On Philosophy

November 27, 2007

Evolution Is Myopic

Filed under: General Philosophy — Peter @ 12:00 am

Occasionally I encounter people who display a strange kind of faith in evolution, who think that evolution has provided everything that we need, or will provide it if it is given enough time. Perhaps they share a chapel with those who believe that the almighty market and his invisible hand will right all wrongs. Naturally I am slightly exaggerating, because I doubt that there is anyone who has blind faith in evolution, but it does seem that evolution selects for what is good, at least in a sense. And so it might be possible to argue that if evolution isn’t selecting for something than it must not really be as good as it appears, that it is either superfluous or has some hidden defect. For example, evolution shows no indication of providing us with perfect rationality, nor does it seem likely that it will provide everyone with the capability to live the good life. Are these things really good, despite the fact that evolution isn’t selecting for them, or are we mistaken in thinking so?

Since I have already defended at length, on separate occasions, the idea that perfect rationality is superior to pragmatic shortcuts, and that living the good life is superior to not living it, perhaps it is better to look at the problem from the other side, and examine whether evolution really selects for what is good and for everything that we need. The first thing we need to take into consideration is that evolution doesn’t care about individuals, at least not directly. All evolution “cares” about is species (gene pools). And thus evolution selects for what the species needs to survive and thrive. But note that this is all that evolution selects for, if a species already has all it needs to optimally catch its prey, for example, then evolution won’t lead to the species being any better at that, because there is simply no need for it. Of course this reinforces the idea that evolution gives the species everything it needs and no more or less.

But why must we gauge the efficacy of evolution based on how well the species is doing? We might also take the perspective of social groups within the species or of individuals. At first glance it might appear that whatever is good for the species must be good for such groups or individuals as well. After all, if the species as a whole is made fitter by evolution doesn’t that mean members are as well? But here we can easily demonstrate that this is simply not the case. Consider the case of bees, which are evolved to sacrifice themselves for the good of the hive. Although the death of individual bees is often good for the hive it is certainly not good for the bees that die (assuming that things can legitimately be said to go well or poorly for an individual bee). Aging is a similar phenomena. Certainly it would be good for us not to get old and die of natural causes. However, it is bad for the species to have individuals with outdated genes floating around; keeping the gene pool more dynamic helps the species adapt to changing circumstances. And thus we age, which is certainly bad for those who get old (although not getting old, given that it means we died early, may be worse).

Thus it may be in our best interests to defy evolution, even if it isn’t necessarily in the best interest of the species. Although, on the other hand, it may not be bad for the species either given our other capability. This is because humanity is in an odd position, where we are so far ahead of the competition that we, as a species, are indifferent to most changes. If we were to become 5% smarter or 5% dumber it wouldn’t affect our ability to beat up on the other species around, and basically that is all that evolution cares about. And so if we could manage to beat aging I wouldn’t claim that it is necessarily bad for the species, since we no longer really need to evolve to adapt to changing circumstances, we can deal with them using technology.

Thus the reason that evolution hasn’t selected for perfect rationality isn’t because perfect rationality is inferior to the way we actually reason, but because perfect rationality simply isn’t needed. It is true that perfect rationality would benefit the people and groups possessing it in some ways, for example, perfectly rational people wouldn’t have wasted so much energy on religion, building pyramids and such. However, since that energy wasn’t needed to survive evolution was blind to the possible advantages of perfect rationality, and if some people had been born with perfect rationality they wouldn’t have done substantially better than their less rational neighbors. (In fact they might even have done worse; our imperfect rationality seems tied up with our social and emotional capabilities, such that a person possessing it might do worse because they wouldn’t be able to get along as well with everyone else. Indeed, the mental “disorders” that I am aware of that seem to bring with them some superior rational capacity seem to diminish that ability to integrate.)

For related reasons evolution doesn’t provide us with everything we need to lead the good life. This is because living a good life isn’t necessarily any different from living an inferior life when it comes to survival. And it is quite easy to demonstrate that, because what may be a good life for one person may not be for another, depending solely on what they desire; and obviously there is no difference in the ability to survive between two people living exactly the same life. In fact we might argue that, if everyone lived the good life, the species as a whole might be in some trouble. Because there is no guarantee that people want to lead lives that are productive; there isn’t even any guarantee that they will want to have children. This means that evolution might have selected for characteristics that inhibit our ability to live the good life, such as a certain susceptibility to short-term rewards or peer pressure. Such weaknesses might be good for the group and good for the species, but remember that what is good for the hive might not be good for the bee, and so just because evolution selects for such weaknesses doesn’t necessarily mean we should embrace them.

Strangely it might be that a harsher world would have been better for us. If humanity had fiercer competition (perhaps from another intelligent species) we might have improved cognitively, becoming closer to perfectly rational beings. But, on the other hand, I can’t imagine any circumstances that would select for beings who were more likely to lead the good life. Obviously things such as self-reliance and the ability to prioritize long-term goals could have been selected for if we weren’t herd animals and if conditions were harsher. But such conditions give rise to other problems, because if humans weren’t social creatures things such as language, and thus science and culture, may have never been developed. And that would hinder our ability to live the good life by presenting us with only a few ways to live if we wished to survive. Perhaps then we have been dealt the best hand we could expect with respect to the good life, and that it is simply up to us to defy evolution.

This then is why I call evolution myopic, because it looks only at one specific way for things to be good. Because evolution doesn’t select for what is good from the point of view of the individual it is perfectly capable of producing a species full of individuals that fall short of their full potential, even if realizing that potential would be good for them. All evolution cares about is producing individuals that can meet a certain minimum standard, one that allows the species to keep on surviving. But what do we care about the survival of the species? Although we should care about ourselves and the people that compose the groups to which we belong we owe no loyalty so some abstract conception of humanity, nor ought we.

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