Friday, July 1, 2016

Who are the "fittest?"

I'm Doing Darwin a Disservice

Most of my days are spent at work programming. As 50% of the entire workforce and the sole programmer (though not for long - we welcome our first developer hire July 5!), I have a lot of work to do. When I program, I usually listen to punk and metal on Pandora, and today while watching a new data analysis process I was debugging cranking along in AWS, a lyric from the NOFX song "The Idiots are Taking Over" struck me:

Darwin's rollin over in his coffin
the fittest are surviving much less often

I've listened to this song a million times, and it's always good for a whipping up a little anti-conservative, anti-religious-establishment furor in me. NOFX really nails that in some of their songs (see also Leaving Jesusland), but that one line hit me in a new way today.

I'm not very evolutionarily fit.

What Do We Mean by "Fitness?"

Somewhat subconsciously, I've always considered myself extremely fit (I'm just going to say "fit" from here on out when I mean "evolutionarily fit" - my physical fitness level is a whole other topic, and you won't confuse me with a triathlete). I am smart, at least reasonably good at pretty much everything I try, and able to learn very quickly and develop mastery over pretty much any domain given enough time. I also think I'm socially competent, funny, a good speaker and leader, and not terrible looking, and someone who will do a great job raising kids. There isn't a good way to write this that doesn't sound vain, but I think, like I imagine most people do, that I'm a pretty good catch overall.

But that has nothing to do with evolutionary fitness. Evolutionary fitness is solely about your ability to survive and pass on your genes by reproduction. I didn't have kids until 32, when I had twins, and I probably won't have any more kids. Meanwhile, I know people who grew up with me in Alabama and have 3, 4, 5, even more kids. They are reproducing at a much higher rate than me and are far more successful from an evolutionary standpoint.

I am not unique in my experience. Many people are waiting until later in life to have kids and are having fewer kids, and society is creating new support mechanisms to enable this behavior, such as Apple and Facebook's offers to pay for its female employees to freeze eggs and have children later in life, after they have given the abundant energy of their 20's to the company to lay the foundation for a career.

While the number of children someone has might be an obvious sign of this trend, the age at which they have them is the more important factor. Because population growth is more or less exponential, generation time has a much larger impact on the number of individuals born to a given lineage than the number of children in a particular generation.

A Fitness Example

As an example, suppose we were to look at the progeny of two families starting from today for the next hundred years. One family tends to have people who are focused on achieving "high success" as defined by conventional values (for whatever reason - nature vs. nurture are interestingly not interesting for this kind of family tendency), such as obtaining a solid education with potential graduate degrees followed by demanding careers in fields like medicine, law, finance, or engineering. The other family tends to seek more "normal success" in conventional terms, with an education including some college education or a bachelor's from an average school, a job that keeps the family out of financial danger but offers little luxury, and emphasis on other non-career measures of fulfillment such as volunteering, community/church participation, or family time.

(Aside: it's not useful to try and decide whether one family is "wrong" about how they live their lives and the other is "right." Such discussions are fundamentally subjective and nothing can be proved. Avoid spending cycles on these kinds of thought trains. The only important thing in real life is whether the individuals feel fulfilled by their lives. The only important thing in this post is that the two families hypothetically exist.)

In the first family, the average generation time is 33 and they tend to have 2 children. In the second family, the average generation time is 25 and they tend to have 3 children. That may not seem like a huge difference, but over the course of 100 years, the first family will produce 14 children: 2 children in 33 years, 4 grandchildren after 66 years, and 8 great-grandchildren after 99 years. The second family will produce a whopping 120 children, nearly 10 times as many: 3 children in 25 years, 9 grandchildren in 50 years, 27 great-grandchildren in 75 years, and 81 children in 100 years. Exponential growth is a powerful thing.

So which family is more fit?

Well, fitness is generally related to the "ability to survive and reproduce." Because we're dealing with hypotheticals and averages, we can assume there is little difference in the ability of the two families to survive - at least inasmuch as survival would inhibit reproduction. Similarly, we can assume there are no issues affecting ability to reproduce. The key difference postulated is that the choices about reproduction are different between the two families. If we want to define fitness as something concrete regarding the ability to reproduce, those choices are the key difference in fitness between the two families.

