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.