Sunday, August 5, 2007

Personalities rampant in "species"

I always thought of a species as one kind of thing, pretty homogenous. David Sloan Wilson in Evolution for Everyone introduced me to a very different and provocative vision.
"The conventional idea of a single species as a relatively uniform entity occupying a single niche has yielded to a much richer notion of a single species as a community of individuals employing different strategies to survive and reproduce.... [manifesting] individual differences that we recognize with the vaguely defined term 'personality.'" pp 107-108.

He gives many examples, including a fascinating one on p. 104 where one species of fish in one lake occupied different niches and were adapted to their different environments -- to such an extent that their bodies looked and acted significantly differently. I didn't know that was possible, outside of us and other mammals, at least....

Saturday, August 4, 2007

"Getting out in nature" continues the illusion

Yesterday I missed doing my blog. I was moving a bit further "into nature" -- "out in the country," as they say -- for a few days. In this primitive setting I have only dial-up, not wireless. And the tap water tastes fabulous. "Out in nature." Such an interesting concept. Such an illusory distinction...

I decided to develop some thoughts I was toying with last week.

  • Play arises from and serves survival (as practice for adult behaviors), but we can and do use it for so much more.
  • Sex arises from and serves reproduction, but we can and do engage in it for so many other purposes.
  • Intelligence and imagination arise from and serve survival, but we can and do use them for so much more -- often for things that don't enhance our survival at all..
  • Intention arises from and serves survival, but we can and do use it for things that don't enhance our survival, or even endanger it.
  • This list could go on.

The fact that some capacity or tendency arose out of and serves the evolutionary dynamics of "survive and reproduce" does not mean that that capacity or tendency will only be used to serve such "positive" evolutionary dynamics. It can be used in ways that have little to do with evolution -- or that lead to degradation, death, or extinction -- "negative" phenomena that have their own evolutionary significance.

Free will arose progressively from and has served our survival, individually and collectively. But we are using it in ways that make us look more and more unnatural, as if we are separate from nature. This is an illusion. We never left the Garden, no matter how much we pave it over and lace it with chemicals. We are not separate from nature, no matter how we try to free ourselves from its balancing feedback loops -- with medicine, with shelter, with levies, with manipulative technologies -- stretching our human systems increasingly out of that natural balance -- a balance which WILL snap back.

How hard it snaps will depend largely on how soon and in what ways we decide to attend to and align with the evolutionary dynamics of survival and the natural feedback loops of balance. It seems to me that our learning to do that very consciously -- as whole societies -- is at the heart of our next evolutionary leap. Through the creation of consciousness, cultures and institutions that align us with the realities of nature, we can begin a whole new evolutionary ballgame. Without that creation we will arrive at an evolutionary dead-end, and turn over the game to some new players.

Only with our departure as a species -- extinction -- would we actually be "outside of nature." May we wake up to that.

Thursday, August 2, 2007

Notes on the evolution of responsiveness and free will

Obviously -- by definition -- organisms that can respond (to environmental conditions) in ways that enhance their survival and thrival will survive, reproduce, and be selected FOR through the process of natural selection. So, over the eons, we tend to see more entities that have increasingly sophisticated systems of response.

Responsiveness tends to include different forms of
  • awareness, perception, intelligence, etc. (including increasing diversity, clarity, and interconnectedness of various forms of information available to the entity)
  • will, intention, choicefulness, option-creation, initiative
  • agency, action, impact, technique/technology

So what I'm calling "responsiveness" is a whole line of evolutionary development that we could explore -- i.e., What manifestations of responsiveness show up in unicellular, multi-cellular, mammalian, human, and cultural entities and interactions (and so forth)?

Looking at this more closely, we see that the VARIABILITY of environmental conditions -- different weather, changing predators, loss of food or habitats, etc. -- selects FOR variability of responsiveness. The more flexible certain organisms or populations are in the face of changing conditions, the more likely they are to survive and thrive.

So we can hypothesize that the variability of environmental conditions stimulates a progressive development of choicefulness, freedom, and flexibility in organisms, populations and species, over time. To roughly outline this:
  • Some entities evolve single-option stimulus-response mechanisms that we associate with "instinct".
  • Some entities evolve a genetic "Plans A, B, and C" repertoire of "if-then" responses, depending on their current situation or the conditions of their early development (reptilian fight or flight, beetle aggressiveness or deviousness, rabbit long or short hair depending on temperature).
  • Some groups of entities evolve many variations within their species so that some of those variants will survive no matter what conditions develop (within limits!).
  • Some entities and groups evolve ways to evaluate their circumstances and actually create new options for response. We see in human society -- at least in the case of certain groups and organizations -- an evolution towards increasing capacity to understand, innovate and change ideas, attitudes, and behaviors in increasingly complex, novel situations.

