Quickie Post — Spool up the Hyperdrive re: Evolution

Conor at 13, digging in – Snow Hole, Lower Salmon, ID

I’ve been having some interesting dream-driven thoughts about evolution lately, and I thought I’d get them down — consider them thought-problems for your own thinking!


Friend and fellow collaborator Ugo Bardi had an amazing perspective on Darwinian evolution that deserves far wider circulation.

“Evolution is not survival of the fittest. Evolution is non-survival of the unfit.”

What is great about this is that it really is a v-Meme reframe of the very egocentric perspective that’s often the root of Darwinism applied to social theory. Instead of “I’m going to kill everyone and that’s gonna prove that I’m the winner,” we get a far more metacognitive boost to how we think about evolution. If we see something that is indeed surviving, we are forced to think “how does this fit into the broader environment, and how does it utilize/exchange resources with other living creatures and the biosphere in ways that are not intuitive, or prima facie obvious. Of course, this maps well with Ugo’s ongoing fascination with holobiontics, and our conversations on how all this couples with our social systems, and how our own empathetic development frames how we perceive these systems.

It is ALWAYS good (I use that phrase rarely!) to step back and ponder what it is we don’t know, and how our perspective limits what we don’t know.


I’ve been listening to quite a few thinkers over the years about what drives evolution, and there’s the usual litany of ‘tool use’, ‘brain size’ etc. There’s no shortage of theories, and naturally, there is a kernel of truth in each. One can trot out examples that prove any given point.

But most of the examples don’t offer much of a pan-species perspective. Save for one — the generalized subject of this blog.

Evolution is primarily driven and structured by how a species handles inter-agent coordination.”

What this means is that species that are large tend toward giantism and low-functioning coordination (think bears, which are very solitary, or cows, that practice a simple set of herd behaviors), species in the middle, especially predators, tend to optimize brain size and inter-agent strategy and coordination (that’s the empathy thing) and species that are small accept they’re going to be food for other things and reproduce like, well, rabbits.

Intra-species coordination creates behaviors that are often extremely similar, regardless of a given species, and as such, we end up with my “sentience is sentience is sentience” argument. The same rules are in play, regardless, of goal setting and management of spacing and timing. The same meta-circuits get used, whether one is running, flying or swimming — and looking at the fossil record, it is one of the oldest problems in the book. These Cambrian Eurypterid critters ( from the this website) likely swam in schools. Check out that fossil!

This leads to one of my favorite self-developed pictures, where I borrowed Frans de Waal’s empathy pyramid and created some human-removed insight on how all this works. We move up from mirroring, to state-matching, to sub-conscious/conscious data-driven prediction, to intentionality.

The modified Empathy Pyramid

Natural emergence favors automatic behavior, and a lack of consciousness of action.

This is a big idea — we are unaware of exactly how our stomach works, for example. We don’t ponder digestion, unless something just isn’t working. All the functions that keep us alive are essentially automatic, and can only be modulated through extensive conscious practice. You have to really reach down, for example, to even slow your heart rate. And the ability to throttle past the point of ‘slow’ to ‘stop’ is something only a couple of super-gurus (not me!) can do.

As such, it makes sense that empathy would also serve as one of our final blind spots in self-knowledge. We take for granted the stream of signals coming from other beings as we exist primarily inside the unaware self. And social structures, like rigid hierarchies, that depress or work to eliminate empathy, aren’t particularly keen on driving emergent behavior that recognize its overarching effects.

The challenge we face in today’s society is that we no longer have the luxury of biologically available timescales to evolve to meet the challenges of a rapidly changing world. We have to do it consciously, and rapidly — and we have to do it together. And in order to do it together, we have to have a connected social network with some shared calibration of set points on reality. How we perform what I call “validity grounding” is totally a function of development — whether we need a leader to tell us what reality is, or whether we have enough evolved people to share relatively correct information between themselves and each other and form larger synergistic pictures.


