"Reverse engineering" is a technique of reasoning that works like this: you are an engineer, confronted with an artifact you have found and do not understand. You make the working assumption that it was designed for some purpose. You dissect and analyze the object with a view to working out what problem it would be good at solving: "If I had wanted to make a machine to do so and so, would I have made it like this? Or is the object better explained as a machine designed to do such and such?"
"Utility function" is a technical term not of engineers but of economists. It means "that which is maximized." Economic planners and social engineers are rather like architects and physical engineers in that they strive to optimize something.
Let us return to living bodies and try to extract their utility function. There could be many, but it will eventually turn out that they all reduce to one. A good way to dramatize our task is to imagine that living creatures were made by a Divine Engineer and try to work out, by reverse engineering, what the Engineer was trying to maximize: God’s Utility Funchon.
Cheetahs give every indication of being superbly designed for something, and it should be easy enough to reverse engineer them and work out their utility function. They appear to be well designed to kill gazelles. The teeth, claws, eyes, nose, leg muscles, backbone and brain of a cheetah are all precisely what we would expect if God’s purpose in designing cheetahs was to maximize deaths among gazelles. Conversely, if we reverse-engineer a gazelle, we shall find equally impressive evidence of design for precisely the opposite end: the survival of gazelles and starvation among cheetahs. It is as though cheetahs were designed by one deity, gazelles by a rival deity. Alternatively, if there is only one Creator who made the tiger and the lamb, the cheetah and the gazelle, what is He playing at? Is He a sadist who enjoys spectator blood sports? Is He trying to avoid overpopulation in the mammals of Africa? These are all intelligible utility functions that might have turned out to be true. In fact, of course, they are all completely wrong.
The true utility function of life, that which is being maximized in the natural world, is DNA survival. But DNA is not floating free; it is locked up in living bodies, and it has to make the most of the levers of power at its disposal. Genetic sequences that find themselves in cheetah bodies maximize their survival by causing those bodies to kill gazelles. Sequences that find themselves in gazelle bodies increase their chance of survival by promohng opposite ends. But the same utility function-the survival of DNA-explains the “purpose” of both the cheetah and the gazelle.
Nightingale songs, pheasant tails, firefly flashes and the rainbow scales of tropical reef fish are all maximizing aesthetic beauty, but it is not beauty for human delectation. If we enjoy the spectacle, it is a bonus by-product. Genes that make males attractive to females automatically find themselves passed down to subsequent generations.
There is only one utility function that makes sense of these beauties: the quantity that is being diligently optimized in every cranny of the living world is, in every case, the survival of the DNA responsible for the feature you are trying to explain.
Any utility function that had the long-term welfare of the species at heart, or even the individual survival of a particular male, would cut down on the amount of singing, the amount of displaying, the amount of fighting among males.
Yet when natural selection is considered from the perspective of genes instead of just the survival and reproduction of individuals, such behavior can be easily explained. Because what is really being maximized in singing wrens is DNA survival, nothing can stop the spread of DNA that has no beneficial effect other than making males beautiful to females. If some genes give males qualities that females of the species happen to find desirable, those genes, willy-nilly, will survive, even though the genes might occasionally put some individuals at risk.
Humans have a rather endearing tendency to assume that “welfare” means group welfare, that “good” means the good of society, the well-being of the species or even of the ecosystem. God’s Utility Function, as derived from a contemplation of the nuts and bolts of natural selection, turns out to be sadly at odds with such utopian visions. To be sure, there are occasions when genes may maximize their selfish welfare by programming unselfish cooperation or even selfsacrifice by the organism. But group welfare is always a fortuitous consequence, not a primary drive.
Why are forest trees so tall? Simply to overtop rival trees. A “sensible” utility function would see to it that they were all short. They would get exactly the same amount of sunlight, with far less expenditure on thick trunks and massive supporting buttresses. But if they were all short, natural selection couldn’t help favoring a variant individual that grew a little taller. The ante having been upped, others would have to follow suit. Nothing can stop the whole game escalating until all trees are ludicrously and wastefully tall. It is ludicrous and wasteful only from the point of view of a rational economic planner thinking in terms of maximizing efficiency. But it all makes sense once you understand the true utility functiongenes are maximizing their own survival. Homely analogies abound. At a cocktail party, you shout yourself hoarse. The reason is that everybody else is shouting at top volume. If only the guests could come to an agreement to whisper, they’d hear one another exactly as well with less voice strain and less expenditure of energy. But agreements like that don’t work unless they are policed. Somebody always spoils it by selfishly talking a bit louder, and, one by one, everybody has to follow suit. A stable equilibrium is reached only when everybody is shouting as loudly as physically possible, and this is much louder than required from a “rational” point of view. Time and again, cooperative restraint is thwarted by its own internal instability. God’s Utility Function seldom turns out to be the greatest good for the greatest number. God’s Utility Function betrays its origins in an uncoordinated scramble for selfish gain.
