Dodo Thoughts

This morning at the Natural History Museum in London, I saw a stuffed (edit: model apparently, not stuffed, according to a knowledgeable commenter) dodo. As I meditated on the poor, dumb extinct bird, I was struck by an unsettling thought: All the thinking ever done by all the dodos that ever lived has been for nought. The species’ failure to continue existing is not just the failure of the dodo genome. It is also the failure of the sum of all dodo thought.

There was once something it was like to be a dodo, and think thoughts only dodos could think, but now there isn’t. The dodo is worse than extinct. In some deep way, it was wrong about everything it thought it knew.

This dodo is dead. This is a dead dodo.

When we think about the adaptive fit of a species to its environment, we think about size, speed, coloration, feeding habits, and so on, but we don’t think about thinking. Sure, we talk about brain size as though it were just another morphological variable like height, but we don’t think about thinking in Darwinian terms. Things get weird when you go there.

It seems almost too trivial to be worth stating, but you can obviously define adaptation in terms of thinking. You are adapted to an environment if you can routinely think your way out of problems — especially life-ending threats — that it presents. Your species is adapted if it can think its way out of extinction threats.

And there is no such thing as definitively thinking your way out of a problem. All you can say is that you kept the game going. The computation did not halt, not today. After all, if you fail to solve a survival problem at any point in the future, did you really solve any other sub-problem along the way?

For a sufficiently thinky creature, you could almost ignore other attributes and treat characteristic modes of thought as the primary adaptive traits. The bar for ‘thinky creature’ is much lower than you might think. It’s not at human or even ape level. Even a gazelle is a thinky creature. Though we think of running speed as the defining survival adaptation for gazelles, I suspect a host of broken-brain thinking capacity failures would prove as fatal as broken legs. Running fast doesn’t help if your brain tells you to run towards the lion instead of away.

In my post last week, Think Entangled, Act SpookyI argued that the anthropocene begins when survival in the built environment is as cognitively demanding as survival in the natural environment of evolutionary adaptation. It could easily grow more demanding, with the result that we go extinct.

You could generalize that idea into a standard of merit for a thought that is more basic than its truth. Truth is a nebulous thing (I have nebulosity on the brain since I met up with David Chapman today) but survival is not. Whatever truth is, the truth value of a thought is moot if the thought doesn’t have the ability to persist, recur, be captured, and transmitted as part of an individual’s stream of consciousness or as a transmitted meme. Or more generally, a thought is only as good as the survival robustness of the thought processes capable of thinking it.

Thoughts that survive long enough that there is something it is like to think the thoughts are a more basic class than truths. In philosophical terms, the truth-value of a thought supervenes on its survival value. In popular terms, to be true, a meme must first be minimally viral so it can be meaningfully thought at all.

For a thought to survive — or for a meme to persist in a cognitive environment — the thought process it is part of has to continue uninterrupted. It is not the size of the computer thinking the thought that matters but the survival of the computation containing it. Not all ideas make it.

This is a pretty disturbing thought about thoughts. What if the most profoundly and deeply truthful thoughts it is possible to think are really really bad at surviving? What if they go extinct within seconds in the Darwinian environment of a single living brain? What if they can only be thought by survival-compromised beings like dodos?

Our own thinking is circumstantial evidence for this view. The truest thoughts we are capable of thinking are not exactly the most survival-enhancing ones. The people who like to think those thoughts are famously bad at surviving. By contrast, some patently false thoughts are very good at surviving.

But if a thought cannot be part of a computation that can, in principle, survive indefinitely, is it in fact meaningful to call it true? What if all the “truths” we hold most dear are, due to some bad survival properties, only possible to think in terminating thought processes? What if true thoughts are  suicidal by construction?

What if the answer to Life, the Universe, and Everything can only be contemplated by dodos? What if the Ultimate Truths are dodo thoughts?

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About Venkatesh Rao

Venkat is the founder and editor-in-chief of ribbonfarm. Follow him on Twitter


  1. Anand Jeyahar, says:

    > What if they can only be thought by survival-compromised beings like dodos?
    Only the good die young?? Hmm that’s not a new idea, and ranks among with “young genius” and “mad genius” beliefs..

