The direction of evolution and the future of humanity

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(new) The most recent and refined version of the evolutionary worldview that was first presented in Evolutionís Arrow can be found in the 34 page document The Evolutionary Manifesto which is here

Chapter 10.    Smarter Organisms                  


An organism that is able to search for adaptive improvements during its life has an enormous advantage. It is able to use its experiences to discover new, innovative adaptations and to modify them as circumstances change. For example, it can try out new ways to get more food or to improve its ability to avoid predators. And when external temperatures drop, it can try out changes within its body to discover how to maintain its internal temperature.

But organisms could not use the genetic change-and-test mechanism to search for adaptive improvements during their life. As we have seen, the genetic mechanism could not try out new genetic possibilities within the organism. The genetic mechanism was unable to exploit the enormous potential benefit of adapting the organism during its life. This meant that any new adaptive mechanisms that could fill this gap would be strongly favoured by evolution[1]. Such an adaptive mechanism would provide immense evolutionary advantages to organisms that possessed it. And any improvements in the new mechanism would also be favoured by evolution. As a result, evolution has established new internal mechanisms that adapt organisms during their life. Examples include our physiological and nervous systems. Evolution has also produced a long sequence of improvements in the ability of these mechanisms to discover adaptation. This sequence of improvements is continuing today.

Somewhat paradoxically, these new adaptive processes have been discovered and established by the genetic mechanism. Even though the genetic mechanism could not try out new possibilities within an organism during its life, it was able to establish new adaptive mechanisms within the organism that could. The genetic arrangements that produced these new adaptive mechanisms would be favoured by natural selection. Individuals that were better at adapting during their life would pass on more of their genes to the next generation. The genes that produced new adaptive mechanisms within individuals would therefore do better in evolutionary terms.

The simplest adaptive arrangement that the genetic mechanism could install in an organism is one that is completely hard wired. For example, the arrangement might pre-program the organism to change in a particular way when a specific event occurs. The change in the organism would be adaptive if it enabled the organism to deal more effectively with the event. We are hard wired with a number of these types of adaptive arrangements: we are pre-programmed to produce saliva when tasty food is put in our mouth; and we duck without thinking when a rock is thrown at our head. But adaptations that are fully hard wired do not include a change-and-test process. No aspect of the adaptation is discovered by making changes within the organism, and then selecting the change that produces the best result. Hard-wired adaptive mechanisms are fixed and inflexible during the life of the organism[2].

Hard-wired adaptations are flexible only across the generations. They are discovered and shaped by the genetic change-and-test mechanism. They can be improved and adapted by the genetic mechanism as circumstances change from generation to generation. But nothing new is discovered within the organism. The discovery incorporated in a particular hard-wired adaptation has been made over the generations by the genetic mechanism, and the results have been pre-programmed into the organism.

The limitations of hard-wired adaptive mechanisms are obvious. Every part of them has to be discovered and adapted over the generations by the genetic mechanism. No use whatsoever is made of the experiences of the organism during its life. Potentially an organism can gain an enormous amount of knowledge during its life about what works and what does not. But an organism that adapts only in ways that are pre-programmed makes no use of this potential. If its living or non-living environment changes in ways that make a hard-wired adaptation ineffective, the organism can’t try out changes then and there. It and its descendants remain ineffective until they produce offspring with genetic changes that improve the hard-wired adaptation for the new environmental conditions.

So the potential advantages of being able to search for adaptive improvements during the life of the organism drove the evolution of internal change-and-test processes. Evolution favoured genetic changes that established processes within the organism that could discover new adaptations during its life. These internal change-and-test processes discovered better adaptation in the same way that all such processes do: changes are made to the behaviour or to the internal functioning of the organism, and these are tested against their ability to improve the organism’s effectiveness. For example, a change-and-test process might try out changes in the metabolic rate of the organism, the blood pressure, the amount of blood shunted to the limbs and muscles, the amount of time the organism spends feeding, its hunting techniques, its fighting strategies, or how it avoids predators. And these changes would then be tested within the organism against the results that they produce.

The first change-and-test processes established by the genetic mechanism can be expected to have been the simplest. Smarter processes that needed more complex arrangements would take longer to discover and establish. Countless generations of search by trial-and-error were needed before the genetic mechanism discovered and established the first complex brain. We can use this principle that simpler processes often evolve first to reconstruct the long sequence of improvements in adaptability that have occurred during the evolution of life on earth. We will start with the simplest form of internal change-and-test process, identify its limitations, consider how these might be overcome by slightly more complex processes, identify the limitations of these new processes, consider how they might be improved, and so on.

