Evolution is often misunderstood as an optimization process, which it is not; it seeks “good enough” solutions, not “best” solutions.  Hence many of the odd features, contradictory systems, and inefficient processes characteristic of so many species, humans included.  Just look at how a full term human baby is, by mammalian standards, born several months premature, an evolutionary compromise that keeps mother and child alive, so that the head is still small and soft enough to escape.  Or the fact that much of the population has “wisdom” teeth that don’t fit properly in the jaw and if unmitigated can wreak havoc on the mouth.  That doesn’t even get into the fact that our teeth are an awkward hodgepodge that are only really “intended” to last about thirty years.

More interesting to me than the physiological peculiarities that have arisen as a result of evolution are the neurological ones.  We sometimes seem to forget that our brains are as much a product of evolution as the rest of our bodies, as if somehow the brain was derived from a different process than produced that enlarged cranium that contains it.  Plus, it’s one thing to understand the history of the amygdala or the hippocampus, and something else entirely to understand the evolutionary underpinnings of something more nebulous, like imagination.

We take it for granted as a human characteristic, but from an evolutionary, survival-of-the-good-enough perspective, imagination is remarkably counterintuitive.  It wastes time, energy, and resources that could be used for something more productive, like searching out the best pile of rotten fruit, or fleeing from saber-toothed cats (interesting fact: our ability to metabolize alcohol evolved from our scavenging tendencies to sustain ourselves off of rotting meat and plant material).  This is not unlike the argument Blindsight makes, that the human capacity for introspection and self-reflection is an evolutionary disadvantage. Yet for it to be such an apparently uniquely human trait, it must have evolved relatively recently, implying a certain level of evolutionary advantage, a positive feedback mechanism to promote the perpetuation of this seemingly wasteful capability.

I don’t know how I would ever go about proving it, but my hypothesis is this: imagination is an offshoot of abstract thought, and began as an ability to think through potentially dangerous scenarios before they occurred.  Imagine (that was deliberate) the energy that this could conserve.  Instead of climbing all the way up almost to the top of the tree, only to discover that you had to take a different branch all the way back at the bottom in order to reach the fruit you needed to survive, you could imagine yourself going through the process, and thus only physically implement the successful route.  Think of it as a sort of pre-computer simulator.

Trickier is how this eventually led to the modern imagination that let the Greeks see complex shapes out of a handful of stars, and lets people like me come up with outlandish stories involving magic, kingdoms, and people that have never existed.   Again, my unprovable hypothesis relates to the ability to use our abstract thought centers of simulate events that have not happened and thus improve our chances for success (and efficiency of execution) during the real events.  As humans found it necessary to become more cooperative in order to improve their chances for success (and by success, I mean survival), imagination in its modern form may have arisen as a means to enable better social interactions.  This eventually led to what we would call culture, and what is culture but an information codification of social interactions?

There is no deep, insightful takeaway from this post, except maybe to stop looking at evolution as an optimization process, and instead as a series of compromises seeking good-enough solutions.  Maybe what I’ve said here about imagination seems obvious to you, or maybe it seems completely ridiculous, or maybe it just all seems irrelevant.  After all, we clearly do have imagination, so how much does it matter if we can use it to identify its own origins?  Still, I find this sort of thought process interesting, and valuable in its exercise of cause and effect (we should probably do a post on the difference between causation and correlation, since even people ostensibly trained to recognize and work with those differences seem to either ignore or forget them).  Curiosity is another human trait that on its surface seems evolutionarily counterproductive or disadvantageous – I’ll let you come up with hypotheses why it prevails.

3 thoughts on “Origins of Imagination

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