To return to our pessimistic beginning, maximization of DNA survival is not a recipe for happiness. So long as DNA is passed on, it does not matter who or what gets hurt in the process. Genes don’t care about suffering, because they don’t care about anything.
It is better for the genes of Darwin’s wasp that the caterpillar should be alive, and therefore fresh, when it is eaten, no matter what the cost in suffering. If Nature were kind, She would at least make the minor concession of anesthesizing caterpillars before they were eaten alive from within. But Nature is neither kind nor unkind. She is neither against suffering nor for it. Nature is not interested in suffering one way or the other unless it affects the survival of DNA. It is easy to imagine a gene that, say, tranquilizes gazelles when they are about to suffer a killing bite. Would such a gene be favored by natural selection? Not unless the act of tranquilizing a gazelle improved that gene’s chances of being propagated into future generations. It is hard to see why this should be so, and we may therefore guess that gazelles suffer horrible pain and fear when they are pursued to the death - as many of them eventually are. The total amount of suffering per year in the natural world is beyond all decent contemplation. During the minute that it takes me to compose this sentence, thousands of animals are being eaten alive, many others are running for their lives, whimpering with fear, others are being slowly devoured from within by rasping parasites, thousands of all kinds are dying of starvation, thirst and disease. It must be so. If there is ever a time of plenty, this very fact will automatically lead to an increase in population until the natural state of starvation and misery is restored. n a universe of electrons and selfish genes, blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won’t find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice. The universe that we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but pitiless indifference. As that unhappy poet A. E. Housman put it:
For nature, heartless, witless nature Wll neither care nor know
DNA neither cares nor knows. DNA just is. And we dance to its music.
'A female digger wasp not only lays her eggs in a caterpillar (or grasshopper or bee) so that her larva can feed on it but, according to Fabre and others, she carefully guides her sting into each ganglion of the prey's central nervous system, so as to paralyze it but not kill it. This way, the meat strays fresh. It is not known whether the paralysis acts as a general anesthetic, or if it is like curare in just freezing the victim’s ability to move. If the latter, the prey might be aware of being eaten alive from the inside but unable to move a muscle to do anything about it. This sounds savagely cruel but, as we shall see, nature is not cruel, only pitilessly indifferent. This is one of the hardest lessons for humans to learn. We cannot admit that things might be niether good nor evil, neither cruel nor kind, but simply callous - indifferent to all suffering, lacking all purpose.
'We humans have purpose on the brain. We find it hard to look at anything without wondering what it is 'for,' what the motive for it is, or the purpose behind it. When the obsession with purpose becomes pathological it is called paranoia - reading malevolent purpose into what is actually random bad luck. But this is just an exaggerated form of a nearly universal delusion. Show us almost any object or process, and it is hard for us to resist the 'Why' question - the 'What is it for?' question.
'The desire to see purpose everywhere is a natural one in an animal that lives surrounded by machines, works of art, tools and other designed artifacts; an animal, moreover, whose waking thoughts are dominated by its own personal goals. A car, a tin opener, a screwdriver and a pitchfork all legitimately warrant the 'What is it for?' question. Our pagan forebears would have asked the same question about thunder, eclipses, rocks and streams. Today we pride ourselves on having shaken off such primitive animism. If a rock in a stream happens to serve as a convenient stepping stone, we regard its usefulness as an accidental bonus, not a true purpose. But the old temptation comes back with a vengeance when tragedy strikes - indeed, the very word 'strikes' is an animistic echo. and the same temptation is often positively relished when the topic is the origin of all things or the fundamental laws of physics, culminating in the vacuous existential question 'Why is there something rather than nothing?'
'I have lost count of the number of times a member of the audience has stood up after a public lecture I have given and said something like the following: 'You scientists are scientists are very good at answering 'How' questions. But you must admit you are powerless when it comes to 'Why' questions.' Behind the question there is always the unspoken but never justified implication that since science is unable to answer 'Why' questions, there must be some other discipline that is qualified to answer them. This implication is, of course, quite illogical.
'The mere fact that it is possible to frame a question does not make it legitimate or sensible to do so. There are many things about which one can ask, 'What is the temperature?' or 'What colour is it?' but you may not ask the temperature question or the colour question of, say, jealousy or prayer. Similarly, you are right to ask the 'Why' question of a bicycle's mudguard or the Kariba Dam, but at the very least you have no right to assume that the ‘Why’ question deserves an answer when posed about a boulder, a misfortune, Mt. Everest or the universe. Questions can be simply inappropriate, however heartfelt their framing’.
The importance of knowledge in fashion when writing literature…
‘It was about eleven o’clock in the morning, mid October, with the sun not shining and a look of hard wet rain in the clearness of the foothills. I was wearing my powder-blue suit, with dark blue shirt, tie and display handkerchief, black brogues, black wool socks with dark blue clocks on them. I was neat, clean, shaved and sober, and I didn’t care who knew it. I was everything the well-dressed private detective ought to be. I was calling on four million dollars’.
'I straddled the fence at the side of the runway and leaned far out to the draped but unscreened French window and tried to look in at the crack where the drapes came together. I saw lamplight on a wall and one end of a bookcase.I got back on the runway and took all of it and some of the hedge and gave the front door the heavy shoulder. This was foolish. About the only part of a California house you can't put your foot through is the front door. ALl it did was hurt my shoulder and make me mad. I climbed over the railing and kicked the French window in, used my hat for a glove abd pulled out most of the lower small pane of glass. I could now reach in and draw the bolt that fastened the window to the sill. The rest was easy. There was no top bolt. The catch gave. I climbed in and pulled the drapes off my face.
'Neither of the two people in the room paid any attention to the way I came in, although only one of them was dead…
'It was a wide room, the whole width of the house. It had a low beamed ceiling and brown plaster walls decked out with strips of Chinese embroidery, and Chinese and Japanese prints in grained wood frames.
'On a sort of low dais at one end of the room there was a high-backed chair in which Miss Carmen Sternwood was sitting on a fringed orange shawl. She was sitting very straight, with her hands on the arms of the chair, her knees close together, her body stiffly erect in a pose of an Egyptian goddess, her chin level, her small bright teeth shining between her parted lips. Her eyes were wide open. The dark slate colour of the iris had devoured the pupil. They were mad eyes. She seemed to be unconscious, but she didn't have the pose of unconsciousness. She looked as if, in her mind, she was doing something very important and making a fine job of it. Out of her mouth came a tinny chuckling noise which didn't change her expression or even move her lips.
'She was wearing a pair of long jade earrings. They were nice earrings and had probably cost a couple of hundred dollars. She wasn't wearing anything else'.
'So now I am now alone in the world, with no brother, neighbor or friend, nor any company left me but my own. The most sociable and loving of men has with one accord been cast out by all the rest. With all the ingenuity of hate they have sought out the cruelest torture for my sensitive soul, and have violently broken all the threads that bound me to them. I would have loved my fellow-men in spite of themselves. It was only by ceasing to be human that they could forfeit my affection. So now they are strangers and foreigners to me; they no longer exist for me, since such is there will. But I, detached as I am from them and from the whole world, what am I? This must now be the object of my inquiry'.
Jean-Jacques Rousseau (Reveries of a solitary Walker, 1776-1778)
Here the sons and daughters of Abyssinia lived only to know the soft vicissitudes of pleasure and repose, attended by all that were skilful to delight, and gratified with whatever the senses can enjoy. They wandered in gardens of fragrance, and slept in the fortresses of security. Every art was practised to make them pleased with their own condition. The sages who instructed them told them of nothing but the miseries of public life, and described all beyond the mountains as regions of calamity, where discord was always racing, and where man preyed upon man.
To heighten their opinion of their own felicity, they were daily entertained with songs, the subject of which was the Happy Valley. Their appetites were excited by frequent enumerations of different enjoyments, and revelry and merriment were the business of every hour, from the dawn of morning to the close of the evening.
Thus they rose in the morning and lay down at night, pleased with each other and with themselves, all but Rasselas, who, in the twenty-sixth year of his age, began to withdraw himself from the pastimes and assemblies, and to delight in solitary walks and silent meditation.
Samuel Johnson (The History of Rasselas Prince of Abyssinia, 1759)
(The Vicomte de Valmont to the Marquise de Merteuil)
'In the name of our friendship wait, at least, till I have had this woman before you insult her.
’I contrived one of our walks so that we came to a ditch that had to be cleared. Although she is very agile, she is even more timid; as you may imagine, a prude is always afraid she may fall. She was obliged to entrust herself to me. I have held the modest woman in my arms. Our preparations and the transhipment of my old aunt kept our playful devotee in fits of laughter; but, when I took her up, I contrived it awkwardly, so that our arms intertwined, and, during the short space of time that I held her against my breast, I felt her heart beat faster. That delightful blush came again to her face, and her modest embarrassment was proof enough to me that it was love and not fear that had caused her agitation. My aunt, however, made the same mistake as you, and began to say: ‘The child is afraid’; but the ‘child’s’ charming honesty will not allow a lie, and she replied simply: ‘Oh, no! But…’ That one word was an illumination. Since that moment cruel anxiety has given way to the sweetness of hope. I shall have this woman. I shall free her from a husband who profanes her. I shall carry her off from the very God that she adores. How enchanting to be in turn the cause and the cure of her remorse! Far be it from me to destroy the prejudices that possess her. They will add to my gratification and to my glory. Let her believe in virtue, but let her sacrifice it for my sake; let her be afraid of her sins, but let them not check her; and, when she is shaken by a thousand terrors, may it only be in my arms that she is able to overcome them and forget them. Then, if she wishes, let her say: ‘I adore you’; she alone, of all women, will be worthy to utter those words. And I shall indeed be the god of her choice’.
p.s. By the way, has your poor Chevalier killed himself in despair? If the truth were known, you are a hundred times more depraved than I am: you would put me to shame if I had any pried.
- Choderlos De Laclos (Les Liaisons Dangereuses, 1782)
'From the days of my youth, I have been haunted, waking and sleeping, by a phantom of a strange woman. I see her when I am alone at night, sitting by my bedside. In the midnight silence I hear her heavenly voice. Often, when I close my eyes, I feel the touch of her gentle fingers upon my lips; and when I open my eyes, I am overcome with dread, and suddenly beginning listening to the whispered sounds of nothingness…
'Often I wonder, saying to myself, 'Is it fancy that sets me spinning until I seem to loose myself in the clouds? Have I fashioned from the sinews of my dreams a new divinity with a melodious voice and gentle touch? Have I lost my senses, and in my madness have I created this dearly loved companion? Have I withdrawn myself from the society of men and the clamor of the city so that I might be alone with the object of my adoration? Have I shut my eyes and ears to life's forms and accents so that I might the better see her and hear her divine voice?'
'Often I wonder: 'Am I a madman who is content to be alone, and from the phantoms of his loneliness fashions a companion and spouse for his soul?'
'I speak of a spouse, and you marvel at the word. But how often are we puzzled by some strange experience, which we reject as impossible, but whose reality we cannot efface from our minds, try as we will?
'This visionary woman has indeed been my spouse, sharing with me all the joys and sorrows of life. When I awake in the morning, I see her bending over my pillow, gazing at me with eyes glowing with kindness and maternal love. She is with me when I plan some undertaking, and she helps me bring it to fulfillment. When I sit down to my repast, she sits with me, and we exchange thoughts and words. In the evening, she is with me again, saying, 'We have tarried too long in this place. Let us walk in the fields and meadows.' Then I leave my work, and follow her into the fields, and we sit on a high rock and gaze at the distant horizon. She points to the golden cloud; and makes me aware of the song the birds sing before they retire for the night, thanking the Lord for the gift of freedom and peace.
'Many a time she comes to my room when I am anxious and troubled. But no sooner do I spy her, then all care and worry are turned to joy and calm. When my spirit rebels against man's injustice to man, and I see her face amidst those other faces I would flee from, the tempest in my heart subsides and is replaced by the heavenly voice of peace. When I am alone, and the bitter darts of life stab at my heart, and I am chained to the earth by life's shackles, I behold my companion gazing at me with love in her eyes, and sorrow turns to joy, and life seems an Eden of happiness.
'You may ask, how can I be content with such a strange existence, and how can a man, like myself, in the springtime of life, find joy in phantoms and dreams? But I say to you, the years I have spent in this state are the cornerstone of all that I have come to know about Life, Beauty, Happiness and Peace’.
Shelley was a young gentleman and a grown up as he need ever expect to be. He was a poet; and they are never exactly grown up. They are people who despise money except what you need for today, and he had all that and five pounds over. So, when he was walking in the Kensington Gardens, he made a paper boat of his bank note, and sent it sailing on the serpentine.
Shelley’s boat, when opened, completely puzzled Solomon, and he took counsel of his assistants, who having walked over it twice, first with their toes pointed out, and then with their toes pointed in, decided that it came from some greedy person who wanted five. They thought this because there was a large five printed on it. ‘Preposterous!’ cried Solomon in a rage, and he presented it to Peter; anything useless which drifted on the island was usually given to Peter as a plaything.
But he did not play with this precious bank note, for he knew what it was at once, having been very observant during the week when he was an ordinary boy. With so much money, he reflected, he could surely at last contrive to reach the Gardens, and he considered all the possible ways, and decided (wisely, I think) to choose the best way.
(J.M. Barrie, Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens, 1906)