    Overall, it’s a very nihilistic post, but has some ‘kernel of truth’ to it. I am thinking of a sci-fi comedy story around this.. .hmm.. how?

  2. This may be a factor in why a religion becomes invested in the idea of an afterlife. An afterlife means that it’s still possible (indeed, unavoidable) to think the religion’s thoughts no matter what happens in the arena of physical survival—a huge source of validation. And conversely, most people intuit that if there is no life after death it renders all your beliefs kind of moot.

  3. Where have all the dodos gone?

    Dead as a dodo … you’ve heard that phrase before, but is the dodo really gone? Is it really extinct?

    Well, is our good friend, Raphus cucullatus, aka Didus ineptus, really gone? If so, how would you know, statistical speaking that is?

    When I was in Canberra recently, I learned a little bit more about just what it means to be extinct, and it’s not quite as clear-cut as you may think.

    While attending some meetings for the Biodiversity Heritage Library (specifically, the kick-off meeting for the BHL-Australia project), a colleague, knowing my fondness for dodos, gave me a copy of Decision Point (a monthly magazine of the Applied Environmental Decision Analysis research hub.

    In this April 2010 issue was a great article by Tracy Rout, “Dead as a Dodo?” that gave some very interesting statistical models of how scientists can determine if a species is, indeed, extinct.

    By using a number of quantifiable metrics (e.g. confirmed sightings, time since last confirmed sighting, commonality of sighting, etc.), the statistical probability that a given species is extinct can be calculated and assigned a value. For the dodo, the likelihood of finding one (outside of my blogposts and avatars of course!) is a tiny 3.07 x 10^-6.

    Why is this important? Well, for some species with a high probability of extinction, there’s not really much value in this calculation). But for other species, where there is still a statistical possibility of being extant, a range of other financial and environmental management factors come into play.

    For instance, if it was known that the ivory billed woodpecker might still be alive, actions could be taken to preserve the habitat and investigate locating the survivors (sadly, the statistical probability of the ivory bill still being extant is a minimal 1.78 x 10 ^-13 – actually lower than the dodo because there were more historic sightings of the ivory bill than of dodos).

    So, though there isn’t much hope for the dodo or the ivory billed woodpecker, there are still surprises, the so-called “Lazarus Species”, thought to be extinct, and in probability extinct, but which rise from the ultimate exit. Rout and his co-authors point out the yellow-spotted bell frog as an example (and don’t forget one of my favorite species, the coelacanth).

    For more, see the full article:
    Rout, TM, D Heinze & M McCarthy (2010). Optimal allocation of conservation resources to species that may be extinct. Conservation Biology. DOI: 10.111/j.1523-1739.2010.01461.x

  4. Big Pharmakon says:

    I started reading Nietzsche today.

    • @Big Pharmakon

      When all you’ve ever read on the subject is Nietzsche, it’s easy to discover Nietzsche ‘s thoughts everywhere.

      In reality tons of thinkers have addressed the same points.

      And what the author here says is not merely a recant of Nietzschean thoughts.

      But you’re also wrong about the novelty in this as well: “If there’s anything that makes this article more than a rehash of Nietzsche’s views on life as will to power and the urvaluation of truth as will to nothingness, it’s the recognition of the value of various species’ thoughts, particularly in terms of the impact of those thoughts on their (and other species’) survival”.

      Actually Nietzsche already covered the “value of various species’ thoughts” (in Gay Science, for one) in terms of survival.

      • Big Pharmakon says:

        I don’t think the author is recanting Nietzschean thoughts, but implicitly endorsing them.

        Then again, maybe the point of this article wasn’t to make a point, but to draw out the dodos in the readership, those most likely to go extinct in the coming era.

        • It’s been a while, but I’m pretty sure Nietzsche ‘s contrast of Last Man to Over Man is in response to Darwin. Evolution isn’t progress but change. The most interesting things don’t necessarily survive. Persistence is not in itself of value. It’s worth doing if one can will to do it again and again forever. The value is in the depth not length.

