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Thursday, August 21, 2008

A Sobering Look at Our Role in Evolution

We have a tendency to lump time and progress together, intuiting a direct link between the two, maybe even considering them one and the same.  With time, there is a past, a present, and a future.  Though they flow smoothly from one to the other, they are linearly separated by a line called now and remain experientially distinct.  But what of causality, of progress?  Compare the complexity of humans (or of any biological entity), with the chemistry from which life is composed, and you are forced to concede that progress towards complexity is as linear as time itself.  In the past there was simple, followed by a now that is more complex, and we talk all of this as proof that the future will be yet more complex.

But how does one go about getting to the future?  The passive answer: wait patiently.  But that implies that progress, like time, just plain old happens... independent of intent.  We don't yet know from what stuff or situation time propagates.  Einstein's little relativity equation allows us to compute the state or value of time in relation to energy, matter and distance, but that really isn't the same as understanding the causal chain from which time itself is born.  We experience time only after the fact, after time exists.  "So what?" I hear you say, "time goes about its merry business without need of understanding anyway!" And that is my point.  We accept that which never changes.  Omnipotent things and processes like time are experienced as background, firmament, unquestionable. But constancy doesn't justify ignorance.  In fact, if the unimaginable success of the uniquely human and very recent activity called SCIENCE says anything, it says that sticking our fingers in the cosmic cracks and pealing back the firmament's many layers, is the single most efficient means of success. Is that what progress is?  It is at the very least, a type of progress.  But the evolutionary record shows that progress happened for quite a while before the appearance of science or humans or animals or for that matter, before life itself.  Which makes me wonder... if algae could think, would algae be as confused by photosynthesis as we are by intent?

Specifically, I am thinking here about the future of computing.  But that doesn't really matter, when I think about any future, I use a trick I have learned over the years, I look for the ultimate future, the pinnacle, the end state, the future that will, if  given enough time, happen.  To this end I have spent the last thirty years pondered evolution it self (the rules and patterns of change), and by simple expansion of logic, self-evolving computing.  I assume that something like computing, something of computing, will some day proceed beyond the yoke of human intent.

As an aid to understanding the events around us, we humans developed counting and measurement.  From there we developed arithmetic rules and methods for manipulating and comparing our sums and measurements.  After that, it was only inevitable that we would build computing ticks and machines to slog through all of that arithmetic heavy lifting.  Computers and maths, like shovels and spears, are nothing but external tools that extend control of our environment beyond our own biological abilities. Anyone who has spent time exploring the notion of tools has come up against the foreground background problem that makes it impossible, or at the very least, arbitrary, to come up with criteria that perfectly separates any tool, from any tool user.  The arm or hand, is it a part of you or a tool?  Any answer you come up with depends heavily on how you define "you", the boundaries of "you", and how you define "tool".  If a tool is something a thing develops so that it can do something it couldn't previously do, then how is a hand, developed by evolution, not a tool?  When any discussion of progress, of the evolution of tools, and of the boundaries that define a system reaches the level of sentience, of intent, of purpose, we are faced by mutually linked concepts that can quickly cascade into feedback loops of infinite recursion.

Given that, is there a way to measure progress?  If the thing trying to measure progress is also a product of, and participant in that progress, is there a way to know the differences between actual universal limits and limits induced by our own structure and knowledge?  These are big big issues, and they are not the stuff of philosophy anymore.  Progress in almost every human endeavor is linked directly or indirectly to our ability to build systems that handle greater and greater complexities.

Eventually of course, it won't be enough to build better and better extensions to human capacity.  Eventually, our complexity handling tools will reach a level of self-genorating complexity handling such that interaction with humans will actually slow them down, will hamper their own evolution!

That eventuality, that inevitability, is a long way from where we sit today.  But, if we are going to go there, and we know it, why not make it an intentional and directed effort. That way, we will get there sooner, we will waste less time and energy exploring dead-end evolutionary what ifs.

Along the way, I imagine a computing that seeks its own complexity maximizing goals, an epoch stretching out forward of the of birth of the paradigm that comes after biology, a period of evolution that begins with what is now popularly known as "the singularity".

By any reasonable argument, it would be difficult to imagine a future that does not eventually reach such a point.  It happened with chemistry... that is how life got here!  Life, I argue, is just chemistry following a higher order of self organization.  So it would seem arrogant to suppose that a similar jump in self-organization wouldn't happen on top of the current scheme; biology.

