Reflection 2: Survival of the Fittest

October 7, 2008

(Copyright © 2008)

In 1865, Herbert Spencer glossed Darwin’s “natural selection” as “survival of the fittest,” a phrase still ringing in our ears as self-evident truth. But if the fittest are to survive, what are they fittest to? Easy, we say, their surroundings. The natural environment. And in our human case its step-child, the cultural environment. Which raises hard questions: How are the fittest to gauge their fitness to surroundings they can only dimly entertain? Are we talking personal fitness, species fitness, genetic fitness? Is fitness a quality of life or a statistical abstraction after-the-fact?


From my point of view the issue is: What can consciousness tell us about the circumstances on which survival depends? I can’t know my surroundings directly because any act of perception changes everything in translating the outside world to neural terms my mind can barely understand. The natural outside world consists of trees, rivers, air, sunlight, bacteria, and their ilk; my mental apparatus consists of neurons, dendrites, axons, ions, neuro-transmitters, synapses, hormones, etc. Whatever form survival issues may take on the outside is surely lost in translation to inner awareness.


We idly go on believing we live in the real world, a world we can see/hear/taste/touch. We’re kidding ourselves. The whole of existence is in our personal experience, not any outer world. Life is an inside job. Coming out of a movie, we often have a sense of seeing the world for the first time. Everything is new, fresh, clear, and really strange. Movie vision takes over our seeing. But it eventually wears off. Our conventional outlook reasserts itself and everything returns to “normal.” But conventions are conventions, not reality.


Some people are mad about Sarah Palin because she speaks their lingo. Others see her spouting a list of talking points without substance. We fashion her image to suit ourselves. Such is consciousness. It works inside-out. The world is what we make of it. Feel of it. Dream of it. Imagine of it. More often than not, we find what we seek, not what is there. We fit the world to our preferences, prejudices, and past experiences, not vice versa. We, not the world, do the heavy selecting in deciding how we present ourselves to it.


Our views on Governor Palin (and others) are a reflection of who we are. Such views have little to do with any woman/mother/governor from Alaska, and say far more about us than about her. Consciousness is as consciousness does. What we get is what we give in the first place, what we look for from our point of view.


The street scene after the movie becomes movie-like because we project our persisting movie vision on it as if it were part of the illusory world we just sat through for two hours. Horse lovers see horses all around them. Sailors see waves, boats, and gathering storms. Expectancy is destiny. Ask any vet with PTSD. We are all experiments, broadcasting our fitness (or unfitness) for life outward in hope against hope.


In that way, rightly or wrongly, consciousness fits us to unanticipated life events. In novel situations, it is our primary survival tool. That’s why it has been selected for. As a guide to the unknown. Consciousness gives us the possibility of living an original life independent of reflexes, habits, and what we have been taught. It allows for judgment and imagination, equipping us to break from the herd and go our own way. As if life depended on it. Which it does.


What we don’t see coming is sure to get us in the end. In the meantime, proactive consciousness, if we use it wisely, gives the clearest view ahead. It puts experience, judgment, feeling, and imagination in the loop of awareness so we can do some selecting of our own and not abandon our fitness and fate entirely to our mindless genes. ¦


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