A change-and-test process, no matter how simple, must include arrangements that try out changes within the organism. It must also include arrangements that test the changes, selecting those that are best. In more complex change-and-test processes, both the pattern of changes and the testing arrangements would be able to be improved by learning during the life of the organism. Both would include their own change-and-test processes that would enable the organism to discover better ways to target the changes and better ways to test them. But in the simplest change-and-test mechanisms, both the process that produces changes and the testing arrangements would be hard wired into the organism. The simplest mechanism would try out a fixed pattern of changes, and test them against some fixed internal standard. The arrangements that target and test changes would be established and adapted by the genetic mechanism.

But before we consider how this simple type of change-and-test process might be improved, we need to understand more about the internal testing arrangements. What sort of internal mechanism could evaluate the changes made within the organism? What mechanism could tell whether a particular change is good or bad for the organism in evolutionary terms? How could the organism know whether it is better to increase or decrease the metabolic rate, raise or lower the blood pressure, direct more or less blood to the limbs, or to fight or avoid another animal that is competing with the organism for food?

Natural selection will tend to establish internal testing arrangements that are able to identify the changes that will improve the evolutionary prospects of the organism. To be favoured by evolution, the genes that produce testing arrangements must improve the evolutionary competitiveness of the organism. To do this, the genes must produce testing arrangements that evaluate the ability of changes to improve the evolutionary success of the organism. The testing arrangements that are best at doing this will do better in evolutionary terms. As a result, internal testing arrangements are tuned by natural selection to use testing criteria that are correlated with evolutionary success. Natural selection establishes testing criteria that are good indicators of evolutionary success. Testing arrangements are tuned so that an internal change that would contribute to the evolutionary success of the organism will also do well against the test criteria.

What sort of arrangements could do this? What sort of testing criteria would be correlated with evolutionary success? What test could you apply to an internal change that could indicate the evolutionary impact of the change?

Probably the simplest way to test changes is to see whether they can return the organism to an efficient state after an environmental event has dis-adapted the organism. If it is profitable for an organism to adapt to an event, the event will probably have some adverse impact within the organism. So changes could be tested against their ability to reverse the adverse internal impact of the event. For example, consider a fall in external temperatures that reduces an organism’s temperature below the level that is best for its metabolism. To discover how to adapt to the falling temperatures, the organism could test internal changes against their ability to move the internal temperature back to the level that is best for the organism. As a further example, consider an organism that is chasing its prey. It will use up oxygen in its muscles, reducing the level of oxygen below the concentration that is best for muscles to function efficiently. Possible adaptive changes could be tested against their ability to restore the level of oxygen to the concentration that is best.

In both these examples, when a key aspect of the organism moves away from its most efficient state, changes are triggered that are then tested against their ability to restore the aspect to its ideal state. Such a change-and-test process can be described as goal directed. It has as its goal the maintenance of a key aspect of the organism in a state that is best for the efficient operation of the organism. The change-and-test process will search for a pattern of internal changes that will maintain this key aspect of the organism at the best level through time, despite changes in internal and external conditions[3].

The genetic evolutionary mechanism will tend to establish these simple change-and-test adaptive processes for whatever aspects of the organism are best kept constant. These aspects of the organism have been called essential variables because their maintenance in a certain range is essential for the efficient operation of the organism. It is worth using the resources of the organism to defend essential variables against disturbance[4].

The genetic evolutionary mechanism will tune each of these simple change-and-test arrangements so that the changes it makes are targeted at the particular essential variable that the process seeks to maintain. Evolution will favour a change-and-test process if the changes it tries out are more likely to achieve the goal of restoring the variable. It will also be favoured if it tries out changes only when they are needed, and if its changes are the cheapest way of achieving adaptation.

These simple change-and-test processes are still used widely within single celled and multicellular organisms to adapt their internal arrangements to changes in environmental conditions. The complex physiological systems that are continually adapting our bodies as internal and external conditions change are based on these processes. They make sure that our cells and organs get enough food and oxygen, operate at a rate that matches the needs of the organism, do not accumulate damaging levels of toxins, get rid of wastes, and operate at the best temperature[5].

But simple change-and-test processes are able to discover the most effective adaptations only for a limited range of adaptive challenges. In their search for the best adaptations they cannot use information about circumstances outside the organism, or about likely future events. This is because they use the actual immediate effects of events within the organism to target and to test the changes that they try out[6]. So if two events outside the organism have the same effects on the organism, a simple change-and-test process will try out the same changes and use the same test in the search for adaptation. It is completely blind to the cause of the events, and all it can do is respond to their effects within the organism. So it is unable to target behavioural changes at the particular type of outside event that has affected the organism. It is unable to assess the outside cause of an internal disturbance, and try out behavioural changes that are most likely to deal with the cause.

