital norms that comes into focus through the new paradigm: the toll taken on children. Martin Daly and Margo Wilson have written, `Perhaps the most obvious prediction from a Darwinian view of parental motives is this: Substitute parents will generally tend to care less profoundly for children than natural parents.' Thus, `children reared by people other than their natural parents will be more often exploited and otherwise at risk. Parental investment is a precious resource, and selection must favor those parental psyches that do not squander it on nonrelatives.' [Daly M. & Wilson M., "Homicide," Aldine de Gruyter: Hawthorne NY, 1988, p.83] To some Darwinians, this expectation might seem so strong as to render its verification a waste of time. But Daly and Wilson took the trouble. What they found surprised even them. In America in 1976, a child living with one or more substitute parents was about one hundred times more likely to be fatally abused than a child living with natural parents. In a Canadian city in the 1980s, a child two years of age or younger was seventy times more likely to be killed by a parent if living with a stepparent and natural parent than if living with two natural parents. Of course, murdered children are a tiny fraction of the children living with stepparents; the divorce and re marriage of a mother is hardly a child's death warrant. But consider the more common problem of nonfatal abuse. Children under ten were, depending on their age and the particular study in question, between three and forty times more likely to suffer parental abuse if living with a stepparent and a natural parent than if living with two natural parents. [Daly & Wilson, 1988, pp.89-91] It is fair to infer that many less dramatic, undocumented forms of parental indifference follow this rough pattern. After all, the whole reason natural selection invented paternal love was to bestow benefits on offspring. Though biologists call these benefits `investment,' that doesn't mean they're strictly material, wholly sustainable through monthly checks. Fathers give their children all kinds of tutelage and guidance (more, often, than either father or child realizes) and guard them against all kinds of threats. A mother alone simply can't pick tip the slack. A stepfather almost surely won't pick up much, if any of it. In Darwinian terms, a young stepchild is an obstacle to fitness, a drain on resources." (Wright R., "The Moral Animal: Evolutionary Psychology and Everyday Life," [1994], Vintage Books: New York NY, 1995, reprint, pp.103-104. My emphasis)
Another leading EP, Sarah Blaffer Hrdy, under the heading, "Stepfathers [are] Worse Than No Father", in discussing "The murder of infants by stepfathers or mothers' boyfriends," and relying on Daly & Wilson, says that "The motive is not to kill the infant in order to increase reproductive access to the mother, but to rid oneself of an encumbrance" by "a high threshold for responding in a solicitous way toward an offspring not likely to be genetically related":
"Stepfathers Worse Than No Father. Westerners appalled by such barbaric treatment of the fatherless should take a look at their local newspapers. Child homicide in civilized societies is nowhere tolerated, very much against the law, and uncommon. Nevertheless, in North America when the father of offspring under two years of age no longer lives in the home and an unrelated man or stepfather lives there instead, this rare event is seventy times more likely to occur. [Daly & Wilson, "Homicide", 1988; Daly M & Wilson M.I., "Discriminative parental solicitude and the relevance of evolutionary models to the analysis of motivational systems." in Gazzaniga M., ed., "The cognitive Neurosciences," MIT Press: Cambridge MA, 1995, pp.1269-1286] The murder of infants by stepfathers or mothers' boyfriends resembles the circumstances under which sexually selected infanticide evolved in other primates: males from outside the breeding system increase their own chances to breed by eliminating offspring sired by rivals. The superficial similarities have sometimes led to the erroneous conclusion that child abuse as we know it today is or once was adaptive. [Wray H., "The evolution of child abuse," Science News, Vol. 122, 1982, pp.24-26] Some clarification is in order. Canadian psychologists Martin Daly and Margo Wilson were the first to demonstrate increased risk to infants from having unrelated men in the house. They were careful to stress that in postindustrial human societies, neither child abuse nor infanticide is adaptive. More likely than not, the boyfriend goes to jail and the mother is prosecuted for neglect. More important, the attacker is not some invader entering the breeding system from out side it: he already has keys to the apartment and access to the mother's bed. Imagine: the mother goes off on an