Survival, Success, and Significance: Part 16

Previously, in this series “Survival, Success, and Significance” the topic of Darwinian evolution was discussed, to set the context for more specific conversations about the human experience.

In 1859, when Darwin published the first manuscript of “The Origin of Species”, it began to change the way we think about forms and functions, in the biosphere. Prior to Darwin, it was often difficult for people to conceive of the natural world, having the ability to change itself, and generate new forms and functions, without the intervention of divine intelligence.

What Darwin’s theory represented, went beyond the wings, and flippers, and fur, that could be observed with our eyes. It accounted for them in terms of processes of “natural selection”, that would constantly be running behind the scenes, without the need of an intentional selector.

While we often speak of evolution as a given, and can cite numerous examples of the seemingly supernatural ability for evolution to craft solutions, to problems that appear impossible2, we often miss what is perhaps the crown jewel of evolution, that which allows us to think of evolution in the first place.

The human mind.

Uneven Evolution

Why Evolution is Important for Understanding our Human Experience

Survival, Success, and Significance, are so fundamental to our human experience, and yet we rarely stop to consider what these aspects of life really are, and how to relate to them. This is what led me to initially write the first few posts that eventually turned into this extended series.

Often we do not possess the mental models and the basic knowledge, to analyze these aspects of our lives in their proper context. This is the main reason why evolution, and its implications, are discussed in the course of this series. Many people think that evolution is something that happened in the past, and has no relevance in the present, but they could not be more mistaken. When it comes to the principles of evolution, quite often “What’s past is Prologue”3.

When people believe that things in the world are fixed, static, Balkanized, incomprehensible, unexplainable etc., they tend to develop very limiting beliefs about themselves and about the world in general. Curiosity quickly gives way to callousness, and we are seeing much of this in the world of the early 21st century, unfortunately.

In the case of human knowledge and understanding writ large, note that Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection, is more widely applicable than it may seem to be at first glance. It was not just a game changer because it told us something about how birds developed so many remarkable variations of beak shapes and colors. In other words, the true value of “The Origin of Species” published in 1859, was not merely to explain the origin of species. That was a great opening act, a great appetizer, but perhaps surprising even to Darwin himself, it was not the main course. As with any great dinner, or play, or movie, or song, or any affair of the heart and mind, it takes time to work up to a proper crescendo, and for the process to reveal its the true value.

What Darwin gave us, with his theory, was so much more than a one trick pony. When the principles of evolution are understood in their more pure and general form, they provide a way to think about more than how zebras got their stripes, or how giraffes got so tall. When the underlying principles of evolution are generalized, they provide us with a way to conceive of the emergence, of all manner of complex forms. They allow us to account for the endless functions, meanings, and purposes we infer, from the suggestive contexts, in which the forms of nature and humankind alike, survive.

Ultimately for us, this means that we must know something about evolution to even begin to grapple, with the forms and functions that constitute our brief human experience4.

This is why having a grasp for the concept of evolution is so crucial for understanding the topics of this series; survival, success, and significance.

The Human Experience

Humans evolved to survive in the natural world, then we decoupled from the natural world, so we no longer needed to survive on its terms, but could instead do so on our own terms (at least to a large extent).

The little wrinkle, the fly in the ointment, is that evolution and progress is much faster at higher levels of abstraction, where hardware limitations of the lower levels, are much less constraining.

The result is that parts of the human experience rapidly evolved, and decoupled from the natural world, such as our capacity for symbolic representation and abstract reasoning.

On the other hand, our emotional brain circuits, automated behaviors, and especially our physical bodies, could not change so easily. They were effectively “hardwired” at the lowest levels, and remain as remnants of our animal origins.

Humans thus found themselves in a very strange position, with a mind racing to invent the human world of the future, and a body, deeply rooted, in the animal world of the past.

Software vs. Hardware

It may be worth briefly returning to a previous thread about abstraction and computation, that is particularly relevant to this discussion about the human mind and body.

One of the most important distinctions to recognize, is the distinction between hardware and software. To start, we can look at the obvious examples of the phones and tablets we use every day, but importantly, this is a dichotomy that is applicable well beyond the confines of human made devices and programs.

When we use YouTube on our phones, or host a Zoom call on our iPads, we are using software as an interface to the underlying hardware. It is key to note that all the thousands, if not millions of “apps” and websites that we use, are higher levels of abstraction that allow us to control the hardware at the lower levels.

Here is a very concrete way of seeing the difference between hardware and software, and more generally between lower levels and higher level abstractions. If you want to watch a movie at home, you now have an insane number of methods to do so. You can download the Netflix app on your tablet, the HBO Max app on your laptop, you can stream from Hulu on your phone. You can even flip through channels on TV, the old-fashioned way, like we did in the 90s, with a remote in hand, just to see what’s on. The point is that you can have access to literally just about any movie you want to watch, any time, anywhere, the moment you desire.

