In the eye of a goddess

If we want to describe the fundamental laws of nature, it’s almost impossible to avoid subtle distortions in our language that gloss over some of the finer details. Even evolution is prone to this kind of pitfall. Casual descriptions of evolution almost always fall into the teleological trap – where we find ourselves describing evolutionary processes by reference to a purpose or goal. For example we might say humans evolved the ability to walk on two legs in order to free up its arms, or to gain a better view of the surrounding terrain and predators. This ascribes intentions, a plan, to the species that simply isn’t there. The reality is that change is random, and adaptations that aid survival are more likely to persist, while changes that don’t aid survival usually fade away.

goddessStill, there’s a lot more beauty, elegance and simple communicative utility in using this kind of generalisation. And reading Scott Alexander’s latest blog article, it’s impossible not to be stunned to see him wielding this generalisation like the brush of an experienced painter. Scott’s beautiful allegory describes some of the basic forces of nature – a Goddess of Cancer, sending forth organisms in fury, whose creed is “KILL CONSUME MULTIPLY CONQUER”; and the Goddess of Everything Else, who craftily redirects her sister’s destructive will into cooperation.

My article is based directly on the content Scott’s article, so you may wish to take a look. The article is quite a brilliant way to depict an important natural mechanism behind the fiction, which is no less astounding when you consider that incredible contrast between single-celled organisms and multicellular organisms. Multi-cellular organisms (us!) are not all that different from groups of single celled organisms. In a sense, we’re basically just a cooperative domain of separate cells. Sort of like the Goddess of Everything Else’s peace treaty; her alignment of self-interest and the common good of many cells. As this cooperative advancement is also a major theme in my own philosophical writings, the skill of Scott’s fictional rendition of this process almost temps me to just point those sections of my site to his wonderful stories of Goddesses, Moloch and Elua.

Except, in this article, there’s a niggling detail; a small but philosophically vital anomaly disturbing the fine fabric of the story Scott has woven.

Life’s goal, given meaning by the genes that define it, isn’t “KILL CONSUME MULTIPLY CONQUER”. It’s ultimate purpose, it’s terminal goal, it’s intrinsic value, is “SURVIVE“. So while the Goddess of Cancer’s words capture the brutal reality of the process of survival in many instances, in this case our philosophical purpose render this minor detail to be vitally important. This isn’t because of the inaccuracy itself, which would be an unreasonable nitpick for a loose allegory like this, but because of the philosophical goals we have in reading and writing this story.

Killing, consuming, multiplying and conquering is a effective way to survive for many species on Earth. But these are just strategies. Should killing not serve survival, then an organism need not kill. Should conquering not aid survival, it need not conquer. And less obviously perhaps, if multiplication does not achieve survival, then it need not, and perhaps should not, multiply. Survival means genes continuing to exist in the world. That’s the ultimate goal. Everything else is method.

bacteriaOf course, Scott’s story beautifully captures one of the other methods, cooperation. Individual units (biologists now generally recognise the gene as the lowest level unit in evolution, though they also acknowledge other units are analytically relevant), struggling to achieve their goal of survival, find immense utility in cooperative strategies. Sometimes this can be joint aggression against others, but it can also involve commitment structures to non-aggression, allowing less resources to be wasted on zero-sum or negative-sum activity. Many conditions must converge for such a structure to form, but to the extent it does, a new, larger evolutionary unit comes into being. When we see the immense diversity of the world of multi-cellular organisms, it is this cooperative process. A new, larger, domain of evolution, if you will. (as a note I want to point out that a cooperative domain should not suggest reduced autonomy for the constituents – a freedom-loving democracy exemplifies a cooperative proto-domain far more than authoritarian regimes do, just as a human blood cell is a free-roamer and slave to no other cell)

Scott’s story illustrates this sense of cooperative expansion wonderfully. From the single cell organism to the multi-cellular organism, cooperation expands at the will of the Goddess of Everything Else, despite the Goddess of Cancer’s best efforts to sow chaos. The story even hints at the next levels, beginning to form in human thought and in their social lives. Yet perhaps, especially in the light of life’s survival goal, there’s scope to go intellectually a little further.

planetsImagine for a moment that life exists on many of the tens of billions planets in our galaxy. On each planet, there is at first only competition between the products of simple organic chemistry – gene’s struggling to survive. Over time, like on Earth, these biosphere’s are characterised by larger units. In some cases those multicellular organisms become as advanced as our own, developing technology, communication, awareness of the laws of physics and chemistry, and also aware of biology and the biosphere in which they exist. So, assuming there is a next stage for these biosphere’s, where the cooperative units expand to cover a much larger domain, then what should we expect?

The mistake I think is so terribly tempting to make is imagining that the answer is transcendence of consciousness. There are many difficulties to be found in the concept of consciousness. Part of this is to be found in trying to shoehorn a dualist concept into modern science’s favoured physicalism – importing a morally-neutered version of a concept rooted in religious philosophy and then attempting to fit empirical evidence to the concept (rather than the inducting concepts from the evidence at hand) has yielded unsurprisingly confusing results for the world of philosophy and science. Yet supposing we decide, despite problems of philosophy and definition, that we cannot live without the concept, because of its usefulness in describing the feeling we have of our own existence. In the context of the Goddess’, and in the context of what I think is Scott’s finest work (Meditations on Moloch), a greater problem emerges.

