Survival, Success, and Significance :Part 6

In the previous entry in this series about survival, success, and significance, we discussed the concept of marginal cost of replication. This was mentioned in the context of trying to understand why we can often come to conflate and confuse survival on the one hand, with success on the other. We discussed the so-called “Red Queen Effect”. This can lead us into situations where we find ourselves having to “run” faster and faster ie, we work, stress, earn, accumulate etc., more and more, just to stay in the same place, particularly in terms of our internal state. Having a high marginal cost of replication, for a particular metric of success, is one dynamic we identified as driving these Red Queen effects. This is because whenever there is a high marginal cost of replication, creating more and more of the output you desire, also requires more and more input, to sustain.

So, in summary we saw that we can regularly fall into the trap of confusing survival and success, when constantly trying to meet or exceed, some external benchmark for the success we feel we should have. This was a useful way of looking at that problem from the outside in, but what if we look at it from the other way around. What is happening on the inside, that can drive us into these kinds of difficulties, no matter how intelligent or logical we might otherwise appear to be?

In the process of investigating the issue of confusing survival and success, we may arrive at more fundamental questions about who we are, and how we got to be this way.

What is it about the human mind that so often leads us into these traps, of confusing survival and success, and why on earth, would evolution have shaped us to be this way?

The Origin of the Human Experience

It can be helpful to start with a bit of background on the origin of the human experience, and the human mind that is so central to it. So, before delving into some issues that can help us to understand why humans can frequently confuse survival and success, we will step back and take a broader view.

The current consensus among the scientific community, is that early humans first appeared, some 300,000 years ago in Africa. This can seem like an unfathomable span of time, compared to a human life. Yet from the perspective of the earth itself, which is roughly 4.5 billion years old, we are merely a flickering pixel that just showed up, on the streaming channel of the universe.

We are genetically quite close to many other primates, including chimpanzees, and yet, the tale of the tape somehow misses the mark entirely. When it comes to the real-world differences between humans and other primates, the qualitative differences would make us seem like aliens from a completely separate galaxy. After all, humans are the most widespread primate population the planet has ever known. We are the ones who bring chimpanzees, and other animals to zoos, so we can watch them in comfort, without braving that wild. On the flip side, chimpanzees in the wild watch humans destroying the very same planet that we all need to live on. So, there is at least some irony and gallows humor to be had, regarding which primates are truly the most intelligent in the end.

What is absolutely striking about the evolution of the human species, is to recognize that at some point more than 300,000 years ago, we were essentially just another part of the biosphere. We were not rulers of the animal kingdom by any stretch of the imagination, nor would any honest broker have predicted, the extent to which we would ascend and perhaps even descend, one day.

In biology, the lines and the rules are often quite fuzzy. It is much harder to precisely quantify and classify the complex menagerie of nature’s web, than it is to measure the quarks, leptons, and bosons, in the standard model of particle physics. This is even more pronounced when dealing with questions about evolutionary biology. This inability to exhaustively quantity the realm of biology, is magnified even more, when the topic concerns the evolution of “software” such as thought patterns, intelligence, and emotions, and not merely the “hardware” of bones, bodies, and even brains themselves.

The question that arises, is how should one look at the divide between humans and other animals, and what can this tell us about the human experience of survival and success?

Are Humans Different from Animals?

It can be difficult to impossible to know exactly how to subdivide the animal world from the world of humans. We can’t easily locate the specific moment in time, or the specific place on the tree of life, where humans officially diverge from being just another species of animals, and become something entirely separate.

Of course, questions like these likely have no singular answers that are “right” in absolute terms. We have an international body that helps to standardize and regulate the fine-tuning of measuring instruments, but we have no such official body, tasked with standardizing a measure of what makes a human different from any other animal.

There is at last one guiding principle we can use to shed some light on the differences between humans and other animals. Surprisingly, perhaps, it is not a measure based on intelligence, or possessing opposable thumbs. It is not based on the use of tools, or even language. We now have ample evidence to suggest that some more advanced cetaceans, such as dolphins and Orcas, have patterns of communication that appear to satisfy many criteria of language. These include the presence of what could be grammatical structure, revealed via frequency analysis. While still inconclusive at this point, these developments would propose that our marine counterparts are doing more with their time, than making sporadic whistles and clicks. It could very well be the case, that they are using, and perhaps even inventing, something very much like an actual language.

So, once you see that it is much harder to separate humans from the rest of the animal kingdom than you may have imagined, you need to go deeper than surface accounts of behavior and communication. You must look at the fundamental dynamics that drive life and evolution in the first place.

Ultimately, this leads you to consider the bedrock concept of survival in the natural world, and the difference between how animals and humans, relate to survival on their own terms.