Optimal Designs

I’m jailbreaking an encyclopedia chapter I wrote, Optimal Designs, because it’s the only academic work I’ve ever written that normal people might be interested in. It’s about the debate in evolutionary biology and psychology over how pervasive natural selection is compared to the other evolutionary forces and how good it is at finding optimal designs, written from my best-model-of-the-truth point of view. There’s a lot of Dawkins v. Gould, drilling down on their different understandings of “optimal” and reframing the notion of optimality altogether.

The pdf and figure formatting is wonky because it’s on this new wiki-type platform so that we can update the articles as we choose. The version below may become out-of-date, but the links in the citation will always be the most up-to-date version.

Elmore MH. (2018) Optimal Designs. In: Shackelford T., Weekes-Shackelford V. (eds) Encyclopedia of Evolutionary Psychological Science. Springer, Cham. doi:10.1007/978-3-319-16999-6_2170-1. (PDF)

Products and Byproducts of Natural Selection

What is the proper way to interpret the appearance of design in nature? Before 1859 and the publication of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, the answer seemed obvious – design means a designer. In Natural Theology, theologian William Paley famously analogized the appearance of design in the living world to the appearance of design in a man-made object, a watch:

… [S]uppose I had found a watch upon the ground, and it should be inquired how the watch happened to be in that place … There must have existed, at some time, and at some place or other, an artificer or artificers, who formed [the watch] for the purpose which we find it actually to answer; who comprehended its construction, and designed its use…. Every indication of contrivance, every manifestation of design, which existed in the watch, exists in the works of nature; with the difference, on the side of nature, of being greater or more, and that in a degree which exceeds all computation. (Paley 1809)

In his book The Blind Watchmaker (Dawkins 1986), Richard Dawkins answers Paley’s supposition:

The analogy … between watch and living organism is false. All appearances to the contrary, the only watchmaker in nature is the blind forces of physics, albeit deployed in a very special way. A true watchmaker has foresight: he designs cogs and springs, and plans their interconnections, with future purpose in his mind’s eye. Natural selection, the blind, unconscious, automatic process which Darwin discovered, and which we now know is the explanation for existence and apparently purposeful form of all life, has no purpose in mind. […] If it can be said to play the role of watchmaker in nature, it is the blind watchmaker.

Paley’s observation is still true today: we instinctively recognize purpose and intention in living things the same way that we recognize design in manmade artifacts. We now know that living things evolved into their present forms, and we look at how well organisms “fit” within the challenges of their environments in order to determine what selective pressures shaped them. But how well should we expect organisms to meet those challenges? What level of craftsmanship does the blind watchmaker employ? What does it mean when we see less than optimal designs in nature?

Case Study: The Spandrels of San Marco

We may have explained away the need for Paley’s intelligent watchmaker, but the question remains, how good of a watchmaker is our blind watchmaker, natural selection? Are living things particularlywell designed? And does everything have to be the product of natural selection? Some living things have features that seem poorly adapted to their environments. It’s also possible that some features that look like great designs to human minds might only appear that way in hindsight or through the lens of overly felicitous post-hoc reasoning. How many features are mere “spandrels” – byproducts of genuine adaptations? In their oft-touted 1979 paper, The Spandrels of San Marco and the Panglossian Paradigm: A Critique of the Adaptationist Programme, Stephen Jay Gould and Richard Lewontin compare the design of living things to that of the Cathedral of San Marco in Venice, which features beautiful mosaic portraits of the evangelists in its spandrels – the spaces between the cathedral’s dome and the curved arches that support it:

The design is so elaborate, harmonious, and purposeful that we are tempted to view it as the starting point of any analysis, as the cause in some sense of the surrounding architecture. But this would invert the proper path of analysis. The system begins with an architectural constraint: the necessary four spandrels and their tapering triangular form. They provide a space in which the mosaicists worked; they set the quadripartite symmetry of the dome above.

…[E]volutionary biologists, in their tendency to focus exclusively on immediate adaptation to local conditions, do tend to ignore architectural constraints and perform just such an inversion of explanation. (Gould and Lewontin 1994)

The metaphorical spandrel here is what Gould would later term an exaption – “a character, previously shaped by natural selection for a particular function (an adaptation), [coopted] for a new use” (Gould and Vrba 1982). This framing of exaption can be misleading, as there are no raw evolutionary materials – every feature that is genuinely adapted for a given purpose must have begun as part of a different feature – but it is useful to consider whether the selection pressures an organism faces in a modern environment are the same as those that contributed the most to its design. “Spandrel” is still used interchangeably with “byproduct” in evolutionary biology and psychology, and the phrase “just a spandrel” has something of a pejorative connotation.

The concept of architectural constraints adds explanatory power to our story of the spandrels of San Marco. The spandrels do not exist simply to display mosaics of the evangelists, but, contra Gould and Lewontin, neither are the mosaics an afterthought entirely secondary to the architecture of the church. In Darwin’s Dangerous Idea (1996), Dan Dennett shows that our understanding of the spandrel could benefit from an adaptationist analysis. He begins by pointing out that San Marco features only one kind of spandrel, more properly known as a “pendentive”:

Not only were the pendentives just one among many imaginable options; they were just one among the readily available options. Squinches had been a well-known solution to the problem of a dome over arches in Byzantine architecture since about the seventh century.

What the actual design of the San Marco spandrels—that is, pendentives—has going for it are mainly two things. First, it is (approximately) the “minimal-energy” surface (what you would get if you stretched a soap film in a wire model of the corner), and hence it is close to the minimal surface area (and hence might well be viewed as the optimal solution if, say, the number of costly mosaic tiles was to be minimized!). Second, this smooth surface is ideal for the mounting of mosaic images—and that is why the Basilica of San Marco was built: to provide a showcase for mosaic images.

