In his book, On the Origin of Species (1872), Charles Darwin (1809-1882) theorized that “individuals having any advantage would have the best chance of surviving and of procreating their kind. This preservation of favorable individual differences and variations, and the destruction of those which are injurious, I have called Natural Selection.” Cooperation then poses an interesting problem for biologists: if animal nature is the result of the competitive process of Darwinian evolution, then all animals must surely be fiercely competitive. Scientific evidence suggests that the cognitive challenges of sociality and cooperation are the biggest metabolic expense for animals (Dunbar and Shultz 2007). Then why bother being social? This is a question we asked when observing the works of English ornithologist and illustrator, John Gould (1804-1881). Gould published over 3,000 color plates of birds from Australia, Europe, South and Central America and Asia. The selected works by Gould illustrate flocks of hummingbirds, documenting the behavior that Gould may have seen throughout his travels. This prompted us to investigate the benefits of cooperation in the context of Darwinian natural selection.
Though Gould used the name Florisuga atra for his observations of this species, this species’ name is Florisuga fusca, or the black Jacobin. The males court females by flying in a u-shaped pattern in front of them, and make the highest-pitched call of any bird.
Darwin theorized that “in social animals, [natural selection] will adapt the structure of each individual for the benefit of the whole community.” Studies suggest that breeding and living in cooperative groups can increase reproductive success, resource acquisition, and minimize predation risk. The advantages of cooperative behavior have allowed life to expand into diverse ecological roles and persist in environments that pose challenges for solitary species (Downing et al. 2020). Flock behavior allows birds to persist even in the most challenging environments, and studies suggest that flocking species have higher survival and reproduction rates than their solitary counterparts (Jullien and Colbert 2000).
Heliangelus mavors, the orange-throated sunangel, is endemic to the montane forests of Columbia and Venezuela. This species is territorial over flower clusters, and are important pollinators of the native flora.
Scientific illustrations such as Gould’s are art in the service of science. Darwin used art to illustrate and investigate his own ideas. He saw evidence that human expressions of surprise and fear were reflexes triggered by electrical activity by examining the photographs of French physician Guillaume Duchenne (Zimmer 2009). Scientific illustrators draw or render images of scientific subjects with precision and accuracy to inform and communicate. Many of the hummingbird species that Gould illustrated are now extinct, have undergone classification and name changes, or are now known to have been incorrectly identified by Gould. These pieces are highly valuable since they are some of the only known documentation of some of the birds he illustrated. Documentation from pre-20th century illustrators and naturalists show how wildlife and their traits have changed throughout the centuries as a result of natural selection. This could be because much of the science that was conducted before the 20th century was done through field observations and documented as field notes and illustrations that remain undigitized or have been lost. Even most of Darwin’s work came from his observational field notes and illustrations. As Darwin developed as a scientist, he continually developed his illustrations as well (Zimmer 2009).
“Natural selection is daily and hourly scrutinizing, throughout the world, the slightest variations; rejecting those that are bad, preserving and adding up all that are good; silently and insensibly working, whenever and wherever opportunity offers, at the improvement of each organic being in relation to its organic and inorganic conditions of life.” - Charles Darwin
Social behavior is a trait that has been retained in species across many different orders of life, from fish to birds and more, as observed by artists and scientists. Recent scientific work reveals that the variation, or adaptation, of cooperation begun at the origin of life at a molecular level. Recent research reveals to us that the physical linkage of the first self-replicating molecules may have been selected based on their capacity to perform cooperative catalysis (Xavier 2020). By viewing an individual as a dynamic unit of cooperative cells and molecules, we see that molecules that cooperate become a more successful whole, who is then naturally selected. Artists have shaped the way that scientists saw nature, and science has in return shaped the practice of art. By examining works such as Gould’s, we can further investigate the theories of classic naturalists such as Darwin’s and re-examine them in modern science.