For example, the internal temperature of an organism might increase either because the general environmental temperature has gone up, or because a nearby object is on fire. An organism that adapts only through simple change-and-test processes will respond to the two events in the same way. In both cases it will search for internal changes that will reduce its temperature. Because both events have the same effect on an essential variable, the organism’s response to each of them will be the same. It cannot target changes at the cause of the particular outside event that is disturbing the essential variable. To do so the organism would have to have sensory arrangements that could distinguish between the two different causes. And it would have to be able to use this discrimination to target the changes it tries out at the particular cause. Only then could it discover that if the increase in temperature is due to a nearby fire, it should move away, but if it is a general environmental change, it might be best to reduce its metabolic rate[7].

These simple change-and-test processes are also adaptively blind to future events and to the future effects of possible adaptations. They are only able to discover adaptations that immediately correct the disturbance of an essential variable. So a possible adaptation that has very useful future effects but that does not immediately restore an essential variable will not be discovered. No matter how valuable the future effects of a particular adaptation, a simple change-and-test process will not be able to discover it. It cannot take account of the future effects of the possible adaptations that it tests. It has no foresight or ability to anticipate.

For example, consider a predator that lies in wait for its prey at a water hole. This behaviour might eventually benefit the predator, producing a kill. But initially the behaviour will not restore any essential variable to its ideal range, so a simple change-and-test process will not discover it. For another example, consider an organism that has a spear thrown at it. Simple change-and-test processes will begin to adapt the organism only when the spear begins to enter the body of the organism. It is only then that the spear begins to disturb essential variables. This is indeed how a sea sponge would adapt to a spear thrown at it.

For these reasons, simple change-and-test processes in modern complex organisms are largely restricted to adapting the internal processes of organisms to actual disturbances in essential variables. They are of little use for discovering adaptations that intervene in events outside the organism or that produce future benefits. In the terminology used by the great English systems theorist Stafford Beer, these simple change-and-test processes adapt the organism for the inside/now. He contrasted them with the more complex adaptive processes that adapt the organism for the outside/future[8].

The inability of simple change-and-test processes to adapt the organism for the outside/future drove the progressive evolution of more complex change-and-test processes that could do so. Arrangements that could successfully exploit the potential benefits of discovering adaptations for the outside/future had an evolutionary advantage. The result has been a long sequence of improvements in adaptive ability that is still under way.

In order to develop a good understanding of where this progressive evolutionary sequence has been heading, we need to look at what an ideal adaptive mechanism would be able to do. This will give us an idea of the potential for improvement that existed in simple adaptive mechanisms, and the direction in which this potential would drive evolution.

If an adaptive mechanism is to evaluate possible adaptations properly, it must assess all the effects of the alternatives. In order to select the best adaptation, it must take account of all their effects, whether they are good or bad, or whether they arise within the organism, outside it, or in the future. Any limit to the ability of an organism to predict and take account of relevant events and effects that occur elsewhere or in the future will limit its ability to discover the best adaptations. Any relevant effect that is ignored can lead to the selection of inferior adaptations.

For example, if an antelope is unaware that a predator is lying in wait at a water hole, it will fail to adapt more effectively by moving to another hole. If a lion is unaware that a drought will soon mean that prey will be scarce, it cannot alter its priorities to build up more fat reserves as quickly as possible while conditions are good. And the ability of humans to adapt effectively is obviously dependent on how far we are able to look into the future to take into account the likely consequences of our acts. A person who takes into account only events a day ahead will adapt quite differently to a person who looks only a year ahead, and both will live a different life to a person who looks up to 20 years ahead. The first person would never plant a farm crop, the second would never do a university degree to improve career prospects, and even the third would not voluntarily pay into an aged pension fund for a large part of his working life.

We see most easily the limitations of a narrow ability to take account of the future effects of adaptations when we deal with organisms whose ability is narrower than ours. Dogs, cats and children appear particularly handicapped in their adaptive ability when we see them ignoring future dangers that we can easily foresee. Of course, our adaptive strategies might look equally as silly to an organism that could take account of the consequences of our acts over even wider scales of space and time than we can.

To meet the adaptive ideal, an organism or a society would have to be able to foresee all the relevant effects of its actions. What is relevant will differ depending on the scale of the organism or society. For example, if human society increases in scale and colonises other planets in the solar system and elsewhere, events and consequences over wider and wider scales would become relevant to the adaptation of the society. Any limit to its ability to take into account any of these relevant events would impair its adaptive ability.

We are currently a long way from this ideal. In part, this is because the ideal may never be able to be fully met. There may be absolute limits to the ability of an organism to predict the future consequences of its acts in a highly complex and dynamic environment. But in most areas we are obviously far from reaching these limits. There are many technological and scientific discoveries that are yet to be made. And there is also much for us to learn about wider-scale processes in the universe that will impact on the future of humanity. We are only just beginning to understand something of the large-scale progressive evolutionary processes that will determine our evolutionary future. Humanity has barely begun to accumulate the knowledge and abilities needed for it to adapt for its outside/future.

