by das monde
Tue Oct 9th, 2007 at 10:40:08 PM EST
This is a quick (though long) response to a discussion in this thread. The subject jumped suddenly to Darwinian evolution. I am responding to this comment of ThatBritGuy:
I suspect there's a Darwinian bottleneck which means that species intelligence always tends towards the lowest limit needed for immediate gratification, competition and survival. In most environments that's usually going to be too low to make good species-wide strategic planning likely.
What seems to have happened with humans is that the limit rose a bit higher than usual, probably through reproductive competition - but not high enough to be truly smart.
Darwinian solutions are always short-term and instinctive, and more effective in the short term - which is fine as far as it goes, but creates a reproductive cost for the more strategic kinds of intelligence which are capable of planning ahead.
Long term solutions are likely to frustrate any number of hard-wired tendencies, and that's not going to make them popular, or likely, with individuals who don't have the cognitive or empathic skills needed to understand why they're necessary.
And so - most species won't make it. You may get a sudden die-off, or you may get cycles. But breaking out of that pattern is going to take a lot of luck, and some stray well-intentioned randomness.
My thesis is provocative. Bluntly: Darwinian evolution offers more possibilities than straightforward imagination allows.
In particular, you don't need high intelligence, perception of long-term problems and long-term planning ability to avoid collapses. All a species or a population needs is to follow behavior that is sustainable and robust.
Now, Dawkins would immediately say that such wise behaviors are not stable, any greedy selfish individuals would destroy them.
But first of all, we need to distinguish forethought strategies and behavioral strategies. We can assume that all species except humans (and perhaps, in some restricted situations, some other primates) are not able to plan prudently - though that does not strictly mean that animals cannot have perceptions of greed & altruism, and they could not react diversely.
Behavioral strategies can be greedy and can be "wise", whether animals are aware of that or not. They are just programmed reactions to frequently arising situations - and the pool of frequent situations depends on the behavior, by the way. Dawkins would insist that selfish (behavioral) strategies would be prevalent at any time. But... it is worth to be skeptical and imaginative here!
First of all, what is greed? What is selfishness? Ok, greed is just a behavioral algorithm that grabs everything, or grabs the best. Selfishness is a tricky notion: most broadly, it is the strategy of self-sustainability. In the long term, altruism can be more selfish than greed. What Dawkins and many others think is that short term interest always beat long term issues. Or is it really always?!
One point is that short-term "greedy" strategies should deal with consequences of themselves. They should work well not only at times of abundance, but they should overcome crises of their own making as well. For this reason, a successful greedy strategy can get more complicated than less aggressive behavior. An unsuccessful greedy strategy can be eliminated by a single petty aspect of a crisis.
Even if mediocre greedy strategies survive crises, there might be subjects (other species, even ecosystems) exploiting the cycles of boom and bust in some manner. Those would thrive on periodically occurring collapses of greedy fools.
Generally, less exploitative behavioral strategies would enjoy long periods in the same environment... except that they have to deal with breakaway growths initiated by new fools re-discovering riches of greed.
But who says that the only way to deal with greed (and violence) of others is to be greedy (or violent) yourself?! Alternative counter-measures would be more complicated behaviors (too complicated for modern electoral campaigns, so to speak) - but they could evolve nevertheless. I do not have myself enough imagination to describe alternatives, but I suspect that usually there are enough resources to slow down or fool greedy bastards, or manipulate their collapses.
Behavioral strategies (and memes) of greed and violence are nothing but viruses within respective "ecosystems" of behavioral strategies and memes. They are very contagious, undoubtedly. They seem so effective that they should rule the world.
But the biological world is not dominated by viruses, is it? There are not so many species enjoying the luxury of grabbing and eating whatever they come across. Surprisingly or not, sub-optimal behavioral strategies, be it "irrational" or "ineffective", can make living pretty nicely... unless some really big and strong fools come and destroy almost everything... But regimes of destructive competition last probably very shortly, compared to "naive" sustainable periods.
Coming back to us humans, our exceptionality is in the brain size. We have superior capabilities of social, economic and ecological perception, and we can react knowledgeably. But the intellectual evolution is thousands times shorter than the biological evolution. Our intellectual advances have high risk to be follies. In particular, the understanding of superiority of greed is probably such a folly. Our intuitions and "natural" inclinations are probably not competitive at all, but much more compassionate and peaceful - that must be the proud result of Darwinian evolution. But we are prone to persuasion from authorities and "alpha" individuals, which can drag us into unsustainable rat races and senseless wars.