Evolutionary disadvantage of pessimism – 3

I’m surprised that my original post on this thread is my third most read post and also surprised that I wrote a followup and here I’m doing it again. So somehow I seem to drift back to this idea about every two years (first post was 2012, second was 2014, now 2016 – hum, could it be the effect of election years?). Anyway I have (slightly) new circumstances in my life that trigger me to reconsider this. There is a situation who two mature people take a wildly different view, one optimistic and one pessimistic (guess which one I am). And now I’m thinking that the optimistic view persists, despite all evidence to the contrary, simply because “giving up” is just too sad or depressing. Interestingly this is right, the pessimistic view results in a gloomy outcome as well. Both ways of viewing a situation in the world lead to bad outcomes, but, of course, the optimistic one can always cruise on auto-pilot that refusing to accept the inevitable keeps hope alive.

Not long ago, again borrowing from Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene, as I did in my first post I attempted to create a simulation model to determine, in the game theory type approach he describes, whether there is an advantage to one view or the other. My results were inconclusive which simply means my model is both too simplistic and too speculative (any good model has to be based on some sort of past measurement and I have no data).

I have a choice right now. I can adopt the optimistic view (which at least has hope on its side even though it’s a highly unlikely outcome) or the pessimistic view (which then has a certain gloomy outcome). By nature (or nurture) I tend toward the pessimistic view, but knowing this every now and then I think I should overcome my natural inclination and perhaps switch to the other side. Looking back at history, frankly, my “optimistic” decisions are, at best, no better (and I believe realistically are worse) than my “pessimistic” decisions (some of which turned out pretty bad too). So weighing the evidence I do have I can’t decide if one POV has an advantage over the other. But I’m drawn back to the idea that most life forms, esp. those with thinking and learning and memory, are inherently optimistic as a consequence of natural selection; IOW, the “optimistic” POV has kept our species alive but mostly in misery. Life (and evolution) is its own justification – life is pointless in some cosmic sense. We humans overrate how relevant we are when in fact we live in a vast universe on a tiny speck of rock and the universe doesn’t give a damn whether we live or die (in fact, it often tries hard to kill us, but not with intent, just the way things are) but life always finds a way to perpetuate itself. That’s certainly a lesson we’ve learned even if it is just a paraphrase from the movie Jurassic Park.

So I imagine a small group of proto-humans living on the savannah a million years or so ago. They’re living near a small pond which is rapidly drying up in the dry season. Since they have big enough brains, plus some “science” (observation of nature) to guide them they can compute, most likely, their water supply will dry up before the rains come and they’re all going to die of thirst. So they gather the group and debate (with grunts and sign language) what to do. The optimists, of course, suggest they should climb out of their valley and try the valley miles away (which, of course, they don’t even know if it exists or not). The pessimists argue for staying put because if they carefully ration the water and maybe the rains will come early this season they can survive, or at least most of them can.

What happens?

Again I think a good model would show something straightforward (but I haven’t been able to build such a model). If the pessimists prevail most likely the tribe will die and thus the pessimism “gene” (yes, I know, there is no such thing, but it is also clear there is some predilection toward optimism or pessimism, so it’s just a complex gene network, mostly regulatory genes, that builds brains capable of either optimism or pessimism, so we can still call that a “gene”, just as Dawkins did). The optimists, OTOH, if their view carries the day lead their band out of the valley to either die, never find water, get killed by the tribe that controls the water, or luck out and find a bigger pond with no rivals. The point is most of the optimists die too, BUT, some of them survive, because rather than giving up at least they tried. So most of the optimist genes are wiped out but some survive and show up in future generations. Giving up, like suicide, is self-defeating and has to be eliminated by natural selection.

I actually have a personal experience that popped up in my memory while thinking about this. Once in late summer while backpacking in Desolation Wilderness and camping on the shores of Lake Aloha we were faced with the very problem I used in my hypothetical, water. Yes, there was water right in the lake but it’s also a high probability that water was contaminated and at that time our only means of purification was boiling and we were short of fuel. So it became a choice of water vs food.