How Does Intelligence Relate to Fitness?

NOFX's lyric is a catchy turn of a familiar phrase, but the problem is not that the fittest people are not surviving. It's that many people who think they are very fit because they are intelligent, successful people are actually not very evolutionarily fit at all if they don't have children.

Or, perhaps worded more in alignment with other definitions in evolutionary theory but ultimately amounting to the same thing, despite these intelligent, successful people being very fit in terms of ability to survive, they are not reproducing at a rate commensurate with their success surviving. They are effectively behaving like they were less fit to survive and reproduce, or even as if they died if they choose not to reproduce. One could even view whatever qualities they possess that make them successful and intelligent as evolutionary negatives. Even though they might personally be doing quite well, the fact that they are reproducing less often is actually an evolutionary weakness, destined to be bred out of the population.

None of these are original observations. Satoshi Kanazawa wrote a great article pointing out the ways in which intelligence is actually an evolutionary disadvantage. Mike Judge's Idiocracy basically takes this premise that intelligent people are being bred out and turns it into a movie. Richard Dawkins' The Selfish Gene explores some of this territory, including coining the original meaning of meme to describe social and cultural elements that essentially undergo an evolutionary process in our collective minds.

These make good arguments that there might be something to the idea that intelligence is an evolutionary disadvantage at this point in our species history (even putting aside the fact that our intelligence has grown sufficiently for us to create existential threats like nuclear holocaust and catastrophic climate change). So is there something to it?

Memes are Important lol

The meme connection is also interesting and relevant here. Memes are basically little cultural nuggets that compete for survival in culture at large. Dawkins explained them with an analogy to his claim that evolution operates at the gene level, with the propagation of useful genes being the process underlying evolution. Memes can be grouped into ideologies, which are an analogy to entire organism genomes: collections of genes that form a larger coherent entity better able to spread all of the genes together than any one gene would be on its own.

Memes that correlate with or encourage increased reproduction, such as anti-contraceptive/anti-abortion messages, ending one's education sooner, agrarian lifestyles, and general "be fruitful and multiply" religious beliefs, tend to have an evolutionary advantage because they speed up generation times and/or increase the average number of children per generation. Over time, one would expect these kinds of memes to dominate society and push out competing or incompatible ideas. Indeed, many of the worlds leading religions have been around for thousands of years and, among other moral principles, espouse having many children as primary goals.

I love my kids and think parenthood is the most rewarding thing you can do in life, so my point is not to suggest there is something wrong with memes that encourage you to have many kids. I get why someone would like having many kids, although it's not for me. My point is that these memes are expected to win and push rival ideologies to the side. Over time, ideologies that feature memes emphasizing having many children should increase their prominence in society to the point of domination.

Yet that is not what we observe. If it were possible for strong memes about bountiful reproduction to propel the ideologies that contain them to dominate society, we would never have left the Dark Ages. So something else must be going on.

Memes Evolve

Certainly part of the reason ideologies with hyper-reproductive memes aren't totally dominant is that ideologies are not monolithic or static. People are free to adopt parts of an ideology and reject others, or even adopt parts of multiple ideologies, and the memes constituting an ideology can and do change over time. Today, most religious people accept that the Earth revolves around the Sun, even though 1000 years ago such a belief was a great way to get the Church to burn you at the stake.

Most modern religions do not reject science, and while I personally think there is no way to truly accept science and believe in a religion, I recognize many people do and I am happy for them as long as they don't impose those beliefs on others (although I am stricter about that than many religious people are probably comfortable with - things like being against LGBTQ equality are an obvious no-no with me, but so are little things like the "Under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance).

But another important role science has played has been to increase the overall ability of our species to survive and reproduce. Humans and our ancestors have gone from learning to stand up to dominating every aspect of life on this planet in only 4 million years, or 0.09% of the lifetime of Earth. Homo sapiens have gone from achieving rudimentary modern behaviors like being able to plan and think abstractly to figuring out how to land on the moon, create the Internet, and feed a population that has been growing exponentially without limit in only 50,000 years - 0.001% of the lifetime of Earth. These are incredible achievements, not to be overlooked as possible contributors to resolving the Fermi paradox.

