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Evolved Patterns

Natural selection is a passive observer—a lurker in the shadows that is there by not being there. Its presence is made known by what it leaves behind: the functional patterns that perpetuate their own survival and reproduction, or “life.”
           We are awakened into our bodies and minds. Some are flawed, others less so, yet all bearing the primordial mark of millions of years of jury-rigged construction. As soon as an entity comes on the scene that enables its own survival and reproduction, its presence in this universe and on this planet becomes a mainstay. And so it goes for our minds; they are here now, though we don’t know for how much longer. Our thoughts and emotions, flowing in patterned rhythms through the four dimensions of this universe, are experiencing these patterns—indeed, they are these very patterns. There are, in fact, no pattern “experiencers,” only the patterns themselves. Of course, these patterns aren’t haphazard; their development and form are manifestations of their own tendency to perpetuate themselves, be it by seeking to amalgamate themselves with the existence of patterned entities of the opposite sex, or, alone, via asexual reproduction.
            In time, we will be gone. Our bodies’ and minds’ experience of this universe will be over. There may very well be other universes, but this is the only one we know, the only one we’ll experience. So, for a few brief glimpses of what we call “existence,” the patterns that we call “bodies” and “minds” awaken, only to whither, in turn. Some of the same patterns that we call “ourselves” are perpetuated into the future via what we call “children.” Children, that is, are how our own patterns ensure their own survival into posterity. Likewise, we exist because the very patterns that are synonymous with “us” have perfected their own survival and reproduction across eons of history. And yet, as similar as our children’s patterns are to ours, even our children are somewhat distant and distinct from the very patterns that created us as individuals—our rhythms of sense and perception, emotion and thought. It is these patterns that will ultimately terminate, their materials withering and decomposing away.
            These patterns exist on a multitude of scales, both in space and time. There are everyday spatial scales that describe our bodies—our limbs, our trunks, our hearts, and our veins. These can be measured and analyzed for both form and function. Then there are adaptive patterns across time—the beating of our hearts, the sleep-wake cycle of our diurnal lives, and the perpetuation of behavior across time—hunting or having sex, for example. All of these spatial and temporal patterns have made a good show of surviving and reproducing down the generations. Whether they will continue to survive and reproduce into perpetuity is, as yet, unknown.
            Of course, we are more than just naturally selected, biological patterns. Our entire existence consists of patterns at cosmic space- and time-scales: the endlessly cyclical rotation of our planet around the sun, and our planet’s own rotation around its axis; the multitude of meteorological and geological patterns that contribute to our existence; and the patterns of the very atomic and subatomic materials at the most infinitesimal levels of reality. All of these, perhaps, will continue long after we’re gone.

Patterns and their Relations

            Patterns perpetuate conflict and cooperation with other patterns—e.g., conflict and cooperation between separate individuals or nations, but also between the numerous patterns making up individual bodies and minds. Some such conflicts within individual minds are rooted in the inherent separation of some patterns from others, with either very little or no communication between. So, for instance, one pattern’s desire to be industrious and responsible might be infringed upon by the pattern associated with the sexual response, causing the individual in question to abandon work and engage in sexual behavior. Or, one could experience conflicts between patterns that are more or less communicable and intelligible to one another—as during the weighing of opposing options or opinions, be it what car to buy or what political idea to embrace. Whether mutually-communicable or not, patterns of thought are often undergirded by swifter, less-than-explicit patterns whose existence we never suspect—that is, our hidden, though often functional, desires and motivations for survival and reproduction.
            Where there is a clear wall of separation, as between industriousness and sexuality, we may infer an (not entirely) independent evolutionary history between individual patterns. Each performs a separate function (e.g., resource accrual vs. reproduction), and each possesses a specialized design in order to fulfill that function (e.g., the prefrontal cortex vs. the amygdala or hypothalamus). No doubt there are moments of convergence between patterns (as when a man’s industriousness is used to attract sexual partners), but given selection’s winnowing of each pattern’s features in order to suit its respective task, a division of labor prevails. Such divisions of labor are often experienced as though one were possessed by entirely different beings—e.g., the loss of “oneself” to work or lust. I suspect that many common psychological ailments might involve such dissociations and conflicts between historically disconnected patterns whose functional roles in ensuring survival and reproduction are often at cross purposes.
            Evolutionary psychologists refer to these dissociated mental patterns as “modules.” However, how one views modularity is still up for debate. Some modules, such as those for recognizing faces, experiencing disgust following exposure to disease-associated stimuli, and some of the physiological and behavioral patterns associated with reproduction, are clearly products of millions of years of natural selection on the developing organism. Other patterns emerge as environmental contingencies, such as the mental associations that are developed when one is learning to read or drive a car. Of course, the development of these environmentally- and culturally-contingent patterns is dependent on the more primordial patterns associated with sensation, association, and action—patterns with a  long history of natural selection and canalized development across ancestral generations.
            Whether evolved or contingent, patterns may be defined and dissected at different levels of analysis. So, the set of patterns that are responsible for my recognition of faces may be collectively referred to as a “face recognition module.” However, we would not necessarily refer to any one neuron associated with this system as a mini face recognition module. Instead, our recognition of modularity may be preserved by assuming an anatomical and physiological level of analysis whereby the neuron in question becomes just that—a modular structure constructed out of, and maintained by, proteins, and that functions to relay chemical and electrical impulses between itself and other neurons. Thus, the face recognition system is modular in the psychological sense, whereas an individual neuron within this system is modular in the anatomical and physiological sense.
            Mental patterns and sets of mental patterns may likewise differ in the size of their repertoire. For example, whereas some vision-related subsystems are only responsible for detecting and analyzing edges or different degrees of light, other, higher-order vision-related systems are responsible for integrating those edges and light patterns into faces or landscapes. This dependence of higher-order systems on lower-order systems suggests a kind of hierarchy where there is communication between systems and where the activity of higher-order systems depends on the activity of lower-order systems. Such an integrated network of systems can be visualized as a web of individual systems consisting of subsystems and being themselves embedded in higher-order systems. It's patterns all the way down.


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