Survival, Success, and Significance: Part 13

In the previous entry in this series, “Survival, Success, and Significance”, we looked into a major development in the making of the human experience. We explored the effects of humans transitioning from a world based on surplus survival resources, to a world based on the abstract notion “success”.

In this entry, we will look at how the human abstraction of success, interacts with, lower level survival instincts. We will learn about how success, in the human world, came to be chained with the survival of the animal body. Finally, we will see how evolution, itself, creates these special kinds of chains. Tethers, that start as mere correlations, and appear to be causal in retrospect. Chains that do not exist in space, but are instead made of links, in time.

Chaining Survival to Success

For all the great advances and advantages conferred to humans, by virtue of higher level abstractions, there is an important wrinkle to discuss. Although the human mind is an abstract world unto itself, decoupled from the natural environment, it cannot exist on its own. Ultimately, the abstract world of the human mind, must make some degree of contact, with the survival of our lower level animal bodies.

Perception Is Not Reality

This advance in human cognition, would all be for not, if our abstract notions of success, could not lead us in the direction of behaviors that promote the survival of our physical bodies. It could very well have been the case, at least initially, that the abstract notion of human success did not connect to survival. It might not have been sufficient to drive and motivate behaviors, that made survival of the physical body possible. We could have been living in “The Matrix” of our own thoughts, without regard for, or perhaps even awareness of, the survival of the physical body.

The neuroscientist Donald Hoffman,1 has shown that based on evolutionary game theory, the probability that what we think and perceive, is a faithful depiction of reality, is precisely zero. Interestingly, this inability to perceive “true reality” seems to be a generic feature of species, that survive in Hoffman’s simulations of evolutionary game theory. So, perceptual distance from the veridical state of the world, does not appear to be unique to human level minds, but seems to be a ubiquitous result of evolution. If that is true, and we have at least some strong reasons to believe that it is, this prompts us to ask why? Why would a species evolve, to perceive less accurate versions of reality?

The philosopher, Emanuel Kant, famously said that when it comes to reality, we can never know the “thing-in-itself”. Kant referred to this ultimate truth about reality, as the “Noumenon”. In contrast, Kant espoused that we can only apprehend the “Phenomenon”, with whatever means our senses and abilities, represent this to us.

So, this appears to be a paradox at first glance. It seems that not just humans, but even simple organisms, do not perceive reality accurately, veridically, and yet here we are, and the biosphere marches on, across all manner of climates, terrains, elevations, and continents. What could be going on here?

Evolution Correlates Perception with Reality

One important detail that we often don’t recognize, is that survival, as defined operationally, is about continued existence over time. That is the only metric that counts. There are no style points to be given. You and your species either continue to exist over time, or you do not. Nature does not grade on a curve, this world is a brutal exit exam, and there are only two grades. Pass and survive, or fail and die.

So, what happens over the course of evolution, is the creation of a fantastic variety of behaviors and internal representations. Most of those will not be correlated with the survival of the species, regardless of how clever or effective they might seem. We can see from looking back at the tree of life, starting with LUCA (Last Universal Common Ancestor), all the way up to modern-day humans, that survival is the fleeting exception, not the general rule. If you ever want to feel like part of the 1% club, just look at the tree of life and notice that your branch still continues. The general scientific consensus, is that of all species which have ever existed on earth, somewhere around 99% of them, have gone extinct.

This fact, about the rare nature of survival, is critical to our discussion about abstraction and representation. It is particularly crucial to our discussion about human notions of success, as they relate to the survival of our bodies, and of our species.

As we have covered briefly in an earlier entry, evolution expands combination options, and then reduces them to the few combinations that survive. In that process of expansion and reduction, uncorrelated elements can become correlated, simply by virtue of being among the few that survive together. What survives, then gets fed back into the possibilities for the next cycle. This Janus2 faced dynamic, of explosive expansion, followed by merciless reduction, creates a special kind of chain. Not one made of iron, or steel, but a chain made of correlations in time.

Chains of Correlation

The “links” that chain abstract notions of success in the human mind, to concrete survival of the physical body, are not really “in” any particular place like a brain or a jungle etc. They are a part of the context that is defined, as the contest for what survives, in the winner take all game, of evolution.

A main reason that we can have abstract thoughts and yet still survive in a lower level world, is that evolution has funneled our psychology in such a way that abstractions in our minds, have become correlated with fitness payoffs. Crucially, we don’t have to know anything whatsoever about what the reality of the world is actually like. In fact, as mentioned earlier, scientists such as Donald Hoffman have shown in convincing ways, that we have survived precisely because we don’t see the world as it really is.

