A few months ago, I was sitting in my friend’s backyard, eating breakfast. His family had made a glorious garden with all sorts of tiled mosiacs and flowers and trees and so on. Chewing on some omelette, I was enjoying the view when I saw… a lizard.
It was maybe 15cm long… initially moving and then suddenly motionless. I got up to have a better look.
I found myself wanting to attach various narratives to its motionlessness. “What’s the purpose of this lizard?” I wondered. “What is it trying to do right now?”
I had been recently reading The Simple Math of Evolution, a sequence of posts intended to convey how evolution works in a really straightforward, graspable way. One thing I took away from the post was that evolution is purposeless, and totally nonstrategic. It is simply an optimization process.
This lizard, I realized, had no purpose. I was witnessing not so much an agent as a pattern. An pattern that had staying power in the environments in which its precursors had lived. A pattern that worked, and that self-replicated. I was looking at an arrangement of matter that was in some sense “stable” or “typical”, similar to how most of the matter in the universe (except dark matter?) is in planets and stars and black holes, because that’s how matter tends to arrange itself on that scale.
The lizard moved its head in a single quick motion.
Aha, yes, and the pattern that is this lizard isn’t just the arrangement of atoms and molecules and cells in space, but their arrangement in time. What a lizard is its behaviour as well.
A month later, I was at burning man. For context, the story I’m about to tell here comes halfway through this story: “What’s it like to be you?”.
At Tycho’s sunrise DJ set (which I’m listening to again as I write this post) I tried climbing back on the art car that he was performing on, to get a view from up high. A woman stopped me, saying that it was already packed with people. She seemed friendly, so I regarded her. I was trying to essentially just observe her and her humanness, but she kept being like “hey! what’s your name? …come on, don’t be shy… tell me!” and I was finding this really distracting and kind of aversive.
I was recounting this story to my friends later in camp and remarked that I had left, somewhat sadly because “I really wanted to experience the human”.
“That was the human,” my friend said.
In my previous post, I described a beautiful experience of grief that I had shortly after the encounter with this human.
“I thought about how the sunrise is just the earth spinning so our side of the planet faces the sun, and how crazy it is to realize that we’re tiny meaning-making apes on a much-much-larger-but-tiny-in-its-own-way rock-ball spaceship, hurtling through the galaxy.
And I thought about how the spinning of the earth is well-timed for it to be hospitable for us… it gets warmer, then colder, then warmer, maintaining an dynamic equilibrium that humans can live on. This is not because the earth is made for us. It’s not even quite that we were made for the earth. It’s that we’re the kind of pattern that has worked here.
This frame shift was profound and also very humbling. I had thought a bit before about a model of shifting mindsets from “entitlement” to “evolutionary”, and this was it. The earth doesn’t owe me anything. I’m a pattern on its surface. I got this on a deep level, and it was scary and beautiful. I cried.
Several people tried to comfort me or reassure me, and it didn’t really help, because their qualia was still really far away and the universe still mostly not-conscious, but in several cases I let them comfort me anyway because I didn’t mind it and it seemed to be good for them.”
…and because we’re the kinds of patterns that cry when we feel grief, and who want to comfort those who are crying.
So I looked around, and observed a bunch of humans.
It’s kind of wondrous to look at “the kind of pattern that worked here,” and discover that it includes costume-wearing and dancing and speaking and singing…
Constantly consciously expanding the boundaries of thoughtspace and actionspace. Creator of Complice, a system for improvisationally & creatively staying in touch with what's most important to you, and taking action towards it.