22 September, 2016

Homeostasis and Evolution

Life as we know it, is an interplay between two abstract forces: homeostasis and evolution.

Homeostasis refers to the tendency of life to preserve itself and its integrity. The term is usually used in the context of the biological being, but in its essence, it refers to a more abstract property of a system to preserve itself, by staying in a region of stability. Even physical systems like atoms and molecules exhibit this property in their tendency to settle down at low energy "stable" configurations.

However, regardless of how efficiently homeostasis preserves life, life is finite and is bounded by physical constraints that limit how long a creature can live. Also, a stable region that homeostasis strives to preserve may be "optimal" but not the "optimum". A stable region is one that minimizes the cost of existence and maximizes utility. A region may be stable in its neighbourhood, but there may well be other, even better stable regions, with even lesser costs and even greater utility.

For this reason, life never stays at a stable region. While one generation preserves itself in a stable region by the force of homeostasis, there is another force at work, namely evolution, which keeps foraging for even better ways for life to exist, and striving to overcome whatever major challenges the current form of homeostasis is facing.

The process of evolution hence strategically disposes the offspring in ways that can help it escape from, or provide it with innate defenses towards the major threats faced by its immediate generational ancestors. It is for this reason that we often see instances where parents would have taken immense measures to protect their offsprings from some form of danger, only to realize later on that the children were innately aware of such a danger. (The story of Gautama Buddha comes to mind here.)

Homeostasis and evolution can be projected from individual life forms to the collective society formed by the individuals.

What we call as culture is essentially the force of homeostasis operating in the collective. Our culture is often imbibed onto us in several ways -- at home, at school, at work and even on the media and at public places. Cultural forces work to subtly orient our thinking and hence our actions towards a region that is considered stable for the population.

Yet, while culture is at work towards preserving what we have, evolution is also at work towards strategically orienting the next generation to handle the major challenges and opportunities faced by the present generation. This is why the "generation gap" is real. Major social changes happen not because a society changes its mind, but because it is replaced by a new generation that has a different mind.

Often times strategies that give desirable outcomes in the system of homeostasis, often give vastly different outcomes in the system of evolution.

Let me give an example.

A common axiom that is often used to bring up children glorifies reward/punishment and operand conditioning. It is sometimes generalized as the belief: "adversity builds character." And this belief can be tested by creating pedagogic experiments and measuring outcomes. It is often indeed the case that adversity builds character. It is easy to see why. Adversity tries to push a system out of its stable region. The forces of homeostasis kick in and utilizes all resources that it can muster to bring the system back into its stable region. In this process, it builds its "character" and the students realize the "stuff" that they are made of.

However, homeostasis is not the only force that drives life. When we factor the other force -- evolution -- into the above equation, we see that the story is more complicated. When homeostasis is busy building character to counter the adversity, it is also priming itself to tell the next generation to avoid or be wary of this kind of adversity. The next generation is not likely to face this adversity and build their character. Instead, they would be innately programmed to either avoid this adversity, or be so fearful of this adversity that they perhaps break down psychologically when faced with the same adversity.

It is quite disappointing that even among the most erudite thought leaders that we often see on public media, there does not seem to be enough appreciation, or even awareness about this silent force called evolution that is shaping our lives. We seem to consider social responses as a memoryless snapshot of the present.

More than once, I have encountered this lament by cinematic figureheads about "rising intolerance" among the Indian audience. They lament on how even one of the most tolerant of cultures -- dharmic thought, loosely categorized as Hinduism -- is becoming intolerant in recent times. The usual example that is given is to show how Hinduism was lampooned in the movies of 1970s and it was well accepted by the audience, while the same thing today would offend a lot of Hindus. Here is one such talk show where the speaker is making this lament and asking the Hindus to not become like "them" (referring to other religions in the neighbourhood, that implement adverse blasphemy and apostasy laws).

But we can see the flaw in his reasoning by considering the way evolutionary forces work.

Hinduism that was subject to lampooning and criticism, accepted and assimilated it as part of its dynamics of homeostasis. But concurrently (and subconsciously) it was also communicating to the next generation to be wary of or not tolerate, these kinds of invalidation of its core beliefs, which are anyway not admitted by other religions towards their beliefs. The very openness that made them tolerant in one generation, primed the next generation to become intolerant towards the same stimuli.

There is an important lesson in there for all of us. Adversity may build character -- but only for this generation, and how the next generation may react to that adversity is very unpredictable. Dissent may strengthen democracy -- but only for this generation. How the next generation will handle dissent that was graciously debated by the previous generation, will be very hard to predict.

