Adaptation in Evolution and Behavior

Adaptation in Evolution and Behavior: A short conversation among Descriptive Psychologists.

A week of so after first posting, “ Playing for the Fun of It….,”

I added the following paragraph. Since I was arguing that play is intrinsic and involves intentional actions not wholly accountable by evolution, I wanted to distinguish explanations proper to the sphere of evolutionary theory from those that remain the domain of Intentional Action.

Organisms evolve through selective adaptation. To survive, organisms adapt to the changing circumstances of their worlds. Behavior, as purposeful action, maintains and expands the organism’s world. These statements have different implications. Selective adaptation drives a statistical process, a number’s game of who is left standing. Behavior involves personal significance, intrinsic and instrumental. These are very different notions that may or may not dovetail. What is significant might not be adaptive, what serves survival has to be.
And then I asked some Descriptive Psychology friends to comment. Here’s their response.
CJ Stone:
Instant reaction: organisms have worlds? Not in the Descriptive Psychology sense. I’d be happier with organisms adapt to their changing circumstances. Behavior maintains and expands the organism’s behavior potential.
Aimee Yermish:
I would be very very careful about the word “adapt.”
In biology, the term is understood to mean a process that happens on its own, not as an intentional action on the part of the genetic material. It’s a mathematical process that happens over the course of generations.
In psychology, it’s an intentional action, to adapt to the demands of the environment. It’s a cognitive/emotional/behavioral process that happens over the course of seconds to years.
Wynn Schwartz:
As a former zoologist, the way you are using “adapt” is what I meant. Am I being ambiguous?
Aimee Yermish:
I know we’re both recovering biologists. My concern is that many non-biologists don’t really grasp that evolution is not an intentional process, and the word “adapt” is precisely a reason for much of the misconception.
Wynn Schwartz:
Hmm, interesting. Help me with some other locutions. Adapt means an active intentional process? I wouldn’t have thought it does but I can see your point. Thanks.
Anthony Putman:
Might be reasonable to see biological “adapt” as an ex post facto concept — if an organism in fact survives, whatever characterized it was an adaptation. It doesn’t adapt and then survive — it survives and thus adapted. This explicitly contrasts with behavioral adaptation in which the action is intended as an adaptation to the situation. The time vector moves in opposite directions.
Aimee Yermish:
That still sounds too teleological for me. Evolution has no purpose. It’s just a mathematical process. We impose meaning on it post facto, but that’s not what the organism was trying to do or what “evolution” was trying to do.
Anthony Putman:
Aimee, that’s what I was suggesting. Although I would say evolution is better thought of as an algorithm than a mathematical process (which may be what you meant….)
C. J. Stone:
I think that’s exactly Tony’s point. The orgs are just living their lives. Evolution is our concept, not theirs; and we can only see it after their lives are over. “Mathematical process” is our concept, too.
I am reminded of all the shipwrecked people who cried out to the gods to be saved. We never hear from the ones where it didn’t work.

The various concepts of behavior as Intentional Action are clarified in the posting, A Short Course in Descriptive Psychology.
Written By Wynn Schwartz Ph.D

Adaptation in Evolution and Behavior was originally published @ Freedom, Liberation and Reaction: Lessons in Psychology and has been syndicated with permission.

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  1. Wynn Schwartz Ph.D Wynn Schwartz Ph.D June 18, 2014

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