Archives for posts with tag: survival of the fittest

There are some things each of us must do.

Breathe, drink, eat, take cover.

There are some things each of us should do in moderation.

Drink, eat, ‘rest’…

There are some things each of us should never do.

Lie, steal, kill.

The things we must do ‘depend’ upon our DNA.
Unless we do what our DNA tells us to do, we die.

The things we shouldn’t do have been determined culturally.
Our fore-fathers have noticed that not doing ‘those things’ helped a lot.
That communities who taught their members to not do those things survived a lot easier and fared a lot better than those communities who had been ‘lax’ about ‘things’.
Teaching what to do and what to not do across generations transformed learned information into culture.

In time, culture has fulfilled the same function as DNA.

DNA had made it possible for life to exist. For species to survive. And to evolve when needed. When the environment had changed.

Culture had made it possible for communities to survive.
Individuals belonging to each generation didn’t had to reinvent fire each time they were cold. Or afraid. Or hungry.
They just remembered what their ancestors had taught them and put it into practice.

But there’s also a huge difference between DNA and culture.
Both consist of information passed over generations and both are instrumental in the survival of those who depend on that information being put to use.
The difference consists in the fact that DNA actually demands a certain behavior while culture only recommends certain ‘answers’.

There’s more.

DNA is a ‘language’. It has ‘letters’, ‘syntactic’ rules and even means to correct errors.
Culture uses languages as a vehicle.

Both code information using ‘letters’ and ‘words’ but they differ in how that information is passed to the next generation.
DNA passes that information in a way more ‘rigid’ manner than culture does.

While it is true that slight differences occur whenever genetic information is passed from one generation to another – that’s how evolution works, those ‘directly interested’ in the process have nothing to say about this whole thing. The differences occur accidentally and survive only if they don’t harm the organisms where they appear.

With cultural information things happen in the exact opposite manner.
Differences occur only when enough individuals notice that it would be beneficial for them to change that particular habit in that particular manner.

And now we have reached the moment to contemplate another similarity.

As the DNA has become more elaborate, the ‘superior’ organisms had enjoyed more individual ‘freedom’. Or ‘lee-way’.
Insects have more lee-way than worms, fish have more lee-way than star-fish, dogs have more lee-way than frogs and humans have more freedom than the rest of the apes have lee-way.
Similarly, people belonging to the hunter-gatherer culture had accrued a lot more freedom when they had learned – and taught it to their children, how to make fire. And so on.
Those who had learned how to grow their own food – and passed the information to the next generations, had far less chances of dying of hunger. And a lot more lee-way to conduct war…
Those who had learned how to make metal tools were a lot freer than those who shaped their tools out of stone. And very soon the stone-shapers had been ‘subdued’ by those yielding bronze weapons.

And so on to the present day.
Those who have become adept users of mass-media are seeding ‘change’ into the minds of the naive.

I only hope that they will eventually find out what Ernst Mayr had to say about this process.

Evolution is in no way about ‘the survival of the fittest’.
It is only about the demise of the unfit.

The problem with the ‘lee-way’ generated by culture being that whenever it becomes too wide the whole system becomes fragile.

Whenever people get high enough on freedom they forget that in order to survive we need to remain inside the ‘straight and narrow’ mandated by DNA and endorsed by culture.

Otherwise put, being torn between musts and don’ts is far better than being stuck. In a grave.


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Turning your head to re-examine past experiences is liable to yield previously unnoticed aspects.
Sometimes important ones…

Many people attempt to convince us that evolution is about ‘the survival of the fittest’.
Ernst Mayr, What Evolution Is, 2002, aptly explains that ‘evolution is not as much about the survival of the fittest as it is about the demise of the unfit’!
Have you ever heard about the guy?

