Daily Entropy: survival of the just fit enough


One consequence of entropy is that evolution can’t stop, it can’t rewind, and it can’t undo what’s done.  No matter how perfect a form an organism achieves, it can’t stop evolving.  This is why darwinism degenerates so quickly into social and political psychopathy.  For a species that dominates its niche, mere survival isn’t enough to ensure reproduction.  At that point, evolution turns in on itself and begins to break down the species by fostering changes that only promote reproductive success, not “fitness” or  survival: consider the stag’s ludicrously large antlers, supermassive male gorillas or hyper-aggressive male humans.

Another way of looking at why evolution does not maximise “fitness” is to imagine a perfectly fit organism: an animal that has no predators and can eat everything in its environment, with no genetic faults, no reproductive limitations, and extreme longevity. Within a few generations, an evolutionary blink, this organism will drive all of the organisms that supported it, that made it so very “fit”, to extinction and reduced its environment to its own waste. Entropy will not allow it to feed on its waste indefinitely, so the organism will have created an environment where it is profoundly unfit, and it will die out.  If any individuals survive, they will be reduced to a fringe of the new environment.  Even before catastrophic species collapse, a species will reach a point where greater fitness will degrade its environment and make survival more difficult, leaving the organism “less fit.”  Fitness, like order, is an arbitrary judgment. Evolution can be understood in terms of probabilities within physical constraints, but not in terms of fitness for purpose or determinism.

It is highly unlikely that such a completely dominant species would evolve because there are so many evolutionary diversions that will take over before total dominion.  Sexual dimorphism is one of the effects of entropy on a species that is well suited to its environment.  Big male lions and stags with big antlers are useless for anything other than limiting the reproduction of smaller males, who would probably be more efficient and effective parents if they got the chance to reproduce.  But only males who are as big as possible have a chance at reproduction, so there is no going back.  Because the dimorphism controls reproduction, the species has to waste energy maintaining the dimorphism.  But, another way of looking at this is that, once a survivable level of fitness is achieved, evolution becomes essentially aesthetic: mates are chosen and rejected based on the pleasure of their company, whether visual or otherwise, because there is no other reason to chose them.  This aesthetic is no more or less arbitrary than an electron’s choice to be spin up or spin down.  Although there is anxiety in the uncertainty of free choice, there is also pleasure in the opportunity to choose, and evolution, at that point, becomes a mere spectator.

The evolution of psychopathy is not understood, but it is often described as a potentially useful trait in people, in that psychopaths will happily kill whatever threatens the social tribe.  But if you look at the denouement to World War II, psychopathy is far more likely to destroy a tribe from within than defend its borders.  It persists in part because evolution is itself psychopathic. “Survival of the fittest” implies that evolution creates the most efficient possible form, but evolution has no idea what the “fittest” creature would look like, and certainly can’t direct itself towards greater fitness.  Evolution is utterly indifferent to your feelings.  It’s good at survivability, but empathy goes beyond survival of the individual.  Evolution has no interest in perfection, so species are continuously on the edge of losing the qualities that make them successful. Within the range of survivability, evolution is entirely random, so even if an ideal form evolved, evolution could not stop there.  Instead, evolution will exert degeneracy pressure on the species until any further changes reduce both individual and social survivability.  Empathy is subject to evolutionary pressure to degenerate until a great social conflagration wipes out the bulk of the psychopaths.

Empathy, or caring for one another, is a mysterious and delicate quality that often conflicts with both the survival and reproductive success of the individual.  Among animals, cooperation among unrelated individuals is extremely rare, so for humans to have developed the ability to feel for strangers borders on miraculous.  Psychopathy, in behavioural terms, is a constant recurrence.  It might lead to the extinction of a social species if it were very effective, but it isn’t.  Cooperation and caring are, in fact, more successful than autonomy for species that can retain them, but that seems to be quite a trick.  Empathy is humanity’s greatest achievement – with the possible exception of fire – making it possible for people to live and cooperate with non-family members in groups of hundreds, thousands even millions. The loss of empathy isn’t just antisocial; it also leaves the psychopath with profound loneliness, and loneliness may be as deadly as smoking. Psychopathy is a developmental disorder, which makes it different from other dangerous mental illnesses like schizophrenia and depression in that it isn’t a capacity gone too far, but a degenerate loss.

The evolution of empathy beyond familial bonds may be more than coincidentally related to the mastery of fire.  Managing fire requires an understanding of the evolution of fuel, flame and waste in a foreign body that you cannot touch, in particular the inner transformation of the fuel, the dissipation of the heat, and the limits of the chain reactions.  This insight into the entropy of the burning system is not far removed from the empathy of feeling you get from another person’s behaviour.  Even though there is no direct connection between you and them, you feel the transformations in their emotional state.  Managing fire means managing relationships at a distance, and while I would not say that one led to the other, there is something curiously complementary between empathy and entropy.  Any direct link is highly speculative, but there is an eerie correlation between bigotry, conspiracy theory and the denial of anthropogenic climate change that points to a corresponding relationship between empathy and entropy.  Environmental catastrophe may be the most obvious cause of the collapse of civilisation, but it seems to go hand in hand with psychopathic administration.


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