Deprecated: Some humans are fitness maximizers

EDIT: Thank you to the commenters on this essay, as well as the commenters who responded to my comments on Nate’s original essay for explaining the concepts further to me. I no longer endorse the title or point of this essay as stated. My understanding is now that I was using a colloquial definition of optimizer combined with an internal sense of optimizing instead of the strict sense. I’m leaving this essay up as I think it’s good practice to not delete history. I’ll update my epistemic humility a bit now as well, I think. Thank you again for engaging me on this. Also, for future reference, the essay Thou art Godshatter helped me further understand the ’humans are not fitness maximizers” argument.

After writing this essay I’m left entirely confused about what an optimizer/​maximizer is. My understanding was that an optimizer/​maximizer is an agent’s best attempt at picking the best option and that an agent can be closer or farther away from optimizing over the desired target. Thus a mediocre optimizer is using a number of proxies or failing to implement a recognized best solution. This model might conflict with what Nate Soares intended. Nevertheless, here is my rebuttal under possibly diverging key definitions.

In Humans aren’t fitness maximizers Nate Soares explains that humans aren’t fi… well, ok. A+ for title clarity. Anyway, specifically he makes the following claim about Inclusive Genetic Fitness (IGF):

Humans are not literally optimizing for IGF, and regularly trade other values off against IGF.

This is untrue.

Some humans definitely are optimizing for IGF. These humans go through every major life decision thinking about how they can achieve the highest quality and quantity of offspring. They are currently a minority cause your interest in having PiV sex and your inability to avoid accidents during your favorite hobby used to yield enough IGF to have those genetic strains continue in abundance. Now we can keep the birds and the bees in pharmacologically sealed prisons and tuck the key behind a glass pane that reads “Only break in case of Family Planning”.

But people do break the glass. And some people break it a lot. Some people make their lifestyle decisions with their future children in mind. Some people select romantic partners purely on parental and (presumed) genetic health. Some people will eschew entire careers cause they would never be compatible with family building. They aren’t the majority. Yet. But they soon will be cause sex drive, status, and cultural memes are hardly producing kids anymore.

We don’t have to feel like optimizers to be optimizers

Nate proposes the following argument to support his claim that humans are not IGF maximizers:

We profess to enjoy many other things, such as art and fine foods.

Suppose someone came to you and said: “I see that you’ve got a whole complex sensorium centered around visual stimuli. That sure is an inefficient way to optimize for fitness! Please sit still while I remove your enjoyment of beautiful scenery and moving art pieces, and replace it with a module that does all the same work your enjoyment was originally intended to do (such as causing you to settle down in safe locations with abundant food), but using mechanical reasoning that can see farther than your evolved heuristics.” Would you sit still? I sure wouldn’t.

No, I wouldn’t. But that’s either due to framing or bad trade-offs. Consider these two variants of the experiment.

Variant 1 - Imagine that instead of invasive brain surgery, you are offered a selection of pills that have specific effects:

  1. A pill that will make you crave and deeply enjoy the exact foods your body needs to be in peak health. Foods that decrease your overall health will start tasting horrible.

  2. A pill that makes you instantly recognize and deeply enjoy environments that give substantial health benefits.

  3. A pill that allows you to suppress your aversion to an unhealthy living or working environment if you truly believe the overall trade-off is best for your ability to find a suitable partner.

I’d argue most people would elect to take at least one of these pills, if not all three. The difference is that they don’t invoke feelings around invasive brain surgery and they point to specific optimizations that you can easily understand and thus endorse.

Variant 2 - Now on rereading the quote, I started to wonder if Nate meant that we would never opt in to knowledge of optimal fitness-predicting-aesthetics while losing our motivational force toward a much messier and inaccurate signal that doubles as a great emotional regulator. If that was the intended argument, then I’d say that most of us get more IGF value out of an easily accessible mood regulator than from increased fitness assessments. But, let’s lean in to this variant further for the sake of argument.

Using pills.

  1. A pill that removes your enjoyment of frivolous sensory experiences but allows you to detect if a prospective mate has any underlying health issues that could affect your offspring. This would include ones currently undetectable to science, cause otherwise you can just do that test instead of losing a great mood regulator.