I don't have a religious obsession with the future.  Meaning, I am not attracted to the future as a nether-world that will come and save us.  I don't see the future as a panacea, or a back door, as a way out.  I see it as the direct result of a process that resulted in us and that we are necessary participants.  In the exact same sense that we are the direct result of actions taken by things before us, the future, to me, is a thing to be built... by us!  The beauty of evolution is that it just plain happens.  Obviously.  In this neck of the cosmic woods, we are the first result of evolution that has the ability to see itself in the context of this grand process... as an agent or ingredient in the process!  But, because we are the first, we have to accept that consciousness is not requisite to the process.  In fact, one has to wonder if consciousness, if sentience, doesn't at times very much get in the way of evolution.

Regardless, here we are, self aware, and like everything else, part and parcel to a system that changes over time.... that gets more complex in pockets that are already more complex.  So, it is natural for us to ask the biggest questions of fate, purpose, and intention.  If, as I do, we accept that intent is simply a mechanism of organization (not qualitatively different then the krebs cycle or photosynthesis or RNA transcription), we have a responsibility to do evolution proud, to honor all of the hard work that has resulted in this level of complexity that is us, and to run our little leg of the relay in a way that respects the race that brought us into existence.

But what exactly is our role in this race that gave us, us?  We are beginning to understand the rules of the race, of evolution itself.  How does knowing about the race change our participation?  Is this the ultimate faustian hubris?  Are we flirting with the reification of Pandora's Box?  The Ouroboros (snake eating its own tail)?  It seems the very expression of human reason to explore questions of purpose.  But the old ways of seeking resulted in abstractions, philosophy, fantasy... this is different.  This is the blueprint of change.  This is a recipe for process itself.  Not some process... EVERY process.  

I am reluctant to imagine that humans are truly equipped desire an actual understandings of reality.  We seek "enlightenment" not "reality".  Reality requires a closeness that is uncomfortable, or at least, unfamiliar.   But as we acquire an accurate and causal understanding of purpose, what will happen to purpose or purposes transition into action?  Thermodynamics and information science have given us the structure of a theory of change.  Will we accept it as reality?  Can we understand it as reality?  And if so, then what?  In the theater of the mind, does knowing how change happens play itself out differently from seeking enlightenment or any of the more spiritual practices that have driven individual morality, shaped cultures and their ontologies, and ultimately resulted in motivation?

I was asked recently how I define the difference between humans and other life... I remembered Gregory Bateson's challenge to come up with a reliable set of criteria that would allow anyone to determine the difference between a thing that had been alive to something that had never been alive... and I answered:

A human can see itself as an active participant in the process that resulted in humans.

If we can, so informed, imagine ourselves, accept our purpose, as that which, like all before us, is here to maximize the potential of complexity will we, equipped with self knowledge of the actual workings of the system, will we be able to do evolution better than the systems that did it and did it so well without knowledge.  Knowledge should make us better.  But knowldge will surely bring its own unique challenges to the process.   Roughly, there were particles and particles accumulated into super particles which accumulated into atoms which accumlated into stars which ran through their fuel, exploded and accumulated into new stars and planets, the atoms on planets accumulated into more and more complex molecules and these molecules accumulated structures that alowed them to reproduce which led to even more complex molecules that worked as the molecule factories we call life, and these living systems eventually built abstraction systems or minds and these minds eventually evolved sentience and sentience gives us this sentence:

What matters is what matters, knowing what matters and how to know it matters the most.

That sentence is the first sentence of the book I am writing explaining evolution from the perspective of why.  The sentence is not special, it could have been written by anyone, it probably has been written before.  But what it means, and the ability to mean it is special.  It represents what and who we are as a species.

Darwin did a really great job explaining the how of evolution, at least with regards to biology.  What I work towards is a domain independent (any system) understanding of the rare but influential emergence and self-stability of greater and greater complexity.  I don't see biology as special.  I don't see humans as special.  I don't even see human sentience as special.  I see each of these systems as ever increasing, often layered, accumulations of complexity that are quantitatively but not qualitatively different from each other.  There is a huge difference between sentience and chemistry of course, but both levels of complexity are derived by the same dynamics, the same process.  Nothing new or bold or other-worldly has to be added to the general evolutionary scheme in order to move from the evolution of atoms to the evolution of sentience.  I labor this point only as a means of grounding the other theses I write here.  Grounding seems especially important when extrapolating any ideas to the future.