Although life on this planet has not yet reached this ideal, it has made considerable progress. The evolution of life on earth has seen a long sequence of improvements in the ability of organisms to take into account events outside the organism and in the future. The sequence began with simple change-and-test processes that were only able to take account of the effects of events within the organism itself. Since then, organisms have progressively evolved the ability to take account of the effects of their actions on events over wider and wider scales of space and time[9]. As these capacities have improved, organisms have used them to discover adaptations that are more effective when the more-detailed and wider-scale effects of the adaptations are taken into account. At each step in the progression, organisms have been able to take account of the effects of adaptation that they were previously blind to.

We will now look at a number of key milestones in this sequence of evolutionary improvements in adaptive ability.

The first major improvement in the ability to adapt for the outside/future required a capacity to sense the external environment. The organism had to have a sensory system that was capable of distinguishing between different circumstances in the outside environment. This enabled the organism to try out different behavioural changes in different environmental circumstances, and to discover that some behaviours restored an essential variable in one set of circumstances but not another.

Change-and-test processes aided by a good sensory system could take account of the different effects that possible adaptations might have in the outside environment. Simpler change-and-test processes used only information from within the organism to determine which possible adaptations were tried out. Only the impact within the organism of external events was used. As we have seen, these simple adaptive processes were blind to the nature of the particular external events that caused the internal disturbances. But with the development of sensory systems, a change-and-test process could also use information about the outside environment. For the first time, a change-and-test process could discover that it was best to try out different changes in different environmental circumstances, even though the internal disturbances were identical in each case.

To exploit fully the benefits of achieving this first milestone, organisms had to develop the ability to learn from their discoveries. The organism could discover by trial-and-error that a particular change would restore an essential variable in certain external circumstances. If the organism could learn from this experience, it would not have to repeat the costly trial-and-error search for adaptation whenever those external circumstances arose again. Instead, whenever the particular essential variable was disturbed in the future in the same external circumstances, the change-and-test process could then go straight to trying out the change that produced adaptation in the past. The organism would learn that a particular behaviour is likely to produce a desirable internal state in particular external circumstances. The organism could then apply this discovery to future adaptive challenges[10].

For example, an animal may learn that if it is cold during the day, it can increase its temperature by finding sunlight to rest in. But if it is cold at night, it may discover that the best way to increase its temperature is to curl up in the bottom of its burrow. And if an animal is hungry, it may learn that if it is standing on soft earth, digging is likely to produce food that will satisfy its hunger. But if the ground underneath its feet is rocky, it may discover that moving to another place is better than digging where it is. In both these examples, a change-and-test process that relied only upon information about the state of internal variables could not learn to target different behaviours at the different environmental circumstances. And without a capacity to learn, the animal would have to rediscover the adaptations by trial-and-error each time circumstances changed.

The effectiveness of these types of adaptive processes depend on their capacity to distinguish between different environmental conditions, to store the discoveries they make, and to use them in the search for adaptation in the future. Evolution has exploited the potential benefits of improved adaptability by enhancing these capacities in organisms. It has produced long sequences of improvements in sensory systems and in the size and complexity of the nervous systems that store and apply learnt behaviours[11]. This has progressively improved the ability of organisms to discover and learn behaviours that act on the outside environment to produce desirable internal states in the organism. The result has been the high level of ability to discover and learn behaviour that is found in rats, pigeons, and other complex multicellular organisms. In these large-brained species, individuals use change-and-test processes to discover and accumulate a wide range of useful behaviours throughout their life[12].

Humans are largely unaware of the functioning of the simple change-and-test mechanisms that adapt our internal processes. However, we are conscious of the operation of the more complex processes that adapt our behaviour to external circumstances. When our body detects that an essential variable that is maintained by our behaviour is outside its preferred range, we feel a need to take action to restore it. We feel motivated to search for behaviours that will do this. These alternative behaviours are tested against their ability to restore the essential variable. And when we find a behaviour that works, when we achieve the goal of restoring the essential variable, we are rewarded by feelings of satisfaction or pleasure, and by the ending of any discomfort.

So if we lack enough water in our bodies, we feel thirsty and are motivated to try behaviours that have got us water in the past in the type of circumstances we are in. When a behaviour succeeds in producing water for us, when it meets the test of restoring the essential variable, we are rewarded by the pleasure of drinking and by the satisfaction of our thirst. We are hard wired with a system that rewards us for behaving in ways that maintain our essential variables in preferred ranges. The result is that we tend to behave in ways that satisfy our immediate material needs.

