Saturday, January 25, 2014

Runaway Competition

This image is not faked. It shows a real skull of a real pig, of an Indonesian species of boar known as the babirusa. To me, that image has always been the most concise illustration of the key to understanding human society and its inevitable doom.

The evolutionary concept of a runaway adaptation, runaway selection or whatever you wiki-call it, though it seemingly lacks a rigorous definition, is backed by many examples of features which in a purely reductive estimation of bottom-line energy expenditure or overall fitness for survival, should not exist. It explains why male lions can suffer a continual selection for bushier, darker manes which boil their brains in the cauldron of the savannah, or why many deer species grow antlers so large and convoluted they can snare them to each other or vegetation, sometimes, permanently. A deer's ability to go without food while waiting for its antlers to drop, it should be noted, is somewhat less than permanent. Birds tend to be the poster-children of runaway adaptations, with the peacock's tail serving as the textbook example and bower-birds' ephemeral, impractical constructions illustrating the complexity of a runaway behavior. Whether a particular physical or behavioral adaptation is or is not classifiable as "runaway" will likely depend on whom you ask and a complex set of cost/benefit estimates, but let us return to our sheep.

Or rather, our pigs. Look at that babirusa's tusks again. What a wonderful allegory of self-destructive obsession. The boars use those lovely chompers to do battle to secure mating rights. Parry and thrust, that sort of thing, just like deer butting heads or a couple of jocks arm-wrestling. Bigger weapons imply a greater chance of success and a greater likelihood of mating.The genes for comparatively larger tusks get passed down generation after generation. You might be the porker with the healthiest liver or biggest brain, but if you can't out-tusk the others ya ain'ts gettin' da ladieeez. That one feature becomes your raison d'etre, not completely eliminating but still out-weighing any other concerns.
Until it stabs you in the face!!!

Okay, okay, so humans aren't all that close to pigs. I mean, most of us only wallow in emotional and social muck, not literal. Plus, if you shit out a litter of a dozen offspring, you can have the rest of the tribe feed them for you, leaving your udders nice an' perky to attract more fathers.
But you know who's closer to us? Chimpanzees. One of the slew of stunning observations graciously offered to us by the chimps of Tanzania's Gombe Park was the meteoric rise to fame and fortune of one... Mike. Last name unknown, presumably "Oook" "Ugh" or "Eeek." Mike became the leader of his tribe by becoming leader of his tribe. This tautology is particularly apt to the sort of positive feedback loop we're discussing here, runaway adaptation. He made some noise and scared his competitors until none would stand against him as de facto Chief Chimp. Note that Mike's discovery in itself (banging cans) while possibly indicative of a higher intelligence, cannot arguably be called "progress" as it brought no benefit. It's not food or shelter or the wheel. Mike did not prove his worth by being the best fruit-finder or predator-spotter for his tribe. He won his position by winning his position.

Now say you're not Mike. You're no longer just any social primate, communal but fairly capable of feeding and protecting yourself by yourself. You're a mid-evolution hominid, Erectus or Habilis or an earlier Sapiens. You're naked and toothless, oversized and underqualified in a world of interglacial turmoil. Crippled furthermore by a prolonged infancy due to a cannon shell trying to fit through a derringer barrel (ask your mother) the species' tribal unit has become paramount. For safety, for food, for your increasingly complex shelters, for passing down the exponentially convoluted shroud of information which ensures your short-term survival, you must depend on social interaction. Unfortunately, you've inherited a very animal interpretation of the term "social" and so everything inevitably boils down to hierarchy, to the pecking order. Muscles or brains are nice and all, but the real catch is a high-ranking mate, one which will receive the lion's share of whatever meager resources the tribe as a whole scrapes together. This is what will ensure your children's health and success and likelihood to breed. Rank out-competes muscles or brains. Males to some extent but especially females learn to choose prestigious mates. Their offspring inherit their preferences and competitive tendencies.

The means become the goal becomes the means. The rich get richer and use those riches to get richer. Ruthlessness, deceit, viciousness, obsessive undermining of the competition, all the shortcuts to power over others, all of Mike's banging and strutting, not intelligence but the drive for social-climbing itself, this is what has been bred into humanity, generation after generation, aeon after aeon. Sadism and schadenfreude, envy and insecurity, the desperation to grind others under your heel, to be fawned over and adored, to have one's ass kissed. Like the babirusa's tusks this has become the sad cliche of our existence, the distillation of humanity: we are the will to power. We are the pissing contest. We are our intra- and inter-tribal competitive drive, our hierarchical obsession. And just like the babirusa's tusks, it keeps angling right back at us to stab us in the face.

Positive feedback is endless. It arises quite rarely in biology because it is an inherently destructive process. This is the definition of "no brakes" - a system which continues to build on itself until it burns itself out completely, until the crash. Human society has consistently selected for its leaders not the most intelligent or most altruistic, but those most addicted to their own thirst for power, those willing to do anything to chase that endorphin high of ordering others about, of breaking backs and treading on necks. To the human subconscious, burning the world down about oneself is a small price to pay for being called "master."

It's not the most advanced that calls the shots, but whoever bangs those cans the loudest. We have created an illusion of progress for ourselves. Optimists delude themselves with the apparent advance of civilization, but that advance is always conveniently contained within whatever system is being studied while its much greater damaging, counterbalancing effects are conveniently pushed out of the equation, out of the system, out of sight and out of mind. Agricultural growth fueled by soil erosion, industrial growth borne on soot-choked rivers, a glorious enlightenment supported by the pillaging and genocide of two continents, globalization fueled by the institutionalization of the "third world" while the thermonuclear dick-measuring contest continues unabated, oceans running out of fish and an entire oil-giddy space-age combusting itself into a new Carboniferous. There's nowhere left to expand now. Science has masked the underlying problem. At every step it has provided new avenues of exploitation, new illusions of growth, while never admitting that the one true problem is human instinct.

Instinct is not rational. It is not a plan. It holds up no ideal, no clear ends or goals, only a vague, all-encompassing and constant desperation for more and more reinforcement. Those in whom the human competitive drive shines brightest, the alpha-types, the prima-donnas, the starlets and go-getters, the attention-whores and influence-pimps, plus all the endless masses whose only wish is to be those destroyers, the bulk of the species, will never stop. Never. This is why you must be poor so as to make them feel richer by comparison and it is why you will never be poor enough, never desperate enough. No amount of debasement will ever be enough. They will make you beg and slave and prostitute yourself, and it will never be enough. This is why nobles used to whip the flesh from peasants who neglected to bow and remove their caps at a high-born's passing, and this is the world humanity longs for again. And when they get it, it will not be enough.

From slavery to wage-slavery and back again, from patriarchy to matriarchy, from crusades to jihad, from white power to black power, from gods to movie stars. The enlightenment has been an aberrant blip in the observable behavior of an ape species which never outgrew its instinctive scrabbling for reproductive fitness through social rank. You want to see the shape of human history? It stretches along the suicidal curvature of that pig's tusk.

Competition for competition's sake. Control for control's sake. Power for power. Dust to dust.

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