Q1. Would you consider seeking and creating representational artifacts a form of neutral emergent behavior or behavior produced by selection pressure?
I find this question stimulating, apologies for the long answer! When we talk about neutral emergent behaviors we are talking about epiphenomenalism (please correct me if you were pointing to something else). I'm always skeptical of epiphenomenal views because I'm of the mind that change doesn't just happen, change always happens under the agency of something, under the pressure of something. That is, change needs a driving force to happen. When you stick to this assumption, emergent behaviors have to happen under the agency of something. If this something cannot be traced back to pre-existing forces, this points to an emergent force. In the Representation essay, I do my best to portray affectivity as this emerging driving force that pressured us into representation (see note below). In other words, the pressure came largely from the inside, not from the outside. In my view, representation is more about creatures selecting environments that satisfy their affective requirements than about environments selecting for creatures that engage in representation. Still, whatever agency human affectivity might have has to coexist with the agency of environmental changes and the selection pressures they exert. In other words, these two forces have to cooperate, and representation has to make sense under both. I'm of the mind that the functional qualities of representation (communication, improving cognition and memory, facilitating the mating process) arise in service of environmental selection pressures, and that the aesthetic qualities of representation (beauty, feelings, sensations, aesthetic experiences) service human affectivity.
Note: However, I'm of the mind affectivity cannot be the full story because all animals exhibit affectivity of some sort, yet they do not engage in representation. That's where the symbolic sensitivity (our unique ability to wrap feelings in formal abstractions, e.g., a word, a concept, a shape) comes into play.
Q2. I should've clarified this, but I meant "neutral" to refer to adaptations that confer little or insubstantial fitness benefit, in the way that humans and other animals might have certain vestigial traits or features that don't serve much of a function but haven't been selected out because they confer no disadvantage in the organism's average environment.
Thanks for clarifying, I see what you mean. I think vestigial traits fall into that cozy spot in which are not "sanded out" by any logic. They are not in opposition to any force, they just exist, unbothered, as a meteorite gliding at constant velocity through empty space.
Q3. Interesting, this seems to blur the line. Is there much of a difference in saying that "a mutable environment might select for creatures capable of mutating it" versus saying "creatures with certain affective requirements mutate/select their environment"? Is this a necessary distinction?
Beautifully put. I'm still making sense of this distinction so please take my words as provisional. I've found the concept of agency as a driving force/selective force/logic for change useful to articulate ideas in this direction. Change in the solar system happens under the agency of the sun. However, the sun wasn't always there, the sun itself was formed under a pre-existing agency — agencies emerge. A mutable environment selected for stars, now stars mutate their neighboring environments. Stars impose a new logic under which change happens, without fully overriding pre-existing logics — agencies scaffold. I believe we can think of human agency in a similar way. There are upstream agencies and downstream agencies and the tensions between them draw lines like the one that you referenced in your question.
Q4. Your note above sounds like a pretty broad claim. Is there reason to think that they don't do it at all versus our not having recognized or observed it? What about our closest genetic and intellectual relatives (primates, crows, octopuses, dolphins, etc.)?
This one is tricky! The claim is decidedly provocative, it opens a gap that forces building bridges of explanation to accept it/deny it. Please bear with me as you read this. The human kind of awakening involves being aware of the awakening itself, which implies recognizing that this level of awakening is possible, a possibility that has in turn led us to probe the rest of the environment and its creatures in search for it. In other words, we feel awake in a way that demands feeling understood, we feel awake in a way that warrants having a conversation about it, with ourselves and with any other being that might feel the same way. Basically, we're looking for conversation partners to make commentary about our experience of reality. This seems to be a unique anxiety among animal forms (or is it?). To make commentary about its experience, a creature has to be able to compartmentalize feelings and wrap them in symbols/abstractions that afford to be externalized into the physical world, and the ease with which we do this seems unique. I think that when animals create tools, that's already positive indication of symbolic capability. However, they seem to do it under pressure of the particular problem/situation they are facing. The difference for us is that the situation is all the time. I'm still making sense of it myself, so again, think of this reply as something to facilitate conversation and not as something to end it.
Q5. Can you tell me more about what you mean by "awake" / "awakening"? Sounds similar to awareness / consciousness, but want to make sure I'm following you.
Definitely on the same vein. The human kind of awakening involves the way/mode in which we are receptive and aware of our environment, but also the way in which we are responsive to it. Forms of the animal kind exhibit a level of environmental awareness and responsiveness that is higher than that of non-animal biological forms, they are awake in a way that other living things (e.g., plants, microorganisms) are not. Human forms exhibit this same type of awareness/responsiveness with the difference that we also seem to be aware of this awareness (pardon the redundancy). We seem particularly sensitive to temporality and form (i.e., distinct objects, patterned information), which allows us to situate our experience in time and within our own bodies. We are awake in a way that other animal forms aren't, or at least in a way that is not mutually intelligible.
Q6. There's a part where you suggest human synthesis marks the emergence of organisms capable of pouring adaptive pressures back on their environment — but that has always been true of organisms, hasn't it? One (extreme) example that comes to mind is the Great Oxidation Event, but I can imagine other scenarios like this. In what ways do you think human synthesis might be unique?
I won't lie, the great oxidation event was on my mind as I wrote that line. I didn't spend time articulating how they are both consistent so I welcome this opportunity. This is my summary of the GOE situation: The anaerobic microorganisms (MOs) that caused the GOE thrived because the environment was fit for them. A reducing atmosphere provided them abundant stock for photosynthesis. They filled the atmosphere with oxygen, their metabolic product, a change that pressured them into evolving aerobic metabolic paths. I can make a couple of observations here: First, anaerobic MOs changed the environment into something unfavorable or less favorable for them. Second, this less-favorable oxygenic atmosphere pressured MOs back... they had to change their metabolic behavior and to accomplish that they had to change genetically. In other words, the form of the MOs was altered, they couldn't divert the pressure exerted by the changed environment back into the environment.
The way I see it, human synthesis happens in the spirit of making the environment more favorable to us. Think of the early anaerobic MOs restoring the atmosphere back to anoxic. Second, the human form has remained relatively constant since achieving anatomical modernity. Adaptation to environmental change no longer happens on the human form itself, but rather externally. This is where I'm pointing when I say that humans divert adaptive pressures back on the environment. Our response to global climate change is perhaps the biggest test to this, with clear parallels to the consequences of the GOE event. I feel like there is an opportunity to polish the idea; for example, I haven't carefully considered the relative magnitude of geological timescales in this.
Q7. What about more subtle changes (e.g., mental, genetic, etc.)? Seems there's plenty of room for selection and adaption going on there we aren't fully aware of. Though I do agree that human ingenuity has avoided the need for drastic, obvious changes in form.
I'm totally with you, lots of adaptation happens internally in our psyches in the form of learning. And, as much as we have slowed down morphological change of the human form, there is no way to fully put a brake on it. The highly responsive environments we are building exert pressures of their own and we can see them reflected in our changing behavioral patterns (e.g., social media inducing behaviors), changes that can play in favor of morphological change.
These questions were shared by Matt Curtis in reaction to the essay "Representation". You can engage him on Twitter.
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