The conclusion is inescapable: the spandrels of San Marco aren’t spandrels even in Gould’s extended sense. They are adaptations, chosen from a set of equipossible alternatives for largely aesthetic reasons. They were designed to have the shape they have precisely in order to provide suitable surfaces for the display of Christian iconography. (Dennett 1996)

Dennett advocates the intentional stance when approaching biological and, by extension, psychological phenomena, assuming that complex features are adaptations that evolved to serve a purpose. Though Gould and Lewontin rightly point out natural selection is not the direct cause of all characteristics, it is the only cause of complex adaptations. Even though the spandrels of San Marco are in some sense byproducts, they can also be viewed on their own terms as adaptations when compared to equally possible alternatives. It was by assuming the intentional stance that Dennett was able to find a possible adaptive purpose to the spandrels.

The debate over the appropriate perspective on possible adaptations may seem to come from the armchair – why should we care whether adaptation is more or less pervasive in shaping living beings than the genetic drift, developmental constraints, and genetic inertia that also play a role? Can’t we just look at the evidence for any given case?

One reason that we must consider grand questions of causation is that the balance of the various evolutionary forces informs our null expectations. Any attempt to reverse engineer relies on the reasoning that complex, well-adapted features don’t arise by chance alone, so the degree of their aptness for a given purpose is evidence that they evolved for that purpose.

More fundamentally, the intentional stance is often the only place to start when asking “why” questions about design in living beings. “Adaptationism” is a productive approach for generating hypotheses and making novel, testable predictions (Barkow et al. 1992). While any particular explanation of adaptive purpose is just a hypothesis until it is validated, it is important to have the intellectual warrant to proceed from the assumption that complexity has an adaptive explanation. In fact, the same instinctive recognition of design that led Paley to believe in an Intelligent Watchmaker sets today’s evolutionary scientists on the course to investigating adaptations.

What Is Optimal?

A Note on Terminology

In common parlance, “optimal” is used interchangeably with “maximal,” but for our purposes, it is useful to distinguish the two. In engineering, optimal means “satisfactory, the best solution given all the constraints,” while maximal means “greatest possible,” and these are the definitions that I will adopt here. It is important to note that these terms are not always distinguished in biology or psychology, and their definitions may even be reversed.

There is a deeper philosophical issue that causes confusion between optimal and maximal designs – actualism vs. possibilism. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy explains:

Actualism is the philosophical position that everything there is – everything that can in any sense be said to be – exists, or is actual. Put another way, actualism denies that there is any kind of being beyond actual existence; to be is to exist, and to exist is to be actual. Actualism therefore stands in stark contrast to possibilism, which […] takes the things there are to include possible but non-actual objects. (Menzel 2016)

The disagreement boils down to what benchmark we are using to evaluate natural selection’s designs. In our terms, adaptationists like Dawkins tend to be actualists – focused on how well natural selection solves a problem within its constraints and dismissing other possible sets of constraints as beside the point because those were not the constraints that actually impinged on natural selection in the given case. Those like Gould and Lewontin that focus on contingency and point out the inadequacy of nature’s solutions often appeal to different possible, but not actual, circumstances under which the trait could have evolved to be better at solving the problems it now faces. Possibilists tend to see actual reality as just a subset of what could have been, whereas actualists tend to view what actually exists as all that could have been. I cannot resolve the actualism vs. possiblism debate in this chapter, but mention it in the hopes of empowering the reader to recognize sources of disagreement and misunderstanding around the concept of optimal designs.

I will henceforth use the word “optimal” to mean “best in the actualist sense” and “maximal” to mean “best in the possibilist sense.” The concept of the adaptive landscape illustrates how a solution can be optimal, a local peak on the landscape, but not maximal, a global peak with respect to fitness. [Define fitness?]

Optimal Designs Are Peaks on the Adaptive Landscape

Darwinism is not a theory of random chance. It is a theory of random mutation plus non-random cumulative natural selection…. Natural selection … is a non-random force, pushing towards improvement…. Every generation has its Darwinian failures but every individual is descended only from previous generations’ successful minorities…. [T]here can be no going downhill – species can’t get worse as a prelude to getting better. – Richard Dawkins, Climbing Mount Improbable

Adaptive landscapes (also known as “fitness landscapes”) map genotype or phenotype to reproductive fitness. For any genotype or phenotype, all possible versions can be plotted as points on an adaptive landscape to show how fit each possible version of the phenotype or genotype is. Sewall Wright (1932) described an adaptive landscape as a n-dimensional space where “the entire field of possible gene combinations be graded with respect to adaptive value under a particular set of conditions.” For simplicity’s sake, they are often rendered in two dimensions and only with respect to one genotype or phenotype as below:

An adaptive landscape. IMAGE adapted from: Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=193687

Here we can clearly see how selection works given its constraints. Natural selection is a hill-climbing algorithm – it can only push a population up toward the nearest peak on the adaptive landscape. Theoretically, adaptive landscapes reflect all the constraints that shape them – the abiotic and biotic environment as well as the organism’s other features. The constraints on a feature may be static or shift over time. When the constraints shift, the adaptive landscape reflects that shift, because the map of phenotype or genotype to fitness has changed. Even though it would be impossible to map every constraint, the metaphor of an adaptive landscape is useful because it shows us why only some paths are available for natural selection to climb. Natural selection cannot tell which peak is highest (maximal); it can only tell which direction is up.

A change in the shape of the landscape does not change natural selection itself, but it can channel the action of natural selection into a new direction by introducing new selection pressures. In adaptive landscape terminology, a selection pressure is the incline of the peak. The stronger the selection pressure, the steeper the incline. There is a great deal of room for chance and contingency in traversing an adaptive landscape, particularly in what genetic variation becomes available (i.e., which spots individuals could occupy on the landscape), but chance of this kind is not chance in the action of natural selection. Natural selection is always an optimization algorithm that accumulates chance events, such as beneficial mutations, in a nonrandom way.