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Evolution, the phenomenon, is driven by small alterations in the environment.
The individual organisms which cannot cope with the alteration do not survive, The surviving ones – the ‘siblings which find it in then how to cope, thrive because of the relative abundance of specific resources. The species survives.
If not enough of the individual organisms are able to survive the alteration, the whole species disappears. The odd survivors might mutate – or not, and establish a new species. Or not…

The current alteration of the environment in which we, humans, need to first and foremost survive is COVID-19.

The difference between us, humans, and the rest of the species subjected to evolution being our ability to purposefully communicate amongst us the information we have been able to gather. NB, ‘communicate’ doesn’t always guarantee ‘honesty’.

Viruses – simple strings of genes, also known as pieces of information, which had happened to evolve into their present form, have no motivation. Furthermore, it’s impossible to determine the full motivation of those who spread misinformation about anything – or even whether they are fully aware of the consequences of their actions. Hence, I’m going to ‘glance back’ at COVID using a purely evolutionary eye.

I’ll start by letting you in on something I witnessed earlier this morning.
Waiting for the traffic light to change, at a crosswalk, I overheard two guys talking about the virus. The older – by some five odd years , was trying to convince the other that ‘This thing is nothing but a scam. There is something out there, indeed, but the numbers are too small for it to be as dangerous as advertised by those who want to herd us into submission’. Both were close to my age, 60, but there was a marked difference between them. The ‘denier’ was more opinionated – a more sure of himself, but was carrying his age a lot worse. And you could read on the face of the other one that this was not the first time that he had heard that… and that he knew how useless it was for him to tell anything. Anything to the contrary, of course.

It was then when it hit me. I had almost the same sensation as when I first listened to Deep Purple’s Space Trucking….

People die of this thing. The weaker the earlier. Some will survive. The species still has a future.

Yeah… only our awareness has added another layer on this evolutionary mess. It’s not only our individual immune systems which fight this infection. The health care systems organized by the communities take care of the sick ones. The sanitation systems take care of the dead. The ‘Big Pharma’ have already provided us with ‘weapons’ to fight back. The governments attempt to organize the whole survival effort.

This whole thing has veered way off from our classic view of evolution.
‘Passing through’ is no longer a matter of individual prowess. Or luck.

It has become a matter of cooperation.
Or a matter of dis-information…

Going forward, two scenarios can be imagined.

A few of us survive the actual disease, enough of us get vaccinated and we reach herd immunity. Sooner rather than later. We learn our lesson and life goes on, with some adjustments.

The ‘COVID is a scam’ scenario gets enough traction to convince a sizeable proportion of the population to refuse the vaccine. Periodic bouts of the infection prevents us from regaining a modicum of normal life. More and more people will start resorting to ‘strange behaviors’.
So strange that I don’t even want to imagine.
The worst being the fact that whenever in ‘dire straits’, people are more inclined to accept various forms of authoritarianism.

Do you feel compelled by public pressure to wear a mask and take the jab?
You consider this to be ‘dictatorial’?

Wait till the next wave of infection crashes over our heads!

And why have so few of us heard about Ernst Mayr?
‘Survival of the fittest’ plays better into our ‘confirmation bias’.
‘We’re still here, then we must surely be doing something really well. Luck has nothing to do with it and nobody has ever given us any free lunch. Everything we’ve achieved was due solely to our own efforts! None of us needs anything from anybody else!’
Anything which contradicts this dearly held conviction will be met with a strong opposition. Denial, even.
At the subconscious level, of course!

‘I refuse to wear a mask’ not as much because ‘I don’t care about your fate’ but because I don’t want to acknowledge that I need your cooperation towards our mutual survival!

Me and my broken promises… what on Earth made me bring motivation into discussion?!?

Survival of the fittest“.

Evolution is not about survival of the fittest but about the demise of those unable to adapt. Even if the difference seems trivial this approach has vast consequences. As Ernst Mayr explains it What evolution is, (Basic Books, New York, 2002) one can never know what “best” may mean, in any situation. First of all because (Werner Heisenberg, Herbert Simon, Dan Ariely) you can never have a complete picture of anything and secondly because in the real world ‘situations’ are changing constantly – Panta Rhei.
So the only relevant test is survival, being able to cope with whatever comes along and not the brilliance with which one might be able to solve a very particular problem, at a particular moment in time.

