Hunting Wolves and Fractal Nonsense

“For the bullshitter, however, all these bets are off: he is neither on the side of the true nor on the side of the false. His eye is not on the facts at all, as the eyes of the honest man and of the liar are, except insofar as they may be pertinent to his interest in getting away with what he says. He does not care whether the things he says describe reality correctly. He just picks them out, or makes them up, to suit his purpose.”
– Harry Frankfurt, On Bullshit

One thing I find annoying is self-proclaimed experts who make stately claims, fabricating and distorting facts to suit their purposes. I am offended by their intellectual dishonesty.

We live in an age where information is easily available; it is no longer the sole privilege of a few scholars bent over ancient books in obscure inaccessible libraries. Today, anyone with an internet connection can access Google (better yet Google Scholar), PubMed or a vast number of other academic repositories and easily check if what they say is actually true. If a writer doesn’t bother to check the facts it is because he does not care.

This is not a daily blog for several reasons, the main one is that fact-checking takes time – I also suck as a writer and it takes me several drafts to make anything readable.

The Wikipedia entry on intellectual honesty lists

  • One’s personal beliefs do not interfere with the pursuit of truth;
  • Relevant facts and information are not purposefully omitted even when such things may contradict one’s hypothesis;
  • Facts are presented in an unbiased manner, and not twisted to give misleading impressions or to support one view over another;
  • References are acknowledged where possible, and plagiarism is avoided

22 years as a student and 3 more as an indentured servant (aka. PostDoc) has crammed the importance of intellectual honesty into my head. I doesn’t assure perfection. Sure, I could make a mistake; I could misread a paper or cite a dodgy study but if it happens, it will be a mistake not an attempt at BS.

Which brings me to the topic at hand.

I’ve mentioned Behan and his acolyte before, and I haven’t been shy to criticize their disregard for science as well as their tendency to make things up. My recent (here & here) posts on wolves, has prompted this blog response from Kevin Behan, in which he attempts to explain away the findings.

This also points to a common theme with pseudoscience claims; no fact, no discovery, no amount of evidence, reason or logic can ever affect the claims.

Behan starts off by ignoring the fact that many social hunters, not just wolves, are maximally efficient in small (3-6) groups and he glosses over the fact that withholding/free-riding or whatever you want to call it, is observed whenever groups go beyond a certain threshold.

Not being able to address the evidence he falls back on semantic arguments. He writes; “the term “withholding” is highly charged as it is imbued with human reason.” To fully understand his objection, the reader should know that Behan claims that dogs CANNOT AND DO NOT THINK. Ever! I do not subscribe to this type of anthropocentric argument. If  cognition research has taught us anything in the past 2 decades, it is that the human/non-human distinction is a blurry one. Behan’s objections are typical of his straw man tactics. No one is using the word ‘withholding’ to indicate anything about the wolves’ mental state. In his paper, MacNulty uses ‘withholding’ to describe a behavior. That is how I used too.

The author shows a poor understanding of evolution and bad scholarship when he writes; “I’ve read that only one out of thirteen hunts of moose are successful. And yet wolves persist.

I’ve read,” Where? Did he read it in a bathroom wall? There is a reason I have a ‘references’ section at the end, so the reader can check for herself. You don’t have to believe me that “I’ve read something somewhere.” (btw, the traffic data shows that many of you follow the links to the studies and other sources…. thanks)

And yes, they do persist. The alternative is to not hunt and die from starvation. Animals that don’t persist die and don’t pass on their genes. And wolves are not that different than other predators, they all show a high percentage of failed hunting attempts. So the experience of the wolf is in line with that of other predators. Again, nothing unique.

As usual Behan fails to do any research; he simple declares facts into existence by fiat. He proclaims that African wild hunting dogs (Lycaon pictus) “almost always enjoy success. “Almost always“? Hayward’s (2006) meta-analysis from 18 studies from mid 1950s to 2005 gives an average of 44%; the oft cited Fuller and Kat (1993) report a 51% success.

The bar for “almost always” isn’t what it used to be.

Of course that means that the rest of Behan’s argument is based on a fantasy. Behan rests his argument on this fabricated lie of near perfect hunting success and goes on to proclaim that the AWHD has a limited capacity to adapt to new situations –  he makes argument based on that false premise. And his lack of research shows again. Lycaon “prefer prey within a bimodal body mass range of 16–32 kg and 120–140 kg” (Hayward 2006), Behan’s to suggestion that “there is no need to adapt on the fly” is not supported by the data.

