Darwin Day

Darwin Day

What does evolution mean to you?

Why is it important?

What is the most important thing we all need to know about it?

How does it apply to our everyday life?

Evolution means a natural explanation for the amazing complexity and mystery we experience in the many levels of life that we are a part of.

It is important because it is part of a freedom (and a responsibility) to question everything, all authority, all assumptions, about all aspects of perception, understanding, awareness and appropriateness of modes of thought and action.

Understanding evolution allows individuals to escape from the dictates of authority and truth, as once one gets to understand the major themes of how life has evolved, and how brains have evolved, and how awareness and consciousness and culture itself have evolved in a cultural context, then one can start to see the notion of truth for the illusion that it is (and it is a useful and necessary illusion for the early stages of an individual’s evolving awareness of self in a cosmological context).

It seems clear to me that in today’s context, the single most important thing for people generally to understand about evolution is that at the higher levels it is at least as much about cooperation as it is about competition. When I first read Dawkin’s Selfish Gene in 1978, the later chapter’s about the work of John Maynard-Smith and Robert Axelrod clearly demonstrated the conditions under which cooperation can succeed, the need for attendant strategies to effectively prevent invasion by cheating strategies. When one looks at the evolution of complexity in life, it is clear that new levels of complexity are characterised by new levels of cooperation finding stable sets of attendant strategies to prevent invasion by cheating strategies.

We as individuals are a cooperating colony of billions of cells, that make up our body, and each cell contains thousands of different sorts of molecules (many nucleic acids, RNA and DNA) cooperating to make the cells function. We exist in many levels of cooperative social contexts, called family, community, work, and various levels of cultures.

At the highest levels of human awareness, it is clear that the current myopic focus on markets and competition is becoming the single greatest threat to our survival as a species, and to our freedom as individuals, and we need to foster far greater awareness of the power of cooperation, provided the attendant strategies are effectively preventing invasion by cheating strategies. Arguably most of the banking and finance industries, and much of our legal and political systems are now sets of cheating strategies in evolutionary terms, if not in legal terms.

The most important thing right now, seems to be in the conflict between the cultural systems around values that have evolved in times of real scarcity, that place so much value on markets and money. When most things were in fact scarce, markets which derive their value from scarcity and exchange, were very useful and powerful tools. The power of price and profit signals in information processing (as distinguished by Hayek and others) was very real and very powerful. Now that we live in an age of exponential expansion of information processing and automation, we have the technical ability to deliver universal abundance of a large and growing set of goods and services, but universal abundance always has zero market value. So now the scarcity based modes of thought that are fundamental to the concepts of money and markets and profit are in direct opposition to the real physical needs of the majority of humanity.

Seeing that reality, and seeing how developing cooperative systems can get us past this point, and seeing how such cooperation is simply the next logical level of the evolution of cooperation into yet higher dimensional strategy spaces, is the key intellectual step of our time.
It is likely to be a difficult step for many who are so emotionally and culturally invested in the current economic paradigm and the social systems that have evolved from it.

How it will apply to everyone, every day, is that a large and growing set of goods and services will be freely available to all, and the idea that anyone needs to work for a living will become less and less important, as exponential automation both delivers universal abundance of the products of that automation, and removes the need for any humans to be involved in that production process.

Adjusting to the practicality of a whole new level of liberty, and the responsibility that comes with such liberty (to care for the life and liberty of all others, which necessitates taking reasonable actions to support the environment that sustains us all, and to preserve representative samples of ecosystems) will take longer for some individuals than others.

Adjusting to the idea of indefinite life extension will take some a little longer, and it is the logical outcome of exponential growth in information processing. All life forms alive today seem to be part of an unbroken chain of life some billions of years old. The default mode of cellular life is indefinite. It is only the somatic lines of some complex organisms like ourselves that have evolved the trick of age related senility (loss of functionality) at the cellular level. Each cell must contain within it the genetic code for indefinite life, as it is in fact part of a chain of life billions of years old.

So that is going to be the next major challenge for our social evolution, once we adapt to the reality of universal abundance of a large and exponentially growing set of goods and services.