Now contrast this with a person who aims to watch a movie, yet has no electronic device available. Whereas having a capable electronic device can grant us access to any movie, anytime, anywhere, there is no such corollary for the device itself. We do not, yet, have John von Neumann’s universal constructors as standard household equipment.5

What this means is that there is a dramatic change from the higher level of abstraction, in this case the “software” of apps and movies, to the lower level “hardware” of phones, tablets, and TVs. can send a movie to your iPad from a server across the country almost instantly. As for the iPad itself, if you want that, you will still need a truck to bring you a physical box, to your actual home address.

This example of Netflix vs. the iPad, of software v hardware, of higher level abstraction vs. lower level abstractions, will be important to keep in mind for the rest of this discussion.

Mind Racing Towards the Future

The human mind, is a higher level abstraction above the animal body6. As we have seen, this presents new opportunities for growth. In particular, this means that there is a phase transition of massive consequence, for our trajectory in evolution. Suddenly, an animal body of flesh and bone, can evolve and adapt, by changing its software, rather than its original hardware.

When we talk about changing the software, in this case we are talking about thinking, and learning, and storytelling, and reflecting, and planning. All of these abstract notions that are so integral to the human experience, that we would not know it any other way.

One aspect of this transition from hardware-based evolution of the body, to software-based evolution in the mind, is the rapid acceleration of change. It can take millions of years for evolution to change a body, so that an animal, such as a giraffe, can reach leaves high above the ground. In contrast, it may only take a moment of curiosity and ingenuity, for a human to imagine a lush farm and a thriving village, that could exist in the future. While looking out from the mountain, over an empty expanse of land.

In a talk hosted at Google headquarters, the American philosopher Danial Dennett has said “You can’t do much carpentry with your bare hands, and you can’t do much thinking with your bare brain”. The point is that when you think of the human mind, you cannot think of it as just being inherently spectacular “out of the box”, so to speak. This would be like buying an immensely powerful laptop, and not installing any applications that let you actually use that power. Further, what you start to realize, is that often, the actual raw compute power is not what makes the difference. Again, we need to go back into these concepts of abstraction and computation. You could have the fastest computer on earth,7 but without the right software, it will not help you book a flight, write an essay, chat with China, watch WestWorld, or do any of the things that you might want to do with a computer. So, the software is of absolute importance, in fact, in numerous instances great software can be more powerful, than raw computational throughput.

It is important to understand the incredible power of great software. When you look at the human brain, and then when you look at the modern world it created, we can easily tell that this is not the world our ancestors originally evolved in. What might be harder to tell, or to quantify, is how similar the “hardware” of our actual brains and bodies are to our ancestors. From what we can gather from the human genome, we are remarkably similar, not only to each other, but also to some apes such as chimpanzees, at least as far as genetic code is concerned. First, this suggests that we are likely extremely close to our genetic ancestors who first walked the plains of Africa, some 300,000 years ago. In addition, it suggests that the different between us and them, is almost entirely a matter of software, not of hardware. In other words, the making of the human world, is not so much a story of super computer brain power. If our modern brain is an iPhone 14 Pro Max, then at worst the brains of our ancestors were an iPhone X.

In other words, there is nothing crazy that we are doing as modern humans because our computational hardware of the brain, has been so radically updated8. What is really happening, is that our ancestors had the iPhone X of brains, but they had no software, no “Apps” to do anything with it. So, the story of the human experience is largely a story of creating all the various “Apps” that we needed to make the modern world.

We may be drawn most readily to what is striking to our eyes, as in the cities of skyscrapers, the whale sized planes that allow us to travel the globe, the cars that made personal mobility possible, and yes of course the computing devices like the iPad I am writing on now.

What we so often miss, in the overwhelming sights and sounds of the modern human world, is the software. The fact that all over the globe we have the software of language, that allows us to communicate our internal thoughts to the external world. We have the software of art that allows us to use symbolism to suggest one concept with a form that is not that concept itself. We have the software of logic and mathematics that allows us to make precise statements about the world, that are fixed as formal syntax, so different semantic contexts do not change them9. Finally, and perhaps most important of all, is that the human mind invented the concept of an abstract narrative self. It is this abstract narrative self that serves as the avatar for our physical bodies, in all these thoughts and dreams that constitute the human experience.

Body Stuck in the Past

The benefits of abstraction made humans an entirely different beast, as we have seen throughout this series. Here we turn our attention away from the abstractions of the human mind, to the lower level of the body itself.

As previously noted, one of the biggest advantages to having access to higher levels of abstraction, is that it allows combinations to be made and control to be exerted, that might not be available at lower levels.

Whereas the human mind can create new plans and ideas and concepts, at a very high rate of progress, this is not the case for the body.

Consider how different the human world is from the animal world, and then consider how similar the human body is to animal bodies. Humans can order dinner from Uber Eats, anytime they want. Animals might be dinner for humans on any given day. So, humans have invented abilities that enable us, to do things with our bodies, that animals could never even imagine. Yet, the basic biology of our bodies is very similar to modern mammals.

We still need to breathe air, drink water, eat food, and shelter from extreme conditions. We are still incredibly vulnerable to diseases and have all manner of medical issues that have still not been vanquished by modern science.

To be a human is to be a body stuck in the past, with a mind racing towards the future.