Intriguingly (paradoxically?), all this is developing within a largely causal universe, constrained by the many physical laws that have led some philosophers to postulate a "deterministic" universe -- a universe in which everything is pre-ordained because it was caused by things that had causes, etc., so what happens is the only thing that could have.

Other philosophers, noting the sense of choicefulness I have described above, have postulated a universe in which "free will" exists. Naturally, the two sides argue over whose view is right or if the two views can co-exist (see for example, this wikipedia entry).

Not being an academic philosopher, I am not sure how this will affect the debate about free will and determinism in philosophy, but it seems to me that we could generalize that a largely deterministic universe has given rise to an increasing measure of free will AS AN EMERGENT PHENOMENON. In other words, thanks to the deterministic laws of Darwinian evolution noted above, Life is coming up with increasingly complex and intriguing ways that organisms and groups can exercise choice in their activities.

In short, might we say that the universe is determined to have free will?

As CONSCIOUS knowing, CONSCIOUS identity, CONSCIOUS choicefulness, CONSCIOUS agency, and CONSCIOUS interdependence (social interactivity) emerge and intertwine, we begin to develop that level of responsiveness that we call RESPONSIBILITY. Responsibility is conscious agency. Responsibility is knowing and owning that
  • we did / didn't / could have done things
  • we are / aren't / could be doing things
  • we will / won't / could do things

At early stages "responsibility" is mostly tied to social networks of expectation, often linked to guilt, shame, regret, punishment, etc., as well as pride, status, rewards, etc. As a person individuates (matures into a more whole human being), "responsibility" begins to mean something more like "ability to respond" and has an empowering "I do, can, and will make a difference" flavor to it. To "take responsibility" for a past act includes learning from mistakes, failures, and successes, in ways that enhance performance in the future.

To the extent this kind of responsibility is accompanied by highly developed forms of awareness and creativity -- all manifesting at individual and collective levels -- it is on the leading edge of the evolution of "responsiveness".

Thanks to John Abbe for the conversation from which all this emerged.

Wednesday, August 1, 2007

Continuing this line of inquiry...

So here we are exploring the basic factors of persistence and change. These two factors have been dancing together since the Big Bang, but mostly in various shifting conglomerations of stardust pushed and pulled around by energy, gravity, and other stardust conglomerations.

Then self-catalyzing molecular sets showed up and we got actual REPRODUCTION, which innovated a whole new type of persistence -- which, because of mutation, then sex, then culture, etc., had/has change embedded in it. In other words, we got LIFE -- a new dance of persistence and change in which entities take on a new type of individual persistence -- SURVIVAL -- and a new type of species persistence -- HEREDITY. Entities began taking action to survive long enough to reproduce.

With Life, Things and Conditions started to become increasingly important. Because when a pattern of stardust took on the project of interacting with its environment in order to SURVIVE, it necessarily became a true ENTITY relating to other ENTITIES. That's the unit of survival, the entity. And that entity -- that unit of survival -- started to develop increasingly sophisticated forms of awareness, will, and agency. Not because it decided to, but because reproductive entities that had these capacities tended to survive to produce more entities that had them -- while those that didn't, tended to drift into oblivion.

So we got an evolution of entities, awareness, will, and agency -- all of which have taken on new forms as life complexified, differentiated, connected up, etc....

Now, in a conversation with Karen, it became clear to me that this dynamic was happening in ways that stretched beyond your usual Darwinism. Take the African villager who, when you ask her who she is, says she is Xusa of X village of Y tribe of Z land of Q ancestors etc. It takes a village to raise a child, they say -- which in evolutionary terms means it takes a village to reproduce. And to survive. And so the entity we are talking about here is the village within its tribal, ecological, and ancestral context -- that's what's surviving and reproducing by having a child.

Which suggests that a person's IDENTITY -- the ENTITY that they identify as -- has a tremendous lot to do with how they play their evolutionary role. Which suggests that one of the social systems we need to evolve is how we modern/post-modern folks identify ourselves. As aspects of systems. As Earth. As stardust. Etc.