A narrative essay by – Heather Spoonheim

War stories often relate extraordinary tales of soldiers who have survived the grimmest of odds. As we zoom in on a soldier hanging on for dear life in the belly of a landing craft headed for Omaha Beach we can hear the screams of those being blown to bits in the landing crafts around his. As the front wall of the craft drops to reveal hell on a beach, our soldier rushes out through a hail storm of high caliber machine gun fire that shreds the bodies of his comrades. Amazingly, he presses forth with the survivors of the other landings only to watch unknown soldiers around him being blasted into oblivion by landmines.

Death lays in wait for our heroic soldier at every turn. With every move he makes he narrowly evades the horrific obliteration of yet another comrade. And so the story continues, with morbid destruction looming over every step, all the way to Berlin. How can our soldier have possibly survived such a journey of death and destruction? The explanation is purely mathematical: fatalities did not amount to one hundred percent on any of the battlefields that he crossed.

Our soldier could not possibly have known which turn was fatal and which was not. Many of his fallen comrades may have actually met literal dead ends without a survivable option being left available to them. Like many soldiers, however, our soldier was presented with non-fatal options at every step. Like a select few soldiers, as it turned out, our soldier selected the non-fatal path in every instance.

It boggles the mind to consider the odds of our soldier having not only had non-fatal options at every turn but also having made non-fatal selections all the way through. The fact of the matter is, however, that if he hadn’t had non-fatal options and made non-fatal selections all the way through then he wouldn’t have been the soldier we zoomed in on at the beginning of this story. Stories of anonymous soldiers who died three minutes into the battle are simply not very interesting. The interesting stories are those of the soldiers who survived, or at least those who survived long enough for the narrative to develop.

The selection of the soldier for this story began not in the landing craft but in Berlin. Had no soldiers survived to reach Berlin then the selection would have begun not in Berlin but in London, and the soldier would have been German. Soldiers did survive to reach Berlin, however, and it is from this pool that the selection was made. In point of fact, it is not entirely extraordinary that there were soldiers who survived to the end of the war. In point of fact, it is extraordinarily extraordinary just how many did not.

Consider if you will just how many stories had to exist in order to generate the pool of soldiers in Berlin from whom we made our selection. How many stories ended in the landing crafts, on the beaches, in the trenches, or in catatonic states of terror? How many stories never got past the first page? How many never got past the first chapter? How many stories ended in obscurity? War does not generate heroic stories, it cuts stories short and heroic stories are simply those that remain where war has failed.

This is a useful analogy for evolution. Abiogenesis is the landing craft that delivers little self-replicating soldiers to hostile environments that make Omaha Beach seem like a children’s carnival. Natural selection takes the form of fortified machine gun turrets that fire automatically in the ever-changing, mindless patterns of environmental factors. In the absence of generals to call the shots, our little self-replicating soldiers can do no more than run back and forth across the beach; there is no map to Berlin; Berlin does not even exist. This process, therefore, is entirely non-cognitive.

In 99.9% of the cosmos, abiogenesis hasn’t even come close to the beach. On earth, abiogenesis hit the beach about 4 billion years ago. The earliest soldiers didn’t even have legs; the only option for mobility was self-replication. Soldiers that didn’t self-replicate died before exiting the landing craft. Soldiers that self-replicated perfectly only moved in straight lines and, as such, were cut to shreds. Soldiers that self-replicated terribly lost all course information and, as such, just circled about until they hit land mines. Only those soldiers that replicated with slight imperfections could retain course information while also changing course from time to time, and although they were mowed down without mercy, the odd one managed to survive for a few pages worth of narrative. It was an entirely non-cognitive process.

Environmental factors that are not harsh enough to destroy a particular organism today will change sufficiently to destroy it tomorrow. The errors that occur in self-replication may very well terminate the self-replicating process altogether - or might, against significant odds, result in attributes that facilitate survival through tomorrow’s genocidal environment. It is important to realize that every genetic change is the result of a mistake in the self-replication process: an error, not an adaptation. In this regard, every detail of every living organism represents an error in the self-replication process. It is an entirely non-cognitive process.

Every aspect of the environment represents an obstacle to survival: life continues in spite of the environment, not because of it – hospitality does not exist. Almost every line of self-replication has hit a dead end, run out of non-fatal options, and gone extinct. Because of all of this, it is inaccurate to say that evolution ‘solves problems’, ‘favours an adaptation’, or ‘reuses’ anything. Evolution is the filter through which imperfect self-replications pass or fail. The filter changes properties as the environmental factors change, but it is an entirely non-cognitive process.

