Giving Thanks – Part 2

(The first three sections of this essay were published here in July.)

4. Giving Thanks to Evolution

Evolution finely tunes living things to exchange gifts with each other.  It likewise finely tunes them to give thanks to each other.  This fine tuning involves no intelligent foresight. Nevertheless, it is arguable that evolution designs things.  It designs organs, organisms, and ecosystems.  Design need not involve intelligent foresight. Design proceeds by blind variation and selective retention.  It can be done in a mind or it can be done by a mindless computer. Natural selection is a non-random process which finely-tunes organisms for their ecological exchanges.  Natural selection has tuned the bee for the flower and the flower for the bee. Evolution designed the bee-flower symbiosis.  It tunes both cooperators and competitors.  It tunes the jaguar for chasing the antelope and the antelope for evading the jaguar.  It designs them both.

Evolutionary tuning suffices for gifting.  Since evolution tuned the flower for transferring nectar to the bee, the flower gives nectar to the bee.  Since it tuned the bee for spreading pollen, the bee gives the pollen to the flowers.  Each gives gifts to the other.  Each thanks the other by continuing to participate in the giving of gifts. Here evolution acts like a broker. Just as two interacting human parties can thank a broker for setting up their arrangement, so two symbiotic organisms can thank evolution for setting up their arrangement.  The bee and flower can both thank evolution for arranging things so that they each benefit.  No foresight or purposiveness is needed here.  The bee and flower are not in their mutually beneficial relationship by accident.  They are beneficially engaged because evolution runs an optimization algorithm.  The bee can thank the flower for giving it nectar and thank evolution for brokering its arrangement with the flower.  Likewise the flower can thank both evolution and the bee.

Evolution is a massively parallel distributed computer.  To say that evolution brokers an arrangement between two species means that it tunes each for the other in some mutually beneficial way.  This tuning emerges from the fact that evolution runs an optimization algorithm.  A computer that runs an optimization algorithm is a benefactor of all the things it optimizes.  Optimization algorithms are not random.  If you have some valuable thing because of your participation in some optimization algorithm, then the computer running that algorithm gave you a gift. And computers that run optimization algorithms can be mindlike even if they are not minds.  Evolution has memory; it may even learn. Although evolution is not an intelligent mind, it is sufficiently mindlike that it is appropriate to give thanks to it.  You should thank it. You thank it by adopting policies that maximize the likelihood that the algorithm will continue to run.  Of course, since you are a symbolic animal, you can thank it symbolically.  It is not absurd to say “thank you” to evolution.  Dennett uses the term “crane” to refer to any computer running an evolutionary optimization algorithm.  Cranes raise mountains of complexity.  You can give thanks to a crane through various symbolic actions.  Giving thanks to evolution resembles giving thanks to a corporate hive.  You can give thanks to the hive without giving thanks to any particular member of the hive.

An organism gives thanks to evolution by exercising the distinctive gifts it got from evolution.  We thank evolution by using the gifts it gave us. Evolution equipped us with the capacity to reproduce.  So one way to thank biological evolution is to make more life, that is, to produce children.  Of course, that is not the only way.  Evolution also gave us other gifts – all our finely-tuned organic functions are gifts.  Evolution blessed organisms with their distinctive biological functions. They give thanks to evolution by using them. Evolution finely tuned birds to fly; thus birds thank evolution by flying.  But this raises a problem.  On the one hand, we use these gifts all the time; on the other hand, thanks-giving should be something distinctive from ordinary use.  One way to distinguish acts of thanks-giving from ordinary uses is to make the acts of thanks-giving exceptionally good.  Perhaps we can thank evolution through athletic or other contests in which we express our organic functions with intensity in competition.  This is imitative thanks-giving: we compete with each other to imitate natural selection. Older kinds of competition honored natural selection through warfare.  But we can honor natural selection (and the survival of the fittest) more ethically through bloodless competition.

