Watch Out! We Need Sentinels in Perilous Times
Dr. James J. S. Johnson
“This know also, that in the last days perilous times shall come.” (2nd Timothy 3:1)
Watch out! Dangers lurk everywhere—these are surely perilous times.(1)
One of the apologetics-exhorting themes in Jude’s epistle is the need to beware of—and to forewarn others about—irreverent scoffers who try to distort and resist God’s truth, as we contend earnestly for the truth that God has given.(2)
Yet, even bird populations must watch out for lurking hazards and airborne threats in their nesting neighborhoods and while visiting migratory stopovers—predators on foot, like wolves, or in air, like hawks!(3),(4)
One habit that prey populations often exhibit, to careful observers, is the practice of appointing a “sentinel”—a “watchman on the wall”, so to speak.(5),(6)
One bird—sometimes more—of the flock is assigned the role of warning (called “alarming”) the others who are foraging (i.e., eating) or otherwise occupied with nest-building or other activities. In some groups sentinel duty is rotated—taking turns at “guard duty”—while in other groups the responsibility is sorted as a division-of-labor assignment, such as male birds more often serving as sentinels.(6),(7),(8)
This is quite puzzling to evolutionists, who assume that, ultimately, there needs to be a selfish advantage for every activity, as opposed to some creatures behaving altruistically, because that is what they do (or are programmed to do).(7),(8)
Sentinel behaviour, where individuals take turns to watch for danger and give alarm calls to approaching predators, has been observed in a number of animal societies. However, the evolutionary causes of this behaviour remain unclear. There are two main, competing hypotheses regarding the evolution of sentinel behaviour. The first hypothesis is that it is a cooperative behaviour, where group members benefit from the detection of danger but share the workload of acting as a sentinel. The second is that it is a safe, selfish behaviour. Under the second hypothesis, once an individual is satiated, being a sentinel is safer because sentinels can detect threats more readily and can therefore escape from predators faster. (7)
But what are the observable facts about sentinels? Is their service somehow a selfish benefit to themselves, when they serve as their group’s watchmen?
Or, are some sentinel creatures actually behaving in altruistic ways, protecting the group they belong to, at greater risk (or other cost) to themselves?
We examined whether sentinels are safer than foragers in a wild, free-living cooperative bird (the pied babbler, Turdoides bicolor) with a well-described sentinel system. We found that sentinel behaviour was costly because (a) sentinels were targeted by predators more often, (b) they were further from cover than foragers, and (c) they took longer to reach the safety of cover following a predator alarm.(7)
In fact, animals exhibit some behaviors that—if practiced by humans—would be called “selfish” and “cruel”, as well as other behaviors that we call “altruistic” and “self-sacrificing”.
These results suggest that individuals do not become sentinels because it is safer. This is the first study to demonstrate that sentinels are at greater risk of predator attack than foraging group members and suggests sentinel activity may have evolved [sic] as a form of cooperative behaviour.(7)
However, moral accountability is unique to human behavior, because only we humans—being uniquely made in God’s image—are Earth-dwelling creatures that have true moral accountability for our activities.(9)
It is important to sound the alarm, early, when doing so can prevent—or at least mitigate—an approaching disaster. Sometimes the messenger of bad news pays a price (for delivering an unwelcome message), but it’s better to sound the alarm early—hopefully early enough to prevent harm—than to delay a warning that leads to damage-control problems that grow costlier with time.(1),(2),(5),(6)
Of course, caringly sharing the Gospel of redemption in Christ is the best warning of all, even if it involves costly risks.(5)
- Matthew 8:28; 2nd Timothy 3:1.
- Jude 1:3-4. See also Psalm 119, Acts 20:28-31, and 2nd Peter 2:12-19. See also Footnote 6 within Johnson, J. J. S. 2020. Maple Syrup, Gold Nanoparticles, and Gratitude. Creation Science Update (May 25, 2020), posted at https://www.icr.org/article/maple-syrup-gold-nanoparticles-and-gratitude.
- Johnson, J. J. S. 2017. Securing Nests and Nestlings from Parasites and Predators, in Norway and Beyond. Nordic Legacy Series (Norwegian Society of Texas, Fort Worth, Texas, November 26, 2017), 9 pages.
- Prey-predator relationships can be both complicated and detailed. See Sherwin, F. 2016. Smart and Stealthy Cuttlefish. Creation Science Update (January 11, 2016), at https://www.icr.org/article/smart-stealthy-cuttlefish . See also Sherwin, F. 2005. All Out War in the Cornfield. Acts & Facts. 34(8), posted at https://www.icr.org/article/all-out-war-cornfield . For one of the most unusual illustrations of defense against predators, listen to Frank Sherwin’s podcast titled “Bombardier Beetle” (July 17, 2017), posted at https://www.icr.org/article/bombardier-beetle .
- Ezekiel 33:2-10, especially 33:7. Compare also 2 Corinthians 2:14-17 with John 3:14-21.
- Johnson, J. J. S. 2020. Jackdaws Identify ‘Dangerous’ from ‘Safe’ Humans. Creation Science Update (May 4, 2020), posted at https://www.icr.org/article/jackdaws-identify-dangerous-from-safe-humans .
- Ridley, A. R., M. J. Nelson-Flower, et al. 2013. Is Sentinel Behaviour Safe? An Experimental Investigation. Animal Behaviour. 85(1):137-142, posted at https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0003347212004770 .
- Wright, J., E. Berg, et al. 2001. Safe Selfish Sentinels in a Cooperative Bird. Journal of Animal Ecology. 70:1070-1079.
- Genesis 1:26-27. See also Acts 20:35 and Philippians 2:5-11.