[Active comments present on this site]

About Ted Howard NZ

Seems like I might be a cancer survivor. Thinking about the systemic incentives within the world we find ourselves in, and how we might adjust them to provide an environment that supports everyone (no exceptions) - see www.tedhowardnz.com/money
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4 Responses to Darwin Day

  1. kaptonok says:

    ‘Awareness and consciousness ‘ your scientific enthusiasm is carrying you away. Consciousness is an unsolved problem. And human self awareness is a real thorn.
    Some determinists believe free will and the self are complete illusions.
    Sam Harris has said as much, but Professor Penrose thinks conciousness is quantum activated.
    Penrose does not think computers will ever be concious.
    Social Darwinism has not been proved but crept in under survial of the fittest.
    When mankind left the animal tree he became self -aware and self – judgemental. Conscience and religion was born; whether natural selection still applied I don’t know.
    Steven Pinker in his book ‘How the Mind Works ‘ raises the old Wallaces Paradox.
    Wallace the co-discoverer of evolution asked:
    Since the brain of stone aged man is equal to that of modern man and he does not need it how could it have evolved by natural selection?
    Cooperation is only engaged in when it aids progress otherwise war is more profitable.


    • Hi KaptonOK

      I understand that many people believe consciousness is an unsolved problem – I am not in that set of people.
      I have tried many times to explain to others why that is so, but to the best of my understanding, no one has gotten it yet. In a very real sense, that is not surprising, because I have not met anyone else who has challenged as many implicit assumptions in as many different domains including in language, in perceptions, and in logic, as I have.

      As much as I admire and respect Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Dan Dennett and many others, they are all as trapped by invalid assumptions as Kant, Tielhard de Chardin, and countless others in history (including myself – I make no claims to perfect knowledge, only to useful approximations not yet falsified).

      I have critiqued both Sam and Roger elsewhere, in essence both are wrong, and Roger seems to be correct in a sense, in the sense that there is a quantum aspect to consciousness, its just not down the particular line of thought of Orch OR that he and Hameroff have gone down – close but no banana.

      It’s more fundamental than that – in fact it breaks the whole assumption that causality is fundamental to reality, and demonstrates that the universe is only a useful approximation to causal at the level of normal human perceptions. At the deepest levels it seems clearly to be a complex stochastic system constrained by probability functions – that delivers a very close approximation to being causal (within the limits of measurement error) at the level of normal human perceptions.

      Again, with all due respect to Roger – I am 99.99+% confident he is wrong about computer consciousness.
      Consciousness is a product of levels of organisation.
      Human type consciousness requires two major components (and many minor ones).
      One is a predictive model of reality.
      Two is language, and more than that, a construct of self applicable value measurement within language (right/wrong, good/bad. etc) to enable the bootstrapping of the sort of consciousness we exhibit.
      In that sense, the sort of consciousness we are is software within software. Our perceptions of “reality” aren’t – all we can perceive is the subconsciously created software model of reality – but one needs quite a bit of experience in both neurophysiology and computer programming to get that intuitively.

      I admire some of what Steve Pinker has done, have read some of his books (have read all of Dawkins’ books).
      The paradox you attribute to Russell is no paradox at all, it is based on a set of invalid assumptions.
      It assumes that modern human intelligence is a function of the hardware. It’s not! At least not once a certain minimum level of hardware is available.
      Axelrod solved the problem a long time ago (he just wasn’t aware of it). I saw that much the first time I read the Selfish Gene (1978). But not many people back then had the interest and experience in evolution, behaviour, neurophysiology, computers and physics that I did. And insights from each of those are required.

      Clearly the major driver of brain development was social cooperation. Axerod proved that for cooperation (at any level) to be stable, then there must be stable attendant strategies that prevent it being overrun internally by cheats. To detect cheating strategies in large communities, large brains with big memories are required. Large brains take a long time to develop, and consume a lot of energy. That loop self reinforces, until it hits the limit of heads killing mothers as they block in the birth canal. That was the limiting condition.

      Once we had large brains with enough freedom to cooperate effectively in communities of a couple of hundred, then quite by accident it provided the perfect context for cultural/language/mimetic evolution to start its exponential expansion, at a rate that exceeds the genetic by several orders of magnitude.

      Modern humans are distinguished by the levels of abstraction in the software we are running, and little else.

      Cooperation is always more powerful than going it alone, if two fundamental conditions are met:
      1/ there are enough resources for all in the cooperative, and there is no need to compete within group; and
      2/ there are effective strategies in place that prevent in group cheating.

      Our exponentially expanding technology is meeting condition 1.
      We still have work to do on condition 2. Arguably at present most of our finance, banking, political and legal institution are “cheating strategies” in an evolutionary sense, however “legal” they may be in a legislative sense.


