Survival, Success, and Significance: Part 10

In the previous entry in this series on survival, success, and significance, we discussed the concept of abstraction. We covered how humans used abstraction to decouple from the natural ebb and flow of the environment, and to exert top down control. We discussed how this ability to ascend to higher levels of abstraction, was essential for the emergence of the human experience in the past, and how it is essential for our future. This ability allows us to use all manner of computing devices, such as phones and tablets, without knowing the precise details, of what the machine code, the logic gates, and memory chips, are even doing. We came to see that this power of abstraction creates a way for new connections to be made among lower level parts, that would otherwise not be correlated or controllable. This was exemplified by the advent of farming, an activity that showcases the ability for humans to shape the world by choice, rather than to merely to react by instinct.

In this entry, we will delve into a very specific kind of abstraction, that is at the heart of the human experience. The abstraction that raises survival, from animal bodies in the natural world, to the concept of “success”, for a narrative self, in the world of the human mind.

The Difference Between Survival and Success

There are many ways to define survival and success, but let us start with operational definitions. These will make the contrast as clear as possible, for the purposes of this discussion.

Operational Definition of Survival

From an operational standpoint, survival can be defined as continued existence over time. To say that something has survived, is to say that some form we consider to be the same entity, has existed from some point in the past, until the present moment when we observe it.

We could, of course, go further than this bare-bones description, and talk about all manner of behaviors, processes, systems, and environments etc. These other elements may be necessary for survival, but that would not change the core aspect we care about here, which is, the continued existence over time.

Operational Definition of Success

Defining success, from an operational standpoint, is somewhat more difficult than defining survival. This seems like it would be a problem in this discussion about survival and success, but this is not the case. It actually turns out to be a benefit because it helps us understand what success is not.

Success Defined in Negative Terms

One of the oldest yet least used tools, to grapple with complex topics, is to use negative information rather than positive statements. This approach of saying what something is not, rather than what it is explicitly, is known as the apophatic approach. This contrasts with the cataphatic approach, which is our normal default way, of exhaustively trying to label everything with properties.

Taking this apophatic approach to defining success, we can see that success is not defined by continued existence over time. This may be necessary, but it is not sufficient to define success. Further, taking this negative approach, we can say that success is not something that must be present for existence, unlike survival. Following in the same pattern, we can tell that success is not always going to be present or apparent, in the lower level details of physical survival.

Perhaps the most crucial nugget we can glean from defining success by what it is not, is to recognize that unlike survival, success does not seem to be definable from examining a single example.

In other words, upon closer inspection, you start to realize that any individual example that has existed in the past, and exists in the present moment, necessarily has survived. We could know that without reference to any other example, we would only need the one. In contrast, we could not know in any rigorous sense, if the example that survived, was also “successful”. We have no surefire way to know.

You might think you would know success when you see it, but that would only be based on sneaking in your life experiences and preconceived notions, about what you already associate with the concept of success. Imagine, that you went out on exploration, into the Amazon rainforest, to a place untouched by modern society. Suppose you encountered a person from a tribe, that is unknown to the outside world. You would immediately understand that his person has survived from the past, but how would you know if this person was “successful”? Undoubtedly, you would have more money and education than this person, but that is just what we choose to value in modern western society. How do you know what is considered successful, to this remote tribe, with an entirely different culture from yours? How would this person know if you were “successful”, without a conception of the modern world? This person could have no shoes, no shirt, no education, no money, no property, not even a social security card, or bank account. Yet, for all we know he could be the king of a long-lost civilization, that has dominion over more land, medicinal plants, and natural resources, than we could ever imagine.

The point is, that success, unlike survival, is not self-evident. Success defies attempts at absolute definitions. For this reason, success cannot be defined in a vacuum, rather it must necessarily be an abstraction, built on top of lower level concepts.

Success Defined on top of Survival

We have defined survival, operationally, as continued existence over time. So, how might success, relate to that operational definition of survival? One way to look at this, is to view success, as a “surplus” of survival. In other words, we have problems defining success operationally because, in some sense, it can only have meaning, by standing on top of the operational definition of survival.

Some might argue that when they think of success, they are certainly not imagining something as dry and anodyne as a “surplus of survival”. You might be thinking that nobody in their right mind would build massive companies, become professional athletes, run for president, or even get a graduate degree, or do anything out of the ordinary, for a mere “surplus of survival”.

The “Great Gatsby” might not be so great, if it didn’t depict the clash between the nouveau riche bootlegger, and the old money haters, across the bay. “The Godfather” might not have transcended the mafia genre, if it wasn’t for its portrayal of an immigrant family, struggling to maintain its hold on illicit success. The “American Dream” itself, might not be so cliché, or endlessly alluring, if it were not for its implicit promise of money, power, and respect.

We have a whole grab bag of images, memes, personalities, places, possessions, and lifestyles, that we associate with our idea of success. From the pomp and circumstance, of big bands and applause lines, following the presidential inauguration, to the hoisting of the Lombardi trophy, under the sparkle of bright lights and confetti made snow, we know success when we see it.

So, how can it be, that all of this pageantry started off, as nothing more than a story? An abstraction in the human mind, about something as boring and un-captivating, as a mere “surplus of survival”?

Success as an Abstraction of Survival

As soon as survival becomes decoupled from the natural world, the range of behaviors that are compatible with survival, expands dramatically.

Success, in the external material sense, begins to emerge as a proxy for survival.

Success, in the internal sense, emerges as the abstract guide posts, for potential plans in the human mind. It signals rewards and threats, to a narrative self that is no longer coupled, to the natural world, or to the present moment. This topic of the narrative self, deserves an entry dedicated to that specific discussion. So, I will pause this conversation here, and pick it up in a more focused manner, down the line.

Notice that all animal species, behave in ways that are in line with promoting their survival in the natural world. They really don’t have much of a choice. For as soon as they deviate from the path, evolution will cancel their membership to the club called “existence”, and they will be relegated to skeleton duty, at the museum of natural history.

This is because animals are stuck, for the most part, at the level of bodily survival. In this sense, we might think of them as being on behavioral train tracks. They can certainly do things in the world, but their range of behaviors are quite limited. Animals may hunt and gather in excess of what they need at any one specific time, as in the case of preparing for hibernation. That said, for animals there is little to no decoupling from the natural ebb and flow of the environment, beyond that.

If we think of animals as being on behavioral train tracks, then humans are the motorcycles, ride-shares, boats, planes, and spaceships that traverse the modern world. To take this analogy one step further, humans not only jumped off the behavioral train tracks, we created Zoom video calls, so we can virtually visit Paris from Palo Alto, all while wearing pajamas, if we so choose.

The human mind presented a radically different set of opportunities and challenges, that spurred evolution to shape within us, some unique and unexpected solutions. These new solutions were not of the animal world, but they were still riding on top of its back. This interplay between our animal origins, and our newly decoupled ways of being, are woven into each other, as the fabric of our human experience.

Closing Thoughts

In this entry, we looked at the topic of success in the human mind, as an abstraction above the survival of the physical body, in the animal world.

In the next entry, we will delve further into this relationship. We will discuss how the abstraction of success, grew to be linked with the survival instincts we inherited from the animal world. Further, we will examine how this chaining of abstract success, to animal survival, created a new kind of beast. A hybrid made of flesh and bone, that lives its life, in an abstract world of narratives. A self made simulation, about the bygone past, and the undetermined future.