Division of labor

After understanding ‘survival’, it’s a lot easier to figure why social strategy functions better than sheer individualism: by creating the right environment for its members to become specialists a complex team will cope better when confronted with  different complex situations than a mob composed of identically qualified members.
With the caveat that this arrangement works only as long as every member of the team realizes that it’s better for him to belong than to get out and only as long as all the members of the said team act consistently as if ‘one for all and all for one’. Otherwise put, complex teams where each has it’s own more or less indispensable role work properly only as long as most of the members continue to be ‘socially intelligent‘.

For those who feel there is an apparent contradiction here please note there are two levels of analysis/interaction.
Individually, each of us has to take care of him/herself (and his/hers immediate family).
Socially, each of us has the duty to evaluate the other members of the group and to exchange information with them about the well being of the whole group.

This can be taken even further. Whenever a subgroup becomes too ‘specialized’ –  as is in ‘becoming so preoccupied with it’s own well being as to stop caring about the rest’, its own survival is in danger. Time and time again, history shows us that those who become estranged from the rest of the society end up badly. Creating problems for the entire society, true, but ultimately their behavior amounts to a form of suicide. Callous royals end up on the chopping block, seemingly indestructible dictators end up at the hands of angry mobs… Erstwhile top of the feeding chain (too big to fail?!?) companies end up broke or bailed out by the government…

Politics versus Economics

I’m constantly amazed by the fact that politics and economy have grown so apart from each other and each of them so disconnected from reality.
Politics has become a constant struggle for administrative power while economy has ‘metastasized’ into a battle field where the foot soldiers struggle to survive while the big brass  gorge themselves with ‘money’.

Nowadays, too many politicians have forgotten that their job is to figure out, in close cooperation with the rest of the society, how to solve the various problems which  challenge us on a daily basis. Too many of them do nothing but fight among themselves, each of them attempting to impose their particular vision on all of us.
In the same time, the economic mechanism is no longer geared towards ‘making the ends meet’ – the original meaning of the Greek word oikonomia.
Our not so distanced ancestors have invented a self governing mechanism which very efficiently allocated the available resources to those who were able to put them to good use. Adam Smith described this mechanism as ‘the free market’.
Presently, we’ve corrupted this previously self leveling mechanism into a collective MMA arena where the heavier knock the wind out of the weaker in the name of ‘king profit’.

All this because we mistakenly believe free market capitalism to be an ideology when it is nothing but a mechanism for allocating resources.
The best to date, admittedly, but only as long as we’re wise enough to preserve the freedom of the market.
And as soon as we’ve mistakenly ‘anointed’ profit as the most important goal of any economic venture… the market had ceased to be free!  You see, profit is the best measure for efficiency – which, in its turn, is the best indicator for economic survivability, yet efficiency itself is pointless if the needs of the market are not met. Smith’s famous characters – the baker, the brewer and the butcher, went to the market to meet the needs of their customers. They became comfortably well off because they were successful in meeting those needs in an efficient manner, not because they were successful in cornering the market… as some of the present day tycoons are teaching us

Why do I maintain that a ‘profit obsessed’ market is no longer free?
Well, simply because the participants to such a market are just as free as those addicted to heroin. Both kind of addicts think of nothing but the object of their addiction and are oblivious to everything else. As in blind to everything else!
And I’m sure you all agree with me that being blind is detrimental to being able to stay alive. Specially so for those unaware of their blindness!
Or unaware of their addiction…


Darwin had wrote “On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection“.
Some of us had mistakenly understood ‘evolution’ as being a ‘fight for survival’.
‘Fight’ as in ‘kill/subdue all those around you’, not ‘strive to improve yourself’, unfortunately.

Ernst Mayr had put things right. ‘Evolution is not about the survival of the fittest but about the demise of the unfit.