 “And yet no version of a domesticated AWHD has ever emerged in the tens of thousands of years that they’ve lived alongside early hominids and then human beings”[1]

I was amused by Behan’s big argument that the fact that Lycaon hasn’t been domesticated indicates some greater truth about dogs or wolves. This is the same silly argument you often hear from people who don’t understand evolution. They ask “why don’t chimps develop human level intelligence” or “why can’t all cats run as fast as the cheetah?”, “be as strong as a lion?”, “big as an elephant?”

To quote evolutionary biologist Richard Lenski

 “In any case, our study shows that historical contingency can have a profound and lasting impact under the simplest, and thus most stringent, conditions in which initially identical populations evolve in identical environments. Even from so simple a beginning, small happenstances of history may lead populations along different evolutionary paths. A potentiated cell took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.” – Lenski (2008)

So even under identical conditions E.coli populations will diverge taking take different evolutionary paths. Given our experience with bacteria, I am not the least bit flummoxed that a domesticated dog-like Lycaon hasn’t emerged.

The state of being wrong at every conceivable scale of resolution. That is, from a distance, a fractally wrong person’s worldview is incorrect; and furthermore, if you zoom in on any small part of that person’s worldview, that part is just as wrong as the whole worldview.
Debating with a person who is fractally wrong leads to infinite regress, as every refutation you make of that person’s opinions will lead to a rejoinder, full of half-truths, leaps of logic, and outright lies, that requires just as much refutation to debunk as the first one. It is as impossible to convince a fractally wrong person of anything as it is to walk around the edge of the Mandelbrot set in finite time.
If you ever get embroiled in a discussion with a fractally wrong person on the Internet–in mailing lists, newsgroups, or website forums–your best bet is to say your piece once and ignore any replies, thus saving yourself time.

BTW, I am ignoring the Behanese babble:

“A circle has a geometry. At the center of the circle is the prey brought-to-ground. At the center of an individual prey animal’s body is its center of gravity. If a predator can exert enough force against the prey’s center of gravity, it can bring it to ground. If it can bring it to ground it can kill it. The body of the predator evolved around the physical geometry of the body of the prey it hunts, not to mention a calculus of force, thermodynamics and the laws of motion, which are also invoked in bringing a prey to ground.”[1]

There is little value in addressing this meaningless word-salad except to note his misuse of technical terms, employed to lend credence and authority to factually devoid claims. Is this a long-running Sokal-styled hoax?

Behan goes on to make the same fallacious claim that he has repeated in other posts as well as his book; that wolves are different because they are physically weaker/smaller than their prey. Again this is not unique, the same is true for lions, leopards, cheetahs, foxes, hyenas, cougars, dholes, piranhas and even ants; they all take down prey larger than themselves.

The final false argument Behan makes is to let his readers believe that wolves are unique and different from their precocial prey.

“Wolf cubs don’t have to hit the ground running prepackaged with hardwired fixed action patterns.”[1]

But that’s the same for all mammalian, avian and even some reptilian predators. Lions and bears stay with the mother for 2 years, tigers for 3, killer whales 4 years, dholes 2 years, leopards 2 years, jaguars 2 years and the wolves also about 2 years.

Behan makes questionable claims and his readers tolerate it. His readers are willing to accept intellectual dishonesty and that makes them willing participants in the lie.

Intellectual honesty also applies to the reader.

Further Reading

10 Signs of Intellectual Dishonesty


  1.  Why Wolves Hunt and Dogs Can Play By Kevin Behan
  2. Hayward MW, O’Brien J, Hofmeyr M, Kerley GIH. (2006) Prey preferences of the African wild dog Lycaon pictus (Canidae:Carnivora): Ecological requirements for Conservation. Journal of Mammalogy, 87(6):1122–1131, 2006
  3. Fuller TK, Kat PW (1993). Hunting success of African wild dogs in southwestern Kenya. J Mammal 74 : 464-467.
  4. Blount ZD, Borland CZ, Lenski RE. (2008) Historical contingency and the evolution of a key innovation in an experimental population of Escherichia coli . Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2008 June 10; 105(23): 7899–7906. doi:  10.1073/pnas.0803151105

5 thoughts on “Hunting Wolves and Fractal Nonsense

  1. I believe you are an excellent writer. You definitely don’t suck. Your articles are often above what I might know or even fully understand, yet I am always interested in what you write. And, I agree very much with your sentiments. There is far too many experts on the web. In fact, a post I wrote last week, but went live tonight said that very thing. The web makes everyone an expert.

  2. I didn’t actually read the entire blog post that you linked to (by Behan)… I felt I was wasting my time. But your article is well written, and I love the fractal wrongness metaphor.

  3. So. I recognize that this post is over a year old and I’m being a nit-picking pain in the arse… but since the post is about fact checking I thought I should point out that Killer Whales stay with their family groups for life, which is considerably longer than 4 years.

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