Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Natural Selection

Robyn, who occasionally posts at her blog Adapting in Place, posed the question about how we reconcile ourselves to the realization that we can't change the world.  Even the truism that you should make the world a better place can ring hollow, when it seems all we can do is make the worsening a little less.  Her take is that we don't have the power to intentionally and purposely change our world or even our own lives (in certain meaningful ways).  But we have to pretend to have that power - so that somewhere someone (probably not us) will be there to make a change - or at least adapt to a change - when the opportunity presents itself.

I think there's a truth underlying her thinking, and I see it in an analogy with biological evolution.  Most people misunderstand how evolution works, because at some point survival of the fittest won out over natural selection in the public mind.  Working from the principle of survival of the fittest people tend to think that species survive over the long haul because collectively the individuals of the species are finely adapted to their environment.  Actually the opposite is true. Species survive over the long haul because they are dragging along a whole inconvenient multitude of maladapted misfits, outliers, sorry mutants, and mothers' disappointments.

Marine Iguanas, Galapagos Islands
When the environment changes (and change it always does eventually) the process of natural selection dips into that muddy reservoir of diversity to find traits that can be useful to survival.  The finely adapted individuals are suddenly doomed to fail or at least join the other maladepts, and it is some outlier -- some flower that always bloomed too early or too late or some gazelle that was too big and slow -- that is "fit" in the new scheme. From the principle of natural selection it is diversity and often enough the crazy, maladaptive periphery that is the key to survival in changing times.  There is no plan to it, just luck and opportunity.

When it comes to humans and their cultures, people like survival of the fittest because it goes along with a number of human habits, like intentional planning and justifying why we should do this and not do that.  It flatters the successful and denigrates the unsuccessful and legitimates their divisions and hierarchies.  It can be the complacent justification for the status quo of class and status or it can be the careful plotting out of utopia as the best possible solution to our problems.  But it is always about sorting the fit from the unfit and imposing a sensible order to the world.

Galapagos Hawk
Natural selection, on the other hand, implies that it is not us, but external factors that determines what fitness is; it makes fitness seem arbitrary and ad hoc, rather than carved into stone by us and our wills.  It makes the privileged place of the fit into something that is contingent and not to be taken for granted, but something that has to be constantly re-negotiated and tested.  It throws into doubt our insistence on the right and proper way of doing something, and it holds out the idea that other,  less effective or efficient ways, are important.  In short it violates any number of human desires about order and control of our fates.

Neither of the approaches I'm discussing is a truly human attitude.  To the extent that you believe we can order our selves and our world as we desire -- then the striving for fitness and a celebration of the successes of the "best" will appeal to you.  To the extent that you think that other things overwhelm our intentions -- whether that be the indifferent Cosmos, the unpredictable happenstance of complex systems or the inertia of our animal natures -- you might embrace the necessity of trying things out and hoping for the best.

Sidewalk in Quito, Ecuador
I think that in the best of times, our ability to enact our intentions on the world is our amazing and unique talent as humans.  I don't think these are the best of times, however.  Enormous changes are probably in the offing, and our capacity to adapt to them as individuals and communities is at a low ebb.  The incredible diversity of lifeways that existed around the world before the modern, globalizing era, has been whittled down to a minuscule fraction of what it was.  

That's why I think we should all do our best to wander off in some direction that seems plausible. If things go bad, we'll still all be mostly doomed, but someone maybe won't be -- because they got off the narrow path that had seemed so safe and adaptive and inevitable just a moment before.  And if things don't go as bad as they might, and we all muddle through, we'll have done our part to lend resilience and diversity to this species of ours - no matter how unwelcome and unfit it might have been in the moment.