The Evolution of Mediocrity

Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution has for a long time been the most widely accepted secular explanation for how living organisms change over time. In the social sciences, however, Darwinism spawned a mire of theories on the role that evolutionary mechanisms play in shaping human society.

More than anything, there is widespread belief that competition filters out the weak and promotes the “survival of fittest,” and that markets select a certain class of talented and deserving people. Reality is more complex than this: many obviously talented and deserving people are not particularly successful in their pursuits, while many people with no apparent talent sometimes reap incredible rewards.

Should one look to nature for evolutionary social models that explain how human societies work? A partial answer to this complex question can be found in Good Enough: The Tolerance for Mediocrity in Nature and Society by the philosopher Daniel S. Milo. While Milo does not address the question directly, he argues that nature cannot be called upon to endorse capitalist ethics. I here summarize some of the facts and ideas exposed by the author, while reflecting on their significance for our understanding of human society.

Two kinds of evolution

According to Milo, both experts and public opinion currently overemphasize the role of natural selection in evolution.

“Natural selection does occur, but there are non-adaptive mechanisms of change as well, such as genetic drift, geographic isolation, and the founder effect. None of these paths to survival rewards the hardest struggler or the best specimen. Their rewards are governed not by merit but by chance.”

Specialists understand this, so they avoid the use of terms such as “survival of the fittest.” The fact is that “natural selection does not cull every useless, exaggerated, and inefficient mutation, preserving only the best.” On the contrary, it often allows an accumulation of traits which are, for all ends and purposes, completely useless. Milo makes a point that “in nature, change is either an accident, as in mutations, or a last resort, as in migration. It is never an end in itself.” Nature does not optimize species.

According to Milo, “human society is not ruthlessly competitive, and neither is nature. Both are tolerant of excess, inertia, error, mediocrity, and failed experiment. Where great successes occur in society and in nature, luck can be far more important than talent. Yet there are many who tell us that talent — sometimes rendered as fitness, sometimes as merit — is all that matters in nature and in human affairs.”

Darwin’s Tree of Life, as seen in The Origin of Species, which illustrates descent with modification, showing numerous lineages emerging and dying out across fifteen generations. For Milo, Darwin erred in asserting that natural selection is the dominant mechanism underlying this process.

In order to see why, we must first understand there are two kinds of evolution. On the one hand, there is the classical account of evolution as a process of natural selection, which accounts for the variability that can be observed between species. This is the evolution that Darwin explores in the Origin of Species. It explains why some species die, and others survive.

On the other hand, there is a second kind of evolution, one that is “concerned with the existence of a species between its origin and its extinction, its normalcy.” The average lifespan of a species is between 1 and 10 million years. From a Darwinian perspective, “this is uninteresting because it is static. But, in fact, during this time, there is much change. Species accumulate variability, both qualitative and quantitative, though these changes may have no adaptive impact” on the odds of survival of the species.

The curious case of the giraffe

“During certain explosive moments in natural history, environmental events and forced migration forced organisms to adapt to new niches, with new competitors and new habitats, or die. This is the first kind of evolution. Those that do adapt pass along traits that make their descendants more robust and therefore more impervious to factors producing extinction. These descendants spend most of their lives at relative peace, so they can accumulate neutral variants — that is, variants that confer no benefit. There are enough resources to go around, and the fundamentals of life are sufficiently strong that any variant, excellent or mediocre, can survive as long as it is not lethal.

   

The case of the giraffe is an interesting one: “Giraffes cannot do without legs, but they would be better off with shorter ones in at least one respect: they give birth standing up, to newborns weighing seventy kilograms, who then fall head first.”

And why do giraffes have such a long neck? Darwinists would answer that the neck is a product of natural selection, because it confers the beneficial ability to feed from leaves that are high above the ground. But this explanation comes from “evolutionists who had never seen the animal in the wild. During the dry season, giraffes tend to feed from bushes at or below shoulder height, not high up where their necks confer an advantage. Half of the time they browse at a height of two meters or fewer, which overlaps with the feeding zone of larger herbivores.”

The biologist Mivart also noted that if having a long neck was so advantageous, “we ought to have at least several forms, similar to the giraffe… being needful, there should be many animals with it.” He also argued that “the power of reaching upwards must have necessitated a considerable increase in the entire size and mass of the body (larger bones requiring stronger and more voluminous muscles and tendons, and these again necessitating larger nerves, more capacious blood vessels, etc.) and it is very problematical whether the disadvantages thence arising would not, in times of scarcity, more than counterbalance the advantages.”