Adam Smith, a philosopher, had explained to us that free market capitalism functions because ‘the butcher, the brewer and the baker‘ cooperate across their respective ‘professions’, fully understanding that by respecting each-others work each of them would better serve their individual interests than by struggling individually.
Unfortunately too many of his contemporaries, and some later exegetes, mistook Smith’s words as meaning that ‘Greed is Good’.
And proceeded accordingly. Which was just another ‘application’ of Gresham’s Law. The ‘greedier’ among the capitalists slowly climbed to a dominant position and created a situation later described as ‘savage capitalism.’
Since people have a tendency to over-react, and to make matters worse instead of solving the problem, Karl Marx came up with an even more stupid idea than ‘Greed is Good’. According to him, the world should be run, in an equally authoritative manner, by a different class of people. Not by the ‘greedy capitalists’ but by the ‘virtuous communists’.
As if there ever was any real difference between dictators…

Almost a century later than Smith, Emil Durkheim, a sociologist, revisited the concept of ‘cooperation’ – from another angle, and demonstrated that society had leaped forward when each of its members developed his/hers particular talents instead of toiling together indiscriminately.  And then traded, on the free market, the results of their efforts. Nothing really new, just told in a different manner.
A marked difference from the ‘rantings’ of Marx. Who, by the way, had assessed the situation perfectly. Which makes it all the more baffling the fact that he was able to propose such aberrant remedies.

Almost simultaneously with Durkheim, another guy had noticed two very interesting things.  After a successful career as an engineer Vilfredo Pareto had started to study economics. Then he turned his attention to sociology. As an economist he had noticed the Pareto Principle – 80% of the results (income) are produced by 20% of the causes (agents), while as a sociologist he discovered that whenever social mobility, upwards as well as downwards, is hampered, the society where this happens will, sooner rather than later, experience serious difficulties. In fact this observation is quite straightforward. Whenever young people from the ‘lower strata’ cannot accede, despite being better qualified and harder working, to more meaningful positions because those positions are ‘safeguarded’ for members belonging to the ruling minority, the people from the lower strata stop striving while those from the ruling minority become lazy and careless. The recipe for disaster, don’t you think?
If we put both Pareto’s observations together we discover something similar to Smith’s budding concept of a free market. Whenever an individual, or a group of individuals, become so powerful as to dwarf those around them, economically as well as politically, the free market, economically as well as socially, stops working.

That’s why all monopolies have never failed to collapse.
That’s why all authoritarian regimes, including those built according to Marx’s rantings, have eventually failed – causing great harm to those fool enough to believe in them.

That’s why dinosaurs had disappeared – they had grown too big for their own good.
They behaved as if they were ‘greedy’. They seemed more interested in dominating the world instead of minding their own business.
Fishes – which are older than dinosaurs – survived and thrived.
Crocodiles, alligators, turtles, tortoises, snakes and you name whatever other reptiles come to your mind have survived the same conditions that have cut the mighty dinosaurs down to size.

That’s why Mayr goes on warning us. ‘Evolution is not about the survival of the fittest but about the demise of the unfit.

Let’s not destroy ourselves, as a species, attempting to prove him wrong.

