Evolution, Gambling and Life

Imagine yourself as a small single-celled creature called an amoeba.  You are among millions of other nearly identical single-celled organisms vying to stay alive long enough to live another generation with one exception — your finger-like projections of protoplasm extend ever so slightly further than your competition.  Not a huge advantage, but enough of an advantage to grab more food and survive long enough to reproduce.  Now your progeny (because you divided in two to produce them), also have that advantage and they collect food fast as well.  Soon your grand children, each slightly different from each other, also have this advantage, some even with longer protoplasm than you (it’s what every amoeba parent hopes for)!  The grandchildren with slightly longer protoplasm thrive, out-competing even their siblings.  Soon your lineage contains hundreds of thousands of single cell organisms with exaggerated finger-like protoplasm projections that dominate this tiny little ecosystem in which your grew up.  Who would’ve thought that this small little evolutionary edge, increasing every generation, would turn into such a gigantic advantage?

Next, take a seat at your favorite race track.  You can bet on any horse but you’re not as careless as the other folk who come by for a thrill, you do your research.  You look at the past performance of the horse, the jockey’s fitness, and even consider the weather details and how different combinations of rider and horse are affected.  Every detail is analyzed so you can inch ever so slightly ahead of the parimutuel betting odds.  But research isn’t everything for you,  you also know how to gamble properly (if there ever was such a thing) by using the mathematics of the Kelly Criterion.  Each bet, although not always a winner and sometimes for longs streaks of time, increases your bank roll — on average.  And slowly but surely you increase your bankroll from $1,000, to $10,000, from 10,000 to $100,000, and again from $100,000 to $1 million (Of course, it wasn’t a direct route, one time you were even down to your last $100!).  Like the small little creature, every bet, every generation, you have a slight edge that eventually gets you to that seven figure bankroll.

Small steps add up over time.  Replace longer protoplasm or gambler’s edge with decisions one is confronted in life, and you have a surprisingly simple model of how we all got to where we are.  The seemingly random choices we make everyday have slightly different outcome, some good, some bad, some pointing in one direction, others pointing in another.  A bias in a series of seemingly random decisions you make edge you towards your eventual destination (no, no, not six feet under!).  It pulls like a gravity towards whatever bias you might have.  Herbert Simon[1] gives a better description:

“For most of us — those of us who have not won million-dollar lotteries, or suffered sudden crippling accidents — life is much like the chess game.  We make hundreds of choices among the alternative paths that lie before us and, as a result of those choices, find ourselves pursuing particular, perhaps highly specialized, careers, married to particular spouses, and living in particular towns.  Even if we point to a single event as the ’cause’ of one of these outcomes, closer scrutiny of the path we have trod would reveal prefatory or preparatory events and choices that made the occurrence of the critical event possible.”
pp. 113, Models of My Life, Herbert A. Simon

Although life seems like a random walk, we do have one tool to make sure we end up in the right place — bias.  We — knowingly or not — bias each and every decision we make inching towards one path or another.  Hopefully that will take us where we want to go over time (although rarely in a straight line).

This large dependence on randomness disturbs some people, but not me.  It’s because I know for sure where I’m going to eventually end up: six feet under!

  1. Whose biography, Models of My Life, inspired this blog post.  I highly recommend reading it.  It’s a candid and witty autobiography looking at his distinguished multi-disciplinary career filled with tidbits of incredibly valuable wisdom throughout.