One can see the deep problem that having Donald Trump as President for the past four years is, and the problems with having a President that lies chronically. It’s not Trump’s policies per se that are immediately causing havoc, though many of them are reprehensible to me. The meta-problem is that the larger social system simply can’t ground itself with anything that is a coherent reality. We end up with what Ugo and I call a memetic brain disease (propaganda), which is one of his ten ways the world ends. And when faced with a problem like COVID, the system regards anything where life-and-death matters as an existential threat – whether the numbers support it or not. And thus limits discussion and assembly of a more complex worldview, that we really need to handle the pandemic and minimize its actual effects.

My fervent hope, though, is for our body politic to realize how we ended up with the circumstances that brought us Trump in the first place. Relational disruptors emerge when the institutions that have evolved to support a certain level of societal development and function are breaking down. That level of societal self-awareness seems still to be lacking. As the old Bedouin saying goes “Some people fear the future. But I fear what has already passed.”

11 thoughts on “Quickie Post — Spool up the Hyperdrive re: Evolution

  1. One big exception is The Secret of Our Success, which talks about how culture is really the key to human adaptability. However, I think it is important to note that species that coordinate among themselves generally don’t coordinate across the whole species. They are adapted to pretty specific group sizes that tend to remain stable. Similarly, human evolution may have adapted us for empathy, but our empathy skills may not be very well suited to pan-species coordination.

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      1. The pyramid raises a few questions. What is “Global Empathy” and what does it mean that it is associated with the fewest number of people? Global seems to imply more people. If empathy is viewed as a means of coordination, if Global Empathy is only achieved by a small number of people it seems like it would only be capable of facilitating coordination among a small number of people.

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      2. @mcarey26 – “If empathy is viewed as a means of coordination, if Global Empathy is only achieved by a small number of people it seems like it would only be capable of facilitating coordination among a small number of people.”

        That is why we need a paternalistic global ruling elite who will empathetically rule over the rest who are deficient in empathy. Just kidding. It’s an amusing thought, but one could imagine an ideology of empathy being used as a convenient rationalization for authoritarianism. That would, of course, demonstrate a lack of empathy… a minor detail. LOL

        Liked by 1 person

  2. @BDS “That is why we need a paternalistic global ruling elite who will empathetically rule over the rest who are deficient in empathy.”

    ^^This^^

    Sometimes I think the only real alternative to this is to have a non-human coordination (i.e., AI or some kind of emergent systems intelligence).

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I have read a few posts, including one called Global Empathy, and I still can’t quite grasp what you mean by it. Or maybe I just don’t agree with it. My biggest questions revolve around the idea that empathy is a very complex set of instincts and paradigms for coordinating behavior, but that we evolved in small groups and I have no confidence that the thing that will be good for coordinating large groups will look much like the thing that helped coordinate small groups.

    So perhaps a question could be framed thusly. Let’s suppose we had a crystal ball and we looked 10,000 years into the future and saw that humanity was very nicely coordinated. When we look into how it all works we find that the effective coordination paradigms look nothing like what we commonly know as empathy. The global coordinators (maybe everyone is in this group) are nothing like the Dalai Lama…

    Ok, so in that case are you going to call whatever mindset these highly coordinated human beings share that enables them to live like this “Global Empathy”? That is, is it defined by its effects? Or is it a well-defined mindset with characteristics you can point to now, and that you hypothesize will lead to this kind of global coordination of humanity? Or neither?

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    1. M — I’m writing a post on ‘validity grounding’ — which is how people at different developmental levels coordinate activity. I think you should write a post on your own blog with your thoughts! FWIW — I’ve specifically said that this idea of ‘global empathy’ is one of the most poorly defined thoughts of mine. Which means you could likely definitely improve the discussion by putting forward the work to explain yours!

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  4. Commejnts:

    1. If you haven’t seen it, I came across this on a systems science page others may find interestig:

    https://melconway.com/CBH/ several papers on community behavioral health, emergence, etc.
    I first heard of M Conway on this blog

    I just skimmedf conway’s articles, and wonder if they are new—I’ve been working on some similar ideas—and these have been around in various forms a long time —-including ones written in language of nonlinear dynamics/chaos/statistical mechanics/ecology . I wrote to a few of the (mostly academic) writers and when they responded ‘you are on on your own, as we all are . Its a sort of ‘dog eat dog world’.