Of course my insistence on fusing human intention to this largest of problems, to evolution itself may seem superfluous or self aggrandizing given the concurrent argument that complexity just plain happens.  Where oxygen can't help but to bind to iron, human behavior is such that intention, though every bit as mechanical, requires the effort of thought against the noise of other competing mental processes.  A structure must be built in the brain, a real, mechanical structure, in order for intent to be realized.  The building of these structures demands energy.  Thermodynamically, we know that any structure is always (ALWAYS!) the result of the least energy path causally accumulated... that the next easiest thing to happen is in fact what always happens next.  If you ate french fries today but you want instead to run five miles tomorrow, than you have to go about building a new structure in your brain so that it takes less energy tomorrow to make the decision to run than it took to eat french fries today.  Worse than that, the process of reengineering these mental energy topologies must itself take less energy than every other competing process.  Given the hard taskmaster that is thermodynamics, it is a wonder that any complexity ever happens, let alone sticks around for long.  But then again, our brains must be pretty good at facilitating this seemingly impossible or improbable act... at turning the building of a thing into the mechanism that requires less energy.

The way that thermodynamics shapes and restricts causality is best understood if you think about dropping sand from your hand.  Most of the time (almost all of the time) the sand will land in configurations considerably less organized than the already low organization it had in your fist.  But once in a while, a couple of grains, shaped just right, with just the right internal properties, will land in just the right orientation and proximity to each-other so that their new arrangement accomplishes two entirely improbable things at once, the structure is self stable (resists disruption) and facilitates an increase in the whole system's ability to do what it is already doing faster and more completely.  Random interactions between grains of sand will at times create complex patterns, even patterns that might accelerate the processes at hand, but most of these random aggregates will not be stable, will not pass their structure into the future.  The appearance of new complexities is profoundly improbable.  Even rarer are new complexities who's structure can be maintained over time. In order for this to happen at all, a new complexity must cause the total system in which it resides to become less stable and less complex.  Nature falls apart easier than it falls together.  The long future of any system is away from complexity and towards chaos.  Systems can only become complex to the extent that they accelerate or help to maximize this grand movement towards disorder.

And that my friends is probably the most anti-intuitive truth any complex system will ever be asked to understand.

None of us know exactly how intent is manifested, how it plays itself out in the brain, but we do know that it must be as compliant to the hard restraints of thermodynamics as is every other system in the universe.  I look at intent through the lens of thermodynamics only to show that we find ourselves at a strangely confusing threshold, previously we lived in blissful ignorance, didn't know enough to question the difference between the way if feels to think and how thinking makes thinking seem this way.  In front of us is the era we must now live in, the era of the singular strangeness of the enlightenment that comes with being able to see the mind as a mechanical system even as we think these very un-mechanical thoughts about intent.  Wow.

Now what?  Given access to this great big brain we all posses, on which class of tasks can we put it to work that will do the greatest justice to it's evolutionarily rare and recent potential, and to the cosmic scale of the sacrifices made to produce it in the first place?  An even more perplexing question is the extent to which self-knowledge at this snake-eating-its-own-tail level effects mental productivity.  If a Chevy engine could sacrifice some of its piston strokes to calculate the correct gas/air mix to maximize it's power output, should it?  What of the power lost to those re-calibration strokes?  Do we know enough about the workings of the mind, about learning, about the effects of intention when inwardly directed, to risk messing with the system?  On the other hand, what of our mental activities are not in point of fact, exactly this kind of self-tinkering?

We have a tendency to lump time and progress together, intuiting a direct link between the two, maybe even considering them one and the same.  With time, there is a past, a present, and a future.  Though they flow smoothly from one to the other, they are linearly separated by a line called now and remain experientially distinct.  But what of causality, of progress?  Compare the complexity of humans (or of any biological entity), with the chemistry from which life is composed, and you are forced to concede that progress towards complexity is as linear as time itself.  In the past there was simple, followed by a now that is more complex, and we talk all of this as proof that the future will be yet more complex.

