Wednesday, 23 May 2012

Why is Life so Hard?

     The short answer: evolution.

     Natural selection is lazy. It doesn't work to make things the best they can be. It just makes them good enough to have a decent chance of survival. It didn't make cheetahs run 70 m.p.h. just for the fun of it; it did so because that's about how fast you need to run to catch a gazelle. And gazelles only run so fast because cheetahs eat the slower ones. It's a classic arms race. The cheetah can catch its meal, but usually only by really working hard at it, and the gazelle also pretty much has to give its all to escape. Life's not easy at all for either of them; they're both working at their very peak effort just to survive.
     So nature runs on the principle of "good enough" rather than "the best possible". Very rarely does nature equip some species with a trait that is far more than the job of survival calls for. The only reason pronghorn antelope run so much ridiculously faster than any North American predator is because up until a few thousand years ago, there were cheetahs here too. I don't know of any measurements that would confirm this, but I'd be willing to bet that today's population of pronghorns, without cheetahs selecting for his speed, are slower on average than their ancestors. There are more ways for mutations and genetic drift to reduce the efficiency of a runner than there are to improve it.
    At first glance, we humans might appear to be an exception to this general rule. We are so much more linguistically, culturally and technologically powerful than even our closest primate relatives, it's tempting to think our relatively massive brains and corresponding intellect is a freakish anomaly. (I don't want to get into a debate about human vanity in assuming ourselves to be the smartest in the animal kingdom. I'm using "smart" in the fairly narrow technical sense of having bigger and more versatile brains, so please don't read into it any kind of value judgment. Plants are not "smarter" than we are because they "know" how to photosynthesize and we don't, and cockroaches are not "smarter" because they're more likely to survive as a species in the long run. For all their superior survival odds, cockroaches' brains are tiny and support very limited cognitive function. Plants don't even have brains. So that's all I mean by "smarter", and to argue otherwise is, well, not very smart.)
     On a survival level, our brains certainly seem to be disproportionately powerful. They've made us into one of the most effective hunters on the planet, having wiped out virtually all the edible megafauna on most continents within a few centuries of our arrival. We've figured out how to produce food surpluses through agriculture, and our population has exploded to the utterly outrageous figure of 7 billion relatively large mammals. Survival for many of us, at least in the developed world, isn't even a challenge any more; most of us die from cancer and heart disease instead of starvation or being eaten by predators. This is a direct result of our species' unprecedented technological prowess.
     So how does this figure into Nature's "good enough" approach? How come we got so absurdly smarter than we needed to be to survive?
     A big part of it is the arms race principle. We're a social species, but not a eusocial one. That is, while we tend to live together in groups and cooperate for mutual benefit, we're not completely selfless about it the way ants, bees, some wasps, termites and naked mole rats are. We cooperate and compete with each other, and when we compete, it's usually by way of our brains. Of course, it's a lot more complicated than simple competition, and often that competition takes place within a cooperative framework. A group of hunters may be genuinely trying to cooperate to bring down a mastodon, but they may also be competing to establish social dominance. Even the fully cooperative human has to be able to detect attempts to cheat, and the would-be cheater needs to be able to figure out and defeat those detection attempts, and so on. In short, humans with bigger brains than their fellow humans were more likely to pass on their genes, and this arms race has produced a species with way more smarts than we need simply to squeeze food from our environment and avoid getting eaten by bears.
     And there, in our competition with our fellow humans, nature has made us just barely good enough to have a decent chance at figuring out each other's (and even our own) motives and schemes, and not one bit better than we need to be. Sure, getting food might be relatively easy, and we don't even have to think about avoiding hungry wolves or tigers now, but the countless other struggles of social life remain as hard as they've ever been, and our brains pretty much have to work at peak capacity for that.
     In fact, in many ways, our brains are facing much harder problems than they ever evolved to solve. Fact is, as big as our brains are, they're really not that good at solving certain kinds of problems. They're good at forming judgments about the kinds of things we encountered as hunter-gatherers, but they're not so good at things like formal logic and statistics. We are equipped with a whole lot of shortcuts and quick and dirty heuristics that give "good enough" results for basic survival, but aren't always the optimum or rigorously correct solution. We can learn to do calculus or apply Bayes' Theorem, but it takes a lot of effort.

     So life is hard, and it pretty much always will be, because of the way we evolved and because of how evolution works in general. Our minds, our bodies, our willpower, all are the result of a process that makes things just barely good enough to survive in their environment, and not one bit better. And I'm not at all convinced that's a bad thing.


  1. Tom, You are smarter than this. You will have to answer to God for the way you are using your mind.

  2. You attempt to appeal to my vanity and my cowardice. Not that I lack either, but you miss the mark.

    (1) I am not smarter than this. This is exactly how smart I am, and I am not at all embarrassed that you shake your head sadly in disappointment at my folly. Perhaps if you were to provide some sort of reasoned argument showing how my thinking is flawed, but just to assert I'm wrong? That would be a lot more persuasive if I had reason to think you were smart enough to know what someone "smarter than this" would do. Maybe you are smarter than I am, but you can't expect me to just take your word for it.

    (2) I don't believe God exists, and therefore do not fear angering Him by using my mind in the most natural and sincere way. And if God DOES exist, I have faith that He would want me to use my mind to seek diligently after truth no matter where it leads me, even if it leads me to doubt His existence. Frankly, I just don't believe God is a petty, self-absorbed moron whose feelings can be hurt by honest questing after the truth. If the truth is that God exists, then such honest questioning should eventually lead there.

