I was reading a magazine article the other day about Covid-19. Lots of information. Lots of statistics. Lots of warnings. But the bit that struck me most was a remark towards the end of the piece pointing out that at some point we will have to reconcile the demands of combating the pandemic with the need to get our lives back to something approaching normal. Isn’t this always true? For all of us all of the time our existence is a compromise between living and surviving. Obviously, we must try to survive. It’s a basic instinct. But we make trade-offs between this survival instinct and what we consider to be ‘living life to the full’. Humans are probably the only organisms to do this. No other creature chooses risk. We can’t say they’re risk-averse because the very concept of gambling with life is unknown to them. We do it all the time and often without consciously considering it.
People tend to have a conceit of themselves as rational beings. They like to suppose they are in control and that as they make the decisions and choices existing requires they do so on the basis of some calculation or reasoning process. In reality, people are pish-poor at risk-assessment. The obvious example being fear of flying while being totally relaxed about road travel despite the latter being statistically much more hazardous than the former. There’s a curious contradiction here. The human mind is basically just a massively powerful pattern-detecting device. It’s a machine for constructing and constantly updating the maps by which we navigate a route for our physical and social lives. But despite it being the nature and importance of this task, and despite it being such an extraordinarily powerful device, the mind lacks a reliable calculator or any accurate measuring instruments or any dependable way of recording information. The maps which guide our lives are all based on guesswork. Educated guesswork, perhaps. Informed guesswork, to a variable extent. But all just guesswork, nonetheless. Even our memories – where we record information for later use – are notoriously unreliable because the information is so often not recalled intact but reconstructed from fragments pieced together with a degree of guesswork.
We have this hugely powerful computing machine in our heads, and we use it for making guesses. Our mental maps are not based on precise measurements, but on best guesses – at best.
There’s a reason for this. It’s adaptive. Like everything else about human behaviour, this apparent contradiction has an explanation in the science of evolutionary psychology. Our minds are as as much a product of evolution as our bodies. And we know that from an engineering perspective evolution has been pretty sloppy. No engineer would design the human eye the way evolution has. It’s a mess! But it works. To evolution, that’s all that matters. No engineer would design a woman’s hips as nature has, making childbirth both painful and dangerous. Evolution doesn’t care. A woman’s hips are a shoddy but functional compromise between giving birth and walking upright. A human engineer might well have designed women to walk on all fours. But let’s not go there!
Nothing is perfect because nothing is designed from scratch for a specific and fixed purpose. Everything about our bodies is adapted from something else by a process of trial and error which settles for the first thing that works with the least efficiency it can get away with and regardless how inelegant the ‘solution’ may appear to us. And the same applies to our minds. It may be either or both amusing and frightening to reflect that evolution has messily built a messy mind which is nonetheless able to recognise how messy it is. Evolution has bequeathed us a mind which would never design a mind in such a way.
But underlying this randomness there is reason. Captivity! One word having two senses which introduce just enough logic to hold the whole scheme together. There has to be a rule. There must be some constraint which guides the process and prevents change flying off in all directions at once. The rule is that to be preserved change must be adaptive in the sense of serving life. Which means we need a definition of life. Here goes!
Life is a process or set of processes whereby and wherein an organism or assemblage of organisms detects assesses and responds to stimuli in its external and internal environment in such a way as to maintain its capacity for detecting, assessing and responding to stimuli in its external and internal environment at a level which ensures its capacity for detecting, assessing and responding to internal and external stimuli.
It all works by getting it wrong. The whole process works by making huge numbers of mistakes over immense span of time and sorting them according to adaptivity – how well they serve the continuation of the process of making mistakes. Happy mistakes stay. The rest fall away. Unless they’re things that once served the process and now don’t but neither do they hinder it. They are not maladaptive. So they just hang about. Like men’s nipples.
What does this have to do with our rough-‘n’-ready mind maps and our propensity to treat survival as option at times and to some extent? Be patient! I was just getting to that!
We must now reach for that second sense of the term ‘adaptivity’. The sense of having a capacity for adaptation. It seems obvious that for biological evolution to work our physical selves must be able to adapt. That’s pretty much all our stripped-down definition of life is. But it is not only bodies which evolve. Minds also evolve. Society evolves. Language evolves. processes analogous to biological evolution are to be found everywhere. And they all depend on mistakes. In biology these mistakes are called mutations. If our minds also evolve – and they do – they too must have a capacity for error. And that is why our mental maps are built on guesswork. It is why we aren’t as good as we might be at assessing risk. Our mental maps are only as good as life requires them to be. Our risk assessment calculations are only as accurate as they need to be. We need to be able to make mistakes in order that the evolutionary process can explore the universe of possibilities.
At some point, we must find a viable compromise between surviving Covid-19 and living with it. Or with its myriad cousins. Needless to say, officialdom is entirely focused on survival. Even if they are aware of the need to find this compromise they can never acknowledge it. They can never admit that mistakes must be made as part of the process of evolving the necessary societal coping mechanisms.
Life is treated like a commodity. More is always better. It is something to be grasped and hoarded, like wealth. But surviving must always come at some cost to living. Frightening as the prospect of Covid-19 infection may be (for some), it may not be as scary as the thought of life designed by a committee charged only with ensuring the longest survival of the greatest number. And provided with the authority to impose its ‘solutions’. Surviving or living?
But that’s a false choice. Isn’t it?
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