Individuals in a population occupy one point on the landscape at any given time, and the population evolves when its position on the landscape changes. Occupying a peak on the fitness landscape means the population has attained a local maximum in fitness, or an optimal design.

Natural Selection Cannot Cross a Fitness Valley

Natural selection increases the proportion of alleles in the population that lead to greater reproductive success. This principle is axiomatic. Therefore, natural selection cannot push a population to cross a valley in the fitness landscape. Populations can get stuck on a local maximum and rendered unable to access higher peaks, because doing so would require passing through generations in which individuals of lower fitness had higher reproductive success than those of higher fitness – which natural selection will not do by definition.

Just because natural selection cannot push a population across a valley doesn’t mean it is impossible for populations to move from peak to peak. There are other evolutionary forces, particularly genetic drift, that can move a population across the landscape regardless of the fitness consequences. Wright (1932) referred to this phenomenon as “shifting balance.” In effect, drift allows a population to sample a larger area of the fitness landscape. Usually, this simply means lower mean fitness in that population, but sometimes a subset of individuals strays far enough away from one peak to “shift the balance” so that natural selection begins to drive it up another peak.

Genetic Drift Gets in the Way of Natural Selection

When genetic drift is strong enough to overcome selection, you get stuck with features that were not chosen for any particular reason but also are within a range of acceptable harm or suboptimality. Because genetic drift is essentially sampling error, the balance of selection and drift depends on the size of the population. In small populations, drift can be more influential relative to selection because the sampling of alleles with each new generation is less representative of the previous generation than it would be in a larger population. Response to selection is measured in generations, so the longer generation times of large animals like humans put a speed limit on natural selection while also increasing the role of genetic drift. This means that evolution happens very slowly for humans unless a selection pressure is very strong.

Natural selection is the only process that can lead to complex adaptations. Drift can sometimes lead to better designs, but only by accident. Drift cannot preferentially discover high ground on the adaptive landscape the way natural selection can. And since there are many more ways to fail to solve a problem than to solve it, drift is usually a drag on fitness.

What “Optimal” Means

In adaptive landscape terminology, optimal means a local peak. A local peak may also happen to be a global peak, or maximum. When speaking of natural selection, an optimal design can only mean one that achieves a local maximum on the fitness landscape with regard to selection pressures felt probabilistically throughout a lineage’s past. There are no absolutely optimal designs. A design can only be “optimal” with respect to its constraints. If there were no constraints on a design, there would be nothing to judge it by.

What “Optimal” Does Not Mean

Optimal designs are the best available, not the best possible. (Even designs that appear to occupy global maxima could still be made better if not for the physical constraints of our universe.) Nor does optimal mean inevitable or predetermined. How well a design feature performs a given task depends on the solutions available in design space, the genetic variation available to select on, and response to selection, which is not always strong or fast.

Also note that optimal designs may not be recognizably elegant – sometimes a “kluge,” a clumsy but effective design (Marcus 2008), is the optimal solution to a problem given the energy budget or developmental constraints.

Optimal for What Purpose? And for Whom?

The mind is what the brain does. – Marvin Minksy

The whole purpose of our search for a ‘unit of selection’ is to discover a suitable actor to play the leading role in our metaphors of purpose. – Richard Dawkins, The Extended Phenotype

The topic of optimal designs is contentious and confused enough when we’re talking about architecture and spandrels. It’s even more confusing to talk about the design of the mind because the mind doesn’t just follow whatever implicit goal natural selection moves it toward. The mind adopts its own goals. Failure to distinguish natural selection’s “goals” from the mind’s volition can make discussing the evolution of the mind nearly impossible.

The brain is the hardware from which the mind arises. Like a computer, the hardware was designed so that the machine could be applied to certain general purpose computations (Pinker 1997). Unlike a computer, the brain evolved by natural selection. When we use our on-board computer, we can adopt instrumental, shorter term goals than natural selection. Mind and brain evolved so that we could adopt those short term goals, but natural selection cannot dictate what those instrumental goals should be. Is a mind optimal if it follows natural selection’s “goal,” or is it optimal if it does what it, the mind, wants?

Richard Dawkins refers to goals and purposes adopted by minds as “neo-purposes” to distinguish them from the “archeo-purpose” of natural selection (ref: https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=1776&v=mT4EWCRfdUg).

Brains have evolved with various capacities that assist the survival of the genes that made them. Among these evolved capacities is the ability to set up goals, or purposes. […] The brain is a kind of on-board computer used to control the body’s behavior in ways that are beneficial to the genes that built it. It can perceive the outside world. It remembers things. It learns the consequences of its actions—good and bad. It sets up simulated models in imagination […] It sets up purposes or goals in the sense of neo-purpose. The capacity to have a mental goal, or neo-purpose, is an adaption with a survival value, or archeo-purpose.

The mind can easily adopt neo-purposes that are at odds with the archeo-purpose of the genes and the blind processes that created it, particularly as it finds itself in environments the genes haven’t “seen” yet through natural selection. Using contraception, for example, allows our brains to satisfy the desire for sex without ever producing the children sexual urges evolved to promote. The misgivings about children that lead us to use contraception have a long history as well – but the recent advent of highly effective birth control methods has changed the adaptive landscape by changing the consequences of these drives (Dawkins 2009). Philosopher Alan Gibbard (1990) points out that the implicit goals of the genes shouldn’t dictate our goals as their vehicles:

It is crucial to distinguish human goals from the Darwinian surrogate of purpose in the “design” of human beings […] The Darwinian evolutionary surrogate for divine purpose is now seen to be the reproduction of one’s genes. That is not, as far as I know, been anyone’s goal, but the biological world looks as if someone quite resourceful had designed each living thing for that purpose […] A like conclusion would hold if I knew that I was created by a deity for some purpose of his: his goal need not be mine.