Science is an Ideology, but *Inherently* Not One That Can Survive Independently

It pains me to the core of my soul, but I don't think a science-first society like the United Federation of Planets can ever exist.

Science is a symbiotic ideology composed of symbiotic memes. On its own, science will tend to be overwhelmed by other ideologies and memes that encourage more, faster reproduction, which works against allowing people to spend more time engaged in learning, thinking, experimenting, and inventing. Science by itself is unlikely to become a dominant ideology on evolutionary timescales as long as biological reproduction is necessary for the growth of a population.

But there is a bright side to science's symbiosis. Any ideology which rejects science loses access to the powerful technologies and other benefits it generates, which ultimately makes that ideology weaker than its competitors. If an ideology abandons science or randomly comes to prominence with anti-science memes, other ideologies that do permit science will rise up to replace the science-rejecting ideologies over time due in part to the power science brings them.

This is why the mainstream belief systems of major religions tend to have some sort of love/hate relationship with science. They accept as much science as they can, while leaving room for their deepest beliefs in order to encourage the application of science within their ideologies wherever doing so doesn't threaten the ideas they most want to preserve. Where there are direct tensions, over time (perhaps generations), the religion will let go of certain specific memes in order to maintain a connection to science and not prevent it from being applied fully by it. Hence the Sun-revolves-around-Earth flip flop.

But We Still Need to Make New Science People

To ensure a supply of new scientists and other science-minded people in the face of memes which push for more reproduction and thus less science, successful ideologies often incorporate other memes which reward a handful of individuals who do put aside reproduction and take up science. They may earn significant financial rewards, and they may earn respect from others and prestigious recognition. Some even achieve popular fame simply for being smart.

But the ideologies also constrain the number of those who can pursue these scientific goals in order to maintain the primacy of the reproductive memes. Only a few people can become tenured professors or be admitted to medical school. Only a few people can work at Google or get their startup funded. Even before those achievements, only a few people can be top of their class students or earn all A's.

One could argue that is natural because not everyone is equally capable. But if one doesn't let that sentiment stop one from continuing to think, one could also argue that the efforts to limit the number of people who go into scientific fields are baked into the way we teach our children from the very beginning, in what behaviors we reward vs. punish, how we teach science and math, and even how we pass on our own apprehensions (unwittingly or not) about science and math to our children. Only a few people can learn to read or go to school, or have enough to eat.

By constraining the ability of people to become engaged in scientific careers, and by glorifying those who obtain such careers at least in some circles, we create a limited opportunity for a few ambitious people to compete to fulfill the expectations of the special-purpose memes of science. These memes are poorly suited to survival on their own, but in the context of the larger ideology and society in which they exist, they contribute immensely to the survival of all.

Humans Win Because They Make Fitness About Ideologies and Memes

Ideologies that survive are complex webs of memes, pushing people to hold certain beliefs and perform certain actions, which make the overall population of people believing that ideology more numerous. Sometimes, the motives of different individuals holding an ideology seem to run counter to each other. Sometimes the motives in an individual even seem to contradict.

While I'm personally not perhaps as fit as someone else who has 6 children before 30, the fact that I have invested in my intelligence and education and am pursuing a technical career means I am creating means to support the people who do invest their effort in reproduction, almost as if they were my children. That seems like a good thing overall for whatever pieces of ideology we share, even though it's likely that we would hold very different beliefs and memes on other points and maybe not even like each other. But for our society as a whole, our ability to support each other even indirectly is a good thing.

And that perhaps is the most important trait humans have developed which have allowed us to take over the world: we have mastered the means by which a group of individuals with disagreements can become a cohesive meta-organism, with the individuals contributing to the fitness of the overall meta-organism even if they are not personally reproducing in great numbers.

So, the next time you meet someone who says or does or believes things you disagree with, realize they are more important to you than you might think. Your beliefs and actions can either support each other or work against each other, and you can choose to increase or decrease the support. You can choose to focus on your differences or on your similarities. But know that the evolutionary trend is toward support because that increases the fitness of your ideology, and you fight evolutionary trends at your own peril.

Of course, all of this assumes other people exist, and it's also likely that soon human intelligence won't matter, so yeah, there's that :)