Monday, April 29, 2013

Determinism and Survival of the Fittest

Minecraft snow fort
While I was building a snow fort in Minecraft, I started thinking about "survival of the fittest", the phrase that's frequently misunderstood as a misnomer, and brain suddenly made a connection.


Regardless of whether you believe in this nebulous "free will" or not, I think I've found a parallel - though, let's first nutshell how "Determinism" is defined.


billiard balls
Courtesy: Wikipedia
Think of billiard balls on a pool table. A player smacks the cue ball into a triangle of billiard balls, and due to physics, they impact around the table while rolling around. The Newtonian physics are very predictable. 

It's basically a sequence of causes and effects.

Some of the causes can be virtually undetectable. Maybe a small lump in the table deflects one of the balls by 0.1 degrees. Maybe a distant mild earthquake jostles the table ever so slightly. The imperfection of the player's muscles, with a bit of shaking, causes the player to strike the cue ball slightly off-center. Maybe the temperature of the room, because the players standing around the table, breathing on it, cause the billiard balls to become more sticky, altering the collision physics (elastic versus inelastic collisions)... it all adds up. Each of these is a "cause" that results in a net "effect" - a billiard ball rolling away in a particular direction and speed.

Determinism is taking this idea and essentially applying it to a person's decision-making process. The reason Bob decided to buy a pizza for dinner may be a factor of a number of causes in his life - he found a $5 bill on the side of the road; he's feeling stressed from work and stopped caring about health issues; he skipped lunch and is now feeling more cravings; he saw an ad on the way home from work that had a wheel of cheese on it, priming him to think about cheesy products.

It all adds up in subtle ways to a final conclusion. Some of the causes are obvious, most are not.

Determinism is the idea that our decision-making process operates in this fashion, without an external extra-dimensional manifestation of one's self, making willing decisions in a vacuum.

If you'd like to hear a debate on this topic, I've found this one to be enjoyable: Reasonable Doubts - RD Extra: Jeremy's appearance on the Don Johnson Radio Show (link to a podcast player of this episode).

I don't really know where I stand on the issue. I think we have at least some Determinism happening, but quantum interactions on the neuron level may mix that up a bit - and clearly, I don't believe in souls.

My point is, if you were to take anything away from my babble above, one can try to evaluate a decision (buying pizza for dinner), without having a good understanding of what lead to that decision. Trying to understand it can sometimes be as complex as understanding weather systems.

So, hold on to that thought...

Survival of the Fittest

This phrase may be one of the least understood, in relation to evolutionary theory. As I've found in Simmon's book "What Darwin Didn't Know", I frequently find him making proscriptive statements about what evolution should produce, if it were true. From my perspective, I find these statements to be bizarre and misinformed.

What does it mean to be "the fittest"? It's a good question, though I wish the phrase didn't exist at all - that way, people could focus on the actual mechanism instead of what's essentially misdirection.

Evolutionary change essentially comes in three statuses:
  1. Lineage's evolutionary form is working pretty well in its environment; little to no change happens over the generations.
  2. Lineage's evolutionary form is slightly "out of sync" with the environment, and the form changes over the generations until it re-enters status #1
  3. Environment changed too fast, or lineage failed to produce results that could survive, and species goes extinct.
"The fittest" is essentially the average genome of the species that manages not to fall into status #3... and I'll go ahead and admit that this is a very vague description.

"The fittest" depends almost entirely on "the environment" - another term that's hideously vague.

A very obvious simple example is that of lungs. A species, that walks around on land, would find having a pair of air-breathing lungs to be advantageous  In terms of not-suffocating, this species will be "fit". That same, species, however, would become inoperable under water for extended periods. The lungs are not appropriate for extracting oxygen from the water. Within an aquatic environment, this species would not be considered "fit". 

It's not always obvious what the "fittest" set of attributes would be. What I've described above could be called "descriptive survival of the fittest." 

I've been trying to listen and understand and suss out what creationists think "survival of the fittest" means, and it could be called "proscriptive survival of the fittest." I'll preface this by saying that I could be way off the mark, and there's two types that I think may exist.

First, it seems like their "understanding" is that there's a global set of attributes that are "the best", and one has to have most of these attributes to be "fittest". For instance, intelligence is considered "fittest", and therefore, according to "survival of the fittest", all species should be getting smarter all the time.

Second, and this is less global and more localized, is that for each species, a set of attributes is merely decreed as needed to be fittest (and if the species doesn't evolve it, then evolution is bunk, apparently). For instance, Simmons blithely declared that early hominids would simply benefit from having a fur coat for protection against cold, therefore "survival of the fittest" should have generated that in humans - and since we don't, that's a problem for evolution.

In both cases, the creationist is trying to predict what the outcome will be, which in itself is not invalid. Like trying to predict the weather, we do have some capacity, if we have enough data to work with. 

In terms of "survival of the fittest", they've added in an extra element, that could almost be described as ideological - that having a fur coat is just better... and if the species fails to evolve it, then the theory has problems.

Back to Bob

Going back to Bob and his pizza, it's the difference between understanding all the nuanced little variables that lead to his decision, versus us looking at his life and trying to figure out what decisions he "should" come to make.

...and by "should", I don't mean an honest analysis of the evidence and the outcomes it would likely produce. It'd be more like saying that since pizza is greasy and unhealthy, and since humans want to live a long time, he should choose a salad instead.

Now, I'll reiterate that I could be off on my understanding of what the creationists are doing here. I'm not sure I buy my explanation myself. There's something they're doing (or not doing), that's throwing off their conclusions of how this would work. Simmons' argument about hominids having fur coats as a benefit, for example, either failed or refused to consider the possibility that fur coats are not uniformly unambiguously beneficial, with no drawbacks. He didn't consider warmer climates, human artificial environmental modifications in being able to produce clothing, or the hygiene drawbacks of fur coats. For whatever reason, the traits Simmons argues that "fittest" species "should" develop, if evolution were true, were significantly off target... and this isn't a localized phenomenon with just Simmons.

The fact is, "survival of the fittest" is a lot more open, and is not subject to our preconceived notions as to what the "best" species should be. Evolution has no goals or pre-destined forms. 

What determines the "survival of the fittest", is the form that managed to beat the odds and survive - something that is frequently anti-intuitive. Maybe this generation of a group of bears had more of an appetite for wolves, and thus got more food. Maybe their fur was a bit lighter, reflecting more sunlight, which helped keep them cooler during an unusually hot stretch. Maybe they moved into an area where there were insufficient caves to hibernate in, and that caused a detriment to their survival. The factors are numerous and obscure.

The creationist preconception that "smarter is better" does not apply across the board. A large brain needs lots of calories to keep running - so we have high calorie requirements. "Strong and smart" may be "better" in a food-rich jungle, but may be fatal in a desert environment, that other creatures thrive in (as low-metabolism creatures), because it's an open niche. If we get walloped by a 10km-wide meteor, our species may go extinct, while the fucking stupid mice keep going.

It could be that sentience frequently leads to self destruction. Evidence suggests that a number of the mass-extinction events in Earth's history were climate change problems, as opposed to meteor impacts (link to list of extinction events)... something humans are currently starting to unleash. Maybe we're the third or fourth species on this planet to become intelligent enough to cause a mass-extinction event.

That's not "fittest" - if the species annihilates itself, as a consequence of being too smart.

Just like we have to be open to the multitudes of obscure determining factors that leads a person to make deterministic decisions, we have to be open to the multitudes of obscure determining factors that leads a species to be "the fittest", and have survived because of it.

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