      • kaptonok says:

        Thankyou for your detailed reply.
        I’m a retired 74 year old layman with no higher education background.
        I do my best at self – education and I’m quite well read.
        Most of us have to rely on experts; even experts have to rely on experts in other subjects.
        I try to look for a consensus on contenious subjects like climate change. The internet is invaluble for investigation in some ways too good.
        I’m not particularly sharp or intelligent and get lossed sometimes in technical jargon.
        I read Richard Dawkins ‘ Blind Watchmaker’ with some difficulty in some passages; particulary the explanation of abiogenisis using the laws of chance. Its a bold work and touches the boundaries of knowledge. Thanks for the word stochastic system I had not heard it and hope to investigate a little.
        The paradox is not Russell but Wallace ; some say poor Wallace lost his way when he turned to spiritualism.
        Axerod is another man I had not heard about but I will investigate as best I can.
        There is much resistance from some religious quarters to these discoveries but sensible churches have moved with the times.
        I am a live and let live agnostic.
        I’m not convinced we are tackling serious problems with any urgency the two dangerous ones are : antibiotic resistance and climate.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Hi KaptonOK

        Thanks for the brief bio you gave, it should help me to communicate more effectively.

        I’ve been a bit of a science geek most of my life. I started subscribing to the New Scientist and Scientific American magazines at age 13, and was 17 when I started studying second year biochemistry at university. I read Dawkins’ “Selfish Gene” while doing 4th year studies, and it was (and is) the single most profound work I have ever read (and I found a few errors in it, as I do with most things I read).

        I’ve never gone along with the idea of following or believing anything just because anyone else believes it. For me, every assertion has to stand the test of the evidence sets available to me. If it fails (even once), then it matters not who or how many believe it, I won’t be amongst them.

        Having followed that approach to learning for over 50 years, I am not “main stream”.

        Consensus in the realm of social agreement about boundaries required for behaviour is a very different matter.
        I tend to view rules as a sort of necessary evil at this stage of the average levels of awareness present in society. As individuals progress to a level of awareness where they hold as their highest values individual life, and individual liberty (universally applied) then the need for rules of any sort recedes towards zero.

        One of the things to come out of complexity theory is a clear understanding that the best any of us has is a probabilistic model of reality, and we are all essentially using our best guesses at some level, and we must all make mistakes as a result (including even the best intentioned of scientists and law makers). Provided we are prepared to acknowledge those mistakes, and make reasonable efforts to clean up any messes that result, then liberty demands that we all have the right to make those mistakes (at all levels).

        Rules only really work in very tightly constrained systems, and people and society more generally are not that.

        The more we prevent people from using their innate intelligence (by imposing rules), the more we train them not to think for themselves, but just to obey externally imposed rules, the more perverse will be the outcomes that result – the logic of that conclusion is proven beyond any shadow of reasonable doubt.
        Unfortunately, that awareness is only slowly propagating through society more generally.
        Not many people into complexity theory as yet.
        David Snowden has some great youtube videos for general consumption.

        Most people are still firmly trapped in the sorts of constraints imposed by belief structures like religion and nationalism and truth and money, and changing that is going to be a slow process.

        It’s hard getting someone to trust their own judgement when they have had a lifetime of people punishing them for doing so, and rewarding them for following someone else.

        Apologies, yes – you did say Wallace, and my brain went – yes Alfred Russel Wallace, then for some reason – stopped at Russel when writing, and added the extra “l”. Probably because I am most used to associating “Paradox” with Bertrand Russell (as a side note, I have sat at Russell’s desk, and discussed quantum mechanics and the theory of logic with his granddaughter (a double PhD on those topics) on several occasions) {all of which is relevant here only to indicate how our neural systems associate things, and how easily they can lead us astray if not double and triple checked.}.

        On the topics of climate change and antibiotic resistance, yes both are real issues, and each could yet pose existential risk, and each is actually relatively trivial to solve when the exponential trends in computational ability are married to an ability to manipulate matter at the atomic level. Still a lot of work to do to marry those two trends, and that work is being done. Could be done faster, and probably needs to be. Perhaps that is where I most need to put my political focus of action.
        I am confident that there is a probability of over 95% that we will be able to do that within 30 years, and we can probably save a lot of lives and prevent a lot of misery if we did it within 5 years. And doing that is a major political change of focus.

        Linear thinking wont do it.
        We need to focus on double exponentials. That is politically difficult when most people are functionally innumerate even to linear numerical thinking, combined with the fact that our intuition is derived from sets of linear predictors in the neurophysiology of our brains, and it takes a while to retrain them to work reliably with exponentials.


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