Our brains are much more optimal for an environment that has disappeared, one in which the desire for sex was enough to ensure the creation of offspring. John Tooby and Leda Cosmides argue that the most productive approach to evolutionary psychology considers the ancestral environment of modern humans, particularly the Paleolithic era during which anatomically modern humans evolved (Barkow et al. 1992). So what is being optimized when there are multiple competing interests at stake?

Game Theory and Evolutionary Stable Strategies

When multiple agents are in conflict, it no longer makes sense to speak of optimal designs because there is no one goal with respect to which the design can be optimal. What we get are Nash equilibria or evolutionarily stable strategies (ESS), strategies which are unbeatable by any newly introduced strategy (Maynard Smith 1972). Essentially, a stable design is reached when there is a stalemate among all the conflicting goals. These situations are the province of game theory.

Symbiosis and Parasitism

The same human individual can host a number of different organisms with different goals. Human gut microbes may have a range of psychological effects, including the ability to affect mood (De Palma et al. 2014). Humans may also host parasites that increase their own fitness by manipulating our bodies, such as when the influenza virus causes us to sneeze and spread viral particles. Parasites can also influence their own fitness by manipulating a host’s mind, such as when Toxoplasma gondiimakes mice more aggressive and willing to confront cats, who are the parasite’s desired next host. Toxoplasma gondii cannot successfully complete its life cycle in humans, but infection with T. gondiican nonetheless affect human behavior (Flegr 2007). Here, a parasite employing very well designed host manipulation causes very suboptimal behavior for both intended and unintended hosts.

Intragenomic Conflict

Human genes can only successfully reproduce by making new humans, but that does not mean that all the genes in the human genome share the same goals. The genes within the genome have largely overlapping goals, but the fiercest battles are often fought over scraps. For instance, alleles that are marked as either coming from the mother or the father (imprinted) promote behavior in offspring that benefits that parent-of-origin’s reproductive success (Moore and Haig 1991). Where mom and dad’s genes disagree, there are evolutionary games.

The brain appears to be a major arena of conflict, judging by the fact that imprinted genes are disproportionately expressed in the brain compared to other tissues (Davies et al. 2005). The contested resource in this case may be how much support offspring can draw from relatives that are asymmetrically related to them at the causal locus. For example, babies with the imprinting disorder Angelmann’s syndrome have only the father’s imprinting. Angelmann’s babies only sleep an hour or two a day and they want a lot of milk. This is very exhausting for the mother, who wants time to rest and recover. In the inverse disorder, Prader-Willi syndrome, which results from having only the mother’s imprinting, babies sleep far more than usual and don’t often want to breastfeed. There may be no one optimal amount of sleep for the baby – the amount of sleep we need may simply be a compromise between conflicting goals of the mother’s genes and the father’s genes (Haig 2014).

Examples of Optimal Designs and Suboptimal Equilibria in Psychology

The Regions of the Brain: Layers of a Kluge

Evolution often proceeds by piling new systems on top of old ones. The neuroscientist John Allman has captured this idea nicely with an analogy to a power plant he once visited, where at least three layers of technology were in simultaneous use, stacked on top of one another. The recent computer technology operated not directly, but rather by controlling vacuum tubes (perhaps from the 1940s), which in turn controlled still older pneumatic mechanisms that relied on pressurized gases. If the power plant’s engineers could afford the luxury of taking the whole system offline, they would no doubt prefer to start over, getting rid of the older systems altogether. But the continuous need for power precludes such an ambitious redesign. (Marcus 2008)

As Gary Marcus explains in his book Kluge: the Haphazard Construction of the Human Mind, a kluge is “a clumsy or inelegant – yet surprisingly effective – solution to a problem.” Marcus compares the construction of the human brain to the power plant control systems described above. The hindbrain is the most ancient part of the brain, shared by all mammals and reptiles, and controls our most basic reflexive functions such as breathing and alertness. The midbrain is involved in visual and auditory reflexes, and the forebrain is responsible for cognition, language, and judgment. Not only are higher functions like language dependent on more basic functions like breathing, higher regions of the brain are inextricably linked to the midbrain and the hindbrain (Bear et al. 2007).

The forebrain sits on top of the midbrain which sits on top of the hindbrain. The structures are arranged in descending order of evolutionary age. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Diagram_showing_the_brain_stem_which_includes_the_medulla_oblongata,_the_pons_and_the_midbrain_(2)_CRUK_294.svg

We have no reason to believe our brains are at a global maximum on the adaptive landscape. Ascending layers of updated systems in our brains indicate a history of updates on top of updates while the machine was still running. Evolution was constrained, in this case, by the existing brain’s crucial job in survival and reproduction.

Optical Illusions: The Pitfalls of Solving an Impossible Problem

In How the Mind Works (Pinker 1997), Steven Pinker explains that from the perspective of light entering our eyes, there are no objects. There is just light of differing wavelengths. The mind processes that information to define objects, “the movable hunks of matter that we count, classify, and label with nouns” in our field of view. But defining objects is a difficult philosophical problem. Where does the nose end and the face begin? When the does head give way to the neck? Many objects lack clear boundaries, but the brain tries to find them all the same. The famous vase-face illusion shows that our brain can flip between entertaining one object (the vase interpretation) to another (the face interpretation) with the same visual information.

Optical illusions reveal the biases in our sensory processing. When our minds detect an object, that interpretation pops out and excludes others. In the case of the above vase-face illusion, the vase pops out and suddenly the faces are gone until the faces pop out and suddenly the vase is gone. As this illusion demonstrates, determining what it is we are seeing based on light alone is sometimes a hopelessly ambiguous problem, but the fact that optical illusions are reserved as parlor tricks shows a very robust and perhaps optimal mental design for perceiving objects.