          • Big Pharmakon says:

            The way I understand what Rao has been arguing in the last couple posts, is that at some point in the not too distant future, the challenge for contemporary humans to survive in the environment they’ve created as part of nature is going to become as cognitively demanding as it used to be for humans in the pre-anthropocene to adapt to an environment that had heretofore remained unchanged by our species’ particular variety of thinking.

            In light of this, the things we currently estimate as valuable or interesting may turn out to be triviliaties that we’ve invested ourselves in because we’re no longer capable of thinking what’s truly important. As Rao put it in Think Entangled, Act Spooky, more free time resulting in more bad art may indicate that, rather than there being a surplus of cognitive resources, there aren’t enough of them in order for anybody to solve more important problems, such as those relating directly to the environment we inhabit.

            Regarding what Nietzsche thought about Darwinism, to draw from and expand upon Kay’s comment: from Nietzsche’s contempt for the notion of survival of the fittest, I gather that he wasn’t so much implying that the most interesting things don’t necessarily survive, but that the things that survive aren’t for all that the most interesting. They certainly aren’t the fittest. Christianity, in his view, fed on the resentment of a slave caste for its masters’ privilege, and its ability to exploit this enmity of the powerless for power allowed it, not just to survive, but dominate, for almost two millenia, without ever empowering its adherents – without ever creating a way for them to feel like they were powerful in and of themselves or begin to become their own fates.

            By interesting, in Nietzschean terms, I understand that which is capable of bringing out the best and highest in ourselves. In a sense, this is tied crucially to survival, not in terms of persistence or longevity, but, as you say, in going deeper, so as to ascend higher than what was previously thought possible. I might be capable of willing to write my memoirs a thousand times over, under the invisible weight of what I perceive as the eternal return. However, the pressure that I feel might just be an instinctive sensation of existential threat, in which case, I’ve resorted to resolving my ambivalence through writing, because none of us can gather together the cognitive resources necessary for thinking this challenge.

            Of course, this act of writing may be just the thing that empowers me to overcome myself and embody my destiny, or it may be an expression of that embodiment. But as the turning point draws nearer, it becomes more likely that anyone plumbing their creative depths is simply flailing while the world is set ablaze.

            I think the key right now, when humans are no longer able to think the problems they can perceive, lies in the extent to which you’re thinking like another species.

  5. “After all, if you fail to solve a survival problem at any point in the future, did you really solve any other sub-problem along the way?”

    This recalled Anton Chigurh’s line from No Country For Old Men (to someone he’s just about to kill): “If the rule you followed brought you to this, of what use was the rule?”

    Re the survival value of truth — I don’t think its so much that certain truths or thought forms are more or less survival-friendly, it’s that it is a very open question as to whether human thought in general is a good thing from the standpoint of long-term survival (it’s doing great in the short term), or if it’s a dangerous and ultimately fatal mutation of apes.

    • Big Pharmakon says:

      Centring the concern on human thought, however general, seems like an unnecessary act of speciesism.

      If there’s anything that makes this article more than a rehash of Nietzsche’s views on life as will to power and the urvaluation of truth as will to nothingness, it’s the recognition of the value of various species’ thoughts, particularly in terms of the impact of those thoughts on their (and other species’) survival. While the thoughts themselves might be inaccessible, our thoughts about them are all too available.

      Perhaps the human mind is comparable to the overdeveloped antlers of the extinct Irish Elk, like Zapffe claims, and doomed to weigh itself down in the gathering snow. It’s certainly an open question, just the sort of thing one might use to think oneself to death. If there’s anything special about humans, however, it’s that we can become so overburdened by our ability to imagine the thoughts of others as to do just that. Conversely, being able to think alterity to such an extent that it’s capable of acquiring density within our own minds could be just the thing to lead us out of our species’ apparently approaching winter.

      Rather than resign ourselves to our own mutations, maybe it’s for humans to think the aberrations in other species in order to renew our lives.