But these more complex change-and-test processes are still fundamentally limited in their ability to adapt organisms for the outside/future. They are unable to search for and discover adaptations that produce only future benefits. They cannot take into account the future effects of possible adaptations. This is because they test possible adaptations only against their ability to meet the goal of restoring disturbed essential variables within the organism. Future beneficial effects have no immediate effect on current essential variables. Behaviour that has only future beneficial effects will not satisfy a current need for a higher internal temperature, or more water, or more food. These needs can lead only to the discovery of adaptations that produce immediate results.

To overcome this limitation, evolution had to produce a new motivation and reward system that was not based solely on maintaining essential variables. The genetic mechanism had to establish a new system that would test possible adaptations against their future benefits as well as against their immediate effects. The new system had to immediately reward behaviours that produced longer-term benefits, even though they might not deliver any actual immediate benefits[13]. If attainment of a longer-term goal meant that the organism had to achieve a particular immediate goal, the new system had to produce a need within the organism to achieve the immediate goal. The need would motivate the search for behaviour that could satisfy the immediate goal, and therefore produce the longer-term benefits. The new system would have to do this even though achievement of the immediate goal might produce no actual immediate benefit to the effective operation of the organism. Rather than test alternative behaviours against their immediate impact on essential variables, the new system had to test alternatives against their ability to produce immediate internal rewards that were proxies for longer-term benefits to the organism.

If reward systems of this kind were hard wired in the organism, the organism would be able to discover behaviours that have only future benefits. This is despite the fact that all the organism ever does is seek immediate reward by searching for adaptations to satisfy its immediate needs. The organism would be hard wired so that its pursuit of immediate rewards causes it to behave as if it takes into account the future benefits of its actions. The better a reward system was at producing immediate rewards for possible adaptations that have future benefits, and the better it got at making the reward proportional to the future benefits, the better the organism would do in evolutionary terms. Natural selection would tune these hard-wired arrangements to match the levels of immediate rewards to the likely future effects of actions.

Sexual activity is a particularly clear example of behaviour that is organised in this way. Behaviour that causes an organism to sexually reproduce does not produce any immediate beneficial effect on the functioning of the organism. It does not restore any ‘natural’ essential variable. Sexual reproduction provides evolutionary benefits to the genes that produce it, but only in the long term. For these reasons, in less complex organisms sexual activity is completely hard wired into the organism, as are other adaptations for the outside/future. There is no ability to adapt sexual behaviour during the life of the organism using change-and-test processes.

In more complex organisms, the establishment of an internal reward system for sexual reproduction enabled sexual behaviours to be adapted during the life of the organism. It also enabled sexual behaviour to be prioritised and integrated with other needs of the organism. The organism was no longer pre-programmed to act in a particular way when a reproductive opportunity presented itself. Instead, it was motivated to seek out reproductive opportunities, and to search for behaviours that would achieve successful sexual reproduction. The organism was rewarded psychologically with pleasurable feelings when it achieved sexual goals. And motivations for sexual activity competed with other motivations within the organism to prioritise the various behaviours of the organism. In this way, the reward system organised adaptive behaviours that had no immediate functional benefits.

Internal reward systems that took into account the future benefits of possible behaviours began to be used more extensively as multicellular organisms evolved complex social arrangements. This is because many of the benefits of social existence are not immediate. Many of the actions that animals must take if they are to live together harmoniously do not have any immediate beneficial impact on the operation of the organism. But the actions are in their long-term interests. For example, it might be in the long-term interests of an animal to submit to a dominant individual long before the dominant does it any physical harm. And it might be useful for an individual to react angrily to the actions of another that undermine its status in the group, even though the actions do not affect it materially straight away. As a final example, it may be in the longer-term interests of an individual to be motivated to care for others in the group, even though the individual will not benefit from this in any material way immediately.

In all these cases, if the individual is to adapt in ways that are best for its longer-term interests, it needs an internal reward system that immediately rewards the adaptive behaviour. The reward system must do this even though the behaviour does not immediately improve the operation of the organism. As a result, when multicellular organisms began to exploit the potential benefits of cooperative social organisation, evolution produced complex new internal reward systems. These systems could motivate and reward the search for social behaviours that provided no immediate benefit, but that served the longer-term interests of individuals by enabling them to interact more effectively with others in the group.

As multicellular organisms such as dogs, monkeys, elephants and apes began to form complex social organisations, the genetic mechanism expanded and diversified the internal reward systems into complex emotional systems. This produced social animals that experience a wide range of emotional feelings. These motivate, reward and punish behaviours that often do not immediately impact on the efficient functioning of the organism, but will in the longer term. We humans, the most social of multicellular organisms, experience a wide range of emotions and feelings such as fear, anger, guilt, love, frustration, curiosity, sexual pleasure, self-esteem, grief, delight, shame and depression. All these were initially tuned by natural selection to motivate and reward behaviours that would adapt the organism in ways that produced longer-term benefits.