errand, leaving her baby in the boy friend's care. She may or may not have an inkling of the risk. Perhaps she senses that her boyfriend resents diversion of household resources, including her attention, to some other man's child. ... Perhaps boyfriend and baby are already off to a bad start all the more reason why the baby may reject such tentative comfort as this man offers. The baby cries, makes demands not willingly met by a man in no way sensitized for this task. Mother Nature has set high his threshold against altruism toward this insatiable stranger. Because of the low degree of relatedness between the man and the child, the benefits don't come close to out weighing the costs of care. [Daly & Wilson, 1980, 1988 & 1995] But beyond his lack of solicitude for an unrelated, very vulnerable but demanding dependent, the abusive boyfriend may have little more in common with an infanticidal monkey than a certain nonspecific impatience, a general predisposition to respond violently to repeated annoyance. ... A more appropriate animal analogue for a brutal stepfather would be an alloparent of either sex compelled to invest in an infant he or she has lost interest in. The motive is not to kill the infant in order to increase reproductive access to the mother, but to rid oneself of an encumbrance. What evolved is not the bizarre and maladaptive alternation of solicitude with torture that we know as `child abuse.' What evolved was a high threshold for responding in a solicitous way toward an offspring not likely to be genetically related the equivalent of emotional earplugs. [Daly M. & Wilson M.I., "Discriminative Parental Solicitude: A Biological Perspective," Journal of Marriage and the Family, Vol. 42, No. 2, May, 1980, pp. 277-288]" (Hrdy S.B., "Mother Nature: Natural Selection and the Female of the Species," Chatto & Windus: London, 1999, pp.236-237. My emphasis)

But apart from the problem of controlling for other variables:

"It is well known that sociobiologists have darkened immense areas of paper, and imagined they were providing evidence for the inclusive fitness theory, by publishing statistics which show (for example) that people are more likely to mistreat a child they have adopted, or carried over from a previous marriage, than a child of their own current marriage. This sort of thing is, in fact, a major division of the sociobiological industry. But it would not be easy to conceive a more pointless expenditure of effort. For one thing, it is completely unnecessary, because we knew it all long ago. Traditions about cruel stepmothers, the misfortunes of foundlings and the like, are universal and ancient, and no one has ever thought that they are altogether without a good deal of foundation in fact. Parents, like all other humans, are exceedingly imperfect, and some of them really are as bad as adolescent children often imagine them to be. Everyone knows that. But everyone also knows, and always has known, that a child who goes further than its parental home will, in all probability, fare even worse. But the sociobiologists' statistics, about the probability of an adopted child being mistreated, etc., are not only unnecessary: they are completely worthless as evidence for the shared genes theory of kin altruism. The reason is, that they are subject to an enormously high level of what experimental scientists call `noise'. That is, it is quite impossible to determine how far the observed effects are due to the cause which is being 'tested for' - in this case, the actual degree of relatedness and how far they are due to other causes altogether." (Stove D.C., "Darwinian Fairytales," Avebury: Aldershot UK, 1995, pp.149-150. Emphasis in original)
there is the same old problem that "Any behavior and its opposite is `explained' by evolutionary selection.... Thus, nothing is explained," when EP `explains' as "evolutionarily adaptive" both why natural parents mistreat and kill their children and also why step-parents mistreat and kill their partners' natural children:
"The Evil-Father Syndrome. Evolutionary psychology is weakest when it attempts to explain unusual human behavior, such as the murder of children by their parents. To Darwinians, who view procreation as the sine qua non of life, these are the most perverse of all acts. The problem was taken up in the 1980s by Margo Wilson and her husband, Martin Daly of McMaster University in Canada, among the most respected of all evolutionary psychologists. After analyzing murder records from the United States and Canada, Wilson and Daly determined that children were roughly sixty times more likely to be killed by a stepparent-and usually a stepfather-than by a natural parent. They pointed out that this type of non-kin infanticide is common in nature; males of many species, from mice to monkeys, kill offspring that their mates conceived with