Cognitive Biases: Optimized Shortcuts

Human cognition is subject to a long list of biases (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_cognitive_biases). These biases seem like suboptimal thinking because they don’t always tell us the truth and occasionally fail to give accurate information. But when we view the purpose of human cognition more holistically, we see that time and processing power are limited, so in many cases shortcuts are the only way to get to an answer at all. Sometimes heuristics are better performers than slow and cumbersome solutions to those problems that aren’t important to solve perfectly (Kahneman 2011).

To give a classic example, when the risks of ignoring a predator in the bushes are far greater than the risks of incorrectly interpreting the sound of a breeze as a predator in the bushes, overinterpreting noises can be an optimal solution. When our ancestors heard a sound, their minds jumped to the most emotionally salient possibility: a predator. This is called the availability heuristic – we judge the likelihood of an event by how easily it comes to mind, and emotionally salient things come to mind more easily. This is bad for accuracy, but very good for survival. A few minutes of panic and wasted time are much less costly than failing to avoid a real attack. With more time and resources, our predator detection could be even sharper, but when a heuristic works well enough, spending more resources on improving it would be gilding the lily. Those resources could be better spent elsewhere if the cost of overreacting is small.


There is an on-going debate in evolutionary sciences about whether natural selection consistently provides optimal designs. The very idea of optimal designs hits a fault-line in biology and psychology between actualists and possibilists. The definition of optimal itself is disputed and a matter of perspective.

Natural selection can only climb hills on an adaptive landscape, and that landscape represents all the constraints on a feature’s design. Genetic drift usually causes features to be suboptimal by overcoming the work of selection, but occasionally opens up the path for natural selection to climb a higher peak.

Optimal means the best design available, not the best design period. There are no absolutely optimal designs – they could always be better if some feature of the environment were better. You could almost say that the most perfect design is nothing, because then there’s no problem!

Sometimes designs are not optimal with respect to their function because they are satisfying different and conflicting goals. Sometimes, as with freestanding arches and vision, conflict at one level is itself an optimal design at a higher level of function. Sometimes, as in the case of cognitive biases, a design is optimal even though it sometimes fails to perform its job because it’s better to err in the right direction. Sometimes a design is suboptimal because other agents are working to exploit design weaknesses, as in the case of sensory bias.

Finally, it’s important to remember that no matter how perfect or imperfect a feature appears to be, it always helps to consider what purpose it might have evolved to serve. What Stephen Jay Gould would call adaptationist thinking is a highly effective source of hypotheses, and sometimes hypotheses become part of evolutionary theory.


The Golden Mean revisited

I complained in an earlier post that the Golden Mean is nearly useless advice because it doesn’t tell you what constitutes moderation in any given situation and implies that extremes just are wrong. But I think I get it now. At least, I have found a way of following an interpretation of “all things in moderation” that resonates with me.

Before, I had in mind absolute moderation by external standards– say, that there was some appropriate number of bananas a week for each person. Now, I see it more as internal moderation relative to your level of craving or aversion, and using those as a gauge does make the Golden Mean actionable advice. When you’re moderating relative to your internal states, the number of bananas you can eat without avoiding them or completely giving in to your lust for bananas could vary substantially from person-to-person or day-to-day. In order to moderate your out-of-control cravings for bananas, you might need to stop eating them entirely for a time. Abstinence doesn’t represent a “moderate” level of banana consumption by external standards. It represents no banana consumption. But it may be what someone needs to do to moderate their craving for bananas. And it’s no contradiction to resume eating bananas at a low level when you’ve reigned in your urges.

I would like to share this extremely useful concept, shenpa. It’s a Tibetan word I learned from Pema Chodron and in the context of her school of Buddhism it means a mental phenomenon that “hooks” you or gets you “stuck.” (I didn’t say “thought” or “feeling” there because they hold that shenpa is definitely pre-verbal and probably pre-emotional.) I’m almost sure I know exactly what they mean by shenpa, and I would describe it as an urge– or the energy behind an urge. This may sound murky or abstract, but, in my experience, when you begin to attend to them, shenpa quickly become very distinct and recognizable. The physical sensation is often in the heart or belly, and it can literally feel like being hooked and pulled by the gut. When we say urge, we usually mean an urge to do something, but the “something” isn’t necessarily part of the shenpa. Shenpa is simply the sticky quality or energy of craving and aversion. If you have the mindfulness and equanimity, you can just observe shenpa arising and watch them pass without letting them spawn the feelings, thoughts, and actions that keep them going. When there is little or no shenpa, your desires tend to moderate themselves. For example, you eat until your body is satiated instead of being pulled past the negative feedback of nausea and self-loathing by a shenpa hook. 

Noticing my shenpa has helped me to figure out what moderation means for me in a given situation. Instead of thinking “I’m eating too much” based on how much is on my plate or what the people around me think, I’m listening for the difference between genuine apetite and a craving that has me totally hooked. Learning to identify and monitor shenpa gives me realtime feedback so that I’m able to walk the line between averse and addicted. That is, to moderate. No set of objective and unvarying rules or external criteria could give me that. Before, I thought the alternative to following rules was just some platitude like “everyone has to figure it out for themselves”– maybe true, but completely unhelpful (and to someone like me who believed there was a right way to do everything, it didn’t even feel true). Paying attention to shenpa is completely personal, however it’s specific and clear enough of a direction to give meaningful guidance.

I still feel the Golden Mean is used to justify a very uncritical, middle-of-the-road, split-the-difference kind of attitude toward life that makes one’s life choices dependent on those of others and not the relevant facts. Seeking what’s moderate in the world may lead you to choices that are extreme for you. But I am convinced now that it’s possible to moderate by your own lights, and that moderating around your own temperament, needs, dislikes, and desires is generally the wise thing to do. I’ve found an introspective window, shenpa, that has made the Golden Mean more applicable to me, and with those skills, I don’t need rigid rules as much. To be fair to this venerable piece of wisdom, I wanted to share my change of heart.