For example, fear can motivate an individual to avoid future dangers, anger can motivate an individual to attack others to stop them from undermining the individual’s status in the group, guilt and shame motivate adherence to group rules and norms, love can motivate an individual to care for others in the group, frustration can motivate more attention to problem solving, curiosity can motivate an individual to explore new possibilities, sexual pleasure motivates reproductive acts, a need for self-esteem can motivate the individual to improve its status in the group, grief can motivate an individual to take greater care of others in the group, and depression can motivate an individual to try a new way of life.

Organisms with complex emotional systems spend their lives searching for behaviours and ways of life that will produce desirable emotional states, and avoid unpleasant ones. If the genetic evolutionary mechanism has properly tuned the emotional system, the behaviours that produce these internal rewards will also serve the longer-term interests of the organism, and ultimately its evolutionary interests[14]. The social behaviour motivated by the emotional system will ultimately produce evolutionary success. Emotional systems and their goals are means to evolutionary ends.

But most organisms with complex emotional systems such as baboons, dogs, cats, horses and dolphins are largely unaware that their internal reward systems have been shaped by evolution for evolutionary objectives. To them, their internal emotional rewards are ends in themselves. They spend their lives in the pursuit of satisfying emotional states, oblivious that this is evolution’s way of getting them to discover the behaviours that are best for producing evolutionary success. Evolution has produced in them a virtual reality that motivates and organises their behaviour. But for them it is their ultimate reality. They cannot see beyond it to its real purpose. Most humans currently fall into this category. They are unaware that the emotional goals that drive their pursuit of wealth, power, sex and social success are merely means to evolutionary ends, not ends in themselves.

Because these organisms are unaware of the ultimate goal and purpose of their emotional systems, they are unable to adapt and improve them during their life. They have nothing to judge the effectiveness of their emotional goals against. There is no process within the organism that can evaluate whether any changes made to emotional goals would advance the organism’s evolutionary interests. If they tried out new emotional goals, they would have no way of assessing the longer-term effects of alternatives. They have no insight into the purposes of their emotional systems. If circumstances change, and the immediate goals established by the organism’s existing internal reward system no longer produce evolutionary success, there is no adaptive process within the organism to change the immediate goals. The organism will continue to serve the pre-existing goals that are no longer effective.

In these organisms, only the genetic evolutionary mechanism has the capacity to shape and tune the goals established by the internal reward system. The genetic mechanism can do this by producing a variety of individuals that are hard wired with different emotional goals and motivations. Individuals with goals that are better at advancing the evolutionary interests of the individual will have more surviving offspring, and eventually take over the population. The change-and-test process that adapts and improves the goals and motivations established by the emotional system is the genetic evolutionary mechanism.

Emotional systems were a major step forward in the progressive evolution of improved adaptability. They enabled organisms to search for and discover adaptations that had beneficial future effects, but did not produce immediate benefits. Emotional systems enabled organisms to take into account the effects of their actions over much wider scales of space and time. They were a major advance over simpler adaptive processes that could take account only of the immediate impact of possible adaptations on the functioning of the organism.

But, as we have seen, even the most highly developed emotional systems found in the social mammals such as ourselves are limited in their ability to adapt during the life of the organism. The framework for the reward system is hard wired into the organism, and is limited in its flexibility during the life of the organism[15]. The immediate behavioural goals that are established by the reward system are not very adaptable. In contrast, the particular behaviours that the organism can use to obtain the rewards provided by its emotional system are not hard wired. The organism can adapt its behaviour to whatever is needed in specific situations. For example, most social mammals have emotional systems that reward behaviour that improves their social status and power. But they are free to search for whatever behaviour will serve these goals in the particular social circumstances in which they live. Organisms can change their behaviour in whatever ways are necessary to achieve their emotional goals, but they cannot change their goals. Their behavioural strategies are highly adaptable, but the goals set by their emotional system are not. Means are very flexible, but ends are not.

As a result, emotional systems have a limited ability to take advantage of the experience of the organism during its life. The emotional system has little capacity to use experience to improve its ability to take into account the future effects of behaviour. It is left largely to the genetic system to tune the reward system to take better account of future effects. If the reward system does not establish specific and immediate behavioural goals that adequately reflect the future consequences of behaviour, not much can be done about it during the life of the organism.

In the evolution of life on this planet, these limitations are being overcome by the development of a capacity to use mental models to guide the adaptive process. This capacity has evolved most fully amongst humans. With mental modelling, the organism is able to form a mental representation of how aspects of its environment will unfold over time. It can use these representations to see what effects possible adaptations will have in the future. In its most highly developed form, mental modelling can work out the consequences of a wide range of hypothetical behaviours in hypothetical environmental circumstances.