The “transcendence of consciousness” isn’t an expansion of cooperation. It isn’t the next step. Why? Suppose we discount (or ignore) the ethical difficulties that surround your self-awareness destroying and discarding many other things that makes you who you are – your genetic purpose, your place in the species, your place in society. Even if we’re comfortable with this, this still isn’t, by any stretch of the imagination, an expansion of cooperation. It is individual organisms constructing their own technological likeness. Perhaps for an intelligent enough scientist, it need not even involve another organism at all.

Worse, a transcended “consciousness”, in a very practical sense, is not more likely to avoid the Goddess of Cancer’s creed of “KILL CONSUME MULTIPLY CONQUER” any more than its biological creator. Even if we imagine a consciousness uploaded to a computerised existence, the same forces are at work. In competition for resources, between uploads and against humans, it is the fittest survive. Even if the uploading process offers the moral perfection of the uploadee, only a tiny percentage of takers need to opt for a more competitive existence to dominate the new landscape. Without a larger domain of cooperation, transcendence isn’t a victory for the Goddess of Everything Else, or for Scott’s other good god, Elua. It’s a last minute diversion away from Elua’s next song. If our luck is poor, it might even allow more destructive forces new powers to outflank the domains of good. Transcendence seems less like Elua’s work and more like a potential strategm for Moloch.

I think there’s alternatives, and one’s that still capture a sense of technological optimism, albeit with a more scientific and logical grounding of its moral philosophy. Such an alternative would retains the sense of the next being an advancement in a new larger domain of cooperation. We might acknowledge that there are a number of proto-domains bubbling up in today’s competitive environment that might be candidates for this mantle – people defined by nationality, or by race, or by culture. Perhaps we might be luckier than this, and live to see a more cooperative human species as a whole. But I am philosophically ambitious, and have my hopes set a little higher.

Why? Thinking back to all those biospheres throughout the galaxy, wouldn’t it make sense that the biospheres themselves might constitute an expanded domain of cooperation?

Earthrise_Revisited_2013Just think – having reached the potential to destroy themselves, as we have, the biospheres face a crossroads. They may fail to establish cooperation, being snuffed out by nuclear war or some other technological disaster, not unlike an early bubble of organic chemicals failing to establish the stability and protection of a cell. Or, like the early candidates for the first biological cells, planets throughout the galaxy roll the dice to become a stable evolutionary unit.

And what is our role, as a Earth’s most intelligent, technologically advanced and powerful species, if not to try to weight those dice in Earth’s favour? This is our true and most noble role, captaining the planet through this narrow bottleneck in the biosphere’s history of survival. It is combatting existential threats to preserve ourselves as a species, as well as our fellow species, and to the biosphere as a whole. It is the development of the technology that can transition us to an age of space exploration and interplanetary colonisation of life. Our destiny need not be the meaningless treadmill of wireheaded hedonism, nor the fiery end of extinction. Let our future be to steer Earth to a greater existence, awakened unto the galaxy.

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  1. Hi citizensearth,

    Thanks for the post. But if we’re going to “teleologize” evolution, I think the purpose would have to be “multiply” (i.e. reproduce) rather than “survive”. If you think evolution is about survival, just ask a male praying mantis.

    Of course if you take the objects of “survival” as genes – meaning geno*types* – then survival (of the genotype) is nearly identical to reproduction (of the organism). But then, any poetic value of the teleology metaphor takes a big downturn. Genotypes are abstract objects. Can we wrap our heads around the idea of survival-of-abstract-objects? Probably, with difficulty – but it invites even more confusion than run-of-the-mill teleological remarks (such as “the heart functions to pump blood”).

    1. Cheers.

      Though I sort of argue that teleological-style statements on things like evolution are incorrect, I don’t mind accepting a teleological statement if it’s a highly accurate approximation to the reality of the topic. The poetic value is not something I’d deliberately pursue or advocate, though I felt it neccessary to acknowledge.

      Perhaps we can say genotypes are partly abstract, but I don’t think genes are abstract at all. They’re as discrete as you get outside maths and maybe physics, and totally concrete (best referred to as objects not ideas).

      Suppose there are two animals reproducing. After 999 generations, there are 1 million descendents of animal 1, but only one descendent of animal 2. Now say after generation 1000, a disease wipes out all descendents of animals 1. A lot of reproduction of genes did occur for animals 1, but survival of its genes did not occur. We can say the reproduction was “unsuccessful”, but that judgement is really saying it failed to meet the goal of survival. If we reverse the situation, and the single animal 2 was wiped out, our term “survival” still remains an accurate description. So I think for evolution “survival” is the best core description, whereas “reproduction” is a highly correlated strategy.

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