Sunday, December 19, 2010

Evolution: Brain Wall

I'm reading 'Fooled by Randomness' by NNT at the moment, his precursor to 'The Black Swan' in a way it's kind of like reading a first draft of 'The Black Swan' but there is certainly a huge reallocation of emphasis onto the noise vs information distinction as opposed to prediction and rare events.

Anyway in the chapter 'Survival of the least fit' he makes a brilliant and profound argument captured by Solon's warning. That is Solon met the richest man in all of Greece and when asked by this rich dude if Solon knew of anyone more exulted than he, Solon proceeded to give the accounts of dead men that had died nobly in battle and lived respected lives. When the rich dude asked if Solon knew of anybody alive more exulted, Solon pointed out that the rich dude's life wasn't over yet, so he couldn't really say whether his life was that great yet.

This anecdote has so many applications, for example Steve Keen whose forecasts of doom and gloom for Australia's debt fueled property bubble have failed to materialise calls it 'calling the game at half time'. Keen like most economic prophets can accurately forecast the devestation, but when dealing with something as irrational as a property market, calling the 'when' is a lot more difficult.

Anyway Evolution. This is all to do with evolution, because success is a temporary and transitional state. One does not attain it permanently, or necessarily at all. One occupies it until they are evicted.

Now NNT claims that sooner or later everyone proclaims themselves an expert in evolution. I found this to be a personal challenge, as I've read 'The Selfish Gene' n shit and feel I am no lay member of the evolutionary theory crowd. But since I've devoted so many words to being an atheist on this blog, I thought I should write about evolution.

Firstly, you have to be a monkey fucking moron to not accept evolution. Namely the theory of natural selection. It is very simple, if you have two species occupying one planet. One experiences intense pain and anxiety when they commit a reproductive act, the other species experiences orgasmic pleasure, you would expect that in a very short number of generations the pain species population would be dwarfed by the pleasure species population, simply because they posess genes that encourage them to reproduce.

So evolution is really at its base simple, it says, simply, that traits that tend to aid survival, tend to survive. Ones that disadvantage survival, tend not to. Thus over multiple iterations (generations) like millions of years traits that help creatures survive eradicate the traits that disadvantage them.

Now Intelligent Design has absolutely no evidence for it whatsoever. The most common argument is one from probability - which is always going to be a dumb argument, they say that the odds of producing a species of parasite that live only in the kidneys of deep sea squid (highly specialised existence) are so low, it is the equivalent of flipping a coin a billion times and having it come up heads everytime.

Now if you buy this argument, then you don't understand natural selection. So given an environment (a deep sea squids kidney) and a bunch of genetic traits, you will have traits that allow you to survive in that environment and traits that disadvantage you in that environment. If we call the beneficial traits a 'heads' and the disadvantages 'tails' then here is how natural selection works. You flip a coin. If it comes up heads you flip it again, if it comes up tails you scratch it, then flip it again. Natural selection simply means that all the tails get removed from the results, not that they didn't occur. Only the heads keep going to play again.

The best thing about this process is that its blind, thus it needs no further explanation.

Now here is where I feel the need to defend myself against NNT's assertion that most 'proclaimed' experts on evolution get wrong. Not that we can see forward and predict what genetic traits will aid our survival, but that in some way everything is getting 'better' at surviving. That is we are evolving into super beings that will be harder and harder to wipe out.

I had this view corrected years ago when watching a guy talk about the future of retail. He called Department stores 'Dinosaurs' and put particular emphasis on the definition of a dinosaur, being a dumb animal that is very well adapted to its environment. The important part is that most life forms are very well adapted to survive in the present environment. What this guy taught me is that environments a re subject to change.

The process is blind, because genes can't tell what their environment will be. Just like Brain Wall they stand and wait to see whether they will pass through the hole in a styrofoam wall. But the thing is that what 'position' it takes to survive in a given environment is unknown and can be entirely arbitrary.

It could even be incredibly stupid. Imagine a parent gives birth to a kid that has flippers for arms and legs instead of arms and legs. This would probably be seen as a disadvantage in our current environment. But say within 10 years the polar icecaps melt and most of the world becomes flooded. Suddenly seal boy has a distinct advantage in surviving given his mobility in the expanded oceans (the predominant source of food). Enough humans survive, but seal-boy survives easily. Women who reproduce by him have a higher chance that their children will have this loser-turned-winner genetic 'defect', those children of his that have flipper like limbs will tend to survive better (picked off by less preditors) than those that inherit their mother's limbs. Within a couple of hundred generations one could expect that flipper limbs become a dominant trait in the human race.

Then low and behold the environment changes again, and the polar icecaps refreeze, creating vast fertile lands where once there were oceans. Suddenly those 'freaks' particularly adapted to land living (previously a handicap) are in a better position to survive. Seal-boys decendants die out, the monkeys thrive again.

These walls rush at particular species and wipe out millions of years of evolution constantly. Chomsky introduces his book 'Hegemony or Survival' with the question 'is it better for survival to be smart or stupid' this question is valid because the average lifespan for a species is something like 500,000 years. Homo-sapiens have the capability to wipe themselves out in less than a tenth of that time. A bacteria would go on prospering for millions of years. As Chomsky says, our best hope is that that question will never be answered.

All this reiterates that evolution as simple, and elegant and majestic as it is really quite stupid. There is no design. To think that our intelligence, our ability to learn, communicate share and adapt to changing environments (and change our environment) could actually be an evolutionary liability vs. the cockroach that is just plain fucking resiliant.

Now the 'Brain Wall' or as it was called in Australia 'Hole in the Wall' isn't quite the best analogy. What would represent evolution better is if you have a bunch of contestants faced with one hole. Only one is getting through as that wall comes on and the decision of who survives is quite arbitrary. The thing that would be hard to replicate on a tv show is that on the other side of the wall now that there is no competition the remaining contestant can reproduce up some children for the next wave.

That is evolution, we tend to resemble survivors. But everything that is alive today is descended from something that survived the past, nothing yet has survived the future.

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