Evolution finely tuned humans for rational sociality; hence we thank it by reasoning and socializing well.  Evolution also gave us the gift of symbolic action. Symbolic action includes all forms of artistic expression.  It includes speaking, writing, inscribing symbols on stones, making sculptures, building structures, making paintings, and composing and performing music.  Many hecatombs of organisms were sacrificed by natural selection for our sakes.  This sacrifice for our sakes does not require foresight. Just as a city can thank its deceased soldiers by raising a monument to them, so we can thank evolution by raising monuments to it.  Probably the strongest way to give thanks to evolution is create an symbolic imitation of it.  You can do this by writing and running a computer program that simulates evolution.  Acts of intermediate strength include making images of evolutionary trees.  For example, getting a tattoo of an evolutionary tree is a pretty strong symbolic action.  A weaker way is Gregory Brown’s Missa Charles Darwin, which sets some texts of Charles Darwin to music.  Probably the weakest way to give thanks to evolution is to just say “Thank you.” Nevertheless, it is not absurd to speak to evolution; it is not like talking to a brick.  It is not absurd to offer symbols to a symbol-processing system, and evolution is a symbol-processing system.

5. Giving Thanks to the Sun

The concept of gifting goes beyond biology. The sun is wastefully squandering its own materiality by converting its hydrogen into helium.  This wasteful squandering is sacrificial: the sun is sacrificing its very self.  By sacrificing itself, the sun bathes all the planets in its solar system with free energy.  It drives them far from thermodynamic equilibrium.  This self-sacrifice pumps entropy out of the solar system.  By pumping out that entropy, the solar self-sacrifice drives the self-organization of matter on those planets.  The sun drives the evolution of complexity throughout its solar system, including our earth.  This solar expenditure is directional.  This directionality is not goal-directed; it is not purposive.  Thus it is not teleological.  But it is algorithmic. Our solar system is performing a vast computation which concentrates complexity.  The sun is sacrificing itself teleonomically.  Its self-sacrifice algorithmically aims at the evolution of complexity on all of its planets.  This directionality justifies the thesis that the sun is sacrificing itself for the sake of the things which evolve on those planets. The sun gives us light and heat – it gives us energy.  But its gift is much deeper.  By pumping entropy out of our solar system, the sun gives us our complexity. The sun gifts us with all the design accumulated in the entire earthly ecosystem.

The sun manipulates information in three ways.  The first way is by performing atomic computations.  The nuclear fusion reactions in the sun are digital operations.  Each hydrogen atom is a natural sign for the number one and each helium atom is a natural sign for the number two. Fusing two hydrogens into helium is a natural model of the digital operation 1 plus 1 equals 2.  More technically, nuclear fusion reactions are string-rewritng operations.  They model the theory of computation developed by Emil Post. The sun is an atomic computer.  The second way the sun manipulates information involves thermodynamics. The sun pumps entropy out of our solar system (and into the black hole at the center of our galaxy).  By pumping entropy out, it pumps complexity in. But complexity is concentrated information.  So the sun concentrates information into the earthly ecosystem and all its inhabitants.  This informational concentration is an act of solar signaling.  The third way concerns the role of the sun in human activities on earth, especially agriculture.  The sun gives us signs that we should plant and harvest our crops.  These signs are made manifest in the solstices and equinoxes.

The sun satisfies all our conditions for being a gifter, and for being the proper recipient of thanks giving.  We can offer reciprocal sacrifices to the sun for its sake.  Just as we can raise monuments to deceased soldiers and military dogs, so we can raise monuments to the sun.  We give thanks to the sun by making sundials and solar calendars.  These may be simple rock carvings (such as the sun-daggers of the American southwest).  Or they may be complex structures like stonehenge.  The sun daggers and stonehenge have survived their makers and their maker’s cultures.  They are physical symbols, which bear specific relations to the sun independent of any human or other intelligent witnesses.  They symbolically mark its equinoxes and solstices.  We can also compose hymns to the sun or simply address it by talking to it.


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1 thought on “Giving Thanks – Part 2”

  1. I like the idea of expressing thanks presented here, but I find what is presented here a little too scattered and abstract for my tastes. All of the five things mentioned toward which we may have cause to give thanks have there ultimate source in the origin of the Universe. That this is a self-organizing, novelty producing, lawful, Universe with all the time and energy necessary to bring forth the things mentioned as well as me and you, seems to me the most amazing thing imaginable (if it were imaginable).

    It is to this mysterious Originating Source that I focus my gratitude. I sometimes call it Tao, but others call it Brahman, The Great Spirit, Allah, God, Nature, The One, and many other things. I know little else about it except that my being here is utterly dependent upon it. Thus I give it thanks when life is good and I feel gratitude in my heart, and I curse it a bit when things are shitty.


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