Archive for the ‘evolution’ Tag

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.


Earth Mysteries — 7 of 7 — The Law of Evolution   Leave a comment

[Earth Mysteries 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7]

So here we are at the last installment of this seven-parter.  Indigestion and too much caffeine.  No, not the series, though you may be thinking or feeling that, too.  Looking back over earlier ones I realize each post has gotten more random than the preceding one.  Not sure if I’ve done Greer a favor, writing about his seven keys — keys belonging to all of us — but doing it in such a way that they’re more “notes for a revolution” than anything like a review.  You can’t just dump a bunch of principles by themselves on people and expect them to see how they fit, exactly. Which is what I’ve sorta done anyway.  Inoculation by reading.

Like I said, they’re more notes for a revolution, so that when it comes, you’ll recognize the advance guard and maybe the sound of the explosions and know you’ve seen and heard something like this before, and maybe deal with it better or more inventively than your brother or neighbor out here panhandling and prospecting with the rest of us.  “Look what I found!  It’s a … well, I don’t have a name for it, but it might be useful at the weekly swap-and-steal.”  Heaven consists of the spare parts of creation that didn’t get used elsewhere.  We’re destined to mine the scrap heaps for the gold everyone’s tossed there by mistake.

Here goes with the last Law.  (Of course it’s never the last law.  There’s always another one, like yet another stray that won’t leave, moping around for scraps.  Throw it a bone, or a filet. Watch what it does with it.)

“Everything that exists comes into being by a process of evolution.  That process starts with adaptation to changing conditions and ends with the establishment of a steady state of balance with its surroundings, following a threefold rhythm of challenge, response and reintegration.  Evolution is gradual rather than sudden, and it works by increasing diversity and accumulating possibilities, rather than following a predetermined line of development.”*

A shiver of awe and delight coursed through me when I first read this one.  Maybe nobody knows where humanity is headed — it’s not something mapped out beforehand.  “The wind blows where it wishes and you hear the sound of it, but do not know where it comes from and where it is going; so is everyone who is born of the Spirit,” says the Beloved Disciple in the eighth verse of his third chapter.  (What, you didn’t know portions of the Bible are a Druid stealth device?  Look twice before crossing.)

Sure, our DNA has something to say about it, and so do the causes we’re always setting in motion.  These will shape our experience and our future.  But they’re our causes.  We can change.  And we want to “accumulate possibilities” because these mean freedom.  The dead-end singleness of conformity and bland homogeneity leave us hankering for the quaint, the queer, the mysterious, the odd, the doesn’t-fit, the original, the new, the surprising, the fresh.   After all, we left Eden (some versions have us kicked out, but the result’s the same) and we’ve been on quest ever since.  But “pave paradise and put up a parking lot”? Not what we really want, is it?

In  “To Holderin,” the German poet Rilke writes to a compatriot:

Lingering, even among what’s most intimate,
is not our option.  From fulfilled images
the spirit abruptly plunges towards ones to be filled:
there are no lakes until eternity. Here falling
is our best.  From the mastered emotion we fall over
into the half-sensed, onward and onward …

We suspect so much more of reality than we let on.  Or than it does.  It’s not safe to do so, but it’s right, in the best senses of the word.  Who ever wanted what is merely safe, when fuller life offers itself to us?  Well, some people do, and often enough they get what they desire, and before long beg to be freed of it.  Poetry means “making” in Greek, and we all make, we’re all makers, poets of our lives.  Song is our native tongue, or could be.  It’s that melody playing just beyond hearing that we’re always trying to capture, to get back to.  That crashing sound?  That’s just another person banging around the music room in the dark, trying to pound out a melody.

While we’re listening to Germans, here’s Martin Heidegger:  “To be a poet in a destitute time means to attend, singing, to the trace of the fugitive gods.  This is why the poet in the time of the world’s night utters the holy.”  Cool, just so long as we know the holy really isn’t safe at all.  No place to hide.  Here’s Rilke again:

Here is the time for the sayable, here is its homeland.
Speak and bear witness.  More than ever
the Things that we might experience are vanishing, for
what crowds them out and replaces them is an imageless act.
An act under a shell, which easily cracks open as soon as
the business inside outgrows it and seeks new limits.
Between the hammers our heart
endures, just as the tongue does
between the teeth and, despite that,
still is able to praise …

Sometimes you get the sense from Rilke, like from other madmen and seers, that you’ve always known what he means, that in fact you’ve done what he’s saying, even though you may not be able to say it yourself.  But he manages to.  We leave saying to the poets as if they’re somebody, but not us, who forgets you aren’t supposed to say these things, or that nobody expected you could say them.  But you say them anyway.  And get inconveniently booted to the curb by your neighbors, who  take over “for your own good,” and after you comes flying what you thought was your life.

So you pick yourself up, brush off the worst of the dust, and keep going, without a life if you have to.  Not as if nothing has happened, but as if everything has, and it keeps on happening.  Who else do things happen to, but us?  We’re mistaken if we think that disconcerting little factoid that reaches the news but which happens in “some other part of the world” — outer Don’t-bug-me, central I-don’t-care-yo! — isn’t our concern.  Next week I’ll find refugees from there in my basement, peering up at me.  My new psychic friends, walking my dreams, if I don’t see them actually fishing through my garbage, desperate for food or love or those pieces of my life I decided weren’t worth my time.

Oh, Druids are a little bit crazy, more so on certain days of the week than others, and most of all under certain phases of the moon.  We’d cry if we weren’t laughing so hard, and sometime it sounds much the same.  But the spirit lightens a little, and we see the outlines of a Friend where before was only a little mannikin of sadness or despair.  We keep doing this for each other just often enough to go on, suspecting ourselves of the worse motives, and probably right to do so.  But there’s a fire over the horizon, and singing, and the party’s going on without us. It’s the same fire in our heads.

Shapes move and stumble around the fire, vaguely familiar, so that after joining them it seems we know them, we left them years ago, but this is a reunion where we see everyone’s suffered and grown, though some have become knotty and twisted, like old trees.  But there’s a few among us brave enough to hug them anyway, and bring them into the Dance. And so we dance, all night, the last stars twinkling when we finally stumble home to bed and a delicious, bone-weary sleep.  And later, who knows what waking?

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*Greer, John Michael.  Mystery Teachings from the Living Earth. Weiser, 2012.

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