Natural Selection Is Not Goal-Oriented [This is me, “triggered”]

This is a recording I did Monday morning, January 13, 2020, after listening to a podcast and thinking back to an interaction on Facebook dealing with evolution (and an apparent misunderstanding of its character).  It’s a bit longer than some recent recordings.  It may be a bit meandering, since it was firmly “off-the-cuff”, but hopefully it’s interesting enough to hold your attention for about twenty minutes.


Here’s a link to Stephen Jay Gould’s book, Full House, which I mention in my recording.

Here’s a link to Richard Dawkins’s The Blind Watchmaker, a terrific primer on the basics of evolution.

And here’s a link to Dawkins’s The Selfish Gene, a groundbreaking explanation of the “gene’s eye view” of evolution by natural selection, and in which he also coined the term “meme”.

 

Deep(ish) thoughts on the necessity of suffering and “political scientism”

Here it is.  Rather meandering stuff I came out with yesterday, starting on one topic and then veering semi-naturally to the topic I originally intended cover:

Here’s a link to Yuval Harari’s book, Sapiens

Here’s a link to David Deutsch’s The Beginning of Infinity

Artificial Fertilizer for the Tree of Liberty?

Here’s a slightly better recording than my last one…or at least without all the noise.  It’s about some random thoughts I had on matters from iterative processes leading to the accumulation of resources, inheritance, the need for frequent revolutions, and a possible alternative.

Is depression a truer state of awareness?

These are just a few minutes of somewhat meandering thoughts that I had and recorded this morning, and which I thought I’d share.  I apologize for all the clattering noises at the beginning…I was unpacking and getting ready for the workday even as I was recording.  This was rather rude of me, and I’ll try to avoid doing such a thing in the future, but I ask you to bear with me on this short audio post.

Human civilization is just not at equilibrium

1200px-Chaos_star.svg

I was riding in to work this morning, listening to volume two of the Audible version of the Feynman Lectures on Physics (he was discussing symmetry in physical laws).  An accident ahead had closed down all but one lane of traffic, so I got to listen to the lecture much longer than I would have normally; even on a Saturday morning, to have only one lane of traffic open meant that things were very much backed up and slowed down.  In such cases, it’s truly a blessing to be able to listen to one of the great minds of the twentieth century sharing his understanding of the nature of the world.  It almost made the traffic jam pleasant.

As I rode along, listening to Feynman, I thought about how cool and interesting I’ve always found physics to be, especially when explained by one of its greatest practitioners and teachers.  And because Feynman mentioned some specifics of biology and chemistry, such as how the chirality of biological molecules is an accident of history, not a law of nature, I realized how cool and interesting I thought the complexity of biology and chemistry were, too.  After that take-off point, I thought about how cool and interesting was the mathematics that underlies physics, and thus underlies chemistry and biology.  And mathematics is much broader and more complex than just what’s used for physics, and it can all be tremendously interesting.  Even the stuff that’s way beyond my expertise* is fascinating when it’s explained by people who are experts, as on the videos on “Numperphile”, and “Three Blue, One Brown”, for instance.

Even human psychology, with all its biases and heuristics, its “system one” and “system two”, it’s knee-jerk reactions and all the irrationality it entails, is fascinating.  Though it frequently seems irreducibly silly, we can often discern why it’s silly, as a system that evolved under a particular set of circumstances that didn’t necessarily require it always to be fully rational.

So why, then, I wondered, is human sociology—and its compatriot, human history—so ­un­fascinating? Not to say that the details can’t be interesting, but the “pattern” it plays out, especially at the level of politics, popular entertainment, social mores, celebrity, and nowadays social media and the rest of the internet and web, is such a muddle.  The movement of vast flocks of starlings and of immense schools of fish can seem eerily precise, and we know that such epiphenomena can be produced merely by having each unit follow a few simple rules.  But large-scale human interactions are almost never reducible to anything consistent.  If there are mathematical patterns, they are difficult to discern.

I don’t know about you, but I find much of human interaction at the largish scale to be simply irritating and stupid.  It’s muddy.  It’s just a mess.  There’s no fractal-level chaos here, with hidden, self-similar intricacy.  It’s just the chaos of an untended garbage dump.

