Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Humans, Morals, Ethics, Large Brains, Fire

Humans, Morals, Ethics,
Large Brains, and Fire

For some time now there has been a lot of discussion about how our species co-evolved with the domestication of fire.  This morning on a social network site I saw this post about how wolves are more socially complex than previously thought.  Yesterday I was talking with my sister about the evolution of our species and how it could be that our species is an evolutionary accident, and that Morals and Ethics are product of our species attempting to deal with that accident.  All this conspired together to produce this blog post.  

First notice that our species is singular in that we apparently are not able to live in a sustainable ecological niche. This does not necessarily set us completely apart from other species that expand beyond their ecological niche but in all cases such a species will at worst crash and become extinct or at best enter a 'boom-and-bust' cycle.  

When you consider the complete arc of human development it certainly looks like we have been marching toward our own 'self-extinction' as our technological behaviors become more sophisticated without the species coming to grips with its humble beginnings.  

It is a sad commentary on our species to realize that even our 'origin stories' contain an explanation of why we are as we are but fail to further realize that we must be at one with the ecosphere of our planet and thus comport ourselves accordingly so as to live in harmony with this pale blue dot

As a species we overpopulate as a result of our ability to successfully structure and modify our surroundings resulting in the increase our ability to survive natural changes that could decrease the amount of available food and hence our population.  

Our hostility toward each other I think is directly linked to our population density. Some other species tend to form social orders that keep an excess number of males from engaging in activities that would result in population bubbles.

Another thing I notice is how our 'big-brains' work.  We are completely saddled with evolutionary baggage in the form of instinctual behaviors that are hard-wired into us.  The one that is most at odds with the potential our 'big-brains' give us is Confirmation Bias

This type of mental behavior is selected in favor of, over contemplative and scientific thinking, by natural selection due to the 'false-positive/false-negative' selection bias that forces us to make snap judgements on poor data and then stick to those judgements and beliefs due to how natural selection designed our minds.  

The idea is that when you make a false-positive judgement based on poor data you only spend a bit of excess energy, but when you make a false-negative judgement based on poor data you become another organism's lunch or you encounter some other environmental obstacle that wipes you out. Natural selection is the process that rewards an organism that can avoid being wiped out, the reward being that it will persist.

The upshot of this is, to move technology forward, we must force ourselves to think contemplatively and scientifically.  We have been able to do this due to the huge increase in leisure time created by our successful manipulation of our environment.  This is seen to have a 'feedback-effect' that results in our current state on this planet and the apparent exponential increase in the level of technology.

Getting back to our species being an evolutionary accident.  The best evidence for this is the complete lack in the fossil record of another species that domesticated fire then and developed any sort of technology.  

Our big brains, fueled by our very nutritious diet made possible by fire gives rise to a mental feature that may not be possible in non big-brain species.  I call this feature the ability to mentally 'model-the-model'.

I think mentation for all motile organisms, at its core the ability to create a mental model that has as its output possible responses to the organism's external sensory inputs.  Such a model also incorporates memories of results of previous encounters with similar sensory inputs, and hard-wired behaviors.   
The model makes predictions of what the future will bring given the actions that it recommends. Which output of the model (action) is selected, depends on which one is most likely to insure successful negotiation of the current and likely future
environment. 

Modeling the model is the ability to reflect on the mental process itself.  When this ability is coupled with communication between species members it is apparent that the sum of our collective abilities exceeds any particular individual's abilities.  This is what allows our species to enjoy its apparent success.

There is another thing about mentation that I think is important when you consider the 'Model the Model' mode of thinking.  This is our necessary ability to avoid 'vicious infinite regress'.  

Such a state if it could not be avoided would cause our mental activity to 'seize-up' and we could not proceed.  The result of the ability to avoid such a situation results in our capacity to simultaneously hold contradictory ideas without any mental distress. 

When combined with confirmation bias this allows, among other things, our minds to have enormous imaginative ideas and beliefs that we not only confuse with actual reality but also use to solve problems and come up with the technology we enjoy when we combine our imagination with contemplative and scientific thought.

Our built-in ability to create internal 'stories' with our 'big-brains' that we then widely share among each other combined with our awareness that we do not enjoy a sustainable ecological niche forces us to develop rules and behaviors we try to follow to avoid the natural corrections that occur when any species gets 'Too-Big-For-Its-Britches/Niche'.  These rules and behaviors we call morals, ethics, and laws. 

Interestingly, that there may have been an evolutionary-accident that explains the existence of our species does help resolve the Fermi Paradox

Finally, the result of this line of thinking is that we, as a species, need to be careful (thoughtful) moving forward.  The universe may very well and naturally gang-up against us and I think it would be good (exciting, fun, wonderful) to use our 'Big-Brains' to sort out what we can do to make/re-make ourselves into a species that can persist in the face of all these potentially adverse pressures and still keep a firm grip on our imaginations and our quest to understand our surroundings.