But how does one go about getting to the future?  The passive answer: wait patiently.  But that implies that progress, like time, just plain old happens... independent of intent.  We don't yet know from what stuff or situation time propagates.  Einstein's little relativity equation allows us to compute the state or value of time in relation to energy, matter and distance, but that really isn't the same as understanding the causal chain from which time itself is born.  We experience time only after the fact, after time exists.  "So what?" I hear you say, "time goes about its merry business without need of understanding anyway!" And that is my point.  We accept that which never changes.  Omnipotent things and processes like time are experienced as background, firmament, unquestionable. But constancy doesn't justify ignorance.  In fact, if the unimaginable success of the uniquely human and very recent activity called SCIENCE says anything, it says that sticking our fingers in the cosmic cracks and pealing back the firmament's many layers, is the single most efficient means of success. Is that what progress is?  It is at the very least, a type of progress.  But the evolutionary record shows that progress happened for quite a while before the appearance of science or humans or animals or for that matter, before life itself.  Which makes me wonder... if algae could think, would algae be as confused by photosynthesis as we are by intent?

Specifically, I am thinking here about the future of computing.  But that doesn't really matter, when I think about any future, I use a trick I have learned over the years, I look for the ultimate future, the pinnacle, the end state, the future that will, if  given enough time, happen.  To this end I have spent the last thirty years pondered evolution it self (the rules and patterns of change), and by simple expansion of logic, self-evolving computing.  I assume that something like computing, something of computing, will some day proceed beyond the yoke of human intent.

As an aid to understanding the events around us, we humans developed counting and measurement.  From there we developed arithmetic rules and methods for manipulating and comparing our sums and measurements.  After that, it was only inevitable that we would build computing ticks and machines to slog through all of that arithmetic heavy lifting.  Computers and maths, like shovels and spears, are nothing but external tools that extend control of our environment beyond our own biological abilities. Anyone who has spent time exploring the notion of tools has come up against the foreground background problem that makes it impossible, or at the very least, arbitrary, to come up with criteria that perfectly separates any tool, from any tool user.  The arm or hand, is it a part of you or a tool?  Any answer you come up with depends heavily on how you define "you", the boundaries of "you", and how you define "tool".  If a tool is something a thing develops so that it can do something it couldn't previously do, then how is a hand, developed by evolution, not a tool?  When any discussion of progress, of the evolution of tools, and of the boundaries that define a system reaches the level of sentience, of intent, of purpose, we are faced by mutually linked concepts that can quickly cascade into feedback loops of infinite recursion.

Given that, is there a way to measure progress?  If the thing trying to measure progress is also a product of, and participant in that progress, is there a way to know the differences between actual universal limits and limits induced by our own structure and knowledge?  These are big big issues, and they are not the stuff of philosophy anymore.  Progress in almost every human endeavor is linked directly or indirectly to our ability to build systems that handle greater and greater complexities.

Eventually of course, it won't be enough to build better and better extensions to human capacity.  Eventually, our complexity handling tools will reach a level of self-genorating complexity handling such that interaction with humans will actually slow them down, will hamper their own evolution!

That eventuality, that inevitability, is a long way from where we sit today.  But, if we are going to go there, and we know it, why not make it an intentional and directed effort. That way, we will get there sooner, we will waste less time and energy exploring dead-end evolutionary what ifs.

Along the way, I imagine a computing that seeks its own complexity maximizing goals, an epoch stretching out forward of the of birth of the paradigm that comes after biology, a period of evolution that begins with what is now popularly known as "the singularity".

By any reasonable argument, it would be difficult to imagine a future that does not eventually reach such a point.  It happened with chemistry... that is how life got here!  Life, I argue, is just chemistry following a higher order of self organization.  So it would seem arrogant to suppose that a similar jump in self-organization wouldn't happen on top of the current scheme; biology.

I don't have a religious obsession with the future.  Meaning, I am not attracted to the future as a nether-world that will come and save us.  I don't see the future as a panacea, or a back door, as a way out.  I see it as the direct result of a process that resulted in us and that we are necessary participants.  In the exact same sense that we are the direct result of actions taken by things before us, the future, to me, is a thing to be built... by us!  The beauty of evolution is that it just plain happens.  Obviously.  In this neck of the cosmic woods, we are the first result of evolution that has the ability to see itself in the context of this grand process... as an agent or ingredient in the process!  But, because we are the first, we have to accept that consciousness is not requisite to the process.  In fact, one has to wonder if consciousness, if sentience, doesn't at times very much get in the way of evolution.