Kicking an addiction to self-loathing

I’ve begun to notice that I have a choice whether or not to beat myself up. Up until this time in my life, coming down hard on myself has been reflexive and involuntary. But it’s no mere reflex– it’s a conditioned behavior that comes with a strange reward, and I think I am addicted to it. When I realize I’m entering a situation where I have the choice to hate myself on top of whatever is happening externally, it’s difficult not to go for it. Even though self-loathing feels awful– indeed, it is the main source of suffering in my life most of the time– in the moment, I am more afraid of not doing it than doing it.

Here’s a concrete example. One morning a few weeks ago, I turned off my alarm and went back to bed for just a few more minutes (that most dangerous game). When I woke up again, I misread my fitbit and thought it was only 8:28 instead of 9:28. I started in on a leisurely morning, and by the time I checked my phone, I realized I was supposed to be at a 10’o’clock appointment across the river in 13 minutes!

This fuckup was a good microcosm of daily shame triggers for me. I label myself as lazy and a flake, neither of which I think are okay. I was lazy and irreponsible to go back to bed without setting an alarm. I often misread numbers like flight times, room numbers, or the time, leading to mistakes in scheduling. It’s an inadequacy I’m ashamed of, and I live in fear of the blunders it causes. On top of that, I have intentionally been cutting way back on the systems I used to combat my flakiness because they’ve become neurotic and possibly don’t help overall.* Hence, when I made a scheduling mistake, I felt like I’d been caught too-big-for-my-britches, thinking I could do without my huge former personal bureaucracy. So although being late to an appointment is not that big of a deal, and I had a sense of proportion about it, it was pricking me in my soft spots.

In the moment I realized I’d be scrambling just to get to my appointment very late, I saw a fork in the road ahead of me. For one of the first times I can recall, I felt like I could choose to go down my usual path of self-loathing and panic OR I could simply do all the same actions to get there quickly without feeling bad about myself. You would think not having to feel bad about yourself is the obvious choice, but the idea of not scourging myself was scary. Every step of the way– texting that I’d be very late, getting ready, getting to the T stop, etc.– I had to be brave and remind myself that I didn’t have to spur myself along with self-hatred. Choosing not to feel abject panic and flat-out run to the T stop, even though I knew it would only save me about 30 seconds, was hard. Not ruminating over the situation on the T was difficult, even though it couldn’t possibly have affected has fast the train went. I felt vulnerable, like the person I was meeting would see that I hadn’t killed myself to get there as fast as possible and hold my insouciance in contempt.

Not pummeling myself made me feel sure that the blows would still come, just from someone else. They’d see how cavalier I was being after failing to be a decent human being and just let loose on me. I feel that I’m supposed to punish myself, that it undoes the damage I do by not being diligent or conscientious. To be a friend to myself when I fucked up felt like getting away with something bad.

Most of all, being kind to myself when I screwed up made me feel like I was settling for a flawed version of myself, making it real, saying it was okay for that to be the real me. Hating myself and punishing myself for my imperfections is a way of convincing myself that I’m better than I actually am, because I don’t just let myself be a normal person– whatever actually happened is an aberration from my “true,” perfect self. Through some barely conscious, superstitious reasoning process, I believed that by abusing myself I was paying the price to expunge my record. If I’m not perfect, at least I persist in holding the stakes impossibly high! I’m still better than others because I don’t let myself off the hook for being human. And that’s the perverse reward I’m addicted to. I believe on some level that hating the real me keeps alive the possibility of the fantasy me. My fear is that, if the fantasy me ever dies, so do my chances of being good enough.

You’ve probably already noticed a simple solution to my situation. I hate myself because I need to be perfect. I need to be perfect so that other people will love and approve of me. I need other people to love and approve of me so that I can love and accept myself. So, my internal logic is that I need to hate myself to love myself ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ So why didn’t I cut out the middleman and just love myself?

Because I feared that I would be a fool to accept myself. What if I wasn’t watching myself critically, and somebody else noticed something first? What if I was a laughingstock and had no idea how wrong and stupid I was to love myself? Basically, I wasn’t sure that the real, actual, current me was good enough. I wanted guarantees before I stuck my neck out for myself. But I now believe that being brave enough to be your own best friend is the thing that makes you see you are good enough.

When self-loathing feels perversely safe and comforting, the cure is the courage to let go of that protective cover and embrace your perfectly imperfect self. There were eras of my life where I clutched that twisted safety blanket so tightly I did not know that I was holding it. It felt like part of me, simply a feature of my mind. The biggest reason I didn’t let self-hatred go is that I didn’t know I could, because I didn’t see how I was choosing– in so many little moments like realizing was going to be late to an appointment across the river– to hold on to it.

I know I’m hardly the first to offer a prescription of self-love. But I’ve rarely heard anyone else talk about the “benefits” of self-loathing. As David Burns, cognitive behavioral therapist and author of Feeling Good, often says, there are payoffs to dysfunctional attitudes that sufferers are sometimes unwilling to give up. Chronic worrying, for example, is a maladaptive coping mechanism that gives a temporary sense of control. People always think they want to stop worrying, but they only want to give it up on their terms. They don’t want to give up worrying when they will still have to deal with stressful situations or the possibility of danger. They want their worrying to end because they’re safe and there’s nothing left to worry about. In order to give up the comfort of compulsive worrying, you need to brave the edginess and discomfort of not always knowing how things will turn out. And, I suspect, to get over self-loathing, you have to be willing to face the fear and discomfort of not knowing whether other people think you’re good enough.

Self-loathing can get comfortable, even addictive, because it feels like doing something about the possibility of being loathed by others, which you can’t actually control. Giving up that defense mechanism makes me feel edgy and exposed. When you stop preemptively hating yourself, though, and you’re on your own side, you realize 1) that making yourself miserable offers almost no net protection from outward miseries** anyway, and 2) the hatred others can give you is a pale shadow of the hatred you can give yourself. You can’t protect yourself from shame and disapproval by beating others to the punch– all you’ll be doing is compulsively punching yourself. So that rather than being prepared you’ll find yourself much more worn down when you actually catch one of life’s punches, and you’ll be sabotaging the most important relationship in your life: your relationship with yourself.

