Survival, Success, and Significance: Part 7

In the previous entry in this series of survival, success, and significance, we took a brief look at the origin of the human experience, some 300,000 years ago. This raised questions about how the human relationship to survival is different from the animal relationship to survival. In this entry, we will look at some differences between animal and human survival. We will also highlight a game hanging development the definitively separated humans from the animal kingdom, and may have also created our problem of confusing survival and success.

Animal Survival

The animal world is overwhelmingly dominated, by a tight coupling between behavior and survival. More technically, in the sense of evolutionary game theory, the animal world is governed by fitness functions and payoffs. The ultimate arbiter of fitness is, of course, the survival of the species.

While this may seem obvious to some, there is a subtlety that is easy to miss, and that is also crucial to our discussion. It is important to recognize that for animals in nature, the fitness functions and payoffs, are very tightly coupled to their survival in the natural world. This is necessary to highlight because this tight coupling is not always true, as we will see in later sections.

Although it may seem strange at first, the concepts of fitness, and payoffs, and survival, are not at all constrained to the natural environments of our planet. Moreover, they are not even concepts that exist solely within the domain of biology, though this is where they have traditionally been sequestered.

For now, what is most essential to understand is that when we talk about survival in the animal world, there are generally very specific behaviors that a species of animals must perform successfully, to achieve it.

Cows must graze, lions must hunt, eagles must stalk, cobras must kill. In the animal world, there is no such thing as a “gap year”. There are no sabbaticals, or evening classes for a tax attorney to moonlight as a lyrical poet. No, in the animal world, the roles, and thus the behaviors required to survive, are quite strict. Even when we look for stretch examples, we are hard-pressed to find animals deviating from their natural niches by very much.

In the animal world, this tendency to strictly adhere to a small set of behaviors, is a natural consequence of the tight coupling between survival and the natural world. You might say it is a feature, and not a bug. Yet, as we will soon find out, this tight coupling between survival and the natural world, may be the standard, but it is not the only way to thrive.

There is at least one species that defied this tight coupling between survival and the natural world, and in doing so, it changed the fate of its kind, as well as the planet, forever.

Human Survival

I have found that perhaps the best way to define the difference between humans and the rest of the animal kingdom, is to focus not on capabilities such as our facility for language or mathematics or tool crafting etc. Instead, it can be beneficial, to focus on how tightly coupled our behavior needs to be, to the natural world, in order for humans to survive and thrive.

Here it is worth mentioning one interesting if somewhat uncomfortable point. The degree of decoupling between human survival, and the natural world, may be at least as important as the genotypes and phenotypes that define humans anatomically. In this case, then in some sense, the divide between humans and animals is not sharp, but may be quite fuzzy. Further, it stands to reason that such a fuzzy divide, may not necessarily be a one-way street.

Early in the development of what we would now recognize as being the earliest ancestors of modern humans, it's plausible that the population of humans was somewhat distributed over a gradient. A bridge that spanned from the animal world that was tightly coupled to the natural environment, to the burgeoning human world, that started to become increasingly detached from Mother Nature. There may have been many instances of subpopulations moving towards the human world at one time, and other subpopulations moving back towards the animal world at others.

Life, as they say, is complex. It is not a smooth linear affair, with predictable outcomes, and constant progress. The story of evolution writ large, and the human experience in particular, is one of “punctuated equilibrium”, to reference the theory from the renowned evolutionary biologist, Stephen Jay Gould.

This gradual yet accelerating separation of human behavior from the natural world, is perhaps best exemplified by the transition from hunting and gathering, to a peculiar human endeavor, known as agriculture.

Farming Decouples Human Survival from the Natural World

Farming is not natural for animals to do, and yet human “animals” at some point began to do it, and it changed everything.

Other animals might seem to have some sense of long-term planning and strategy, but this may be a matter of smoke and mirrors, so to speak. These apparent animal plans and strategies, are often not what they seem. As planners and thinkers ourselves, humans have a tendency to impute the “intentional stance”, to use a phrase from Daniel Dennett, when viewing behaviors we might try to rationalize from a human perspective. As a result, we are making an anthropomorphic inference from, an outward appearance, rather than observing the real McCoy of strategic planning itself. All manner of birds, whales, even butterflies, migrate for thousands of miles across the globe, sometimes for what appears to be extremely specific plans. Yet, what we find is that instincts can actually drive most if not all of these seemingly human migratory journeys. It probably just seems extra bizarre to humans because almost none of us migrate at this point. Perhaps more importantly, most of us cannot imagine ourselves doing something that seems like running marathon after marathon, without knowing why we’re doing it.

This is one of the most important reasons to recognize the transition from hunting and gathering, to farming, as one of the clearest dividing lines between the animal kingdom, and the domain of modern humans. All animals, that need to move to eat, are hunting or gathering something. Animals perform many, if not most, of these behaviors instinctively. The remaining technique is learned, almost entirely by osmosis simply by being around adults in the population who are demonstrating the behavior to be copied, often without knowing they are doing any teaching at all.

What makes farming so different is that there is absolutely nothing at all instinctual about farming. It goes against just about every single animal instinct there is, except for some animals that hibernate and thus have a behavior pattern of collecting and “saving” food for the winter. I’m not convinced that they know what they are actually doing, or that it is even a single complex behavior that is really going on. It seems we really might be witnessing, what you could call a combination of “fuzzy triggers”. Effectively, the large-scale behavior, could be the result of chaining together many micro behaviors, that are based on instinct individually. The micro behaviors may become gradually associated with each other over time, such that one triggers the next. This could happen in such a way that the whole “circuit” of micro behaviors looks like an agent planning for the winter, from a human perspective. In actuality, it could very well be that said animal, never has any true “plan” or “strategy” in mind. It could be that the coarse grained behavior we observe, never needs to be comprehended, to be performed. To use another phrase from Daniel Dennett, both computers and animals operating on instinct, demonstrate what he calls “competence without comprehension”. A computer can have competence without comprehension because it is built to operate in a controllable manner. An animal can have competence without comprehension because it effectively is running instinct based “programs” that are triggered and guided, by the tight coupling between animal survival, and the natural world.

The question this raises, is how does a part of the animal kingdom, come to evolve behaviors and strategies for survival, such as farming. Behaviors that are so complex and separate from the natural ebb and flow of the environment, that they actually require comprehension, for any competence to exist? Further, what are the effects of decoupling human survival from the natural world, both for individual humans, and for the species as a whole?

We will examine some of these questions in future entries in this series about survival, success, and significance.