Pareto’s elite theory is rather straightforward.
As soon as a society ‘grinds to a halt’ tension starts to build up. A ‘lion’ – or a coalition of lions, will sooner or later seize the opportunity and ‘make a grab for it’.
By tearing the calcified sinews which tied the society down the lions actions unleash – for the moment, at least, the creative forces that could not assert themselves. Things become markedly better than they used to be.
Because the lions are ‘lazy’ they soon hire ‘foxes’ to run the show. Unfortunately the foxes tend to be rather narrow minded and soon their narrow-mindedness coupled with the decrepitude of the lion ‘in charge’ bring back the society to the original – aka bogged down, situation.
A younger lion/fresh coalition of lions restarts the cycle.
Basically we have the definition of the boom-bust cycle.
A very compelling example would be the manner in which communist states had crumbled under their own weight. Or the manner in which all monopolies – or even companies in dominant positions, eventually screw up. The automobile industry – a mature economic field, would be a very good example for this.
Nothing dramatically different from Schumpeter’s ideas, albeit at a different scale.
Ideally, in a free (aka fully functional) ‘market’ there are a number of lions which keep each-other at bay and a big enough number of foxes to keep the show together. The lions, acting in concert, make sure that the foxes do not take over while the foxes prevent the lions from driving the whole thing over the cliff.
If the circulation of the elites is hampered, in any way, shape or form, the continuous/evolutionary social and economical fine tuning no longer works and the society reverts to the boom-bust cycle.
A really free market would closely resemble Darwin’s, or more exactly Mayr’s, evolution while the present situation is one where the circulation of the elites has been brought almost to a halt.
The whole process tends to be rather ‘circular’. As in a vicious circle.
Or a virtuous one. As it used to be, until very recently.

NB. This blog is more like a collection of notes than anything else.
I write them down because doing this streamlines my thinking process and I make them public because readers’ feed-back (mostly on FB) is very helpful.

What on Earth is ‘itall’ and why would anyone bother about it?

Let me re-frame that.
Why on Earth are we so obsessed with winning in the first place?
It’s indeed nice to win from time to time but aren’t we overdoing it? Regardless of costs?

“Suppose that you are charged with selling a single food item to at least a hundred million people in a highly diverse society.  You can pick whatever item you wish, but you can pick only one.  If you fall short of getting at least 100,000,000 people to voluntarily choose your item over a rival item that will be offered by a competitor, you lose.  (Your competitor is playing by the same rules that you are playing by.)

Being highly competitive, you hate losing.  So you carefully go about selecting which item to choose.”

Already been there? You must surely understand where I’m driving at. Even if you are not ‘that competitive’ yourself you must’ve been wondering why hamburgers taste the same almost all over the world, and not only those mass produced by McDonald’s.

You see, there are two sides of the winning game. No, not those two obvious ones – the two players.
There are the players and the spectators. None could exist without the others but only the players, and the trainers, are aware of this.
Yet the very existence of the game and the manner in which it is played heavily influences the life of the people belonging to both categories.

As Don Boudreaux explains us in “Insipidness Guaranteed” our very fondness of winning big leads to the market being inundated by the very blandest – but generally acceptable – of products. Originality becomes stifled, contrary to the very fact that, from time to time, it’s exactly the original thing that gets the jackpot.

Three things concur to this.

I already mentioned the first.
Most players, or at least those at the top, know what’s going on while most of the (paying) spectators don’t. This leads to the spectators watching mesmerized what’s happening in the pitch while the players ratchet up the tension till it becomes unbearable least the spectators become bored and leave. So the spectators spend their time, and resources, watching instead of creatively using their brains to build something new – and potentially useful.

Our culturally enhanced obsession for winning.
Those players insist because they are plainly ‘hooked’. ‘Adrenaline is one of the most powerful drugs‘. This is true, if you don’t believe me check it on The problem with this particular addiction is that adrenaline is produced naturally in our body when we compete and that the winning moment is ‘scored’ in the brain by a powerful shot of dopamine, another hugely addictive natural drug.
On top of winning being highly pleasurable, and addictive, it is also positively sanctioned by the society. Drunkenness and being high on drugs are shunned by a considerable number of people while winning is applauded by all.

It also helps.
Yes, winning helps a lot. Otherwise ‘the quest for winning’ would have withered away a long ago by the very same mechanism that encouraged the advent of the moderate altruistic behavior – natural evolution.
No, this is not about ‘the survival of the fittest’ – that’s a mirepresentation of Darwin’s words, set straight by Ernst Mayr in ‘What Evolution Is: ‘It’s not about the survival of the fittest but about the demise of those who cannot cope’.
So, competition is good in the sense that it’s telling the loosers ‘stop trying this and look for another venture if you want to thrive/survive’. The real winners are exactly those who understand something when they loose.

