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The Two Main Ways In Which Evolution Is Not Our Friend

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With millions of years of evolution behind our species, and a billion behind life in general, we might expect – in a Panglossian frame of mind – to function very well, and to be free from unnecessary misery. Wouldn’t the ruthless process of selection have removed causes for fitness-draining suffering and poor well-being in general?

There are two main reasons why we should expect a great deal of unnecessary suffering to be the product of evolution.

1. Adaptation Executors

A maxim of evolutionary biology is that organisms (like us) are adaptation executors, not fitness maximizers. Evolutionary processes create organisms that execute biologically-mediated strategies – it does not create rational beings that maximize fitness in all instances.

In many cases, the detection mechanism is “too sensitive” for our own good – our pain response and our startle response, for example, both generate lots of “false positives” in terms of fitness threats we may respond productively to. This is because in the environment of evolutionary adaptedness, the cost of tons of false positives was outweighed by the benefit of being “right” that one time that counts.

Our social ostracism detection system has also been posited to be hypersensitive, for the above evolutionary reasons. Social belonging has such a high survival value that any potential threat must be addressed immediately. This is true even if it means 100 “false positives” – instances of social ostracism with no actual fitness threat – must be suffered by the individual organism.

What’s a good idea for evolution is not necessarily a good idea for you. Evolution works fine – it just doesn’t give a fuck about the well-being of individual organisms.

2. Failures

In other cases, complex systems interact in such a way that the detection system is “broken.” This may be because the EEA doesn’t match current conditions, as may be the case with asthma, allergies, diabetes, and obesity. In other cases, it may be because organisms aren’t created perfectly every time, and are not perfectly matched even to EEA conditions. Evolution can only act on the mutations it’s given. The pain of a migraine, for instance, is not an indication of a necessary response the way the pain from a burn is. Problems may not reflect any adaptation at all – it might be a defect in the system, or in the organism.

Written in response to this comment by The Plague Doctor.

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Written by Sister Y

May 23, 2011 at 2:41 pm

2 Responses

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  1. I think your point #2 is really two points. One is simple failures, both on a species-wide level and on an individual level. An example of the former is that our alimentary canal intersects our respiratory system, and thus the fact that we can choke to death, is simply a case of “incompetent design”. And then we're all messed up individually in various ways.

    The other point that you have under “2. Failures” is that we did most of our evolution in groups of <150 or so individuals who were highly related, were physically active, didn't accumulate wealth, had much less hierarchical a social structure, were non-monogamous, lacked the ability to provide for themselves individually, etc.. Lots of characteristics that were adaptive in that environment are maladaptive in the modern environment.

    Evolution can very quickly pick out especially advantageous alleles that preexist, but it takes crazy-long to come up with something new. We had around a thousand generations since we've been a sedentary, agricultural, urban, hierarchical, wealth-accumulating species, which isn't very long to change around what worked pretty well for pre-historic Homo sapiens (and, hell, for Homininae (Homo + Pan) generally).

    JasonSL

    May 23, 2011 at 10:56 pm

  2. Yes – the “Civilization and Its Discontents” issue (that we adapted to different conditions) kind of bridges the two categories, in my view. It's a little bit that we're adaptation executors, not rational fitness maximizers, and it's a little that the adaptations are now horrendously mismatched to the environment – big fail.

    Sister Y

    May 24, 2011 at 3:44 pm


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