Then, suddenly**, it occurred to me:  human society is such a mess at least partly because it’s not in any kind of equilibrium.  It’s an unstable system whose parameters are constantly changing.  The human population is growing, and has been for millennia, at an ever-increasing rate.  New technologies, from the initiation of agriculture, to the invention of money, to the creation of the wheel, and to weapons, on into the modern age of deep science and potent technology, produce an ever-changing background set of assumptions in the system.  New methods of interaction and exchange of information, from spoken language, to written language, to moveable type, to the telegraph, to radio, to television, to the internet, have—especially in recent centuries—changed irrevocably the state of what had come before, producing new and ever-messier epiphenomena.

There has not been anything like the time needed for any kind of sociological and civilizational natural selection to take place.  There’s been no way for long-term evolutionarily stable strategies*** to be selected amongst the phenomena of human interactions at large scales, because before any such selection could happen, something fundamental in the driving parameters of the system changed radically.

So I guess maybe we shouldn’t feel too bad about the fact that politics is such an insane mess, that fashion and celebrity and entertainment are bastions of such goofiness, that we have trouble working out the best economic system (if there is such a thing, and if we are even able to define “best by what measure, best for what purpose?”), that social media is such a nightmare of infantile behavior, and that history is such a catalog of tragedy and horror.

The weather may be a chaotic system that’s all but impossible to predict in specifics beyond a few days, but the physics of it is at least consistent****.  The “physics” of human interaction is being subjected to ever-changing constants of nature (if you’ll allow the metaphor).  They may not change by that much at any given time, but we know that even tiny changes in the true “constants of nature” would lead to radically different universes, in most of which we would not be able to exist even for a microsecond.  We should probably be in awe of the fact that civilization survives at all.

This doesn’t mean we should stop trying to solve all the many and varied problems of human civilization.  We must solve them.  But perhaps we (meaning I) should be more forgiving of just how stupid and inefficient and counterproductive and puerile and horrible so many of our institutions seem so often to be.  We’re still in the primordial soup here, and the primordial soup is cloudy.  We must work on it; we must strive to make it ever clearer.  If we don’t, natural selection will do what it seems to do best, which is to wipe out things that don’t have an evolutionarily stable strategy.  But we (meaning I) can at least perhaps try not to be so judgmental about the idiocy of our institutions.  You don’t judge the mind of a trilobite by the standards of the nervous system of a naked house ape.

But you still must address your problems and try to reach some semblance of an evolutionarily stable strategy (or set thereof) for society and civilization.  The trilobites are extinct and have been for a very long time, and the same thing could easily happen to human civilization, and to human individuals.  Nature would not care, would not give us any second chances, would not bend its rules in the slightest for us.  As far as we can tell, it never has, and it never will.

Still, though it seems any mathematical and modellable science of sociology is at a tremendous disadvantage (Asimov’s “psychohistory” is a long way away) and may never be able to become formalized until after humans have reached a Trantor-level of equilibrium, maybe the problems of trying to reach that stage—trying to survive long enough to reach that stage—can be interesting enough in and of themselves.  In any case, interesting or not, they’re problems that can’t be dodged.  Sometimes you just have to shut up work.


*The physics being discussed at that point in the Feynman lectures was not beyond my expertise, for what it’s worth.  I was a Physics major for a little over a year undergrad at Cornell, so I’m not quite a layman in the field.  And as an M.D., my familiarity with biology—at least parts of it—meets the legal definition of “expert”.

**Really.  It was honestly like an epiphany.

***I’m not referring to biological evolution here, but to a broader form of natural selection of sociological states.

****And thus, predictive climate science can be done

You ain’t heavy; you’re my comrades

scales

 

I’ve been trying to decide what to write about this week for this blog post.  Numerous ideas bounce around in my head every day, and I have at least three “quick memo” files on my smartphone full of blog post topics, some of which I’ve already written, but most of which I haven’t.

I read a lot—I always have—and I listen to podcasts and to audio books during my commute, at least when I’m not listening to music or just letting my thoughts meander like that restless wind inside a letterbox, as John Lennon so beautifully put it.  I even keep vaguely abreast of current events.  Because of all this, and because of the excitable nature of my mind, a great many ideas keep popping up, of varying quality and interest.

