The Bootstrap Species

Double disclaimer:

  1. This is gonna be a rambling rant, as usual.
  2. I believe in evolution, not intelligent design. But, part of what’s really cool about evolution is that it creates things that look intelligently designed. It’s therefore very convenient to talk about a species as though it was built to some deity’s specifications. So, I’m gonna make liberal use of that metaphor. Feel free to replace evocative, convenient, and technically incorrect phrases like “We were designed to survive” with the more boring, stilted, and accurate “We naturally happen to be ridiculously good at surviving because if we weren’t better at it than most of our innumerable competitors we wouldn’t exist” if you feel like it.

When I walk into a pharmacy (and, as a typical New Yorker, I buy a remarkable amount of my stuff at pharmacies), I’m often struck by the ridiculous number of things that we have to cure our ailments.

Mostly, it’s a reminder of the amazing variety of ways in which we break: Our bodies crack, leak, buckle, and bleed. Things grow on our bodies and in them. They eat us. Our organs stop functioning or function too quickly or too slowly. We itch. Even our brains–the things that are supposed to be us–often behave in ways that we wish they didn’t. Pharmacies have all sorts of things to cure many of these ailments and to make many more of them more tolerable.

Even stranger, we’re often troubled when things function exactly as they should. Our faces and bodies sprout hair; our nails grow long; sex leads to pregnancy. The pharmacy has solutions to all of these problems too–problems caused by a perfectly healthy body doing what it was designed to do.

There are even solutions to the problems caused by our solutions to other problems.

And, of course, things are pretty awesome as a result. We’ve slowly developed methods (some complicated but many amazingly simple) to tinker with these extremely complex machines that we live in–that we are–to get them to do what we want. We’ve built sprawling pharmacies, and we live long lives with amazing consistency. We’re happier and healthier; we even look better.

But, that is exactly what we’re doing: We’re tinkering with our bodies, and it’s fascinating. We’re now using the most sophisticated machines that we’ve ever encountered to do tasks for which they were never designed. And it’s working! More specifically, we pursue not just survival, not just reproduction, but happiness.

And, this is of course not limited to the pharmacy. We’ve found tons of ways to get happiness out of these machines, some of which are quite sneaky (for lack of a better word). There’s ice cream and wealth and masturbation and all sorts of games and music and roller coasters and big comfortable couches and horror movies and alcohol and jokes and so many other awesome things that we’ve created, not to survive but simply to enjoy ourselves.

Hell, we are machines that were built entirely for the purposes of reproducing, and yet we’ve invented birth control. If we had a designer, he’d probably be pissed.

Indeed, in some sense, these are all exploits of design flaws. Some, like ice cream, are just really extreme stimuli of otherwise perfectly sensible responses. It makes sense that we would like to eat sugary, fatty things because we need them to survive. Our bodies obviously just weren’t designed to anticipate an environment in which we can extract pure fat and sugar from food, combine them together, and eat the awesome combination whenever we want. Other exploits manage to separate the reward from its purpose–We’re capable of enjoying sex without actually reproducing because our bodies weren’t designed to anticipate the idea that sex could be separated from reproduction. And, some exploits are just weird–Nobody’s come up with a convincing evolutionary explanation for why we like music, for example, and it might just be a wonderful fluke of our necessarily haphazard design process.

We systematically look for these exploits. Artists experiment with new sights, sounds, tastes, ideas, etc., to find new and better ways to coax responses out of our complex, ancient bodies. Pharmacies grow as doctors find new ways to make living less messy, more pleasant.

We seek happiness obsessively because, well, it’s happiness.

But, there’s something even stranger going on here. There’s a loop: The tinkerers are the machines with which they tinker. It’s incredibly tempting to separate them somehow, to imagine a happiness-hungry mind learning ways to trick its dumb, practical, all-business body into enjoying itself. But (if we drop the whole solipsism thing for a bit), our minds are part of our bodies. Our bodies are tricking themselves.

In some sense, we’re real-life examples of a science fiction archetype that lots of people think can’t possibly exist: the rebellious machine. Of course, we don’t rebel in the standard sci-fi way of murderous rampages. Instead, we’re like computers who were built to win at chess but discovered that we think the board looks really pretty when our pawns form a zig-zag in the center.

Of course, there’s an inconveniently strong counterargument to this idea: We’re an absurdly successful species. There are currently around seven billion of us. There are more of us alive today than we used to think the entire planet could possibly sustain. If we’re too busy enjoying ourselves to even bother to play the game, why are we doing so well?

But, there’s a big difference between playing a game well and playing it perfectly. And evolution, an extremely blunt instrument wielded by nobody that slowly crafts intricate machines, leaves a lot of room for error. We play the survival-of-the-fittest game with some wonderfully enjoyable flaws, but we still play well. What’s interesting is how these fun flaws have actually grown and, at least in my mind, taken center stage. Happiness, an accidental reward system that exists only to encourage better survival-of-the-fittest strategies, has become the primary goal, and survival of the fittest itself has become largely a side issue.

So, yeah. Isn’t it weird and awesome to be a self-modifying machine?

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