In fact, pumping blood all the way up its high neck “leaves the giraffe with the highest known blood pressure of all animals, necessitating a gigantic heart and reducing capacity for other valuable organs; hence its disproportionately minuscule brain.” Research has also shown that during periods of drought, “the adults most likely to die are the tallest and largest males. Their greater caloric needs cannot be met by the leaves available at any tree level.” For Milo, “all these findings suggest that the neck may not be adaptive after all.”

For traditional Darwinists, phenotypical neutrality is impossible: every trait must, by definition, be either beneficial or disadvantageous to its bearer. If it confers no advantage, it costs energy but earns nothing in exchange. This is where Darwinists are wrong. Accepting tolerance for neutrality at the level of the phenotype would be a paradigm shift. Milo calls this the Theory of the Good Enough: species end up accumulating traits that confer no special advantage, but which do not significantly harm their odds of survival, either.

The theory of the good enough

The methodological neutrality underlying the scientific method is expressed by the null hypothesis, according to which every relationship between phenomena is, by default, the fruit of chance. The burden of refutation — the responsibility for proving the opposite, namely that there is a significant relationship between two observed events — weighs on the researcher.

However, many people “invert the principle: being selected is the default state, and chance result is the outlier.” They observe nature with a presumption of selection, “with the burden of proof lying on whoever claims that a trait was not selected.” Methodological neutrality does not imply a rejection of natural selection, but it does imply “the rejection of natural selection as the default state in nature.”

For Milo, “whether or not a species or an organism is well adapted, nothing has selected its traits. All we know is that these species and organisms are good enough not to die off.” When it comes to the traits that have been accumulated in a species, we must understand that nature is strongly biased towards excess. “It is an obvious but little acknowledged fact that most traits are viable across a range of amounts and sizes. For instance, a study of human kidneys […] found that people may have as few as 210,332 nephrons per kidney and as many as 2,702,079, with the healthy minimum located near the bottom of the range.” As long as this variety does not cause any problem for survival, it is allowed to flourish.

Accumulation of neutral traits: giraffe spot patterns.

As a species accumulates different traits, “a small number of optimized traits makes the organism good enough to survive, even if the rest of its traits are mediocre. These mediocre traits are hitchhikers, along for the ride. They are able to persist from generation to generation simply because they are not lethal.”

Species need not be perfect or optimal, but only satisfactory. Facing little pressure to adapt, the mediocre survive and thrive. It is a jungle out there, but, unlike deserts, jungles are not very competitive places. They are full of resources and opportunities and thus are hotbeds of life. It is true that every species in the jungle–and everywhere else–has traits that are the products of selection, but each also possesses traits that are merely tolerated. In the end, the most we can say for any living organism is that it is good enough not to die.

The greatest danger lies in how false ideas on evolution are used to describe society. “Darwinian and neo-Darwinian ideas such as survival of the fittest, optimization, adaptation, and Malthusian competition reverberate in the way we experience reality, society, and ourselves. It follows that when these ideas misrepresent nature, they weigh heavily on our self-representation.”

The author argues that “optimization is the sort of thing neoclassical economists dream about. It combats chance, waste, and stagnation, but these are the constitutive properties of nature: chance governs life; waste is everywhere; novelty is the exception and stasis the rule. And because there are never two identical individuals, at least one in any pair is not optimized.”

An important concept in economics is that of Pareto efficiency, which describes any situation where an individual’s wealth is increased without making anyone else worse off. Milo points out that Pareto efficiency is a heuristic fiction and that there is no such thing as a perfect trade-off in the real world. “Actual systems may be viable, even flourishing, at points far from optimal.” A wide ranges of properties and behaviors among individuals, “or how to do the same with much more, exemplify Pareto inefficiency.”

A world without meaning

For Milo, “the equation of fitness with superiority and the pursuit of perfection owes its epidemic success to the ethos of progress, which is to say human attitudes about what is valuable.” Nature does not strive for perfection. It only eliminates what is not fit to survive, and it only does so occasionally. Most of the time, “natural elimination closes one eye and naps, allowing lousy variations to endure. And sometimes it closes both eyes and takes its shot, killing off the good and bad alike. Natural elimination has no direction, goal, or bias; it is as volatile as it is indifferent.”

Another misguided idea is that evolution somehow seeks to produce new traits, similar to what is achieved in the breeding of wild species such as the domesticated fox. This analogy fails when applied in the wild, because “nature fights novelty, both slight and large. Its adage is not innovate or die but rather never change a winning horse. What is winning in nature? Having offspring, period. Under most circumstances, the best way to take part is to maintain the template of the preceding generation; after all, it procreated. This formula is embedded in the DNA itself. Nothing actually wants to evolve.”