The proof of the carnage lies in the fossil record and other, as yet undiscovered, genetic dead ends. Further proof lies in the vestigial genes that signify self-replication errors long past. The map back to our evolutionary Omaha Beach lies in our DNA, and binds every living thing together by virtue of having survived an horrific war that shredded almost all of our comrades.

It boggles the mind to consider the odds of us having not only had non-fatal options at every turn but also having made non-fatal replication errors all the way through – over a span of 4 billion years. The explanation, however, is purely mathematical: fatalities simply did not amount to one hundred percent on any of the battlefields that we happened to cross. The fact of the matter is that if we hadn’t had non-fatal options and made non-fatal replications errors all the way through then this story wouldn’t be the one being written. Consider if you will just how many stories had to exist in order to generate this one. Evolution does not generate survival stories, it cuts stories short at every turn and survival stories are simply those that remain where natural selection has failed. It is an entirely non-cognitive process.

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Comment by BadHandshakers on May 23, 2011 at 8:23pm

That's a great point to make, and my exact initial understanding of the evolutionary process, but I have come to notice more and more people, claiming that it includes some sort of conscious decisions, that our ancestors made in order to avoid fatality, by observing others choosing fatal-options, and acting differently.


But my reconciliation of this, is that those semi-cognitive choices remain, at first, in the social changes, and through the transition of phenotypic to genotypic characteristics. I'm not speaking of any authority here, but I could think of an examples at the top of my head, like us growing less hairier for the preference of women and sexual desire of men with less body hair. Could you draw a clear enough distinction between the non-cognitive process and that I mentioned, or if they are more or less of the same thing?

Comment by Heather Spoonheim on May 23, 2011 at 8:47pm

Thanks, BadHandshakers.  The same processes that resulted in a beating heart being passed along also resulted in the present human mind/brain being passed along.  Every aspect of human psychology is the result of the neurology that survived, and that includes sexual selection.


The most commonly cited aspect of this in humans is the trait of enlarged breasts in females - not a trait in other great apes and not necessary to reproduction.  It is generally assumed that the ass became less of a focal point as upright mobility became the primary means of locomotion and so male attention became fixated on the breasts.  Although sexual selection seems to be cognitively driven, there are inherited instincts behind it and genetically/environmentally imposed limits on what can be selected and how far such selections can be taken.


I, of course, am not an authority on this either.  I only did a little extra reading and thinking about this when I heard a lecture by Dr. Andy Thomson on the evolutionary origins of human neurology/psychology.

Comment by Heather Spoonheim on May 23, 2011 at 8:55pm
Something I plan to write about soon is the evolution of 'agency detection'.  Even a very young child will show vastly different reactions to a cat beginning to move than to a box beginning to move.  The box is not recognized as being an autonomous agent and therefore an unknown agent is detected and deemed frightening.  The best example I have heard of this is that, in terms of survival, it is more advantageous to assume there is a tiger in the bushes than not.  If the bushes seem to move, agency detection gives us a warning of danger.  Creatures without agency detection are at a profound disadvantage in most settings.
Comment by Arcus on May 24, 2011 at 4:16am

I remember inquiring why I only got 100 bullets. Surely, the more bullets the better, and when I can easily empty all the shots in about 30 seconds including reloading. The fire rate is 500-600 bullets per minute. The answer was a bit shocking in its applied realism:

If in battle, my life expectancy is about 45 seconds. If I survive longer than that, there will be plenty of dead buddies I can pillage bullets off of.  

The military doesn't like wasted important resources such as bullets. Soldiers - and human life in general - are of a subordinated importance. Seeing it in context of evolution might be interesting, though it could be claimed that the best strategy is cowardice.

Comment by BadHandshakers on May 25, 2011 at 12:22am
@Heather- Hey, I came across this lecture today on youtube about the psychological current state/evolution of suicide bombers by Andy Thomson, and his name rang a bill for the first time since you've mentioned him. He also touches lightly on the "agency detection" by the end of it, I thought you might find it interesting to watch.
Comment by Heather Spoonheim on May 25, 2011 at 5:25am
Thanks!  You should have warned me that it was 1 of 8 - now my next 80 minutes is spent.  He's a great speaker.


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