Idiomdrottning’s homepage

Planned vs evolved behavior

Imagine you have a roommate who one day leaves the fil out on the counter (where it can go bad) instead of putting it back in the fridge (where it can last longer).

You notice, and you put it back, saving the day.

This goes on for a while, keeps happening.

Is this deliberately planned strategy from the roommate? Did she one day go “Heh heh… I know! If Melissa sees the fil on the counter, she’ll put it back in for me, and I’ll do less work!” or did her behavior just sorta… evolve? She might feel bad about it or even be completely oblivious about it. Her brain never got into the habit of reminding her to put the fil back in.

It paid off and kept paying off, day after day, until one day you explode. Maybe that “one day” comes pretty darn soon in a scenario like this, like day one, and as a general rule the longer the time the bigger the blow, but you get the gist and can hopefully imagine some other similar scenarios, not just from family life but from bigger structural issues in society.

Time and time again we find ourselves with problems where we wonder to what extent is this a deliberately planned behavior and to what extent has it just evolved. Most behavior is on a gradient somewhere between the two.

Sometimes the distinction does matter, especially for when we try to come up with ways to solve these problems. Other times it doesn’t, since the correct action for us would be the same either way.

We know capitalists exploit externalities for wealth. Sawing at the branch we’re all sitting on. Yeah, it’s hard to believe that every single fossil lobbyist or coal broker senator is completely and honestly oblivious to what they’re doing, but on the other hand, some of this behavior is evolved. We’re all creatures of habit and circumstance.

One of the standard explanations for why some are so conspiratorial-minded, why some see the world as one big X-file, one big Q-drop, is that “they want and expect order, and their brain won’t let them believe that there’s chaos and that sometimes bad things just happen”. Sure. But a much simpler way to think of it is that we often conflate evolved behavior with deliberately planned behavior.

A friend of mine used to quote Pratchett, saying “Chaos […] always defeats order, because it is better organized.” Maybe there’s something to that.

Just in case there are any fundamentalists in the audience: I’m not talking about natural evolution of species as an ontology for life as we know it. At least in this post I’m not. “Evolution” (which means “unfolding”) is a centuries-old word for all kinds of gradual reinforced change, not just Darwin stuff. I’m also not trying to cast doubt on the importance of free will. Ultimately, the roommate is the one responsible for putting back the fil in the fridge herself. We are condemned to choose. Your own world-view has us haunted by demons that influence us. Think of this as that. Sort of.