  2. A pill that removes your enjoyment of frivolous sensory experiences but allows you to detect the exact detrimental health effects of any environment. It would have to include some sort of contaminant x-ray vision to beat the performance of normal common sense inspections.

Here we are trading off a mood regulator against some gain in fitness, but a mood regulator also increases fitness. So it really depends on the exact gains you expect. If (I) you anticipate that you have a lot of degrees of freedom in selecting mates and environments, (II) you are liable to make fairly suboptimal choices, and (III) you have sufficient mood regulations options at hand … well, then this is a golden ticket. Sure, these pills might be less popular than rewiring your reward system so brussel sprouts taste like chocolate. But that’s cause you are actually losing something powerful here. Mood regulation options can help you better deal with adversity and stressors. It makes sense the price is higher to give all that up.

Luckily, Nate offers his own variant of the experiment as well:

And if you’re like “maybe mates would be less likely to sleep with me if I didn’t enjoy fine art”, suppose that we tune your desirability-to-mates upwards exactly as much as needed to cancel out this second-order effect. Would you give up your enjoyment of visual stimuli then, like an actual IGF optimizer would?

I do think a substantial part of people who struggle to find suitable mates, would take this trade. Secondly, again, this example suffers from the same issues as above. It’s too vague and scary and relies on us imaging we would trust any authority with invasive brain surgery of which we don’t understand the exact effects. Try out this variant:

Imagine a genie comes to you and offers you a deal: They have found the perfect mate for you in every way, but this mate has a horrible and exotic condition. They will die in a frothing and convulsing heap if ever exposed to fine art. (“if we optimize hard enough on culture barbarians, this is where you end up.”, she mumbles to herself.)

Would you want to meet them?

I’d claim the vast majority of people (who are not committed to a mate yet) would take this deal. We don’t actually care about fine art all that much. The example Nate uses offers a vague “equal” exchange, but I think this triggers a very healthy hell-no response as we humans in the real world would rightly expect Mr. Unlikely Neurosurgery to completely shaft us. I think it’s much harder to fight these responses in ourselves, or even recognize them at all, then to compare how you feel about these variant scenarios that avoid such subconscious wiring all together.

Nate continues:

And when you search in yourself for protests, are you actually weighing the proposal based on how many more offspring and kin’s-offspring you’ll have in the next generation? Or do you have some other sort of attachment to your enjoyment of visual stimuli, some unease about giving it up, that you’re trying to defend?

[nods vigoriously] - yes, emotional regulation!

Now, there’s a reasonable counterargument to this point, which is that there’s no psychologically-small tweak to human psychology that dramatically increases that human’s IGF. (We’d expect evolution to have gathered that low-hanging fruit.) But there’s still a very basic and naive sense in which living as a human is not what it feels like to live as a genetic fitness optimizer.

Agreed. I highly doubt many people would identify directly with being IGF optimizers, regardless if they are or not. The internal experience of being one or not does not add to the optimization. At least not so far in our evolution. This doesn’t matter for the end conclusion though: Some of us are IGF optimizers. And if we give it a few more generations, most of us will be.

Like: it’s pretty likely that you care about having kids! And that you care about your kids very much! But, do you really fundamentally care that your kids have genomes? If they were going to transition to silicon, would you protest that that destroys almost all the value at stake?

Nope. Cause I care about the continuity of the intergenerational orga(ni)sm that I am, which relies on the information in said genome. Transitioning to silicon would be fine. Breaking the continuity would not.

Or, an even sharper proposal: how would you like to be killed right now, and in exchange you’ll be replaced by an entity that uses the same atoms to optimize as hard as those atoms can optimize, for the inclusive genetic fitness of your particular genes. Does this sound like practically the best offer that anyone could ever make you? Or does it sound abhorrent?

I wouldn’t, no. I’m a bit of a mediocre IGF optimizer in that regard (This is the foreshadowed moment when my definitional confusion dawned on me). But let’s say everyone who takes that deal gets 100 offspring. Or even 10. Within no time, humanity would be populated by the offspring of the very few hardcore IGF optimizers we have walking around now. Bless them, and their little death.

Now I don’t think I actually disagree with Nate on much else. His less strong claims I’m actually on board with. I’d just say humans are definitely optimizing on IGF. We’re just kind of bad at it. Give us a constant environment and a few more generations.