Home Updates Messages SandBox

Peacock Tails

Selfish Gene

We tend to think about evolution as a process of constant improvement – it's often shown as a progression from simple single-cellular creatures, through more complex organisms up to the pinnacle of evolution – the human. But that's not quite how it works. The single-cellular germs didn't disappear – they are still here, and they are doing quite well. In fact, you could argue that they have been vastly more successful than any other kind of creature, either by their sheer numbers, their mass, their ubiquity and their long lives (they are immortal, they live forever until killed). If anything, you could view the history of species as a wide, great river of the simplest forms, with a lot of very thin streams branching off and drying out at the edges. And humans are not some destination to which that river flows – we are just near the end of one of particularly twisted and convoluted side streams, which happened to veer particularly far off-course.

And it's not about improvement either. At least not about the improvement of the individual specimen. It's all about passing on the genes. Evolution doesn't really care what happens with an organism once it passed its genes on – unless it can somehow recycle it to protect the offspring or such. So it's all about finding the best mates and passing on the genes. That's what life optimizes for, that's its goal. And once you realize that, you can easily see that we are not the pinnacle of evolution – we are not particularly good at this task. In fact, we are right on the border of inefficiency, we are the craziest, most fringe experiments that evolution explores, because it's a blind search of the phase space, and it checks those possible solutions just in case they prove successful somehow. In the mean time, the mainstream of life, the flood of single-celled critters, is doing much better than us.

Life's Goals

You may say that it's a very primitive view, and that passing on the genes is a very unsophisticated goal in life. That as you become more and more advanced, you find better, "higher" goals. In particular, things like creativity, self-expression, beauty, art, happiness, fame, wisdom, knowledge, truth, justice, mastery, self-development, etc. are what the humanity should pursue, as they are the most important things in life. It's funny to realize how this hardwired appreciation for the products of the mind might have evolved as a result of pursuing the "just pass your genes" goal.

Red Queen

I didn't invent this myself. It's mostly a result of reading a particular book, "The Red Queen: Sex and the Evolution of Human Nature" by Matt Ridley. It's a fascinating book that theorizes upon the exact mechanisms by which certain things might have evolved – such as, for instance, separate genders. Or the peculiar way we can inherit DNA from our grandparents. Or peacock tails. Or… large brains.

In fact, it's the last chapter, about the brains, that made me stop and think a little about the life's goals as defined by humans. But what is the problem, you might ask? After all, the brains are giving us a clear advantage over all other animals, we can use tools, build constructions, shape our environment thanks to them – those are obvious evolutionary strengths. So much, that we are even making other species extinct as a side effect!

However, evolution works slowly. It's not like suddenly some ape had a human child with its huge brains, and that child had such an advantage over other apes, that soon everyone turned into humans. It simply doesn't work like that. There were hundreds of apes, and at some point one had a slightly bigger brains, other was slightly stronger, yet another was a bit faster, etc. Really small changes. Those small changes don't really let you suddenly start using tools or build shelters. There is practically zero advantage from having a very slightly larger brain – and a lot of downsides, actually. It needs more energy, which means more food. It's heavier. It's larger, so birth is more dangerous. It makes the owner more vulnerable. It's just not practical.

Ah, but nature is not just about practicality. There is a lot of beauty in nature. And all of that beauty evolved for one particular purpose: attracting mates. We know many examples of animals that have a particularly gaudy and impractical feature, such as chicken's comb, lion's mantle, peacock's tail, etc. Invariably, those features are biologically expensive, and serve the purpose of showing off the health of a particular specimen, so that it can easier find mates.

Humans of both genders are attracted to individuals that are particularly smart, creative, wise, ambitious, bright, outspoken, witty, famous, educated and have a good taste in clothes, hairstyles, music, food, books, etc.

Human Measure

So could it be, that we have internalized the mate-selection criteria so deeply, that they became independent of mating, and now we pursue them even when they no longer make sense – for instance, when they are recognized posthumously? Could it be that we are a civilization of peacocks that unanimously decided that the universal values of the universe must be related to beautiful tails?