Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Adaptation in Evolution and Behavior

Adaptation in Evolution and Behavior: A brief conversation among Descriptive Psychologists. 

Adaptation in evolution and behavior are not the same. One is selective, the other selected. 
A week or so after posting, “ Playing for the Fun of It….”, the italicized paragraph below was added. I argued that play is intrinsic and involves action and personal characteristics not accountable by evolution.  

There is a difference between explanations proper to evolutionary theory and those within the domain of Intentional Action. The difference is whether science accounts for the actual behavior of persons.  

Organisms evolve through selective adaptation. To survive, organisms adapt to the changing circumstances of their worlds. Behavior, as purposeful action, maintains and expands the organism's world. These statements have different implications. Selective adaptation drives a statistical process, a number's game of whom is left standing to reproduce. Behavior involves performances of personal significance, intrinsic and instrumental, selected for their significance. These are very different notions that may not dovetail. The significant might not be adaptive, but then again, it might. 
And then I asked some Descriptive Psychology friends to comment. Here’s their response.

CJ Stone:

Instant reaction: organisms have worlds? Not in the Descriptive Psychology sense. I'd be happier with organisms adapt to their changing circumstances. Behavior maintains and expands the organism's behavior potential.

Aimee Yermish:

I would be very very careful about the word "adapt."  

In biology, the term is understood to mean a process that happens on its own, not as an intentional action on the part of the genetic material.  It's a mathematical process that happens over the course of generations.  

In psychology, it's an intentional action, to adapt to the demands of the environment.  It's a cognitive/emotional/behavioral process that happens over the course of seconds to years.

Wynn Schwartz:

As a former zoologist, the way you are using “adapt” is what I meant. Am I being ambiguous?

Aimee Yermish:

I know we're both recovering biologists.  My concern is that many non-biologists don't really grasp that evolution is not an intentional process, and the word "adapt" is precisely a reason for much of the misconception.

Wynn Schwartz:

Hmm, interesting. Help me with some other locutions. Adapt means an active intentional process? I wouldn't have thought it does but I can see your point. Thanks.

Anthony Putman:

Might be reasonable to see biological "adapt" as an ex post facto concept -- if an organism in fact survives, whatever characterized it was an adaptation. It doesn't adapt and then survive -- it survives and thus adapted. This explicitly contrasts with behavioral adaptation in which the action is intended as an adaptation to the situation. The time vector moves in opposite directions.

Aimee Yermish:

That still sounds too teleological for me.  Evolution has no purpose.  It's just a mathematical process.  We impose meaning on it post facto, but that's not what the organism was trying to do or what "evolution" was trying to do.

Anthony Putman:

Aimee, that's what I was suggesting. Although I would say evolution is better thought of as an algorithm than a mathematical process (which may be what you meant….)

C. J. Stone:

I think that's exactly Tony's point. The orgs are just living their lives. Evolution is our concept, not theirs; and we can only see it after their lives are over. "Mathematical process" is our concept, too.

I am reminded of all the shipwrecked people who cried out to the gods to be saved. We never hear from the ones where it didn't work.

Joe Jeffrey:

Tony's point, and Aimee's, are well taken.

One way to talk about evolution is that the entire concept is ex post facto: a reconstruction of how (biological) things came to be the way they are. This included adaptation, all statistical models, evolutionary "trees", and the famed evolutionary "niches": we say a kind of plant or animal (or archeobacteria or whatever) occupies a niche when we see it surviving, and we then re-describe the set of circumstances as a niche. But people in general think of evolution as a process leading to a goal, with humans at the "peak" of evolutionary development, the "end product of millions of years of evolution." Wrong. Only in the sense of, "We here now can now look back and see the chain of events that led to the current state of affairs." But that's all we can say.

As for adaptation: psychological adaptation is, paradigmatically, equally non-intentional. Normally, we look at someone's behaviors and re-describe what we see as the person adapting to their circumstances (physical/social/psychological/whatever). But that's our re-description of what happened, not their intention. Further, there is no such thing as the social practice of adaptation. In the non-paradigm case, a person looks at their circumstances and says, "OK, I now face a change in my circumstances, so I better figure out some new way to live, or some new way to maintain aspect "A" of my life." And if they succeed, an observer may say, "OK, they changed their ways to adapt to their new circumstances." But calling that a "process of adaptation" is misleading.

The various concepts of behavior as Intentional Action are clarified in the posting, A Short Course in Descriptive Psychology.

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