Regardless, here we are, self aware, and like everything else, part and parcel to a system that changes over time.... that gets more complex in pockets that are already more complex.  So, it is natural for us to ask the biggest questions of fate, purpose, and intention.  If, as I do, we accept that intent is simply a mechanism of organization (not qualitatively different then the krebs cycle or photosynthesis or RNA transcription), we have a responsibility to do evolution proud, to honor all of the hard work that has resulted in this level of complexity that is us, and to run our little leg of the grand relay, in a way that respects the race that brought us into existence.

But what exactly is our role in this race that gave us, us?  We are beginning to understand the rules of the race, of evolution itself.  How does knowing about the race change our participation?  Is this the ultimate faustian hubris?  Are we flirting with the reification of Pandora's Box?  The Ouroboros (snake eating its own tail)?  It seems the very expression of human reason to explore questions of purpose.  But the old ways of seeking resulted in abstractions, philosophy, fantasy... this is different.  This is the blueprint of change.  This is a recipe for process itself.  Not some process... EVERY process.  

I am reluctant to imagine that humans are equipped to desire an realistic understanding of reality.  More often, we seek "enlightenment" instead "reality".  Reality requires a closeness that is uncomfortable, or at least, unfamiliar.   But as we acquire an accurate and causal understanding of purpose, what will happen to purpose or purposes transition into action?  Thermodynamics and information science have given us the structure of a theory of change.  Will we accept it as reality?  Can we understand it as reality?  And if so, then what?  In the theater of the mind, does knowing how change happens play itself out differently from seeking enlightenment or any of the more spiritual practices that have driven individual morality, shaped cultures and their ontologies, and ultimately resulted in motivation?

I was asked recently how I define the difference between humans and other life... I remembered Gregory Bateson's challenge to come up with a reliable set of criteria that would allow anyone to determine the difference between a thing that had been alive to something that had never been alive... and I answered:

A human can see itself as an active participant in the process that resulted in humans.

If we can, so informed, imagine ourselves, accept our purpose, as that which, like all before us, is here to maximize the potential of complexity will we, equipped with self knowledge of the actual workings of the system, will we be able to do evolution better than the systems that did it and did it so well without knowledge.  Knowledge should make us better.  But knowldge will surely bring its own unique challenges to the process.   Roughly, there were particles and particles accumulated into super particles which accumulated into atoms which accumlated into stars which ran through their fuel, exploded and accumulated into new stars and planets, the atoms on planets accumulated into more and more complex molecules and these molecules accumulated structures that alowed them to reproduce which led to even more complex molecules that worked as the molecule factories we call life, and these living systems eventually built abstraction systems or minds and these minds eventually evolved sentience and sentience gives us this sentence:

What matters is what matters, knowing what matters and how to know it matters the most.

That sentence is the first sentence of the book I am writing explaining evolution from the perspective of why.  The sentence is not special, it could have been written by anyone, it probably has been written before.  But what it means, and the ability to mean it is special.  It represents what and who we are as a species.

Darwin did a really great job explaining the how of evolution, at least with regards to biology.  What I work towards is a domain independent (any system) understanding of the rare but influential emergence and self-stability of greater and greater complexity.  I don't see biology as special.  I don't see humans as special.  I don't even see human sentience as special.  I see each of these systems as ever increasing, often layered, accumulations of complexity that are quantitatively but not qualitatively different from each other.  There is a huge difference between sentience and chemistry of course, but both levels of complexity are derived by the same dynamics, the same process.  Nothing new or bold or other-worldly has to be added to the general evolutionary scheme in order to move from the evolution of atoms to the evolution of sentience.  I labor this point only as a means of grounding the other theses I write here.  Grounding seems especially important when extrapolating any ideas to the future.