  6. Akshay Bhat says:

    This can be a great foundational argument for the psyciatry/mental-disorder/metal-freedom movement, which I see becoming mainstream in the coming years. That is, there is a lot of truth in the thoughts and experiences of scizophrenics, psycotics, bi-polars etc.
    Also, in the context of Kurzwelian singularitarinism, it can become a principle to allow all computations to continue, similar to how we store all data aka Bid Data today, regardless of it’s value.

  7. Tom Kelleher says:

    As always, I love your articles and admire the precision of your thought.

    Yet here, aren’t we over-supposing that human thought fits a metaphor of computation? Programs stop when they fail to not-stop. But thoughts? Thoughts start and end all the time. That’s not equivalent to an apocalypse.

    That most of the thoughts I think in the course of a distracted day or while wallowing in some prurient mindset are not given any continuity in another’s mind is comforting to me and surely a blessing for those others.

    Or so I think.

  8. There’s a lot to unpack in the concept of thinking – one vital component is ‘anticipation’ the calculus of near term and longer term projections. We have to be able to anticipate even to catch a ball.

  9. When we think about the adaptive fit of a species to its environment, we think about size, speed, coloration, feeding habits, and so on, but we don’t think about thinking.

    Sure, biologists try to explain features of the animal body in terms of their functions and explain those with their adaptive fitness, but there isn’t a platonic idea of adaptiveness which excludes thought. Now it is doubtful that the Dodo, unlike the turkey in Talebs fable, had some metacongnitive knowledge, a judgemental capacity to reason about the truth of a hypothesis from prior experience – one which suddenly got proven wrong., which concludes that the animal was too dumb, to even understand its failure. But without such a metacognitive ability, did the Dodo actually think? Since we have no tertium comparationis it is impossible to decide: we can make up definitions freely. Our meta-cognition isn’t all that great either. As one of the consequences we are currently facing a “culture war”: heated moralized gesturing as the continuation of thought with other means.

    When mankind gets finally killed in de Garis artilect war, tthis will prove at least the evolutionary fitness of human thought and ingenuity. Nietzsche might have approved this outcome over dumbing down in the name of human equality or ecological sustainability. His “value for life” is an ambiguous idea, one which was resolved by Deleuze into a life enhancing “intensity” in contradistinction to life extending survivorship. It is as if only phase transitions do matter, the rites of the passage, the formation of theory and practice, the appearance of ingenuity out of nothing, not the long periods of maintenance and stasis, the cultural softening and cooling, with its compassion for the weak and the discovery of gaining power by exploitation of their resentments. The latter was identified with “decadence” – the life not worth living. Nietzsche ridiculed the idea of the “survival of the fittest”. What he needed was a different concept of time in order to transfer life-intensity across cultural boundaries and historical gaps. So he came up with the idea of an “eternal return”, something he perceived as a great discovery – to be honest, he wasn’t very good at finding metaphysical solutions.

    • Big Pharmakon says:

      Do you think that through speculation, both making up and participating in definitions freely, we can simultaneously experience the sense of objectivity being lived through by each side of a war among differing ideologies, and thereby become or inhabit the zone of life-enhancing intensity that Deleuze refers to? Or do such movements necessarily remove oneself from the tension among opposing forces, placing one on a plane above or below the conflict, and thereby at a level of intensity necessarily lower than that experienced by those actively engaged in contempt or hatred for their foe?

    • Big Pharmakon says:

      Kay, please feel free to email if you ever happen to reply so I don’t miss your response.

    • The charges of the force fields can be named “resentment” and “contempt”. In the west contempt has mostly been a historical power but one which ceased to be. Most of the words which denote political evil today like imperialist, racist, sexist, classist etc. are expressions of accumulated emotional energy at the resentment pole. Contempt at the other pole is divisive and distinctive. It requires a stretch or a “vertical tension” (P.Sloterdijk). It’s primary concern is the management of this tension and its exclusive desires. If it’s too exclusive it becomes an easy target by those who spot the clubs weakening dynamics, if it’s too open and egalitarian, it fails to maintain its distinction and becomes dissolved and obsolete.