another male. The selfish-gene perspective was upheld after all. Or was it? Even Wilson and Daly have warned that their results should be interpreted with caution-and with good reason. Clearly one cannot say that men have an innate propensity to kill their mate's children if the children were fathered by other men, because the vast majority of stepfathers never abuse or kill their children. Moreover, fathers who adopt children are even less likely than biological fathers to kill or abuse their children. Of course, men who adopt children are atypical, because they are screened for emotional and financial stability-but that is exactly the point. Men who abuse stepchildren are obviously atypical too. They may have assumed responsibility for a spouse's children reluctantly. They may be subject to unusual financial and emotional stresses. These are the factors that lead certain men to kill or harm a mate's children-not some instinctual urge that they share with mice or monkeys. Wilson and Daly's research is nonetheless often cited as a model of Darwinian social science, since it addresses an important issue and rests on a large empirical foundation. When the New York Times in 1997 asked leading intellectuals to name the last book they had read twice, Steven Pinker singled out Homicide, a book in which Wilson and Daly presented an evolutionary view of human violence. Ironically, Pinker later wrote an article for the New York Times Magazine that inadvertently undermined the Daly and Wilson research- and, indeed, the entire enterprise of Darwinian psychology. Pinker's article addressed a spate of incidents in which biological mothers had killed their newborn children. (In one case, a girl at a high school dance gave birth in a bathroom stall, killed the infant, and then returned to the dance floor.) Although maternal infanticide seems at first glance to be the ultimate violation of Darwinian precepts, Pinker said, it might result from natural selection. He noted that in certain stressful circumstances, our maternal ancestors would have been well advised to kill a newborn baby rather than devoting scarce resources to it, resources needed to sustain the mother and her older offspring. This innate psychological module might be switched on in modern mothers by severe stress. A few weeks after Pinker's article was published, the New York Times Magazine printed a letter from Claude Fischer, a sociologist at the University of California at Berkeley. Pinker's article, Fischer complained, `illustrates how silly evolutionary explanations of human behavior have become. When mothers protect their newborns (which almost all do), it's because that behavior is evolutionarily adaptive. And now, when a few mothers kill their newborns, that's evolutionarily adaptive too. Any behavior and its opposite is `explained' by evolutionary selection.... Thus, nothing is explained.'" (Horgan J., "The Undiscovered Mind: How the Brain Defies Explanation," [1999], Phoenix: London, 2000, pp.183-185)
And what's more, Wilson and Daly were just plain wrong, since "A major study ... found that there was no significant difference between the rates of severe violence perpetrated by natural parents and step-parents:
"But a controversial new theory would have us believe that the stereotypes of cruel or heartless step-parents that run through folklore have a biological basis. A pair of Canadian psychologists, Margo Wilson and Martin Daly, claim that children are up to 100 times more likely to be abused or killed by a step-parent than by a genetic parent. The[y] ... believe the heightened level of violence suffered by stepchildren is a product of evolutionary programming. Daly and Wilson are in the vanguard of the self-proclaimed `new science' of evolutionary psychology. Evolutionary psychologists believe that all human behavior has been shaped by a ruthless Darwinian calculus of reproductive self-interest. ... In evolutionary terms, then, stepchildren will always be behind the eight ball. There is simply no good Darwinian reason for an adult to `invest' in a child who doesn't share their genes. ... Daly and Wilson have put together an impressive array of statistics from a number of countries, all of which point, in their view, to one conclusion: that step-parents are, in fact, `hugely over-represented' as perpetrators of child abuse, and `even more hugely as child murderers'. ... However, there is a paradox about these grisly statistics, one that seems to upset the whole Darwinian applecart. In all these countries, the total number of children killed by their natural parents is still higher than that killed by step-parents. Evolutionary psychologists have developed some ingenious theories to explain why it is that anyone should commit what amounts to genetic suicide by murdering their own offspring. ... Within the scientific