Survival, Success, and Significance: Part 11

In the previous entry in this series on survival, success, and significance, we explored the topic of success, as an abstraction above animal survival. We came to see that operationally, success can be viewed as a surplus of survival. Thinking of success in this way allows us to better understand, its relationship with survival in the natural world.

In this entry, we will examine a crucial transition that defines the human world. The transition from immediate survival needs, to an existence based on having a surplus of resources, over time.

From Survival to Surplus

One of the core problems any living system faces, is how to survive, when resources are constrained. Nature has addressed this issue in many ways, from bodily adaptations, to behavioral programming.

The animal body itself will create its own surplus in the form of fat. This is a mechanism for storing excess calories, that can be converted into energy when required by the body. We can see similar adaptations used for storing excess water, sugar, and other essential compounds.

In modern times we generally try to shed as much fat as we can, but in doing so, we are making a strong bet on having a consistent surplus of calories, constantly available.

A behavioral corollary is that at times of stress, we are often driven to eat more calories than we need to survive at the time. Again, this is largely an adaptive behavior that could be helpful if we were still inhabiting the natural world. Our poor bodies don’t know, that it’s s the 21st century, and we can have Bertucci’s delivered from Uber Eats, any day of the week. This is an example of our survival instincts, trying to protect us from starvation, by compelling us to overeat. It is worth noting that this example starts to show how decoupling from the natural world, changes the context for the adaptive strategies evolution has produced, for animal bodies. This “imperfect union” of a human world mixed with animal instincts, is a theme that we will return to many times.

For now, just consider some of the ways that biological systems, create a surplus of crucial resources, to survive tough times. Though these strategies can be effective in the right context, what you will notice is that these approaches broadly fall into the category of hoarding existing resources. In other words, the surplus is generally based on what an animal can gather in the present moment, and store inside the physical body. More calories, more water, more sugar etc. Whatever the resources are that evolution has made us sensitive to, the body will compel us to seek those out, and to store as much of them internally, as possible.

Though very straightforward, this internal hoarding approach, has some obvious downsides. For one, it is limited by how much of a particular resource, you can acquire at one time. Further, it is limited by how much of a resource you can store internally at one time. If excess calories are not available to an animal right now, they cannot create a surplus to sustain them in leaner times. Even if excess calories are available to an animal, there will be very stringent limits, on how many excess calories can be stored in the body. Together, the environment and the body, constrain the effectiveness and adaptability of this internal hoarding approach, to creating a surplus of survival resources.

So again, you see that even when we speak about abundance in the natural world, there is still a very tight coupling between the environment and the animal body. Storing extra fat might get you through a tough winter, but it will not get you out of the animal world and into human civilization. That requires more than mere a mere surplus of survival resources, it requires a concept above survival altogether.

It requires the abstraction of “success”.

Closing Thoughts

In this entry, we covered some key aspects about the transition from immediate survival necessities, to a human world that is based on the presence of surplus.

In the following entry we will look at the next transition, that took us from merely creating surplus resources, to creating a new world based on the abstract concept of success.