When it comes to managing evolutionary dynamics, the "law of attraction" may be more pertinent. The strategic orientation of the next generation will be based on what the previous generation predominantly thinks about. If we want the next generation to be more tolerant, it would make more sense to celebrate and uphold commendable practices, rather than lament, lampoon and criticize unacceptable practices.

Undesirable social practices are best combated by making them irrelevant across generations by strengthening the desirable practices, rather than fighting them head on. It is somewhat like making a tall building short, by building even taller buildings in its vicinity. If we want Hinduism or any other culture to become or preserve its tolerant nature, focus more on its positives (including its tolerant nature), rather than lament on why it is not accepting invalidation like it used to.

8 comments:

Grumbledore said...

Without being specific to any group or religion, if the undesirable social practice that we're speaking of directly results in some people living today either getting killed or abused or discriminated against, surely that practice does have to be fought head on ?
Surely, people with a grievance now would prefer to have it corrected now, in their lifetime, rather than focus on positives and hope it becomes irrelevant in later generations?

Srinath Srinivasa said...

There is a difference between fighting crime and educating the masses through erudition. Crime should be fought head on, by gathering intelligence and going behind perpetrators specifically. These are two different issues.

Grumbledore said...

Who defines crime, though ? And isn't the whole point of attacking the 'undesirable social practice' to redefine law and what a crime constitutes ?

Just saying. Slavery wasn't a crime per se till it was tackled head on. Sati wasn't a crime till it was tackled head on. Apartheid was fair under law.
Marital rape still isn't a crime in a lot of countries.

Srinath Srinivasa said...

Assault and abuse are crimes as defined by law. Slavery and sati were tackled head on in the realm of the law, by making them punishable offences. In the social realm, slavery and sati were abolished because subsequent generations were brought up thinking about becoming doctors or engineers, and not by focusing relentlessly on these social evils in public.

Grumbledore said...


No relentless public focus ? The slavery issue the United States was in public focus for decades. Wars were fought on or hinged on opinions that governors or local leaders took on it.
RR Mohun Roy did highlight and talk about sati and child marriage in publications, and though I haven't read the actual publications I don't think he focused on positives. Focus was brought to bear on the inhumanity of a practice, appeal was made to humanity and not necessarily on positives of what existed. It was a legal tussle, yes, but how do you mobilise public opinion without public focus ?

I'm not debating the need to bring subsequent generations up wanting to become doctors or engineers or whatever else, but I don't think these ills just became unlawful with people generally becoming decent over a few generations *because* they wanted to do something else like being a doctor or an engineer, without a constant public focus on the issue to actually force people to re-think their stand on it.

Why would a slave want to wait for his master's kids and grandkids to become doctors and engineers and, hopefully, decent folks who would grant his freedom, and not agitate in public focus?

Srinath Srinivasa said...

Don't confuse social upheavals and freedom movements with public focus. The things that you mention were part of social upheavals, leading to large scale revolution and anarchy before the society settled down in a different kind of social order (which focused on doctors and engineers).

We are not in the process of social upheaval. The so-called intolerance against religious sentiments is nowhere as acute as slavery or sati or any of the other things that led to real social upheavals. The current day social dynamics we are seeing are a phenomenon of mass and social media, rather than of social upheaval.

Grumbledore said...


Does it make sense that one has to do a 'social upheaval check' before bringing a grievance into public focus, or keeping it in public focus?

Of course you can argue about the *manner* in which an issue is highlighted and kept in public focus, but I fail to see how 'we are not in the process of social upheaval' is a valid argument. Saying that laws as they exist are perfect in every country or saying that they would evolve for the better just because said oppressor finds employment is also rather naive.

If one is being oppressed, and the laws look the other way at best, then one cannot argue against that being brought to public focus. Whether one disparages said focus by calling it a phenomenon of mass media, or calls it a social upheaval depends on how affected by, or how sympathetic one is to said grievance.

Just to make it clear - I am not commenting on a specific case of religious intolerance, but about the last paragraph of your post which speaks quite generally about how undesirable social practices should be tackled.

Srinath Srinivasa said...

Yes it does. If the undesirable social practice is a crime, then take recourse to the law and the system of law to bring about necessary structural changes. If the law is "looking the other way" for a case of a clear crime, then it is a case for social upheaval. But this has to be based not on perceptions, but actual practice and codification (slavery was codified in law, it was not just a perception).

If the undesirable social practice is just an irritant, then strategize so that there is a generational change in the worldview that greatly minimizes the centrality of this irritant. That is the thing with evolution -- it accentuates whatever it is is shown, either positive traits or negative traits. Evolution does not have the balancing property of homeostasis, it just axiomatizes whatever is given to it.

And that is the whole point of this post -- we completely ignore this silent force called evolution, and model society as a memoryless, homeostatic entity.