    (i thought Conway was referring to another one– john conway —who recently died of COVID at age 82; he invented life (actually ‘the game of life’—because it turns out life is a game , and some win, others lose as noted above —‘survival of the fittest’), and maybe cellular automota and surreal numbers. ‘Eccentric thinker’.)

    2. I just looked up holobiontics—it seems to be a more recent and detailed version of concepts like ‘species, ecosystem, and group selection’ in biology—a sort of ‘controversial’ cocnept for decades, though to me it seems obvious.

    Heinrich’s new book is partly based on that concept—and the math of that concept basically goes back to 1980’s (or that is the ‘finished’ version; 70’s had unfinished and limited ones ones. .)

    3. On ‘evolution is the non-survival of the unfit’ i think that is ok or fine (as is what i call S^2 or ‘survivirs survive’—my favorite version (there are also C^2, R^2 and many more…

    To an extent allot of math and science is almost turning into poetry like ‘easy as abc, 123’…ppe is the theory of the solution of the TOE or equation of everything. .

    As noted ‘fitness’ is relative or contextual—- domestic plants and animals are fit in their worlds, but not others.

    As someone who claims to have some forms of environemntal illnesses and allergies which make life most places i’m in borderline miserable half the time–usually only places i’m not is in rural areas or outside,

    ( If you expalin this in general to doctors or psychologists they explain you have a mental illness.
    (thuis si what conway seems to be talking about.)
    And when you really get sick from city life then they will happily let the taxpayer fund your 220G hospital stay—partly expensive because while you went there for a minor case of pneumonia, then you get a major problem and end up with free 6 week vacation on life support. My combined earned income last 10 years is less than 1/3rd of my hospitasl stay. Theyd rather pay for your hosptial stays then ghelp you get a job you can do. They will find you ones you both can’t do and which are also upleasant jobs that they dont want to do. They can find enough people that if people drop during their jobs (eg from COVID) they can find someobe else to do it. ‘Reserve army of the unemployed’.)

    And I stupidly left my places in the mountains and wilderness areas and haven’t been able to get organized to get back .
    Reminds me of the indignous people i saw lying drunk after work on the streets of mexican cities where they had gone to make money because NAFTA, drug cartels, and their own governement had made life at home difficult—but they planned to get back after they saved money.
    .
    But due to hysterisis or path dependence they just got a one way trip. They spent the money they saved for the retrun trip in other ways.

    (Sort of like me—i came to the city to get work and get money —i could live for 100$/month were i was—but never managed to save any.

    People i found jobs with helped teach me the correct way to send it so i;d be working for them forever. W@hat they didn;’t realize was i’d last ast their jobs maximum 5-10 paychecks. I was ‘ujnfit’—-didn’t like breathig lead paint, sitting in fron of a computer with no fresh air or natural sunlight all day, etc.–i’d rather starve which you dont in a city—people throw and give food away). (In country yu can get some free foood, but its not as easy unless you get used to it–i likely would find it as difficult now as some animal let out of a zoo.

    I’m also a bit skeptical of empathy both within species, groups and interspeces and groups. Its sort of an ‘ideal’ but the world seems polaruied, partitioned, etc. and area i live now i’d say is hyperpolarzied. Butyt some adapt weell to hyperpolarzed environments at for perios of time —we have all kinds of gun toting groups around (of many ‘races’/ethnicites / social positions—drug dealers, police…) and quite a few of them seem quite healthy, happy, satisfied and so on–they probably empathize with people in their groups or families. They say even Stalin had a soft place in his heart for small children, as hitler did for animals.

    I think alot of mental and physical health people have empathy for people in their jobs/positions, and for those whose values they share. Otherwise not much—and this partly a systemic problem.

    Most police i think empathize with much of the world ‘abstractly’ . but in practice opftern not. I”d say the same for some teachers and academics—–some start out with good intentions but eventually burn out and sort of detest their students.)

    t

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    1. IC – “Most police i think empathize with much of the world ‘abstractly’ . but in practice often not”

      reminds me of the Dostoevsky quote:

      “The more I love humanity in general the less I love man in particular.”

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