In the IT industry, especially amongst the people who get to provide user support, we have a very useful (and rude!) acronym: RTFM. I admit that I frequently need to ignore the temptation to use this term when answering some silly support question, so much so, that the acronym itself has inspired the title of this blog.
Life doesn’t come with a user manual, and that’s a shame, because people do stupid things all the time, and it would be handy to have the ability to (politely) point to the user manual and show why this or that behaviour is counter-productive. To be fair, there is no shortage of user manuals, I guess all Holy Books can be seen as such, but for me, they are of no use. That’s because, instead of relying on evidence, more or less all of them start with supernatural hypotheses and derive their instructions from there. This is in itself silly: if you don’t have the manual, the logical approach is to reverse engineer the “product”, take notes, and write down your do-s and dont-s based on what you actually find. Science does this, but because the subject (our own life) is fantastically complicated, it’s only starting to scratch below the surface, especially when it comes to interactions amongst humans and our inner life.
On the other hand, I have always strived to make sense of the world around me, and in my case human interactions (and introspection) are usually more interesting than any other subject. My philosophical inclinations always pushed me into speculating about why and how, and my scientific upbringing has provided crucial contributions in terms of knowledge (as in: already developed theories) and method (on how to develop evidence-based theories of my own). The result is that my head is full of content that in the end is nothing more than my attempt of compiling the user manual of my own life.
This blog is the result of the accumulation of my thoughts, and the realisation that keeping them all in my head isn’t a smart move. First of all, without trying to write them down I have no way to evaluate my own knowledge in terms of internal consistency. Actually, I’m sure that while it is all only in my head it’s guaranteed that there will be plenty of bits and pieces that actually contradict one-another. Writing should help uncovering such contradictions.
Furthermore, since I’m pretty happy with my own life, and I usually get praise for my insights, it’s theoretically possible that my ideas may work also for others.
Therefore, a few years ago I’ve started to actively seek for scientific and/or philosophical trends that resembled my own mumblings, and to my surprise and delight, I found plenty: they all happen to revolve around Evolution and/or Evolutionary Psychology. This isn’t surprising, given my background. What is surprising, is that I found many reasons to confirm my own thoughts, but also many reasons to encourage me to try and organise my theories, so to make them public. After checking them in the real world, to my own eyes, my ideas seem solid enough, and not as useless as logic would suggest: not being a scholar, why should I have something to add to any scholarly subject?
My own explanation, is that because of my own life history (my father is a geneticist, and we spent long periods in Oxford in the seventies and early eighties: I certainly have adsorbed something of the “selfish gene” atmosphere of the period), the explanatory power of Darwinism has always been obvious to me (indeed, I was always puzzled by how little it was recognised and used). If it isn’t obvious to you, I will borrow Searle’s explanation, taken from a recent PNAS article on consciousness (Searle 2013):
If you want to explain why fish have the shape they do, why are fish not shaped the way a brick is shaped, or why plants turn their leaves toward the sun, you point out that the purpose of all of this is to enable the fish to swim better or enable the plant to survive. And it is this teleological goal that provides the explanation. The Darwinian revolution produced a substitution of two different levels of explanation. Instead of saying the plant turned its leaves toward the sun because it has the goal of survival, we substitute two levels of explanation, a causal or mechanical explanation and a functional explanation. At the mechanical level, the plant has variable secretions of the growth hormone auxin, and these variable secretions of auxin turn the leaves toward the sun. And at the second functional level, plants that turn their leaves toward the sun are more likely to survive than plants that do not.
In other words: Darwinism and the Theory of Evolution provide an evidence-driven method to address questions that would otherwise be hopelessly teleological, and therefore almost invariably push us into using some supernatural argument. If you ask “what’s the purpose” of something that factually has no purpose (the auxin secretions in the passage above), without using Darwinian explanations you can only conclude “I don’t know” or ultimately use some higher order (supernatural) meaning to justify the whole chain of purposes/explanations. No matter how hard one tries, without evolution the chain of explanations would always boil down to “the meaning of life” because the apparent purpose of any biological trait ultimately has to do with survival and therefore leads to questions about the meaning of life itself. On the other hand, Darwinism explains why we don’t need to use any supernatural entity to explain why so many apparently purposeful things (organisms, and parts thereof) exist in the world. This includes everything biological, and hence promises to explain also all the things that are traditionally considered outside the scope of science itself. Yes, you read this right: I’m talking about consciousness, logic, aesthetics, morality, creativity, empathy, and all the human traits that we cherish so much. Because of Darwinism, their existence, and their underlying mechanisms, have all entered within the scope of scientific enquiry as a direct consequence of the teleological revolution that is necessary after accepting the validity of the natural selection idea.
There is much more to say about this, but for now, it’s enough to say that I’ve had a clear intuition about the above potential since time immemorial, literally: this intuition is already present in the oldest thoughts of mine that I can recall. To me, this also provides a putative explanation of how it is possible that I’m producing thoughts that seem to be solid enough. I am one of the oldest people around that have spent all their life immersed in a Darwinian world, a place where natural selection is normally used to explain reality. This influenced the shape of my thoughts, and may have allowed me to build something new and reasonable.
So here I am, trying to organise my ideas in what may become (my own), evolutionary manual for life. The intellectual ambition of this is so high that it can only be described as delusional, but I’ve decided to ignore this obvious reality, and act as if I wasn’t embarrassed. Lots of people contributed to this decisions, but my thanks are due mostly to Susan Blackmore: she was kind enough to provide some advice, as well as the author of the sweetest one-line email that I’ve ever received. The email was:
Don’t be embarrassed by intellectual ambition!!!
My answer, from now on, is public:
Sorry, I can’t: I am embarrassed, but I can try to act as if I wasn’t.