In evolutionary terms, “breeders’ intervention can be likened to that of a meteorite impact that leaves only one strain alive in its wake–a provoked bottleneck in evolutionary terminology. Domesticated strains evolve from one bottleneck to the next, as the breeder interferes in hopes of inducing a founder effect. Only one, the lucky allele, survives, because it is the only one the breeder wants to survive. What is seen as perfect in the breeder’s eye is elected, and the imperfect sterilized or exterminated.”

“Admitting that there may be no significance underlying an observation is practically inhuman because we all share an organ that is allergic to the very idea of neutrality: the brain. The human brain is a significance gland; it secretes meaning in abundance. It will read between the lines, manipulate data, delude itself–do anything to make sense of events. Finding meaning is pleasurable, but it often comes at the expense of a sober encounter with reality. To not find meaning is painful but often more truthful than asserting meaning where none can reasonably be discerned.”

“The fact that the overwhelming majority of results are insignificant proves the wisdom of the presumption of chance. The prevalence of insignificance also explains why postdocs end up perishing like fruit flies rather than publishing. Science has at its disposal more tools with which to neutralize the bias towards significance. The very notion of controls, which lies at the heart of experimental science, implies the neutralization of factors excepting the one studied.”

“There is little meaning in the universe, and mistaking nonsense for sense might put one in serious danger. Neutrality, in the form of indifference, is essential to the survival of organisms. They cannot afford to be distracted by invented significance. The incapacity to ignore almost everything is a deadly syndrome.” This is why the amygdala, the part of the brain responsible for the fight-or-flight response, “has to treat as noise everything that is not the source of danger.” In fact, “seeing the whole picture is lethal.” The brain, which is so allergic to neutrality, is also paradoxically “the organ in charge of neutralizing almost all stimuli. Staying alive depends on the ability to distinguish figure and ground, relevant and irrelevant.”

Finding miracle in excess

Milo claims that “ultimately, a system is robust if it keeps its basic functionality even under failure of some of its components, and resilient when it can adapt to internal and external perturbations without undergoing fundamental changes.”

The ecosystem of species that we find in nature is resilient for several reasons. Species essentially evolve by “building upon” the successfully tested traits, or “core components,” of their ancestors. This ensures that variety and complexity can thrive on sound foundations. Species also have a capacity for adaptation. They are rarely adapted to only one niche, which means that organisms can migrate to new environments and thrive in them.

Nature is also resilient due to the very fact that it encourages excess. The accumulation of neutral traits works like options: they confer few disadvantages, but they can sometimes end up creating unforeseen benefits that were not even selected for by the environment. The best example for this is the human brain.

“Considerable evidence suggests that the Homo brain is, in evolutionary terms, injurious to all its possessors. The brain makes reproduction–both labor and post-natal development–exceptionally difficult. [Its] slow maturation renders the young helpless dependents, further reducing adults’ potential for reproduction. The brain’s energy demands are outrageous, seriously taxing humanity’s resources. It should therefore come as no surprise that Homo sapiens have spent the majority of our history of the knife’s edge of extinction and that every other species of the Homo lineage is long gone.”

“The selective failure of large brains is hard to imagine today, when earth’s human population nears eight billion,” while chimpanzees only have a population of 21,000. Yet “the genetic pool of modern chimpanzees is much greater than that of humans. Population geneticists infer from this finding the former’s larger historical population size.” For millions of years, “there were more chimpanzees than hominins in sub-Saharan Africa, the cradle of both lineages.”

Bursting out of Africa: Homo sapiens spreading across the globe over the last 100,000 years.

As recently as seventy thousand years ago, the human population was brought down to what is estimated between 2,000 and 10,000 individuals. It is not unreasonable to guess that our species came very close to extinction. “Recent developments in population genetics show that humanity’s numbers were largely stagnant, around 10,000 individuals until about sixty thousand years ago,” a period coinciding with humanity’s expansion across the globe.

Branching of the Homo genus into different species over the last 2 million years, showing several species going extinct.

Ever since the split with chimpanzees, the Pan lineage has maintained a relatively stable phenotype. This stagnation “is proof of its success: winning species don’t evolve.” Pan enjoyed a peaceful equilibrium, while the Homo lineage branched out numerous times. One of the known Homo species, Homo Floresiensis, even evolved a much smaller brain while still having domesticated fire and tools, indicating that they achieved much of what Homo sapiens did, “but with less in their skulls.”

