Nature vs Nurture

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Nature vs Nurture: In favor of nurture, because nature is both powerful and lazy

Evolution is powerful and human behavior is determined mostly by nature. But evolution is also lazy and works in mysterious ways. Ironically, this means that we end up with many of our traits determined by nurture.

It is evolutionarily beneficial to set up a system of checks and balances that continues to be useful when circumstances change. Developing such a system is something that evolution is good at.

As an example, consider the following two rules:

  • Rule 1: "Do not kill humans or cute animals."

  • Rule 2: "If you recognize strong similarities between your own self and another entity, where measures of similarity shall be weighted according to [some complex formula composed of a wild mix of traits], then introduce a negative modifier to your willingness to use lethal force against that entity."

Both rules lead to the same result in humans: We have a visceral dislike for the idea of killing another human, or any animals we recognize as cute. Animals we recognize as cute are just those animals that coincidentally get identified as false positives by the formula in the second rule.

The purpose of both rules is to prevent members of the same species from killing each other.

For humans, the first rule is simple and intuitive. However, it is too narrow and specific for evolution to invent and code into a brain. Moreover, this rule would need to be changed constantly as a species evolves.

On the other hand, the second rule seems vague and cryptic to a human, but it is simple enough that evolution can introduce it much more easily than the first rule. More importantly, it is easy for evolution to create such a rule because the formula to identify animals similar to oneself is already needed for a number of other processes, such as mating behavior. Better yet, the rule does not even need to be changed as a species continues to evolve.

Now consider how [some complex formula composed of a wild mix of traits] could most easily be implemented by evolution.

Evolution is great at recycling and using what is already there. It has to be, since evolution has zero capability for intelligent forethought.

One thing that is already there in the life of every member of a species are the key events of that animal's life. If (almost) every member of a species is born in such a way that the first other animal it sees is its mother, then evolution will take the easy route and implement imprinting behavior in the species. It's the same choice again:

  • Rule 1: "Your mother is the adult female who probably looks like you and probably takes care of you."

  • Rule 2: "Your mother is the first other entity you see."

And again the second option is much easier for evolution to invent.

Evolution is powerful, but from a human point of view it is also stupid and lazy and it will never solve a problem directly when it can instead meander about and throw fifty different heuristics into a blender to get something that kinda-sorta solves the problem well enough if you don't squint and look too hard.

In other words, nature is more powerful than nurture, but nature will always delegate a task to nurture at the slightest opportunity.

Epigenetics is a survival trait that was created through regular genetics. This happened because evolution basically wanted to offload responsibility to a copilot so it wouldn't have to work so hard all the time.

(Note that obviously evolution does not actually 'want' anything, nor possess the capability to plan, but I hope the analogy is clear.)

This has an interesting implication: If evolution designs species by introducing complex systems made of heuristics, then when these heuristics inevitably encounter a special case and misfire, then we should expect evolution to react by simply introducing even more heuristics into the mess in order to counterbalance these problems.

This ought to lead to incredibly intricate systems, where intricate is a euphemism for "if an engineer came up with this, he would be shot and the plans would be burned and the ashes blessed by a priest". These systems would be completely counterintuitive for humans.

In such a system, it should be easily possible for an alteration in one variable to cause the opposite of the expected effect because the alteration also causes other parts of the system to go into overdrive in an attempt to balance out the changes, leading to an instability in the opposite direction.

This matches what we observe in reality, where many phenomena in medicine, especially psychology, are very complex and at times appear to be contradictory.