Evolution in the News - August 2019
by Do-While Jones

Blinded by Evolution

An evolutionist claims we have evolved a distorted perception of reality.

A reader sent us a link to a humor website where people try to make logical arguments to prove illogical things. 1 Then we saw a Facebook post which claimed washing your hair with shampoo makes you fat because, as it says on the bottle, it “gives you extra body.” They said you should wash your hair with Dawn dishwashing soap instead because, as the bottle says, it “dissolves fat which is otherwise difficult to remove.”

So, when we saw this article in New Scientist, we wondered if someone had punked the magazine by convincing the editors that his article was serious. If we edited New Scientist, we would have saved that article for our April Fool issue.

The article claims reality isn’t real, and Darwinian evolution is what makes us think unreality is real. It sounds unbelievable, but evolutionists believe lots of unbelievable things! The editors of New Scientist apparently believe it because they put it on the cover!

A Radical View of Evolution

The traditional view of evolution is,

Evolution will naturally select for senses that give us a truer view of the world. As the evolutionary theorist Robert Trivers puts it: “Our sense organs have evolved to give us a marvellously detailed and accurate view of the outside world.” 2

Donald Hoffman proposed the radical view that evolution will naturally select for senses that give us a LESS ACCURATE, but MORE USEFUL, view of the world.

Please stick with us as we follow Hoffman down the rabbit hole into Alice’s Wonderland.

It’s All in Your Mind

You may have read a science fiction story about a brain living in a jar on the shelf of a laboratory. The brain dreams it is a complete person living in a world of its own imagination. The story inspires you to ask yourself, “How do you know you really exist, and are not just a laboratory experiment that thinks it exists?” You think the world exists, but are you just dreaming that it exists? Perhaps the newsletter you are reading right now doesn’t really exist. You just think it exists because you imagine you are reading it!

The disturbing thing about this proposal is that there is no way to prove whether it is true or not. Every reality test you can think of is something you thought of! You didn’t really do the experiment to test for reality—you just thought you did the experiment.

Hoffman’s proposition isn’t that extreme. He does not believe everything is imaginary. He believes in reality—but he believes we don’t see reality as it really is.

The way I understand his argument, it is like we are on a never-ending LSD trip. That is, we are living in a real environment, but our senses are distorted. Because our senses are distorted, we respond to stimuli based on incorrect data. Evolution is central to his theory because creatures that accidentally do the right things for delusional reasons survive.

For example, we might avoid a truly dangerous place because we think a boogieman will get us if we go there. There is no boogieman, but our irrational fear (based on a warped perception of reality) keeps us safe from a truly dangerous situation.

We know that everyone has different tastes in food. Our perception of taste influences what we like to eat. Babies who think mother’s milk tastes like vinegar would not drink it, and would die; but babies who think milk tastes like honey will survive, regardless of what milk really tastes like. Babies have evolved to like the taste of milk, regardless of what it really tastes like.

Those are my two examples of his theory, which I modestly think are better than his explanation. Here is how he explains his theory, in terms of ephemeral data structures:

In like manner, we create an apple when we look, and destroy it when we look away. Something exists when we don’t look, but it isn’t an apple, and is probably nothing like an apple. The human perception of an apple is a data structure that indicates something edible (a fitness pay-off) and how to eat it. We create these data structures with a glance, and erase them with a blink. Physical objects, and indeed the space and time they exist in, are evolution’s way of presenting fitness pay-offs in a compact and usable form. 3

Hoffman makes a distinction between objective truth and fitness pay-off truth. Objective truth is reality. Fitness pay-off truth is our perception of value. Our response to something isn’t based on its true importance. Our response is based on what we think about its importance.

In the case of perception, we can study how “truth” strategies, which see objective reality as it is, fare against “pay-off” strategies, which see only survival value. Take oxygen. Too much or too little oxygen in the air kills us; a narrow range keeps us alive. Now imagine living in an environment where the level of oxygen varies considerably, and you have to make survival judgements about whether to venture outside.

For the sake of this example, the amount of oxygen in the air is taken to be an objective truth. You might imagine seeing it on a colour scale from red for low to green for high. That’s the truth strategy: you know the truth, but you don’t know if you’ll die. A pay-off strategy would mean seeing red colours for levels of oxygen that kill you, and green for those that don’t. You see what you need to survive, but don’t see the objective truth of how much oxygen there is.

The objective truth I started seeing a decade ago, in simulations conducted together with my graduate students Justin Mark and Brian Marion at the University of California, Irvine, is that evolution ruthlessly selects against truth strategies and for pay-off strategies. An organism that sees objective reality is always less fit than an organism of equal complexity that sees fitness pay-offs. Seeing objective reality will make you extinct. 4

Evolution Did It!

If it had not been for the connection with evolution, we would not have addressed his theory in our newsletter. Evolution appeared in the title of the article, and 17 times in the body of the article. We just had to comment on an article whose title claimed to explain, “How evolution blinds us to the truth about the world.”

His statement that, “Seeing objective reality will make you extinct,” is a good example of the publication bias we addressed earlier in this month’s feature article. It is outrageous and inflammatory, which motivates New Scientist to publish his article.

The premise of his article is really simple, and obviously true: People do what they perceive to be important, and don’t do what they think isn’t important, regardless of whether it is really important or not. If it had been stated that simply, it would not have been important enough to publish. (At least, that’s our perception. )

Seventeen times Hoffman claimed that evolution was responsible for our beneficially incorrect perception of reality.

Our truly insightful observation about the article is, “Evolution is responsible for the origin of everything that can’t be explained logically.” Why do female mammals have glands which produce milk to nourish their young? They just evolved. Why do babies have the instinct to suck that milk? It just evolved. Why do animals have so many different kinds of eyes? They just evolved.

Once you proclaim the answer is “evolution,” the discussion stops. The explanation can’t be questioned because you can’t argue with science. The obvious fallacy in this argument is that evolution isn’t science! The theory of evolution does not lead us to discover the truth about reality—or anything else! “Evolution blinds us to the truth about the world!”

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1 https://bahfest.com/
2 Donald Hoffman, New Scientist, 31 July 2019, “Is reality real? How evolution blinds us to the truth about the world”, https://www.newscientist.com/article/mg24332410-300-is-reality-real-how-evolution-blinds-us-to-the-truth-about-the-world/
3 ibid.
4 ibid.