*I was fully compliant with Getting Things Done for, like, two years, and it did compensate for my weaknesses and free up my mind in some ways. It also made it possible for me take on too many things and not be able to do them all, which is why I say it might not have helped my conscientiousness overall. GTD left me with no excuse for not being hyper-accountable. I wrote down every possible task I was supposed to do, so I was always faced with the sheer magnitude of things I was failing to do. In parallel, writing down everything and having a system to tell me exactly what I was supposed to do when kind of put my brain on autopilot. I thought I wanted that, an external brain, but actually I think I prefer to have my internal brain awake and managing some of these things so that my well-being doesn’t depend on checking my phone for instructions all the time.
**Pre-emptive self-loathing may lead you to take fewer risks and therefore offer fewer opportunities for people not to like you. But it also robs you of the joy and self-loathing-fighting sense of acceptance or self-assurance that might have come from taking those risks.

On privacy

For many years, I thought privacy was a fake virtue and only valuable for self-defense. I understood that some people would be unfairly persecuted for their minority sexuality, say, or stigmatized disease status, but I always saw that more as a flaw in society and not a point in favor of privacy. I thought privacy was an important right, but that the ideal was not to need it.

I’m coming back around to privacy for a few reasons, first of which was my several year experiment with radical transparency. For a lot of that time, it seemed to be working. Secrets didn’t pile up and incubate shame, and white lies were no longer at my fingertips. I felt less embarrassed and ashamed over the kind of things everyone has but no one talks about. Not all of it was unhealthy sharing, but I knew I frequently met the definition of oversharing– I just didn’t understand what was wrong with that.

I noticed after several years of this behavior that I wasn’t as in touch with my true feelings. At first I thought my total honesty policy had purged me of a lot of the messy and conflicted feelings I used to have. But there was something suspiciously shallow about these more presentable feelings. I now believe that, because I scrupulously reported almost anything to anyone who asked (or didn’t ask), I conveniently stopped being aware of a lot of my most personal and tender feelings. (Consequently, I 100% believe Trivers’s theory of self-deception.) I had calloused my feelings by overexposing them, and made them my armor. When my real, tender feelings went underground, the “transparency” only got more intense, because I was left free to believe more flattering and shareable things about myself in the gap, conscience completely clear.

I finally think I understand what’s wrong with oversharing. It’s not that it’s uncomfortable for the listener (though an important consideration, I still reject that as a good enough objection on its own); it’s that oversharing is a defense mechanism that protects the oversharer from criticism or disapproval at the expense of self-intimacy. It’s exposing parts of yourself that will chafe and blister under scrutiny. It’s a particularly insidious way of wearing a mask, because you believe that what you’re doing is taking the mask off.

I now think privacy is important for maximizing self-awareness and self-transparency. The primary function of privacy is not to hide things society finds unacceptable, but to create an environment in which your own mind feels safe to tell you things. If you’re not allowing these unshareworthy thoughts and feelings a space to come out, they still affect your feelings and behavior– you just don’t know how or why. And all the while your conscious self-image is growing more alienated from the processes that actually drive you. Privacy creates the necessary conditions for self-honesty, which is a necessary prerequisite to honesty with anyone else. When you only know a cleaned-up version of yourself, you’ll only be giving others a version of your truth.

Here’s an image that’s been occurring to me. Privacy creates a space in which unexpected or unsightly things can be expressed. It’s like a cocoon for thoughts and feelings. A lot of ugly transformational work can take place there that simply couldn’t occur in an open environment (the bug literally dissolves!). The gnarly thoughts and feelings need to do their work undisturbed by any self-consciousness or fear of judgment, just like caterpillars need a tight encasement where the wind won’t scatter their components as they reassemble into butterflies. Without that safe cocoon for thought- and feeling-caterpillars to metamorphose, the caterpillars can resort to burrowing inside you, eating through your systems and growing abnormally large. When weird malfunctions come up, and you’re unaware of the cause, all that’s left is for you to confabulate. So “transparency” has taken you from a knowing liar into an unwitting liar. But worst of all is that you don’t have any of the butterflies that would have come from holding your stuff in a precious way.

Self-righteousness, imo

Self-righteousness is usually defined as certainty in one’s own moral standards that gives one a sense of superiority over others. But in my experience, self-righteousness is just the feeling of someone else drawing your internal critic’s fire. The hale of holier-than-thou bullets hurts the people you judge and makes your relationships more guarded. But this isn’t really about other people– they are just innocent bystanders to your internal struggle. Practicing self-righteousness hurts you by strengthening both your internal critic and the critic’s narrative: that judgment and self-loathing are saving you from being the unworthy person you really are.

I’ve been very self-righteous in my life. When I judged others, it gave me temporary relief from my own self-judgment, but it also taught me that I owed the respite to being hard on myself. I had to step up the self-criticism if I was going to be justified in judging others, which I needed to do to get a break from self-criticism. If I eased up on myself, it wouldn’t be fair to all the people I had judged– it would make me the bad guy, which I would certainly hear about from my critic. If I stopped judging others without extending the same courtesy to myself, as I tried at times, I would feel like the uniquely worst person in the world.

It’s scary, difficult, and unglamorous work to de-escalate tensions with your inner critic. You have to leave your Stockholm syndrome-style comfort zone under their whip. You have to let them unload on you without giving in to their demands. You have go out on a limb to love and accept yourself even though you’re not quite sure you’ve earned it. (I actually think it is this act of grace toward yourself that makes you feel worthy of love and acceptance.)