Return to the metaphor of our phones and tablets, and you will see the similarity. We don’t buy iPads so that we can get an accurate representation of what the voltages and memory chips and logic gates, are doing. We buy modern computing devices, specifically because we have abstract applications, that allow us to write, and read, and listen, and watch whatever we want, without knowing anything whatsoever, about the “reality” of the lower level computation.

The mere fact that our species has kept surviving, from the first humans 300,000 years ago, to the modern day, is nothing short of remarkable. Not merely because we are human, but for the fact that no survival of any kind, is promised. This is all the evidence needed to conclusively show, that whatever our minds have been doing at the higher level of abstraction, it has been in continuous correlation, with the lower level survival of our species.

The chain that runs from abstractions about success in the human mind, to the survival of our animal bodies, is the process of evolution itself.

Closing Thoughts

In this entry in the series “Survival, Success, and Significance”, we looked at some ways that physical survival, gradually became chained to the more abstract notion of “success”.

We discussed, the evidence that perception can be quite different from reality, and how this could actually be considered a “feature” and not a “bug”. We discussed how evolution, correlates perception with reality, even if that perception is never of true reality itself. Finally, we discussed how evolution creates chains of correlations. Links that do not tie different objects together in space, but rather, tethers of association, between different states of a system, in time.

There are few concepts more central to this series on survival, success, and significance, than evolution. Moreover, the ability to think in terms of evolutionary processes, allows us to move beyond anthropomorphic and teleological explanations of the world. This is especially important as we discuss the origins of our own species, and particularly when topics such as the human mind are involved.

Up to this point in the series, the concept of evolution has largely been in the background. It has been treated a bit like the sky, in a heroic photograph of a game winning touchdown reception. In other words, evolution has always been in the picture, but it’s usually not the focus.

Most of us, believe that we know what evolution is about. If you ask the common man or woman on the street, most could probably mention something about Darwin, and natural selection. By and large, the general understanding, about the concept of evolution, has not progressed beyond these scant few words and phrases, found in any high-school textbook about biology.

Most people consider evolution to be something that happened long ago, in the distant past. They assume evolution is exclusively about biology. Most think there is nothing more to evolution than some old guy with a beard, and something about birds on an island. Most think evolution has nothing to do with their daily lives, and certainly has no relevance to the future of our species.

These are all commonly held opinions, and the one thing they all have in common, is that they are incorrect, woefully outdated, and utterly ill-conceived. If this were the only damage, perhaps it wouldn’t be such a big deal, after all, people believe all manner of things that aren’t accurate or true, and yet the world goes on. So, why is it so important to have a deeper and more accurate understanding about evolution?

Ultimately, evolution is not some side concept, like the fried calamari and bread rolls, that arrive before your entrée. In some sense, evolution is not just the main course of the dinner. It is really more akin to the entire history of cooking, and the economy of the restaurant industry, that makes it possible for you to order dinner in the first place. In other words, evolution is not a side consideration to be taken lightly. As the philosopher Dan Dennett has described, in his book “Darwin’s Dangerous Idea”, evolution is like a “universal acid”. He meant this in the sense, that when thoroughly understood, the concept of evolution has a way of “eating through”, many Gordian Knots of inquiry, that seem to defy explanation by other means. It is certainly among the most powerful ideas ever created, if not the clear winner outright.

Looking forward in this series, we will get a better sense of what evolution actually is about. We will see why it is so crucial for understanding everything from human minds, to how there are any persistent forms in a universe, that seems to be expanding and becoming increasingly disordered.

We will explore some of these questions in future entries in this series “Survival, Success, and Significance”.

  1. Donald Hoffman, has several theories that may be relevant to this discussion. In particular, this reference is to his “Interface Theory of Perception”. A detailed account of the theory can be found at the link to this paper, published 9/18/2015, and authored by Donald D. Hoffman, Manish Singh, and Chetan Prakash ↩︎
  2. This is a brief background on the god Janus, from the Wikipedia entry, for those who are unfamiliar.

    In ancient Roman religion and myth, Janus (/ˈdʒeɪnəs/ JAY-nəs; Latin: Ianus ˈi̯aːnʊs) is the god of beginnings, gates, transitions, time, duality, doorways, passages, frames, and endings. He is usually depicted as having two faces. The month of January is named for Janus (Ianuarius). According to ancient Roman farmers' almanacs, Juno was mistaken as the tutelary deity of the month of January; but, Juno is the tutelary deity of the month of June.

    Janus presided over the beginning and ending of conflict, and hence war and peace.