The evolution of mental modelling is a major improvement in the ability of organisms to adapt for the outside/future. It significantly boosts the adaptability of change-and-test processes[16]. It enables the future effects of behaviour to be taken into account in both the targeting and the testing of possible behavioural acts. Mental modelling can be used to mentally test possible adaptations before they are tried out in practice. This has a number of advantages: the organism can avoid behaviour that has dangerous future consequences; can work out which behaviour will produce immediate benefits without having to actually try out the alternatives; and can identify behaviours that are likely to pay off in the future.

Importantly, the models used by the organism can be improved continually as the animal accumulates knowledge and experience during its life. Where it discovers that a model does not accurately predict the future effects of its actions, the organism can revise the model to take account of its discovery. As the organism gains more knowledge of how its environment is structured, how the environment changes through time, and how different behaviours can produce different effects in different environmental circumstances, the ability of its models to target and test possible adaptation will improve. And this improvement in adaptability occurs during the life of the individual, without any involvement of the genetic evolutionary mechanism.

As the modelling capacity develops, individuals increasingly accumulate substantial stores of knowledge during their lifetime. This knowledge is extremely valuable to the individual, enabling it to use models to discover better adaptations by predicting the effects of alternative actions. For example, the more knowledge that an early human hunter accumulated about game animals, the better he would be at using mental models to predict which hunting strategies would be most effective. But the knowledge accumulated by an individual during his life died with the individual. So as a capacity for mental modelling evolved in early humans, there was an enormous potential evolutionary advantage to be had by any new arrangement that was able to transfer the store of knowledge between individuals. Any individual that could pass his accumulated knowledge to his offspring, or any individual that could obtain knowledge off others would be greatly advantaged in evolutionary terms.

Imitation enabled some transmission of adaptive behaviours between individuals. But it was only with the evolution of language that humans gained a comprehensive ability to share the knowledge they accumulated during their life. Through language, a discovery made by an individual could be passed to others and used by them in their modelling. Importantly, this enabled knowledge to be accumulated and built-on from generation to generation. Each new individual born into the population did not have to start again, with empty models. And in cooperative human societies, particular individuals could specialise in the collection of specific types of knowledge that were useful to the group. The result has been a complex and growing culture of adaptive knowledge that is passed from generation to generation[17].

As knowledge accumulated across the generations, the modelling capacity improved its ability to predict the consequences of possible behaviours. It became more accurate, could predict the consequences of wider ranges of events, and could evaluate the effects of possible adaptations over wider and wider scales of space and time. This improvement in adaptability continued the evolutionary progression that began with the emergence of the first simple change-and-test processes that adapted organisms for the inside/now. Since the first simple processes emerged, internal adaptive processes have progressively developed the capacity to take into account the effects of possible adaptations over wider scales of space and time[18]. The continuation of this progression is now enabling humans and humanity to build mental models of the formation and evolution of the universe.

Once knowledge could be accumulated across the generations, adaptive processes that used mental modelling became evolutionary mechanisms. They could discover adaptations and pass them on from generation to generation. Evolutionary discoveries could now be made throughout the lives of organisms. This was an immense improvement over the evolvability of the genetic evolutionary mechanism. As the modelling capacity improved, it began to make the genetic mechanism redundant. The genetic mechanism would take many generations to produce an adaptation to an environmental change. It would usually take many different genetic changes in many different individuals to find a better adaptation. But mental modelling could discover the same adaptation during the life of a single individual. Within a generation the discovery could spread to all members of the population. Modelling can operate far more quickly than the genetic mechanism. As knowledge accumulates and mental models improve, the genetic mechanism is increasingly pre-empted by mental modelling[19]. The genetic mechanism plays less and less of a role in adapting the organism.

But of even greater significance is the potential ability of mental modelling to take into account much wider consequences of possible adaptations than can the genetic mechanism. The genetic mechanism is largely limited to discovering adaptations that provide benefits during the life of the organism. If an adaptation pays off during an organism’s life, it will enable an organism to pass more genes to the next generation. But this is not the case if the adaptation produces evolutionary benefits only for future generations, and none during the organism’s life. The gene for such an adaptation is likely to die out before any longer-term benefits accrue.

In contrast, the modelling capacity enables an organism to take into account processes and events that unfold over longer time scales than its life. In particular, it can plan its adaptation in the light of the longer-term evolutionary trends and patterns discussed in this book. It can choose adaptive strategies that will contribute to the evolutionary success of its descendants and of its species. And the organism can support the formation of managed cooperative organisations which ensure that, as far as possible, it will capture the benefits of its support for future evolutionary success.

