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.
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.”