      Then we have captialism, which permanently produces distinctions in wealth and eliminates distinctions in culture. It’s major contribution to the evolution of culture is the simulcarum, an all inclusive sphere of positive values and emotions. The simulacrum isn’t the product of the joint effort of the press and the universities ( “the cathedral” ) but something which is produced by advertizing of all kinds: political, institutional, commercial and anti-commercial ( like open source ). The press and the universities are affected by being part of the game, not by being the game masters. Already successful players certainly don’t fear to go extinct because they are not thinking hard enough, by their rational thought processes is somehow getting stuck before they reach the truth but that they lose touch with the simulacrum: no one wants to connect to their simulacra anymore.

      The basic configuration isn’t new. It pervaded society for longer than my life time. So why did the emotional energy bubbled up and heated all particles? This may be because one side ( the resentment side, allied with the power of the diverse-inclusive simulacrum ) believed it could crush the other side once and for all and it could do so quickly. Just use one of the many words to denote political evil, step in everywhere, attract the devil, catch him and beat him ( and it is always him, not her ) to death. But of course the simulacrum is a mirage and many people understand this non-analytically, which doesn’t mean they oppose it by means of a firm ideological belief system.

      “Making up definitions freely”, creating new trains of thought and making some ideological interventions can give one a sense of freedom. It is possible to gain intensity from being a “free thinker” but it does not present an escape from the Dodo fate. I remember that Venkat was a great enthusiast of the Pluto mission and maybe Pluto is where this all ends: a dwarf planet, caught by the sun and circling around it in an eccentric orbit. Pluto has a now iconic ice field which looks like a heart. Maybe Pluto would have done better without it?

  10. “This morning at the Natural History Museum in London, I saw a stuffed dodo.”
    I’m sorry to say you did not.
    “This dodo is dead. This is a dead dodo.”
    That dodo is not dead. That dodo is not a dodo. That dodo is a model.
    The only known remains of any dodo today are a head and one foot, at the Natural History Museum in Oxford.
    When I think about whether or not I want to read paragraphs of text from a writer, I think about whether or not he’s in possession of basic facts, has done any research whatsoever or has the acuity to tell the difference between a stuffed animal and an obvious model that is most likely labelled as such.

  11. Emerson Dameron says:

    When the truth gets dangerous, the money is in distractions.

  12. Well, it sure is easy and fun to make jokes about dodos, but I just watched a 35mm caterpillar succeed in a brisk diagonal walk across a 3 meter concrete bike path, and a thought occurred to me.

    What matters for your success as a species (thinky or not) is not your intelligence, but how well your effective reproduction rate matches your position on the food chain. For many thousands of years, the dodos had that balance perfectly tuned, until a wholly unpredictable catastrophe kicked them lower down the food chain.

    Also for many thousands of years, our own species has had an effective reproductive rate that is well tuned to sharing the top of the food chain with perhaps two or three other species. And now, for the last few of those many thousands of years we have managed to eliminate all competition for that apex spot, but have not adjusted our reproductive effectiveness to compensate. Does anyone out there see any evidence that any kind of thinking will solve this imbalance?

    And don’t get me started on the singularity. Will the singularity burn less coal than Google? And who will mine that coal?

  13. “All the thinking ever done by all the dodos that ever lived has been for nought.”

    By that standard we can predict that all thinking is for nought since all species and the universe that provides their component matter will one day be gone…it’s just a matter a when. (We’re all matter but it doesn’t matter. Don Van Vliet.) Perhaps the standard should be relative persistence. Human thought has yet to go the distance of even a typically short spanned species.

    • Alan,
      This was precisely what I was thinking as I was walking down the bike path, before I spotted the striped caterpillar.

      But what about that Big Bang? Can we be certain that there will never ever be any more large eruptions of new matter into our universe? The origins of what matter we have make little enough sense, why not have them make less, and thereby posit the possibility of getting more?

  14. “The truest thoughts we are capable of thinking are not exactly the most survival-enhancing ones.”

    In case you hadn’t seen this one yet:

    “Given an arbitrary world and arbitrary fitness functions, an organism that sees reality as it is will never be more fit than an organism of equal complexity that sees none of reality but that is just tuned to fitness.”

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