Just as we need to balance altruism with the need to preserve our own personae, both physically and psychologically, by constantly adjusting that balance according to the prevailing circumstances, we also need to understand where our obsession for winning has brought us.

When all we want is to win, we tend to forget that survival is, most of the times for individuals and at all times for the communities, more important than winning.
Darwin had titled his most important work ‘On the origin of species by means of natural selection‘ and had amply demonstrated there that ‘natural selection’ (= competition) is just a means toward the ultimate survival. Evolution, that is.
That’s why we are hard wired to compete among ourselves – so those more adapted to a certain environment might continue doing what they are good at while the others are ‘encouraged’ to look for something else to do. But natural selection never works on the premises that ‘the winner takes it all’: very seldom competitors that belong to the same species kill each other.

Ernst Mayr demonstrates in the book I already mentioned that overspecialization is bad for you. ‘Survival of the fittest’ is stupid precisely because of that. ‘Being the fittest’ – and doing it for any considerable amount of time – means gradually becoming unable to cope with the slightest change that might occur in your environment.
That’s why natural selection includes a mechanism through which small alterations appear haphazardly in our DNA – those who are benign enough survive and provide the individuals that carry them with additional capabilities, so that they might take advantage of slightly different conditions than those where their ancestors have evolved.

We, the humans, have raised this to a new level. By becoming self-conscious – ‘aware of our own awareness’ in Humberto Maturana’s terms – we have developed a certain individual originality – and the need not only to manifest it but also to convince those around us that our ideas are better than theirs. Sometimes by any means at our disposal.
If you don’t believe me read again Plato’s Republic: “Then, I said, the business of us who are the founders of the State will be to compel the best minds to attain that knowledge which we have already shown to be the greatest of all-they must continue to ascend until they arrive at the good; but when they have ascended and seen enough we must not allow them to do as they do now.”

Maybe it is high time for us to understand that a 2500 years old fallacy is still a fallacy. Plato marked the pinnacle of the Greek civilization, not it’s start. After he published his works, and Pericles had finished building his architectural wonders, Athens went slowly downwards and gradually lost it’s significance. Telling people what to think is the sure fire recipe for disaster. Ask the Soviets if you think what happened to the disciples of Plato isn’t convincing enough.

Coming back to where we started, winning, I have to remind you that a fundamentally aggressive attitude leads to the complete disappearance of respect. The aggressor becomes so engrossed in what he does that not only ceases to respect those around him – “He who is not for us is against us” was how Lenin used to see the world – but also looses sight of what he does to himself and to where he is leading his followers.

At the end of the article that spurred me into writing this, Dan Boudreaux, the author, bitterly ejaculates: “No one should be surprised that candidates for the U.S. presidency transact mostly in platitudes and are forever performing deeds on the campaign trail that any self-respecting person with independent judgment and a genuine sense and appreciation of his or her uniqueness would never in a million years dream of doing.  And the closer a candidate gets to the political promised land, the more intense becomes the pressure for him or her to be the political equivalent of a Bud Lite.”

Why, I ask all of you, would they – or any other of the putatively democratic candidates – do any different if we, the voters, continue to behave as hapless spectators and choose to watch as they fight for power instead of reminding them that they are being interviewed for a job, not wrestling for the privilege to take home the prom-queen?

And if they don’t get it – cause they’re too busy flaunting their feathers, we don’t get it – cause we’ve been hypnotized by those very same feathers as they are, how come the trainers – those close advisers who handle the players at every occasion – don’t get it that the whole bandwagon has started to go astray?!?

Real democracy means that the would be leaders put on the table the important issues, discuss them honestly till the voters develop a real understanding of what is going on and then some of them get elected by a knowledgeable community to implement a set of policies.

Where do you see this happening in our days?
Animal Talk: Breaking the Codes of Animal Language: