Why would evolution favor more bad?

Sometimes people argue that pain and suffering should be expected to overwhelm the world because bad experiences are ‘stronger’ in some sense than good ones. People generally wouldn’t take five minutes of the worst suffering they have ever had for five minutes of the best pleasure (or so I’m told). An evolutionary explanation sometimes given is that the things that happen to animals tend to be mildly beneficial for them most of the time, then occasionally very bad. For instance, eating food is a bit good, but one meal won’t guarantee you evolutionary success. If on the other hand someone else eats you, you have lost pretty badly.

This seems intuitively plausible. Many processes have the characteristic that you can add more bricks and gradually reach your goal, but taking away a brick causes the whole thing to crumble. However good and bad outcomes are relative. If you see a snake and are deciding whether to go near it or not, there is a worse outcome of it biting you, and a better outcome of it not biting you. The good outcome here is super valuable, even if it doesn’t buy you immediate evolutionary success. It is just as important for you to get the good outcome as for you to not get the bad outcome. So what exactly do we mean by bad outcomes being worse than good outcomes are good? It seems we are judging outcomes relative to some default. So we need an explanation for why the default is where it is.

I think the most obvious guess is that the default is something like expectations, or ‘business as usual’. If you generally expect to go through your morning not being killed, then the avoiding being bitten by the snake option is close to neutral, whereas the being bitten option is very bad. But if the default is expectations, then the expected badness and the expected goodness should roughly cancel out – if suffering just tends to be stronger, then it should also tend to be rare enough to cancel. So on this model you shouldn’t expect life to be net bad especially.

At least on this model the badness and goodness should have cancelled out in the evolutionary environment. Our responses to good and bad situations don’t seem to change with our own expectations that much – even if you have been planning to go to the dentist for months, and it isn’t as bad as you thought, it can still be pretty traumatic. So you might think the default is fairly stable, and after we have been pushed far from our evolutionary environment, joy and suffering could be out of balance. Since we have been the ones pushing ourselves from the evolutionary environment, you might think we have been pushed basically in the direction of things we like (living longer, avoiding illness and harsh physical conditions, minimizing hard labor). So you might expect it is out of balance in the direction of more joy.

This story has some gaps. Why would we experience positive and negative emotions relative to rough expectations? Is the issue really expectations, or just something that looks a bit like that? To answer these questions one would seem to need a much better understanding of the functions of emotional reactions than I have. For now though, a picture where positive and negative emotions were roughly equal in some sense at some point seems plausible, and on that picture, I expect they are now net positive for humans, and roughly neutral for animals (by that same measure). This contribute to my lack of concern for both wild animal suffering, and the possibility that human lives are broadly not worth living.

There are many further issues unresolved. The notion that pleasure and pain should be roughly balanced for some reason is given much of its intuitive support by the observation that they are close enough that which is greater seems somewhat controversial. But perhaps net pleasure and pain only seem to be broadly comparable because humans are bad at comparing things, especially nebulous things. It is not uncommon to be both unclear on whether to go to school A or school B, and also unclear on whether you should go to school A with $10,000 or school B. Another issue is whether the measure by which there were similar amounts of pleasure and suffering actually align with your values. Perhaps positive and negative emotions use similar amounts of total mental energy, but mental energy translates to experiences you like more efficiently than to ones you don’t. Another concern is whether animals in general should be in such an equilibrium, or whether perhaps only animals that survive should, and all the offspring produced that die immediately don’t come into the calculus and can just suffer wantonly.

I think it is hard to give a conclusive account of this issue at the moment, but as it stands I don’t see how evolutionary considerations suggest we should expect bad feelings to dominate.

18 responses to “Why would evolution favor more bad?

  1. > If you see a snake and are deciding whether to go near it or not, there is a worse outcome of it biting you, and a better outcome of it not biting you. The good outcome here is super valuable, even if it doesn’t buy you immediate evolutionary success.

    I think your puzzlement here is purely an artifact of how you’re choosing to express this.

    I wouldn’t say that the avoiding-the-snake outcome is ‘super valuable’, because that outcome is something else, like ‘going left’ or ‘going down the usual path’. It’d be like considering going to Starbucks and describing the outcome as the ‘avoiding the mugger 20 streets over’ outcome and saying ‘clearly this is super-valuable’. When I walk to my fridge to eat, I don’t define it as ‘avoiding drowning in the creek I live by’, even though walking to the fridge does indeed entail not being 200 feet in that direction & drowning.

    You could, of course, define everything as a infinite series of negations – my chair is not my table *and* it’s not my laptop *and* it’s not my tea cup *and* it’s not my new book *and* it’s not the clump of fur in the corner *and* it’s not Yudkowsky’s left eyebrow *and*… But no one does because this definition is impossible to give and so is it really a definition?

    From this perspective, the imbalance between bad and good is pretty clear. There are many actions and outcomes with huge negative outcomes, and very few with even positive increases in fitness. A man can die in a dozen ways in his room, but even if he has sex with a nubile female, may not increase his reproductive fitness at all. Fitness is an optimization function aiming for a very narrow set of outcomes, and it’s no more mysterious that it would find more outcomes bad than good than it’s mysterious that there are more possible high-entropy states than low-entropy states.

    • @Gwern,

      There are many actions and outcomes with huge negative outcomes, and very few with even positive increases in fitness.

      There’s a far greater number of possible acts with negative outcomes than with positive outcomes, but that doesn’t mean that the organism experiences more negativity. It means only that if the organism chose randomly it would come to grief.

      Katja’s question concerns the organism’s actual acts, and it makes no sense to say that actual behavior is fitness raising or lowering: there’s nothing to compare it to, since whatever the organism does, it is engaging in “behavior.”

      @Luke Muelhauser

      We pay more attention to negative information because it is more informative. But our paying more attention to the negative doesn’t mean we experience more of it, which is partly a function of how much of it is available.

      @Katja

      Sometimes it’s easier to see the principles through a simpler analog. Consider the evolutionary forces on plant life. One way plants have adapted is to become tall trees, grasping the sunlight. This is analogous to pleasure. Another plants have adopted is by developing thorns as defenses. This is analogous to pain-avoidance. The question is this: will evolution favor more tall trees or thorned shrubs? It becomes clear there is no a priori answer. (So I agree with your main conclusion about the absence of evolutionary trend, but I think there’s no reason to expect equality.) The proportion becoming trees versus thorned shrubs depends on contingent features of the environment (and of the genome).

      Similarly, whether Mother Nature designs us more to be motivated more by pleasure or pain (overall) depends on the contingent pressures on each reward system separately. (I wonder if data on the relative size of pleasure and pain centers would be informative.)

      • > There’s a far greater number of possible acts with negative outcomes than with positive outcomes, but that doesn’t mean that the organism experiences more negativity. It means only that if the organism chose randomly it would come to grief.

        And given the imbalance, it makes sense to penalize inside an organism’s brain more heavily stumbling into a negative outcome than a positive outcome. It reflects the actual differentials here.

        > Katja’s question concerns the organism’s actual acts, and it makes no sense to say that actual behavior is fitness raising or lowering: there’s nothing to compare it to, since whatever the organism does, it is engaging in “behavior.”

        ??? Are you seriously denying that there is such a thing as fitness-raising or lowering behavior?

  2. Bad is a local cultural/semantic construction. It is just ideology. It’s a very childish notion.
    Life has one goal – more kids. That’s it. By definition. Anything biological is logical, of course.

  3. Hedonic Treader

    “Another concern is whether animals in general should be in such an equilibrium, or whether perhaps only animals that survive should, and all the offspring produced that die immediately don’t come into the calculus and can just suffer wantonly.”

    This is relevant, thanks for not missing it. Darwinism requires a constant surplus of losing offspring, and there is no benevolence mechanism built into it that palliates non-dysfunctional suffering.

    But there is a certain promise in deliberate hedonistic hacks caused by memetic (technological/ethical) evolution:

    Let’s assume that the worst suffering is more intense than the best pleasures because it corresponds to “high loss” situations and the best pleasures merely correspond to “small/medium gain” situations. This is caused by natural selection.

    But human technology can bypass natural selection deliberately. By symmetry, the stronger intensity of the worst suffering is evidence that the best potential pleasures are more intense than natural selection would dish out. Humans could deliberately re-design brains so that the best pleasures are as intense as the worst pains, and the worst pains are less intense than they are now. If these brains turn out to be (slightly or strongly) maladaptive, they could still exist within the margin of wasteful deliberate human creation (where art exists now).

    • What the heck is “suffering?” Who determines that? How is it measured? Over what period of time?

      This seems the core word used here but it is effectively biologically meaningless.

      • Hedonic Treader

        You are right that suffering is not as easily measurable as, say, blood sugar. But it’s a huge jump from there to call it biologically meaningless. Suffering has obvious biological functions and observable biological markers/correlates.

        • ok, but what is it? again, over what time frame? clearly it must have some reproductive advantage. warfare….

          • Hedonic Treader

            The reproductive advantage is probably avoidance of damage (physical, social, maybe also resource availability) and associated learning. That’s the purpose of all negative emotions/experiences, isn’t it? On the social level, there’s also a deterrence function (anger as a commitment device, intuitive game theory).

      • Mitchell Porter

        ‘What the heck is “suffering?”’

        Suffering is you in prison, being raped and beaten up every day, until eventually you hang yourself just to make it stop. Suffering is you caught in a landslide, buried alive with a broken leg, crying for help throughout a period of days and getting no response. Suffering is you in the final stages of dementia, trapped in a ruined body and not understanding anything. Suffering is you, weeping every night for years because you accidentally killed your own child.

        • Let’s do this to simplify; let’s stick with animals. For example, pain is clearly a driver to avoid, which is likely adaptive. So that kind of “suffering” doesn’t seem bad. Predators killing prey is clearly a “good” but would that be covered by the moralizing words “bad/suffering?”

          The fact is that as we learn more about biology, human ideologies, including morality, are debunked as self-serving and merely local conventions and platitudes, e.g. I label your behavior as a power play to get what I want. We also know there is no such thing as altruism. iI the giver doesn’t benefit – natural selection always removes from the phenotype.

    • Yes, the biggest concern with wild-animal suffering is not those organisms that live to maturity but the much greater numbers that suffer death at a very early age.

      Anyway, as others pointed out in the comments, I think happiness and suffering are not just relative to expectations but are also about the balance of “go toward this” things vs. “get away from this” things in the environment. In general, things you should seek are pleasurable and things you should avoid would cause pain if not avoided, though there are some exceptions, like being hungry as a motivation to seek food.

      Also note that the pain of death is not directly subject to evolutionary pressure because once you’re in the jaws of a predator, nothing you do matters for your genes. So evolution has no compunction about inflicting massive amounts of pain by activating aversive tissue-damage response systems that would under normal circumstances cause a mental disorder. And conversely, some fortunate deaths (e.g., inert gas asphyxiation) may be relatively painless, but these seem to be rare in nature.

  4. the there is this: “Human brains are bigger, but not so special”
    “‘The neural circuits responsible for traits we consider uniquely human—like planning, decision-making, and speaking—are just consequences of our larger brains, new research suggests.’

    http://www.futurity.org/even-tiny-primate-brains-human-pattern/?utm_source=Futurity+Today&utm_campaign=d368983f1c-October_8_201310_8_2013&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_e34e8ee443-d368983f1c-203934997

    Can you hear the drumbeats of denial getting louder? lol Just our animal nature.

  5. “Good” and “bad” are too vague as terms to really pin down what’s going on here.

    Its really important to that:

    Not (moving toward snake) /= Moving toward (not snake)

    Positive stimuli are those it is fitness enhancing to seek out. Negative stimuli are those it is fitness enhancing to avoid. The distinction is real and non-arbitrary.

    At a fundamental level, its about spatial distribution: remember brains exist fundamentally to control movement. Generally, for any given phenomenon that causes a stimulus, most of the universe is not that phenomenon*, so the purely logical symmetry between moving toward and moving away (and more generally seeking vs avoiding) is contingently broken in reality.

    From there, there are as Stephen mentions, the further contingent facts about the distribution of expected outcomes.

    For an organism, the only bad outcome ultimately is death. The only good outcome is reproduction. Everything else (surviving) that doesn’t increase the chances of one or the other of these is effectively neutral. Death and reproduction events can never have the exact same distribution (even in species where they’ve evolved to be highly correlated, like salmon) and so again there is an asymmetry between different “good” (increase chance of reproduction) and “bad” (increase chance of death) outcomes, where good is not just a sign difference applied to bad. This is a different dichotomy from the the previous one, although there is quite a lot of overlap.

    Equipped with the fact that there are two asymmetries, its plausible to see the sense in which “pain can be worse than pleasure is good.” Namely there are in the simplest possible model broadly four categories of organism behaviour:

    1. Avoiding death
    2. Seeking death
    3. Avoiding reproduction
    4. Seeking reproduction

    Note that for instance eating is “seeking reproduction” not “avoiding death” – the basic test is that starvation is an abstraction that doesn’t have a spatial location so “avoiding it” is not a well defined concept in this framework.

    1 and 4 are both fitness enhancing – “good” behaviours that lead to “good” outcomes – but the selective pressures on them are, again contingently, very different. Eating tasty meat is 4. Spitting out rotten meant is 1. Rotten meat tastes worse than tasty meat tastes good because the average marginal gain to survival/reproduction from a meal is small while the average marginal risk of death from food poisoning is huge. It so happens that a lot of phenomena in human’s evolutionary environment follows this pattern.

    Ergo pain > pleasure.

    [* yes there are some obvious exceptions, air pressure, gravity etc.]

  6. N.B. The model above is vastly oversimplified for life as complicated as humans; its only meant to be illustrative. At a minimum to properly account for e.g. feeling acute hunger, which obviously in reality isn’t primarily form of intense pleasure we feel as positive reinforcement after seeking out food while starving, you’d need to explicitly incorporate time and calories as variables.

  7. Maybe, the question is human harm to self and others. Why do humans harm themselves and each others? Competition for biological resources is likely the main driver.

  8. tl;dr Lel xD

Comment!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s