As we have noted, the only organism on this planet that has a well-developed capacity for mental modelling is humanity. We use this capacity to plan ahead, imagine alternative possibilities, invent and adapt technology, build structures such as houses and roads, radically modify our external environment for our adaptive goals, establish long-term objectives, imagine how we might change the world, develop strategic plans, design projects and successfully undertake activities that pay off only in the future, such as plant crops and feed animals. We undertake scientific and other research so that we can develop models that are more accurate, take into account the effects of our actions over wider scales, and predict the consequences of a wider range of possible acts and interventions in our environment. And we use language in its various forms to transmit knowledge between individuals so we can all use the best models to guide our adaptation. The result is an evolving culture of adaptive knowledge that grows from generation to generation and that enables humanity to progressively improve our evolvability by producing better models.

And we are on the threshold of developing the capacity to do something that no other organism on this planet has been able to do: to consciously use our modelling of the direction of evolution to increase our chances of participating successfully in future evolution. We are in the process of developing complex mental models of the direction of evolution. These will show what we will have to do individually and collectively to contribute to the future evolutionary success of humanity.

But being able to mentally model our evolutionary future does not mean that we will want to use these models to guide our behaviour. We will be like the band of hunter-gathers that we visited in our imagination in Chapter 1: they knew what they had to do for future evolutionary success, but did not want to do it. Their existing behavioural goals and predispositions clashed with what they would need to do to achieve future success. Simply knowing that they had to change their behaviour for future success did not make them want to do so. Likewise, rather than embrace evolutionary objectives, many of us will prefer to continue to pursue the values and goals established in us by past evolution. We will continue to use our energies to seek social status, self-esteem, power, wealth and the other goals that currently bring us emotional rewards.

The behaviours that will get us these emotional rewards will often clash with what we would have to do for future evolutionary success. As we have seen, our existing emotional reward system has been established by inferior and shortsighted evolutionary mechanisms. These mechanisms are blind to the long-term evolutionary consequences of our acts. They are unable to give us the emotional goals needed for future evolutionary success. If we are to be motivated to embrace evolutionary objectives, we will have to develop new psychological skills. We will need skills that enable us to free ourselves from the dictates of our pre-existing emotional reward system. We will need skills that enable us to find motivation and satisfaction in whatever forms of behaviour are needed for us to contribute to the successful evolution of life in the universe. Our task in the next two Chapters is to identify the new psychological skills we will need, and how they might be developed.

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[1].       Stewart, J. E. (1995) Metaevolution. Journal of Social and Evolutionary Systems 18: 113-147.

[2].       Thorpe, W. H. (1956) Learning and instinct in animals. London: Methuen.

[3].       Ashby, W. R. (1964) An introduction to cybernetics. 2nd ed. Chapman and Hall.

[4].       Ashby, W. R. (1960) Design for a Brain. 2nd ed. New York: Wiley.

[5].       Hardy, R. N. (1982) Homeostasis. London: Edward Arnold.

[6].       Beer, S. (1966) Decision and control. New York: John Wiley and Sons.

[7].       Beer, S. (1972) Brain of the firm. London: Allen Lane.

[8].       Ibid.

[9].       Stewart: Metaevolution. op. cit.; and Stewart, J. E. (1997) Evolutionary Progress. Journal of Social and Evolutionary Systems 20: 335-362.

[10].     Thorpe: Learning and instinct in animals. op. cit.

[11].     See Alcock, J. (1993) 5th Edition. Animal behaviour: an evolutionary approach. Sunderland, Massachusetts: Sinauer Associates, Inc.

[12].     For example, see Ridley, M. (1986) Animal Behaviour. London: Blackwell Scientific Publications.

[13].     Frank, R. H. (1988) Passions within Reason. New York: Norton; and Stewart: Evolutionary Progress. op. cit.

[14].     The internal reward systems are the innate teaching mechanisms of Lorenz, K. Z. (1981) The foundations of ethology. New York: Springer-Verlag.

[15].     Lorenz: The foundations of ethology. op. cit.; and Livesey, P. J. (1986) Learning and emotion: a biological synthesis. London: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

[16].     See Popper, K. R. (1972) Objective knowledge—an evolutionary approach. Oxford: Clarendon; Dennett, D. C. (1995) Darwin’s Dangerous Idea. New York: Simon and Schuster; and Stewart: Metaevolution. op. cit.

[17].     See Boyd, R. and P. J. Richerson (1985) Culture and the evolutionary process. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

[18].     Stewart: Metaevolution. op. cit.

[19].     Laland, K. N. (1992) A Theoretical Investigation of the Role of Social Transmission in Evolution. Ethology and Sociobiology 13: 87-113.

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