An Imperfect Union

How does a human being ever exist as a unified whole, with an abstract mind creating the future, and an animal body, stuck in the past?

Every so often we get the best of both worlds, while at other times, we see the dramatic failures of incompatible forces, clashing, and crashing.

Much like my home country of America, the mind and body of the human experience, is an astonishing yet imperfect union. Like America, the story of the human experience cannot be told in the past tense, nor foretold in a predetermined manner. These complex systems of individual human beings, and collectives of millions, must write their stories, as they unfold.

Maddening though it may be, we cannot jump ahead to read the output, without running the program step by step. Our lives are computationally irreducible, from the scale of one, to one billion.

Closing Thoughts

In this entry, we explored the factors that led humans to undergo an uneven evolution. The main drivers for this, were the dramatic differences in timescales and in flexibility, for the evolution of the human mind and the human body.

As we have seen, higher levels of abstraction can often allow for rapid changes and for a kind of control, that may not be available at lower levels of the system. The human mind can be thought of as the software running at a higher level of abstraction above the human body10. This allowed for the human mind to change and evolve much faster than the physical body ever could.

As a result, the human experience has always been a particularly disjointed affair, and this will likely only accelerate as mind and machine have more bandwidth to integrate.

Looking forward, the issue of uneven evolution will continue to be core to the discussion about survival, success, and significance. In future entries, we will learn how some of the greatest minds from different cultures and traditions throughout history, have approached this divide between the mind and body, that so defines our brief human experience.

  1. As far as we know, Darwin did not have anything approaching a notion of computation comparable in any sense to that of Turing Machines or even Cellular Automata. That said, there is some evidence that Charles Darwin and Charles Babbage did know each other. I once read an account that Darwin had even gone to some parties at Babbage’s house, though the reports suggest the Darwin was much more interested in the women than whatever contraption Babbage was creating. ↩︎
  2. A great example of evolution doing the seemingly impossible, is the surprise when scientists found life at the bottom of the ocean, near boiling vents of black smoke. These are places that do not receive sunlight, and thus photosynthesis is not the basis for their ecosystem as it is in many others. Down in the deep dark waters, chemosynthesis powers life. Ironically, this may turn out to be where life on earth actually started. ↩︎
  3. The phrase was originally used in The Tempest, Act 2, Scene I. Antonio uses it to suggest that all that has happened before that time, the "past," has led Sebastian and himself to this opportunity to do what they are about to do: commit murder. In the context of the preceding and next lines, "(And by that destiny) to perform an act, Whereof what's past is prologue; what to come, In yours and my discharge," Antonio is in essence rationalising to Sebastian and the audience that he and Sebastian are fated to act by all that has led up to that moment, the past has set the stage for their next act, as a prologue does in a play. It can also be taken to mean that everything up until now has merely set the stage for Antonio and Sebastian to make their own destinies.'s_past_is_prologue

  4. It is worth mentioning that 2000 years before Darwin published the book on evolution, we can see the principles of evolutionary thinking embedded in certain philosophies from antiquity and even earlier. In particular, Stoicism in the West, and Buddhism in the East, have ways of approaching the world of human experience that address topics such as complexity, abstraction, evolution of forms and functions etc, long before these ideas we made more precise and rigorous by science. I see these as cases of convergent evolution. Since the human experience has some very distinct properties and underlying dynamics, it make sense that people who are smart enough and inquisitive enough, and open minded enough, will start to converge to a set of truths, even when starting from vastly disparate locations in time and space. ↩︎
  5. We may not have “universal constructors” yet, but we are getting much closer with the advent of additive manufacturing ie “3D Printing”. There might come a day, when in many cases, we literally will be “sending” hardware over the internet. The Amazon.coms and Walmarts of the future, may not be selling us pre-made goods as we are used to. Instead, they could be charging us a resource and intellectual property fee, to have universal constructors, create the hardware what we want, on demand. ↩︎
  6. The mind can be viewed as an abstraction above the physical body, at least from the perspective of materialism. It is worth mentioning that there are other views, such as Analytic Idealism, and Panpsychism, which do not maintain the same relationship between mind and body, which are also worth considering. ↩︎
  7. At the current time of writing this (July, 1, 2022) the fastest classical computer is thought to be the “Frontier” a supercomputer at the Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL). It has been benchmarked at 1.102 exaFLOPS, and is considered to be the first “exascale” computer. ↩︎
  8. This could all change in the future as efforts such as “Neural Link”, strive to physically upgrade the hardware of the human brain, by connecting it directly to computers. ↩︎
  9. Under normal circumstances this is how mathematics works. In special cases, as in Godel’s “Incompleteness Theorem” the formal syntax of mathematics was used to encode a higher level of “meaning”, which was not in the basic syntax of the mathematics itself. This allowed Godel to make self referential statements which were “true”, but could not be proven with formal mathematics. ↩︎
  10. This is only one way to think about the relationship between the mind and body. This is primarily the standard view based on modern neuroscience and based on the foundation of materialism. It is worth noting that there are other perspectives such as that of Analytic Idealism, which do not consider the mind to be a higher level of abstraction above the body, and would consider both to be different views of the same level of abstraction. ↩︎