Ambigamy

Insights for the deeply romantic and deeply skeptical

Signs Of Life

Sky high reflections at dawn on evolution, learning and our wonderful world

I think to myself what a wonderful evolving world, evolving and learning by trial and error, accumulating adaptive solutions over the generations and throughout our short individual lives.  I’m a trial in this trial and error process destined inevitably to lose my life, a trial eventually accumulating enough physical errors that I die. That’s sad for me, but I understand and the world will go on evolving. Even if, worst case scenario, my whole species dies out, it’s not the worst case. An end to worldly evolution is a worse case. And even if life here ended altogether, that’s still not the absolute worst. Other worlds would no doubt go on evolving, and even if they all ended, the chance of evolution starting all over again later can never disappear.

I’m on a plane as I write this. We just took off and in my window seat I watched the wheels and muse about the invention of balloon tires and what they made possible. Flight without them would have been the bastion of birds and insects only. 

Once aloft, the pilot waits a while to lift them into their housing an adaption probably learned by trial and error lifting them only when the plane was high  enough that should there be reason to land, they’d have time to bring them back out. 

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Little adaptive learnings like that accumulate all around us all the time, new tricks of our living trades that would have had no meaning without whatever prior means made them useful.  Evolution and learning accumulating the tricks we love even if we don’t notice them accumulating, legs up, subtle advantages that keep us aloft in life even with modest incremental benefit, tricks we embrace, become partial to, turning them into habits we don’t have to think about so we can keep thinking up new improvements built upon them. Without wheels, without balloon tires, without millions, even billions of other accumulated habits, I’d still be on the ground, or not here to enjoy life at all.

“I see friends shaking hands saying, 'How do you do?' They’re really saying 'I love you,'” friends too accumulating, legs up in our short lives, loved in subtle ways and missed when they die or just leave, evolution and love, found even in the least among us. Insects don’t feel or give voice to their loves, but they have them, the bee and its nectar and its yet-evolving adaptive tricks, anything that keeps them aloft over the generations.

What we call “free will” is really just the ability to accumulate new adaptive tricks, the ability for new loves and habits to accumulate, the Boeing engineers finding new ways to retract those balloon tires neither too early or late, the bee’s ability to direct it energies differently over the millennia, any labor saving trait that keeps us aloft longer and more reliably. Free will is not free in the sense of being wholly isolated and independent of outside influence, and yet it is free in the sense of being to a large extent unpredictable. Ten billion years ago or even 500, who could have known that we would end up with red meaning stop and green meaning go? Or even that greene would end up spelled green? One could have known perhaps that a plane’s tires would be made of black rubber, and that planes would have wings. Nothing elementary is new under the sun, here or on other planets basking under other suns. There are physical laws and limits but within their constraints, life’s adaptive tricks are unpredictable.  A rose’s physio-chemistry abides by physical laws but might smell sweeter in other ways so long as they still got pollenated, by bees or really any means. Without artificial selection they might even have smelled acrid to humans, so long as they had whatever tricks kept them rising from the earth.

And they would have smelled sweet, by any other name. Earth’s diverse languages are evidence that they smell as sweet called “blarts” instead. There are many ways to skin or unskin a cat. Our loves shift in unpredictable ways, the habits we accumulate not arbitrary in that they have to functional, but within their functional constraints,  so long as they work to keep things aloft, they can take many different forms. It could be green for stop and red for go.

A lesbian couple sits a row ahead of me, their daughter between them. Their eyes say “I love you,” which might have gotten them killed a few centuries ago. 

Freedoms are a slippery slope. New means free us to new ends; new ends free us to new means. Urgent ends are the mother of invention, but invention is also mother to new means.

In vitro fertilization frees a barren couple to have and love their own offspring, and ends up making lesbian families like this one possible. We free ourselves to get what we want when shopping and soon we can’t contain our appetites to love whatever and whomever we love. We discover we can fly and suddenly there’s a market for big balloon tires.

I don’t love every adaptive trick that life accumulates. I don’t love evolving viruses and cancers. They could shoot my out of the skies that I fly, aloft on my own missions. And a mission to another planet could easily uncover creatures that gross me all the way out. 

But I do so love evolution, its fits and starts, trials and errors, tumbling through the unpredictable accumulating new tricks loves habits and freedoms.

Signs of life. And I think to myself what a wonderful universe.

Jeremy Sherman is an evolutionary epistemologist studying the natural history and practical realities of decision making.

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