  3. You sound like a talk-show host, calling God a moron because He doesn't agree with you. Isn't it you who are petty and self-absorbed? He reveals Himself as the truth, and you claim to pursue truth but will not come to Him. Ask Him to show Himself to you. You need a personal relationship, to understand.

  4. Please try to read carefully. I said I do NOT believe God is a moron. Nor was it "because He doesn't agree with [me]", but because, according to you, He'd be offended by my thinking. No one should be offended by another person's thoughts, least of all God who understands them far better than you do.

    You have reached what you believe to be the truth, but you did so by an invalid shortcut, and now you think yours is the only way. From my perspective, the shortcut you took is to a dead end that precludes further questing by convincing you there's nothing outside worth looking for. There are countless other similar traps, all with various different superficial claims but sharing the same pretensions to certainty and flat rejection unseen of any alternatives. So it's clear to me why you're so dogmatic about what you believe, and why you cannot seem to address my concerns in any substantive way; you simply say I'm wrong because I don't buy into your particular framework, end of story. Oh, yes, your particular framework isn't YOURS, it's God's, right? And all those other frameworks that claim uniquely to be God's One Truth are just mistaken in a way that you can't possibly be.

  5. It is not an invalid shortcut--it is the only way that man can ever truly know anything. Knowing truth is knowing a Person. That Person, Jesus Christ, alone knows all things. The certainty we have is not that we can never be wrong in our undersanding. It assures us that we will never be abandoned by the One who is working in our lives. Certainty is confidence in Jesus Christ. Knowledge is knowing Him. You seem determined to understand everything before you let yourself trust, and then you admit you can never understand everything. Your box is of your own making. Come to Jesus. Bring all your doubts and intellectual struggles to Him. Ask Him to sort it out for you. It is not a matter of becoming stupid. It is laying hold of true knowledge in the only way a human being can have it. Jesus sid, "Come unto Me." We need to come.

  6. You are confusing faith with belief. The two are very different things. I do not lack for FAITH in God; I merely lack in belief, which I consider to be unimportant. In other words, I don't think God's there at all, but if He is, I have the utmost trust in Him. What more do you want? Why should it matter whether or not I BELIEVE some set of historical claims which may or may not be true and have very little substantial evidence to support them? And in any event, as I've stated elsewhere, belief for me is not a matter of choice anyway, and thus not subject to moral duty; you can't "ought" to believe, when belief is simply a matter of being led where the evidence and argument takes you.

  7. I thought I'd drop by over here and say hi, Tom. I agree with a fair bit of your post, and I learnt from the instructive nature of the comments about the proghorn antelope and the cheetah. I even basically agree with the overall thesis. I'd say that God used evolution in the way he did, because a world of evolution works well as a world of sin and death and curse.
    When you get to items that are uniquely human, I think you run into serious problems - but that's not really your focus here, so basically the article works even for me as a Bible-believing Christian. But I wonder if you have more to say on the distinction between animal and human. That's where our differences are substantial. For example, do you have a definition of human and animal such that you could attempt to answer this question: What are the most advanced activities an animal could achieve and still be an animal? I wrote my own thoughts here -
    Or is your distinction between human and animal so opaque, that you don't like the question?

  8. Thanks for dropping by, Michael.

    I do not have a sharp moral distinction between human and animal. Homo sapiens belongs to the kingdom Animalia, after all. I think the important moral distinction is between persons and non-persons, and I consider to be a person anything that is capable of independent moral choice. (That rules out corporations, which are legally persons, but they depend upon their directors to make decisions on their behalf.) In other words, if "it is the right thing to do" can be a sufficient reason for the entity to do something, then it counts as a person in my book.

    That's not always going to be an easy distinction to draw, and there are going to be gray areas. But that's just the way things are: the world doesn't always give us simple, clear-cut solutions, much as we might want it to.

  9. Do you have an "age of accountability" after which it would not be right to kill a baby? And is it you that will decide whether an aged person can make a valid moral choice? You are sitting pretty until you get there, but may the Lord deliver your loved ones from your decisions!

  10. I do: birth. That is, I don't actually believe that at birth a baby has all the features of personhood, and certainly not to a greater degree than other animals which we legally do not treat as persons (a three-year-old dog is FAR more cognitively advanced than a newborn human), but because humans as a species generally tend to exhibit personhood as they mature, I think we should treat them as persons by default from birth to death, which is pretty much how we do it now. Occasionally, when someone lapses into a coma or suffers catastrophic brain damage, we need to make a judgment about whether or not they're still alive. I don't see a way to avoid that, but borderline cases are always a tough call. We could just say they're persons until their hearts stop beating, but that doesn't help get rid of complicated cases: what if someone's perfectly conscious and aware and capable of moral reasoning, but connected to an artificial heart? They don't cease to be persons just because their original heart has stopped beating.

    Actually, this principle is meant to expand the boundaries of who can be considered a person, not to contract them. I take it as given that humans are all persons. I just don't want to rule out the moral claims of non-human persons: intelligent animals, aliens, robots. There may or may not actually be any non-human persons out there, but I think our morality ought to be able to deal with them if we should ever encounter them.