BUT, easily visible on the other side of the lake were cascades of nice fresh highly aerated and recent snowmelt which (at least without the free of today’s wilderness crowd that no ground water is ever safe) would suffice. Now from the survey of the area we could see with our eyes (pre-GPS, pre-Google Earth, so no high-tech info available) it looked like a fairly easy hike to the good water. Now if we’d been a bit wiser outdoorsmen we would have realized Lake Aloha is man-made and therefore would have a primitive dam, which in fact it did, as we learned. And crossing the dam was hazardous. Dams are usually built across drainage ravines, so in fact, it was also fairly difficult, not to mention out of the way to where we’re heading, to descend and then finally climb the hill on the other side. Much to our disappointment what we found was another valley and then another hill between us and our destination. But having already spent over an hour going this far (with no packs or food, just all our water bottles) do we push on (seemingly just a short distance) or turn back? The optimistic view prevailed.

Long story short, as the hours wore on, we began to laugh at our situation and make the joke, “beyond the next hill lies another hill”, as our exploration was presenting more and more data to us. But the fresh water seemed tantalizingly close so we pressed on. At the top of one hill (where we saw still more valleys and hills ahead of us) we also saw what looked to be an easier route back to our campsite, loop all the way around the lake rather than return by the route we’d already covered. So this became the new rationalization to press on – not only would we get the water we were seeking but an easier way back.

Since I’m here to tell this tale, well we got to the water and it was cold and fresh and wonderful. We drank our fill, resting for the hike back, and filled all the bottles we were carrying (of course, now heavier and more awkward to handle than when they were empty). So after the rest and as much water as we could drink we headed back.

Now there is a reason there are no trails on that side (I believe west, IIRC) of the lake. While from a distance it looks like easy hiking, in fact, the lake is in a glacial bowl with the high side where we’re now headed and if we’d known more about geology we would have realized what looked smooth hiking was across miles of talus piles, arduous and dangerous.

So again, long story short(er), since I’m here we made it, having spent the entire day getting our water, which, btw, we mostly drank on the difficult hike back to camp. So the net result of this foolish adventure was slightly more water than we’d had when we left, sore feet, quite a bit of high altitude sunburn (since the packs with the sunblock were back at the campsite since we thought our trek would only take an hour or so), but, the good news was it was actually somewhat fun and we saw parts of the area that otherwise we would have never seen.

And, of course, the irony was, right around 3/4rds of the way around the lake, we found a trail that led to a nice fresh stream – had we gone that direction (instead lured by the water we could see) we actually could have found good water in a hour or so.

So unlike my hypothetical tribe we did take the optimistic view and did survive but some side lessons are interesting to consider as well. It’s not necessarily a binary choice between optimism and pessimism; with a little more creativity we could have found alternatives to the false dichotomy. One, in our circumstances, if we’d been very clever and used a little engineering knowledge (or maybe had time to be scientists and discover this principle) we could have jury-rigged a solar evaporator, like those people stranded at sea have in their lifeboats, thus eliminating the need for fuel and also having a nice “green” solution. Two, we could have been really pessimistic and concluded there was no way we could get water, so ration what we had and give up on the backpacking trip and head back to the car (all downhill, so could make it in a day). Now, a third option, not for us, but my hypothetical tribe, and given it is an election year and I’m seeing again all the cynical crap politicians do, we should encourage the tribe toward the optimistic view (let’s make XXX great again) and get all the fools to head to the next valley and then we sneak back and now have what little water there was in the known pond all to ourselves.

Now none of this palaver leads to any conclusions, esp. for me, but at least it’s a way to spend some time thinking about something else, so I’d guess you’d have to say this post itself represents the optimistic choice.



About dmill96

old fat (but now getting trim and fit) guy, who used to create software in Silicon Valley (almost before it was called that), who used to go backpacking and bicycling and cross-country skiing and now geodashes, drives AWD in Wyoming, takes pictures, and writes long blog posts and does xizquvjyk.
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One Response to Evolutionary disadvantage of pessimism – 3

  1. leggypeggy says:

    I’m the optimist almost always.

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