Tuesday, 16 December 2014

Survival, survivors and survivalism

Fidelity, fecundity and longevity - the Dawkins trinity of replicator attributes - all share something in common: they are ways for patterns to persist over time. The most common term for this idea is "survival". Those who survive are known as "survivors". There's also an art of survival: "survivalism".

The main competitor for the "survival" terminology probably involves the term "persistence". Things that persist are described as being as "persistent". This terminology is less agent-centric. It can more conveniently be applied to non-living entities. It can be argued that it is more general. I generally favor the "survival" terminology - even when it comes to structures that are not conventionally regarded as being alive.

The most mainstream type of survivalism in evolutionary theory is genetic survivalism. In theory the idea of survivalism could be applied to practically any biological entity. A common biological entity that acts as though it wants to survive is the individual. However, many sexual individuals don't prioritize their own survival over the survival of their genes. Instead they are prepared to sacrifice themselves for their kin. So, there's a sense in which individual survivalism is a second rate idea in evolutionary theory. Much the same can be said for groups. Genetic survivalism explains pretty neatly the extent to which individuals and groups behave as though they are attempting to survive.

At least one clarification is needed. The term "genetic" should not be interpreted as being to do with DNA. Any inherited information will do - whether inherited via DNA, culture or some other aspect of the environment.

The popular idea of survivalism does not necessarily map onto the biological notion this article refers to. If disasters are sufficiently common, preparing from them makes sense - and most individuals will be recent descendants of those who prepared. However, many so-called "survivalists" seem to behave as though they have an unrealistically high probability estimate of the chances of a disaster taking place. From the perspective of evolutionary theory, many self-proclaimed "survivalists" look as though they are suffering from unhealthy levels of paranoia.

There do seem to be a few individuals who behave as though they are focused on individual survival. Many cryonics subscribers are possible candidates. However, such behavior is still compatible with conventional evolutionary theory. There are two main possibilities - these individuals are malfunctioning, or they are being manipulated - for example by memeoids.

An early user of the term survival was Edward Burnett Tylor. He used it to mean something a bit different.


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