The evolution of brain size in the Homo genus

The lack of correlation between brain size and population size further calls into question the conventional wisdom that humanity’s exceptional fitness is purely due to its brain. “Five hundred generations of our ancestors had brains essentially identical to our own yet were on the brink of extinction. The sparse populations of Homo Erectus, Habilis, Neanderthalensis, and Sapiens, and the extinction of all but one of these, prove that billions of neurons do not guarantee Darwinian fitness.”

This indicates that we were, by many accounts, a mediocre species until quite recently: barely able to survive, with a non-adaptive brain that taxed our organism. But then, what changed? Why did Homo sapiens end up being so successful despite our disadvantages?

The invention of tomorrow

This leads Milo to suggest the following hypothesis: “that among a tiny sliver of humans, the brain overcame itself.” Its burdens persisted, but it somehow became capable of imagining the future. “By inventing the future, it rescued humanity from extinction. Thus did a couple hundred migrants leave Africa, precipitating a demographic explosion. These explorers defied the universal regime of inertia and negative feedback. Where nature yearns for stability, humanity bends to the dream of tomorrow and the change it portends.”

As Milo explains, “the invention of tomorrow expelled prehistoric humans from the paradise/hell of the here and now. These ancestors experienced the bewildering and dizzying feeling that there are other options besides what is.”

Being able to imagine the future boosted our capacity for strategy and planning. It allowed Homo sapiens to generate excess to a degree that no other species had ever experienced before. “Nature is very tolerant, but society is even more so. It supplies the most generous welfare scheme by far, relieving most individuals of nearly every task essential to survival.”

The social interaction that the human brain enables gives rise to rampant delegation and extreme specialization, “an outcome unlike that of nature. There is, of course, some division of labor in nature–between male and female, parents and offspring. Ants and bees have five distinct classes. But, for the most part, versatility is the name of the survival game. Virtually every organism is a renaissance creature when compared to you and me.”

The reason for this lies in the self-domestication of humans. “Organisms in the wild are grown-ups; they take care of themselves. Organisms on the farm–and their masters–are children; they rely on others to survive.” While “slow maturation explains the helplessness of the human baby,” it does not explain “why its parents are the most dependent adults on earth.” Paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould argues that this is a distinctive feature of Homo sapiens: “We, like Mickey Mouse, never grow up although we, alas, do grow old.”

Under normal circumstances, human societies create tremendous wealth and security. The likelihood of running out of food, and the likelihood of being attacked by dangerous animals is drastically reduced thanks to social cooperation. “Excess is everywhere, including in poorer societies, where obesity is rampant.” As our fundamental needs are satisfied, our brains are also left with much excess capacity. “Our bored neurons crave action, and geniuses in self-deceit, they compel us to provide it […] We compete not in order to survive, but because we need something to do with ourselves.”

The European woolly rhinoceros, here painted 30,000 years ago in the Chauvet cave in France, was likely hunted to extinction by humans.

This is where social Darwinism got it wrong. “Inferring competition in society from competition in nature is doubly problematic: the struggle for existence in the wild is exaggerated and in society, mostly metaphorical.” Free lunches are common in nature and even more common in human society.

Not only that, but they also got it wrong on optimization. “Perfectionism is suicidal in nature, an appointment with the harsh enforcers of the law of diminishing returns. Humanity’s welfare cushion allows us to pursue the inherent excess of perfection, ensuring access to the resources demanded by its costly pursuit.”

The ethics of tolerance

For Milo, “the pursuit of excellence is, for nearly all humans, a bad bargain, and it is certainly at odds with nature’s tolerance for mediocrity. Even so, many of us understand striving to be our lot in life, and those who don’t bow to the god of excellence still celebrate its disciples and probably yearn to join them.”

There is much to support the contention that “for individuals, excellence is a fool’s errand. Those who crave the best are less fit than those who aim to be good enough–they fail more frequently, and their failure is costly. Athletes, artists, scientists, capitalists never stop competing against their peers and against themselves, and their chances of triumph are slim.” On top of this comes considerable “diminishing returns to well-being, health, wealth, self-esteem, comfort, pleasure, and efficiency.”

Why do we pursue excellence “despite having so much more to lose from it than to gain? Athletes may hold the secret. The route to excellence is filled with blood, sweat, tears. Its by-products are frustration, self-loathing, an inferiority complex, and despair. The final destination is rarely reached, and it is not even final, for athletic careers are necessarily short. But how thrilling is the journey, and how gratifying to our bored neocortices.”

The time is ripe for a fairer ethics. The pursuit of excellence is an admirable calling for some, but it is just one among many, including truth, faith, work, family, serenity, love, peace, pleasure, health, thrill, and fun.

