V.P.A.S. and You   Leave a comment

[Updated with link 1 February 2017]

Sometimes ya gotta love acronyms. (No, not you specifically. People in general. Not that I’ve ever met a person-in-general. Only individuals, who annoyingly refuse to conform to abstractions. Thank the gods.)

Especially if you can find ways to play with acronyms as well as learn something useful from the ideas they compact into memorable form.

So first, let’s look at the A.S. part of the acronym in the title.

This post is inspired by an article in Scientific American from a little over a year ago Nov. 2015) titled “Perception Deception“. (Link to the author Michael Schermer’s blog — scroll down to November 2015 and the article.) In it, the author examines recent studies that point to our — and that includes all species — perceptions of reality as useful rather than necessarily accurate.

(Does it have to be either-or, the author plaintively asks at one point?)

graph-cartoonIn other words, it doesn’t matter how close to reality our perceptions are, as long as they give us advantages in survival and reproduction. Or, as the article puts it, they have Adaptive Significance. The sun doesn’t “rise” or “set”, to use a trivial example; instead, the earth rotates. But unless we’re attempting a spacecraft launch, we don’t need a more “accurate” understanding. Living as if the sun rises and sets grants us perfectly reasonable adaptive capacities.

We don’t need to go far at all to find larger and more weighty human examples. If your parents told you growing up not to talk with strangers and you put that precept into practice, it’s just possible you avoided some serious unpleasantness. There’s adaptive significance: you survived by escaping kidnapping, abuse, death, or recruitment into cult or gang or band groupie-dom.

But we know that most crimes statistically involve people who know us, so the ultimate adaptive significance of that parental instruction may turn out to be low. If that makes us into distrustful adults who find it difficult to open up to others, we may never connect with another person to reproduce and pass along our genes to a new generation. Low adaptive significance for the individual. But paradoxically high for the species: excessively fearful individuals self-select and remove their genes from the genetic melange of the human future. In other words, and among other things, heroes remain possible.

The premier example the studies cite is the Australian jewel beetle:

Females are large, shiny, brown and dimpled. So, too, are discarded beer bottles dubbed “stubbies,” and males with mount them until they die by heat, starvation or ants. The species was on the brink of extinction because its senses and brain were designed by natural selection not to perceive reality but to mate with anything big, brown, shiny and dimpled (Scientific American, Nov. 2015, pg. 75).

Now apart from providing wonderfully vivid and useful ammunition to cartoonists, misanthropists and meme-lovers about the relative intelligence of males and their sex drives, the example seems to me to undermine the point the researchers actually wished to make. Here is a perfect example of how perception needs to match reality quite faithfully, or it won’t confer that sought-after adaptive significance.

In other words, species also need to possess what the article terms Veridical Perception — the VP of the acronym — if they’re going to survive. Or as my mother repeatedly counselled the teenaged me, you have to live in (and perceive) the real world.

(She neglected to add: “Just not all the time”.)

It’s true that human culture can shelter from reality some highly inaccurate perceptions, and for long periods. To quote a whimsical example, Humpty Dumpty exclaims,”Why, I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast!” The mutual support we give each other, and human law, medicine, societal expectation and life experience, all help moderate and temper and refine our perceptions of reality to help minimize the damage inaccurate perceptions can cause. But wackadoos and wackadooism still persist. We can just generously think of them as genetic outliers. Experiments in adaptive significance, not veridical perception.

It is also an argument of the article that species with high adaptive significance consistently out-survive species endowed only with veridical perception.

Yet despite what current politics and media suggest, most humans live in approximately the same perceptive universe. Our differences loom large only in certain select domains. In spite of the noise these few domains are generating right now, the immediate adaptive significance of most of our behaviors remains high. (It’s flaws in their long-term adaptive significance that remain our great challenge.) Drive down the highway and — while a few accidents do indeed happen — the marvel is that most people see the universe in ways similar enough that we don’t take out all other drivers on the road in a single day of apocalyptic Hollywood bloodshed, simply because what you see as a red light I see as green. The relative absence of “carnage” — a loaded word in the U.S. right now — is an encouraging thought.

evolution-cartoonBut side by side with adaptive significance, we might remember that evolution doesn’t “progress”. Where and how the arc of history may bend will apparently always be an experimental question, not an ideological statement.

A sparrow flying around today isn’t an “improved” or “more” evolved version of an ancestral theropod or archaeopteryx. The same is true of modern humans: we’re not any better suited to life in cities or at a desk in corporate America (or on the tundra or in the jungle) than our Cro-Magnon or Neanderthal forebears. We’re distinctly not “new and improved”. What we are is adapted, and adaptable.

It doesn’t have to be a choice: our behaviors more often possess adaptive significance when they also arise from veridical perception. We thrive when we “do the true”.

Veridical Perceptions with Adaptive Significance

And what about Druidry, just one of our many attempts at a veridical perception, at an accurate grip on reality? Does it also confer any adaptive significance? Is it just a Western 21st century middle-class indulgence? Does it offer an edge that can help us navigate tough times and steer us through these beginnings of a centuries-long post-industrial transition?

The next post will look at some possible responses to these questions.

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Images:graph cartoon; evolution cartoon.


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