Archive for the ‘evolutionary biology’ Category

The Human Kludge

Friday, July 19th, 2013

Human Kludge (glowing edges)Natural selection—Richard Dawkins’ ‘blind watchmaker’—has come up with some remarkable designs over four billion years. Those that persisted are, to a greater or lesser extent, effective responses to evolutionary pressures. But many of these design solutions are far from optimal. Natural selection is an opportunist, whose default move is to recombine existing resources, cobbling something together from bits of earlier work rather than redesign from the ground up.

When I worked in software development, it was our default move too. Most programmers don’t mind describing themselves as “lazy.” Reinventing the wheel is rarely the best solution, if you have a library of previously developed, de bugged, tested implementations of rims, axles, and drive trains that have seen a few years of revenue service. Programmers like to re-use their old code because they know it works. Also, it’s usually the fastest way to meet a deadline. “Lazy” can be efficient and smart.

Although they may perform reliably, solutions assembled out of a hodgepodge of old components rarely look as nice as if someone had time to sit down and design them from scratch. And because the components were not originally made to work together , there is a greater risk of unintended side effects.

The Free On-line Dictionary defines a “kludge” (pronounced “klooj”) as:

1. A system, especially a computer system, that is constituted of poorly matched elements or of elements originally intended for other applications.

2. A clumsy or inelegant solution to a problem.

Close scrutiny of the human motivational system reveals a kludgy design. A uniquely human, state-of-the-art module for visualizing and planning the future was bolted on to the emotional apparatus of an iguana. The result works, but not well. On the whole it has been hugely adaptive, allowing us humans to flourish, multiply, and dominate our planet, outcompeting all other large species. But it is far from optimal, often working against itself, driving behaviour that is not at all adaptive either for the individuals involved or for our species as a whole. Moreover, it has unpleasant side effects.

In this post I will outline a theory of this design: how it came to be, its primary components, and why it works as well as it does. I will also lay out some of its shortcomings, and recommend an alternative, improved solution. (more…)

Leary on the Curse of the Self

Wednesday, November 14th, 2012

Mark Leary begins The Curse of the Self by imagining himself giving a commencement address in which he tells the graduates that in their lives ahead, “The primary cause of your unhappiness will be you.” People make themselves unhappy “because of how the human mind is designed.” That design includes an ability to self-reflect which allows us “to plan ahead, reminisce about the past, consider options, innovate, and evaluate ourselves.” But it also “distorts people’s perceptions of the world…prompting them to make bad decisions based on faulty information.” [Leary,2004, p.vi]

Leary’s book is about the self-inflicted suffering and delusions which arise from how human view themselves—a subject familiar to any Buddhist. Although Leary’s views emerge from contemporary Western psychology, Leary is aware of their convergence with those of the Buddha, who had what Leary describes as “a surprisingly modern view of  the self.”  (more…)

The Dark Doctrine of the Political Right

Tuesday, August 21st, 2012

Is a viral meme thwarting social progress?

To me Goldstine said, “Kid, don’t listen to him. You live in America. It’s the greatest country in the world and it’s the greatest system in the world. …. He tells you capitalism is a dog-eat-dog system. What is life if not a dog-eat-dog system? This is a system that is in tune with life. And because it is, it works. Look, everything the Communists say about capitalism is true, and everything the capitalists say about Communism is true. The difference is, our system works because it’s based on the truth about people’s selfishness, and theirs doesn’t because it’s based on a fairy tale about people’s brotherhood. …. We know what our brother is, don’t we? He’s a shit. And we know what our friend is, don’t we? He’s a semi-shit. And we are semi-shits. So how can  it be wonderful? Not even cynicism, not even skepticism, just ordinary powers of human observation tell us that is not possible.” —Philip Roth, from I Married a Communist

In 2011, the political dialogue became about rampant inequality, framed by the Occupy movement as a struggle between the 99% and the 1%.

If only it were that simple. Even in an imperfect democracy, a genuine class struggle between 1% and 99% should be a foregone conclusion. Yet the status quo persists, because large numbers of the 99% don’t see anything wrong with it. Those who do are frustrated to watch, in election after election, too many people voting against their own economic interests.

Part of the reason may be the Steinbeck effect. As John Steinbeck observed about the difficulty of organizing for change in the Dirty Thirties, “I guess the trouble was that we didn’t have any self-admitted proletarians. Everyone was a temporarily embarrassed capitalist.” [Steinbeck, 1966] This attitude was evident in a letter to the editor beginning, “I do not deride the 1 per cent; I am motivated to join their ranks.” [Globe and Mail, 2011]

But wishful thinking is not the whole story. Plenty of lifetime members of the 99% have no aspiration to join the more exclusive club. They include most of the middle class who voice no objection to their now-endangered status. There is a deeper problem: they have swallowed an idea.

I call this idea “the dark doctrine of the political right.” It is “dark” in two senses: as in “the dark side,” obviously, but also as in “dark matter.” Dark matter neither glows nor reflects light, and is therefore invisible. From its gravitational effects, it is believed to constitute 83% of the matter in the universe. Some ideas are like that too: invisible, because assumed without any conscious weighing of evidence, yet exerting a gravitational pull on behaviour.

The Dark Doctrine is the idea that all human motivation is fundamentally selfish—that we act out of self-interest and nothing else. Although some people may appear to value moral principles, or to be moved by sympathy for others, they only do so because ‘it makes them feel good.’ At bottom, we’re all driven by the desire to feel good. Selfishness drives all. (more…)

Religion and Evolutionary Fitness

Thursday, July 19th, 2012

 

The practice of religion interrupts the human preoccupation with self-serving activity—which suggests that one function of religion is to keep people from being too obsessed with their personal interests. But why should that obsession, which confers an advantage in evolutionary fitness, be prevented?  Could there be a countervailing advantage in being relieved from the same obsession? Or does this aspect of religion perhaps decrease human evolutionary fitness?  It is a mistake to assume that every characteristic which takes hold in a population increases fitness. Daniel Dennett’s book on the memetics of religion, Breaking the Spell, opens with a counter-example:

You watch an ant in a meadow, laboriously climbing up a blade of grass, higher and higher until it falls, then climbs again, and again, like Sisyphus rolling his rock, always striving to reach the top. Why is the ant doing this? What benefit is it seeking for itself in this strenuous and unlikely activity? [Dennett, 2006, p 3]

The answer, it turns out, is no benefit—to the ant! Its grass-climbing behaviour is prompted by a tiny parasite, a lancet fluke, that has penetrated its brain. In order to complete its reproductive cycle, the fluke must find its way into the digestive system of a sheep or cow. By commandeering the motor apparatus of its host the ant, the fluke puts itself in the way of being grazed.

Dennett’s book takes as its starting point Richard Dawkins’ observation that the memes of human culture, like genes, are replicating entities whose populations wax or wane according to principles of natural selection.[Dawkins, 1976]  Among the memes that thrive or die are religious ones. The provocative question animating Dennett’s discussion of religion is, “What is the relationship of religious ideas to their human hosts? Do religions benefit their believers, are they neutral, or are they—like the lancet fluke to the ant—deleterious parasites?” (more…)