We should not let a misguided idea of evolution justify a form of moral perfectionism: “it is only because we mistake natural selection for natural law that the lust for excellence continues to receive the imprematur of nature,” while other pursuits are deemed less worthy. On the contrary, the study of biological evolution teaches us that nature’s general tolerance for a diverse accumulation of seemingly non-optimal individual pursuits can occasionally lead to spectacular results.

Milo’s concern is mainly an ethical one. Broadly speaking, the aim of ethics is to differentiate between good and bad actions, while that of political philosophy is to imagine what a just society implies. Although the two are highly interrelated, there is a clear difference in the scale of their ambitions. Ethics is usually concerned with individual actions, while political philosophy addresses what kind of institutions should exist in society.

What should I do? Should I compete and strive for excellence in today’s world of cut-throat competition? Milo’s answer is that you can if you wish, but evolution in nature does not justify competition and the modern strife for excellence as inherently valuable ends. In nature, mediocrity is tolerated because it is harmless. Likewise, Milo invites us to consider that excellence is not the only valuable goal in human society. There are many other things that people can legitimately pursue. Being lazy, being slow, being different, and being unfit is all entirely fine as long as it does not cause any major harm.

Let us set aside matters relating to ethics and focus on the political implications of Milo’s theory. What about the role that evolutionary processes have in shaping society? On this, Milo remains silent. I will attempt to give it a short answer.

Evolutionary mechanisms in a just society

Human societies, just like species and ecosystems, are subject to constant change over time. Societies are affected by the external environment, but they also change due to the emerging actions of the human agents that compose them. While the majority of actions that happen on a daily basis are fairly inconsequential, sometimes big discontinuities and social change occur.

Our societies consist of very large organizations, in which hierarchy confers significant power to decision-makers. As a result of this organizational power, decision-makers can inflict tremendous damage on others, should they make the wrong decisions. A clear example of this would be Enron scandal.

One could argue that justice requires institutions that reduce the probability of behaviors that can inflict extreme harm on society. This is where evolutionary elimination can play an important role.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb argues that “there are two ways to make citizens safe from large predators,” such as corrupt political entities or powerful corporations. “The first one is to enact regulations.” The problem here, as Taleb points out, is that regulation can very often be gamed by people with good lawyers who figure out legal loopholes or lobbyists with connections to the political establishment.

The second solution is to compel the people involved in transactions to have some of their skin in the game, meaning that they should suffer the consequences of their actions. Taleb points to an independent judicial system, especially the bottom-up Anglo-Saxon common law system, as the mark of a society that has embodied this concept: “if you harm me, I can sue you.”

According to Taleb, “this does not mean that we should not regulate at all.” Some systemic risks — such as the threat of catastrophic damage from an environmental event, or the threat of a sudden pandemic disease — require regulation that allow the state to react immediately and effectively. “If you can’t effectively sue, regulate.” However, for Taleb, regulation seems to be a solution of last resort, as it is the one that is most likely to infringe upon individual freedoms.

This echoes the work of many liberal philosophers, for whom individual liberty is a sacred value. For them, freedom comes with an obligation of individual responsibility. Likewise, Taleb would rather let individuals have their freedom, including the freedom to experiment and make mistakes that only harm themselves, and pay a penalty if they harm others, rather than having the state tell them what to do. In practice, there is always a risk that individual freedom will be unnecessarily constrained by bureaucratic over-regulation.

While a free society should let individuals pursue their own ends, society as a whole would still benefit from mechanisms which filter out powerful individuals who turn out to inflict unnecessary economic and moral harm on others.

Power can be gained with sheer threat of force (pointing a gun at someone) but mostly it is acquired through social institutions. Following Taleb’s line of thought, anyone with power should have some sort of skin in the game — in other words, if his or her decisions turn out to be extremely costly to others, he or she should face some sort of negative consequence.

Taleb points out that the penalty for leadership failure does not need to be extremely high; it should simply be significant enough to create an incentive for leaders to avoid making decisions which may cause harm to others. For instance, the executives sitting on the boards of Goldman Sachs and Citigroup should not get a fat bonus when the entire economy suffers from the consequences of their badly crafted and risky policies. This creates a signal which may lead to moral hazard.

Taleb would probably have preferred to see these bankers sacked, publicly shamed, eliminated from the game, thereby sending a signal to others that a banker’s responsibilities should be taken seriously: “The captain goes down with the ship; all captains and all ships.” Such mechanisms would ensure that society follows a dynamic evolution, without protecting any special interests. Anyone can rise to power, but anyone can also fall from grace. Nothing guarantees that you can maintain your power forever.

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