Wednesday, March 7, 2007

Evolution and fantasy

Human beings are the kind of animals that insist on living in fantasy. I will endeavor to show how this happened and what it means. I believe it is one of the gifts and burdens that make us stand out from all other forms of life on this planet.

All animals and plants live deeply embedded in a rich world of ecological relationships. The quantity and timing of all sorts of parameters are of greatest importance to the health of individual animals and indeed, to whole ecosystems. Animals are constantly in the world, responding to weather, temperature, other animals, availability of minerals and vitamins. You may say that animals and plants spend most of their time in the present moment.

But there is another world, or time frame: the world of evolving species. As individuals and various ecological parameters go on their way interacting on the scale of lifetimes, The overall environment changes slowly over the eons. Almost anything, really, can happen. A comet may strike the Earth changing the whole climate for months. The continents slowly move around. Channels may open up connecting two formerly isolated oceans. A mountain chain can form, separating a region into two isolated regions. Global temperature can slowly rise. Sea level may change. A new species may evolve and radically change all the other animals' way of life.

What has made life so successful on this EVENTFUL planet is that the various forms that creatures grow into can slowly change. What's more they do so in a random way, because no one knows what the future will bring. Species change by way of parents rearing children who are different then they are. They raise MANY children, more than can survive in each generation.

Living beings contain fallible DNA. That is, the basic blueprints which specify the form they grow into is not perfect in its ability to copy itself from parent to child. But this is its beauty. Imperfect copies mean random changes are introduced from generation to generation. Also each child may have different changes then its siblings. And finally there is sex, the complicated meeting of two different family lines in which genes are swapped randomly between the blueprints archives of both family lines to create totally new mixes. Anyway, we see this riotous, playful, random variation all around us in the differences among people, dogs, roses... Each new change can possibly equip an individual of the next generation with a way to approach a new problem which the ever changing environment might present. But if species just kept on changing randomly back and forth from one generation to the next, how would any of them ever settle down to sticking with a new form or behavior which better equips them to deal with a change in climate or geography or community around them? After all, the environment changes SLOWLY, which means that any one new situation will probably last for thousands of generations.

This other element is supplied by natural selection. Parents often have more children then two. Sometimes they have millions of children as may some fish, sea urchins and maple trees. By interacting with each other and the environment, sometimes competing, sometimes cooperating with each other, the children who have varied far from the norms that work well in the current scene don't contribute to the next generation. If members of a species must interact, than those that act close to those norms are better able to interact. And so, generation after generation the cumulative effect of the way individuals and the environment selects the children who best respond to the changes in the environment stabilizes new forms for species.

Try this change, it doesn't work, the animal doesn't live well and cannot raise up children. Try this change, this parent manages to get one kid into the next generation. Different combinations of blueprints are tried out in each offspring as if we might try out ideas and throw out those that don't fit, slowly building up a solution or a story.

Thus life comes up with solutions to the problems that the changing Earth presents it. The solutions are often very creative, sometimes bizarre. It must be emphasized that no individual animal or plant is creative enough by itself to invent a new species. Neither is it the view of modern western science that some kind of god, like Michaelangelo is sitting up there thinking these things up and carving them into existence. It is the combined interaction of all those individuals through countless trials and errors that slowly over the generations create new species, new solutions.

And so just as individual animal and plants play a game of life in this rich immediate sensory world, populations of animals (belonging to the same species) play a game of evolution with each other in the meta-world of interacting species.

This evolution-time world is not a separate world away from this one, or after this one but just as a computer program is run on the hardware substrate, so this other world is played out in organism time substrate. [ok, still not clear]

By just one of these odd flukes of evolution, animals came about who can live in this higher level world of evolutionary problem solving. The apes, of which there are only five species alive today, live very intricate lives. They live in complicated cultures of linked families, and they eat a wide variety of plants and sometimes animals. All but one kind live in very limited environments today, but one kind of ape got themselves caught in a cycle of living in environments which where changing at a faster and faster pace, and somehow they learned to ride all the changes. For some reason one of the mutations that got selected for dealing with all this was a bigger brain.

A description of this brain came to me one day at the Zen center. Someone asked why do we need zen if simple animals don't? Why does an amoeba live totally in response to its environment, while we are so caught up in our heads and find it very difficult to live in the world? It occurred to me that what we have in our heads is a tangled mass of twenty billion amoebas. They are all yacking away at each other, all the time. But they never get out much. I mean, most of them are deep inside Only a few get immediate input from the world, like the ones in our eyes, ears and only a few get to act in the world, the ones that control our body. So, most are stuck talking to each other, most live in a world made up of themselves. And this is why we are most of the time caught up in our own dream world.

Of course there is a positive use for this tangled mass. It is its own ecosystem in which evolutionary problem solving may take place. What can happen in the human brain is exactly what happens during biological evolution. With that many neurons, ideas are tried out by the thousands, mostly unconsciously. There is so much machinery up there that it is capable of producing lots of random static. This, the neurons translate into totally new ideas, images combinations of memories. Most of course are preposterous, just look at your own dreams. At the same time, The neurons are so interconnected, many of them are connected to thousands of others, that ideas are constantly competing and cooperating, combining and separating. So they, like the species in evolutionary time get selected for according to various kinds of consistency And this happens quickly. After a few weeks or maybe even in a second.

The main tool of this large tangled net is simulation. It can simulate the situation of a whole ecosystem. It can imagine beings, each with their own behavior and play out stories where they interact. This imagination and story weaving is our specialty as a species. To solve problems we imagine stories and work them out over and over again each time with slightly different characters until something works.

Most of the time this goes on completely underneath our own awareness, and when presented with a problem we often experience what is called insight. Behold; the solution sits before us. Nevertheless, this can often take weeks, while we are only dimly aware of mulling over the problem in the back of our mind. It is not unlikely that all that while our brain is playing out thousands of combinations, stories, until it hits upon the right one. And when this resonates with all else that we know, it rings loudly and comes to consciousness.

You can even experience this with a short experiment. Look at one of those stereograms or 3-D images. The circuitry begins madly combining and recombining the data from both eyes in as many different ways as it can until one of them makes sense, and behold, the image pops into being.

Ok, we cannot deny the usefulness of our wonderful brain, but the dangers are immense. It is an incredibly large labyrinth. It is our ability to weave tales in our own head that is our downfall. Each of us can build an entire virtual world in our own head, populate it with countless characters, and then enter it ourselves, and wander around in it endlessly. Of course some people actually do this completely and never quite come out. I see them all the time on the streets of New York City, talking to mysterious characters that I cannot see or hear. It would be less shocking to watch if we just realize how all of us do this to one extent or another. More shocking is to realize that collectively, as a civilization we build up elaborate virtual worlds in which we make up our own stories about what is real and we talk to each other all the time in it and very few of us take time to step out onto planet Earth and smell real roses.

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