Unfortunately, as my life currently stands, I have very few—zero counts as few, right?—people with whom to have deep intellectual discussions…or even shallow intellectual discussions.  This is part of what drives me to want to make Iterations of Zero more active, so that at least I can feel that my thoughts are getting out there and bouncing around the world rather than just around my head.

I greatly admire the speaking, and especially the writing, of the late, great Christopher Hitchens; his rhetoric was certainly of the highest order.  When considering my own non-fiction writing, I’ve occasionally felt envious of and even aspired toward, that harsh, biting style of commentary that he and those like him often used, and my ambitions sometimes drive me to seek that manner of presentation.

In my more serene and sedate moments, though, I realize that such a style is probably not merely “not my cup of tea” but is possibly counterproductive.  There’s enough hostile, accusatory, derisive and derogatory interaction in the world.  There’s too much, in fact.  When explorations of ideas are approached as contests, with the implicit goal of scoring points—or worse, as wars—then the only likely place to expect intellectual growth is among disinterested spectators, and even they are apt to be persuaded more by cleverness of style, by skill with a cunning insult, than by depth of argument, quality of ideas, and consistency of logic.

I can’t endorse this as a way to explore truth.  I don’t have much interest in “debate” as a competition.  I’m much more interested in discussion, in conversation, where there is no shame in being persuaded by the legitimate arguments of one’s interlocutor.

This notion was brought home to me strongly by a recent conversation I had with my brother.  He and I have some minor political disagreements, but neither of us is fanatically committed to them.  We were complaining to each other about how frustrating Facebook in particular is, precisely because people there seem to have so much trouble being civil, if they even try.  With that preface, when our conversation came to areas on which we had some disagreement, I felt the knee-jerk urge to be biting, but it was easily curtailed.  This was my brother, after all.  We shared a room for the first decade and a half of my life, and we are trained, practiced, and naturally disposed to get along with each other.

My brother is not as “formally” educated as I am, but I also know that he is a much more positive person.  I, on the other hand, possess a vastly greater store of inherent malice—which, because of my awareness of it, I’ve trained myself to resist—so it’s easy for me to see, to know, that my brother is as far from being my enemy as it’s possible for someone to be.  I know from literal lifelong experience that his intentions are positive.  Good intentions may not be enough to ensure good outcomes, as the old cliché reminds us, but they do matter, and they certainly say important things about a person.

Because of that conversation, I reminded myself to fear the trap of thinking that those who disagree with me are my enemies.  They are not.  Quite the contrary in most cases.  The very fact that they care about the state of the world and about what’s true means that, at some deep level, they are my allies.

Now, of course, if someone refuses to listen to those who disagree with him, but instead merely insults and even assaults them, that person is not an ally of truth.  But to the degree that people are, at least in principle, open to argument and evidence, they are my brothers, my sisters, my comrades, in the quest better to understand the nature of reality.

Of course, I need to practice what I preach.  I’m a strong advocate of striving to be more reasonable than others, if you want to promote reason and to seek truth.  Obviously, this doesn’t mean conceding what you think is an important point about which you’re convinced you’re correct.  But it does mean recognizing that your opponents are not demons but are people , trying to make their way in the world, trying to figure out what they ought to do, and trying to find the will to do what they ought to do.

It’s a big old universe, and we haven’t been given an instruction manual to it.  No one understands it in its entirety.  And, contrary to the general tone of much of Facebook and Twitter, we can be pretty sure that only a small number of people are willfully—or even willingly—evil.

So, I’m going to try not to take a biting or combative or snarky tone in my writing here; I’m going to try to avoid being derogatory to anyone but myself (I’m the easiest target, anyway).  I’m going to pursue conversation as I would with a brother, a sister, a comrade…which includes accounting for the fact that an interlocutor might not see themselves as such, and so might feel defensive and threatened and even frightened by those with whom he or she disagrees.

We’ve all been taught at various times that to be shown to be wrong, or to admit to being wrong is to fail.  We should really be taught that to be wrong is how we fail…but that the remedy for that is to expose our understanding, such as it is, to well-meaning (and sometimes even not so well-meaning) exploration and criticism.  This is one of the most crucial arguments for freedom of speech, even speech that we find reprehensible.

If I fall short of the above ideals in the future, I beseech you, my readers, to take me to task.

But do try to be polite.