Self-righteousness comes much more quickly and easily. Sneakily, even. It comes with a high, instead of the exhausted incremental contentment that comes from remediating self-judgment. But self-righteousness is not only no substitute for unconditional self-love, it’s an addictive impediment. It’s like taking heroin to be happy– it works really well for a little while, but before long your life is ruled by getting enough of it just to feel normal.

Once you’ve broken their stranglehold and they’ve had a timeout, I think it’s important to have compassion for your critic and welcome them back to your mental family on healthier terms. Your critic is a part of you that’s just gotten a little deranged in its attempt to help you. Until I was able to forgive my critical thought patterns for hurting me, I couldn’t forgive myself for being so cruel and judgmental to other people.

I can start to embrace my critic now (somewhat) because I have stronger boundaries. Most importantly, my self-love and -acceptance is not contingent on ANYTHING. The critic cannot touch it. Provocations that would once have reflected on my worth as a person (such as having a mistake pointed out to me in my dissertation) don’t seem so personal anymore. And my anxiety is way down because I don’t approach everything I do as a make-or-break bid for my own love and approval. It’s early days, but it seems to me like the critic is getting back to more productive work. More and more, I find myself thinking “good catch, critic.”

In sum, self-righteousness, imo, feels so good because your inner critic turns to someone else for a while, and you feel good in comparison. But the real problem gets worse every time you indulge it, because your critic gets more and more overpowered and more and more tied to your self-worth. You can’t keep catering to the critic’s demands– it needs to be clear who’s boss– but it is helpful to be able to reassign the critic to a healthier role when you’re ready. A healthy relationship with your critic requires that your self-love and sense of lovability be off the table. Then the critic is working for you instead of you for it.

There’s so much more to say, since this has been a big life struggle for me, but I’ll only add that this de-escalation and reconciliation process has led to amazing things for me. I can enjoy life so much more when everything isn’t some oblique reflection on whether I’m good enough. I can enjoy other people on their own terms. I can save so much mental energy by not constantly judging! And, finally, I can admit that I have really had a problem with self-righteousness throughout my life and sincerely apologize to those (others) that I hurt.

Letting the facts speak for themselves

Being able to make up lots of alternate stories is not the same thing as having an open mind.

An open mind means taking in the facts without prejudice and holding them in mind gently, without forcing them into a particular configuration. If the facts slide into place like puzzle pieces and create a compelling story, an open mind recognizes the merits of that story but doesn’t become attached. Open minds can do this because they can withstand the tense discomfort of not knowing when they in fact do not know.

Another, very popular, approach that is labeled open-minded is trying to see things from many different perspectives by making up ways that people with different motives would be motivated to interpret the facts. Personally, I do this when my fear of being criticized is greater than my desire or courage to seek the truth. It feels crucial at those times to anticipate what everyone else might think, and I lose the backbone to focus simply on what’s true. Coming up with dozens of defensible storylines is, in my mind, forcing the facts into dozens of more or less uncomfortable positions. It isn’t waiting for the facts to tell the story. It’s smashing puzzle pieces together and then reading the jumbled image like tea leaves. Although it could be a helpful exercise for exploring your own and others’ biases, coming up with stories from different angles and levels of bias doesn’t mean you’re canceling out bias, and canceling out bias doesn’t by itself mean you’re getting the truth. There’s no way you can account for all important bias in this manner– how many alternate stories can you keep in your head?– and biased or motivated reasoning is not the only obstacle to finding the truth. Trying to neutralize the prejudices of different perspectives just leaves you with a compromise between human biases. That position would certainly be less partial, but I don’t see why we’d suppose it was accurate.

No, I believe our only guide to an unbiased version of events is to be motivated not to warp the events. If you can’t make a proper puzzle out of the facts at hand, then you probably just don’t have enough pieces yet, or the skills to assemble them. Of course, even when keeping an open mind, you will still have biases and motivated reasoning. Different perspectives are crucial to check your biases, but they should actually come from other people, reasoning with an open mind, and not from your imagination. Let’s have lots of different people trying to find the truth, instead of everyone trying to guess what storyline everyone else will see and shape their storyline to consensus.

Beauty is in the mind of the beholder

I first posted this on facebook on 6/18/18:

I’ve been on a kick of reading and watching videos about extreme plastic surgery. The psychology behind it really fascinates me. How can these patients see their before-bodies so differently than everyone else does? How can they think these extreme surgeries, like H-sized breasts and 60-inch booties, look good? Am I wrong to think people with healthy body image would always prefer a natural look? Etc.

But this jag has had consequences! I never looked at a single one of the women after surgery and thought “I want to look like that!” I usually felt horrified and thought “Thank goodness I can appreciate what I have naturally.” But then the next time I saw myself in the mirror, I thought “I look so boyish!” Despite the fact that I think the ginormous boobs and asses look ridiculous, somewhere in my mind I’m comparing myself to that. It’s the strongest evidence I’ve ever personally experienced that seeing unrealistic body types screws up your internal standards. I repeat, I never even liked the way these women looked. I was nothing but sad for them (wrong and puritanical though that may be of me) that they had ruined their bodies because they thought they needed to be more extreme-looking. And yet seeing them made me view myself as more flat and deflated. The effect faded the longer it had been since I watched one of the videos.

This effect blew me away and has made me take the idea of a “healthy media diet” more seriously.


Sure enough, since I gave up on this habit, I have seen myself pretty much like I used to. But I’m glad I experienced this powerful example of the need to protect yourself from fake or extreme “data” that contaminates your unconscious mental models. It’s not enough to know consciously that something is false or exaggerated– the operative portion of your brain may not.

Seeing how easy it is to break my perceptions of curviness has also made me more confident that other people’s perceptions of your body don’t matter. For that matter, my perceptions of other people’s bodies don’t matter. Beauty really is in the mind of the beholder, and who knows what sort of junk went in there?