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Mother Nature Is Indifferent and Human Purpose

I remember reading about an interesting idea back when I got three days off from work 6 years ago thanks to the help of Hurricane Sandy. It was a great feeling to get 3 free days off without using any paid time off or sick days.

It was also a great feeling to have come across Ray Dalio’s 100 and something page paper that he posted on his company’s website — — about his work, life and management principles that helped guide him to build the largest and arguably the most successful hedge fund ever. And that is what I spent a lot of time doing during those 3 days off. Reading and learning about Ray’s principles.

And if you aren’t familiar with the paper I am referring to, you are probably familiar with his most recent NY Times bestselling book Principles which is based off that 100-page paper.

There were many great ideas that Ray wrote about but there is one particular one that got me writing today. There was a passage about hyenas and about how mother nature is indifferent to the decisions it makes which I posted below exactly as it appears in Ray Dalio’s paper:

“For example, when a pack of hyenas takes down a young wildebeest, is this good or bad? At face value, this seems terrible; the poor wildebeest suffers and dies. Some people might even say that the hyenas are evil. Yet this type of apparently evil behavior exists throughout nature through all species and was created by nature, which is much smarter than I am, so before I jump to pronouncing it evil, I need to try to see if it might be good. When I think about it, like death itself, this behavior is integral to the enormously complex and efficient system that has worked for as long as there has been life. And when I think of the second- and third-order consequences, it becomes obvious that this behavior is good for both the hyenas, who are operating in their self-interest, and in the interests of the greater system, which includes the wildebeest, because killing and eating the wildebeest fosters evolution, i.e. the natural process of improvement. In fact, if I changed anything about the way that dynamic works, the overall outcome would be worse.”

This was very interesting to me since I found it strikingly true and yet so obvious but not well thought about. As Richard Dawkins explains in his book The River of Eden, our human minds immediately think about something as either good or bad. It’s hard for us to understand that something doesn’t necessarily have to be good or bad (but can simply just be) because our minds are designed to think that everything must have a purpose. But this isn’t the case. Mother nature is indifferent. It doesn’t take sides and therefore everything in life doesn’t have to have a purpose.

Here is Richard in his owns words directly from The River of Eden discussing this:

“This sounds savagely cruel but, as we shall see, nature is not cruel, only pitilessly indifferent. This is one of the hardest lessons for humans to learn. We cannot admit that things might be neither good nor evil, neither cruel nor kind, but simply callous — indifferent to all suffering, lacking all purpose.

We humans have purpose on the brain. We find it hard to look at anything without wondering what it is “for”, what the motive for it is, or the purpose behind it. When the obsession with purpose becomes a pathological it is called paranoia — reading malevolent purpose into what is actually random bad luck.

The desire to see purpose everywhere is a natural one in an animal that lives surrounded by machines, works of art, tools and other design artifacts; an animal, moreover, who’s walking thoughts are dominated by its own personal goals. A car, a tin opener, a screwdriver and a pitchfork all legitimately warrant the “What is it for?” question. Our pagan forebears would have asked the same question about thunder, eclipses, rocks and strains. Today we pride ourselves on having shaken off such primitive animism. If a rock in a stream happens to serve as a convenient stepping stone, we regard its usefulness as an accidental bonus, not a true purpose. But the old temptation comes back with a vengeance when tragedy strikes — indeed, the very word strikes is an animistic echo: “ why, oh why, did the cancer/earthquake/hurricane have to strike my child?”

After Ray expanded that 100-page pdf into his NY Times bestselling books, he did a couple of podcasts which is normal for an author to do right after they write a book since they can use this medium of communication to promote their book. Ray did a really good podcast with the very popular Tim Ferris where he mentioned this idea about mother nature being indifferent and he also discussed Richard Dawkin’s book. That is where I put one and one together and realized where Ray got the idea from.

The River of Eden is a short book and although I didn’t find the whole book so insightful, there were some very interesting ideas in there. I was reading through my notes the other day and that is where I got the idea to write this post from. The main idea for this post was the idea of mother nature being indifferent and about the human strive for purpose in life, but I thought some of the other notes were very insightful and informative as well, so I wanted to share them with you too.

Here they are written below:

Pg 84 Honey bees tell each other the whereabouts of flowers by means of a carefully coded dance. If the food is very close to the hive, they do the “round dance”. This just excites other bees, and they rush out and search in the vicinity of the hive. Not particularly remarkable. But very remarkable is what happens when the food is further away from the hive. The forger who has discovered the food performs the so-called waggle dance, and its form and timing tell the other bees both the compass direction and the distance from the hive of the food. The waggle dance is performed inside the hive on the vertical surface of the comb. It is dark in the hive, so the waggle dance is not seen by the other bees. It is felt by them, and also heard, for the dancing bee accompanies her performance with little rhythmic piping noises. The dance has the form of a figure 8, with a straight run in the middle. It is the direction of the straight run that, in the form of a cunning code, tells the direction of the food…..

Page 104 By watching the behavior of individuals throughout their lives, you should be able to reverse-engineer the utility functions. If you reverse engineer the behavior of a country’s government, you may conclude that what is being maximized is employment and universal welfare. For another country, the utility function might turn out to be the continued power of the president, or the wealth of a particular ruling family, the size of the sultan’s harem, the stability of the Middle East or maintaining the price of oil. The point is that more than one utility function can be imagined. It isn’t always obvious what individuals, or firms, or governments are striving to maximize. But it’s probably safe to assume that they are maximizing something. This is because Homo Sapiens is a deeply purpose written species. The principle holds good even if the utility function turns out to be a weighted sum or some other complicated function of many inputs.

Page 105 to 106 DNA sequences that find themselves in cheetah bodies maximize their survival by causing those bodies to kill gazelles. Sequences that find themselves in gazelle bodies maximize their survival by promoting opposite ends. But it is DNA survival that is being maximized in both cases. In this chapter, I am going to do a reverse engineering job on a number of practical examples and show how everything makes sense once you assume that DNA survival is what is being maximized.

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