community are many who believe Daly and Wilson's Darwinian view of parental love is flawed, and question their statistical evidence and scientific reasoning. A major study published in 1991 by R.J. Gelles and J.W. Harrop [Gelles, R. & Harrop, J. (1991). The risk of abusive violence among children with nongenetic caretakers. Family Relations, 40, 78- 83], veteran American researchers on family violence, found that there was no significant difference between the rates of severe violence perpetrated by natural parents and step-parents. And Steven Rose, a professor of biology at the Open University in Britain, and a leading critic of evolutionary psychology, argues that Daly and Wilson have tailored the facts to fit their hypothesis. `There's a huge difference in murder rates between, say, the UK and the US,' says Rose. `For their hypothesis to have any scientific validity, you would expect the rate to be reasonably constant across populations. And even more importantly, the actual percentage of step-parents who kill or abuse a child is tiny. The vast majority are no different from genetic parents: if there really were some deep Darwinian antipathy between step-parents and stepchildren, you would expect a lot more step-parents to be killers, and that simply isn't the case.' Leslie Margolin, a child-abuse researcher at the University of Iowa, is less circumspect, calling Daly and Wilson's theory `patent nonsense'. `Step-parents don't have the same social supports and incentives to care for children as biological parents,' argues Margolin. `They don't have a long shared history with the kids.'. ... in a significant number of instances, stepfathers were encouraged to assault a child by the child's mother. ... This scenario, repeated consistently in the cases Margolin studied, seems to strike at the roots of Daly and Wilson's work. So, why then would a mother jeopardise her `precious Darwinian investments' ... by encouraging a genetic interloper to do them harm? Daly and Wilson shrug off these criticisms. ... In Daly and Wilson's world view, the truth is much simpler: stepparents feel a kind of visceral resentment at `pseudo-parental obligation' that is, in Darwinian terms, against nature. ... Like many of the comparisons evolutionary psychology makes between human and animal behavior, this has a seductive surface appeal. Rose, however, calls it a `crappy just-so story', no more deserving of scientific credibility than Kipling's fables. `If it's natural, and lions do it all the time, then why don't humans?' says Rose ... Rose argues that Daly and Wilson ignore counter-examples from animal and human behavior that might make their theory look shaky. `The real clincher is adoption. Adoptive parents have no genetic relationship to their children, but there's no evidence at all that they are any more violent or abusive towards their children than "natural" parents.'" (Morton T., "Child-killers: is it in the genes?," The Age, 6 May 2000. My emphasis)
So once again, when Darwinian evolution is actually put to the experimental test, it is found to be a weak-to-non-existent causal factor! And if "There is simply no good Darwinian reason for an adult to `invest' in a child who doesn't share their genes" but they do it anyway (even to the extent of being willing to lay down their life for their stepchildren - as Mr Piefke was), then why is not Darwinian evolution (at least as an explanation of human behaviour) falsified? But of course, "Daly and Wilson shrug off these criticisms". To a true-believing Darwinist, the "a priori reasoning is so entirely satisfactory ... that if the facts won't fit in, why so much the worse for the facts"!:
"For myself I really think it is the most interesting book [The Origin of Species] I ever read, and can only compare it to the first knowledge of chemistry, getting into a new world or rather behind the scenes. To me the geographical distribution, I mean the relation of islands to continents, is the most convincing of the proofs; and the relation of the oldest forms to the existing species. I dare say I don't feel enough the absence of varieties, but then I don't in the least know if everything now living were fossilized whether the paleontologists could distinguish them. In fact the a priori reasoning is so entirely satisfactory to me that if the facts won't fit in, why so much the worse for the facts is my feeling." (Erasmus Darwin, letter to [his brother] Charles Darwin, November 23, 1859, in Darwin F., ed., "The Life and Letters of Charles Darwin," [1898], Basic Books: New York NY, Vol. II., 1959, reprint, p.29).

I have added some of the above quotes to a new section of my "Problem of Evolution" book outline, PE 15.2.4 "Evolutionary Psychology ... Step-parents"

Stephen E. Jones, BSc (Biol).
"Problems of Evolution"

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