Of course my insistence on fusing human intention to this largest of problems, to evolution itself may seem superfluous or self aggrandizing given the concurrent argument that complexity just plain happens.  Where oxygen can't help but to bind to iron, human behavior is such that intention, though every bit as mechanical, requires the effort of thought against the noise of other competing mental processes.  A structure must be built in the brain, a real, mechanical structure, in order for intent to be realized.  The building of these structures demands energy.  Thermodynamically, we know that any structure is always (ALWAYS!) the result of the least energy path causally accumulated... that the next easiest thing to happen is in fact what always happens next.  If you ate french fries today but you want instead to run five miles tomorrow, than you have to go about building a new structure in your brain so that it takes less energy tomorrow to make the decision to run than it took to eat french fries today.  Worse than that, the process of reengineering these mental energy topologies must itself take less energy than every other competing process.  Given the hard taskmaster that is thermodynamics, it is a wonder that any complexity ever happens, let alone sticks around for long.  But then again, our brains must be pretty good at facilitating this seemingly impossible or improbable act... at turning the building of a thing into the mechanism that requires less energy.

The way that thermodynamics shapes and restricts causality is best understood if you think about dropping sand from your hand.  Most of the time (almost all of the time) the sand will land in configurations considerably less organized than the already low organization it had in your fist.  But once in a while, a couple of grains, shaped just right, with just the right internal properties, will land in just the right orientation and proximity to each-other so that their new arrangement accomplishes two entirely improbable things at once, the structure is self stable (resists disruption) and facilitates an increase in the whole system's ability to do what it is already doing faster and more completely.  Random interactions between grains of sand will at times create complex patterns, even patterns that might accelerate the processes at hand, but most of these random aggregates will not be stable, will not pass their structure into the future.  The appearance of new complexities is profoundly improbable.  Even rarer are new complexities who's structure can be maintained over time. In order for this to happen at all, a new complexity must cause the total system in which it resides to become less stable and less complex.  Nature falls apart easier than it falls together.  The long future of any system is away from complexity and towards chaos.  Systems can only become complex to the extent that they accelerate or help to maximize this grand movement towards disorder.

And that my friends is probably the most anti-intuitive truth any complex system will ever be asked to understand.

None of us know how exactly how intent is manifested, how it plays itself out in the brain, but we do know that it must be as compliant to the hard restraints of thermodynamics as is every other system in the universe.  I look at intent through the lens of thermodynamics only to show that we find ourselves at a strangely confusing threshold, previously we lived in blissful ignorance, didn't know enough to question the difference between the way if feels to think and how thinking makes thinking seem this way.  In front of us is the era we must now live in, the era of the singular strangeness of the enlightenment that comes with being able to see the mind as a mechanical system even as we think these very un-mechanical thoughts about intent.  Wow.

Now what?  Given access to this great big brain we all posses, on which class of tasks can we put it to work that will do the greatest justice to it's evolutionarily rare and recent potential, and to the cosmic scale of the sacrifices made to produce it in the first place?  An even more perplexing question is the extent to which self-knowledge at this snake-eating-its-own-tail level effects mental productivity.  If a Chevy engine could sacrifice some of its piston strokes to calculate the correct gas/air mix to maximize it's power output, should it?  What of the power lost to those re-calibration strokes?  Do we know enough about the workings of the mind, about learning, about the effects of intention when inwardly directed, to risk messing with the system?  On the other hand, what of our mental activities are not in point of fact, exactly this kind of self-tinkering?

There is even more cause for concern when we look to what we are learning about the way our brains evolved.  We think with a brain, a machine that "accumulated" more than it "changed"... a machine built as layers added over time, each one more complex, culminating in this eighth-inch thin top-most layer we call the neocortex, each one adding but never replacing functionality to functions handled by deeper layers.  Because of this, there is a necessary one-way communications challenge.  The outer most, more recent and more complex layers speak a language the inner layers are simply too simple to understand.  Yet the inner layers, being developed when organisms were themselves less complex, are far more likely to be more directly wired to action and control.  So, in order for our wonderfully complex and capable outer and more recent layers to effect change, they must send messages down to older, dumber, more directly wired layers, layers that are by definition incapable of understanding the reasoning that supports a directive.  Its as if each of us is a ship full of geniuses all trying to tell a really stupid captain when to turn and why.  The stupid captain may be able to understand the directives, but is at a loss to understand the reasoning backing them up.  This crazy situation is the reality of the current state of complexity... it is the sand currently being dropped by the cosmic hand of evolution.  

It is my argument that we succeed only to the extent that we can build a more and more accurate understanding of both the general parameters of evolution and the current situation evolutionary processes must work with.

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