Why being wrong is adaptive 📚

The evolutionary basis for imagination

Creativity, Evolution, and Models

Epistemic Status: This is mostly a thought riff and combining ideas. I’m trying to piece together different concepts in interesting ways.

Conclusion: It’s often evolutionarily adaptive to not see reality as reality.

Explanation: If you can model the world in a probabilistically favorable format, the model is favored over matching to reality.

Why do people who are wrong succeed so often? They can even be wrong in their own field, yet succeed? See a great example here, the Green Lumber Fallacy. I don’t think it is all attributable to luck. To understand this, it helps to think about things in an evolutionary sense.

According to evolutionary psychologists, creativity exists as a part of sexual selection. Sexual selection differs from the more popular natural selection in that it may harm the lifespan of an organism.

“Sexual selection is often powerful enough to produce features that are harmful to the individual's survival. For example, extravagant and colorful tail feathers or fins are likely to attract predators as well as interested members of the opposite sex.” -Berkeley

Keeping these ideas in the back of our minds, let’s carry on.

Mental Tools & Unlocking Biology

Julian Jaynes book, “Origin of Consciousness and the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind” suggests man becomes conscious and self aware at once. It uses language and literature to support this. (A quick dismissive would be that stylistic changes don't equate biological shifts, but he could be correct.) Let’s run with this thread.

I argue Origins is slightly off. It seems possible and more likely that man has the capacity to invent new metaphors and concepts which creates a biological "unlocking", not that these things didn’t exist. In the case of the book, the difference is man had consciousness at his disposal, but not the tools (we could get into semantics here and I could easily argue either side but that’s not the main point). Independent of the detail above, here’s the takeaway:

The capacity to express something defines its ability to exist.

Jaynes argued for the creation of consciousness on the basis of proof of it’s expression, not proof of it’s existence independent of expression. I argue that many things are dormant until mentally unlocked and expressed. If you don’t have the abstract toolbox, that thing does not exist for you, yet.

Modeling Math

On an episode of the Hidden Forces, the host and guest speak about how math may be considered tautological (self-referential) and how disappointing it is for truth on the basis that it is an “incomplete” system. This is especially disappointing since math is probably the most grounded intellectual system outside of (or including) formal logic.

Let’s view this information with an evolutionary lens.

What if the capacity to "discover" (conceptualize) math allows us to unlock more about the world and true reality? Even if it was self-referential or entirely conceptualized, haven't these new metaphors allowed us unbelievable breakthroughs despite the fact that they are grounded in a logical incompleteness?

The capacity to think new things would certainly be a sexual and evolutionary advantage. This is why creativity exists. The capacity to express something in a new way IS actually an evolutionary advantage, not simply a sexual one.

In modern times, if I can accurately conceptualize math better than you, I will likely do better. If I can conceptualize how someone feels and express that, I do better. If I can conceptualize compounding and apply it, I will do better.

Humor as a Model

Even humor, thought to be driven by sexual selection seems to have an evolutionary basis. As Bret Weinstein posits, most humor is of the unexpected observational kind. Why wouldn’t potential mates want to be surprised by new information (positive or negative). Due to the element of surprise, the observational ability and it’s expression must be rare. There’s no scalability in an ability to observe but not convey, so it is selected out.

Put simply, the most advanced and robust concepts win out as new dominant strategies. Those able to wrap their minds around abstract concepts use their new biological tools. If they can execute, they thrive.

Mans mind, once exposed to a new idea, literally never regains its original dimensions.

Business Strategy

I think of this often when working in business. Many small business owners and employees seem to have poor working models of what makes a great business, or even what is best for them, yet these models have withstood time because of their compressability and preference for avoiding tail-risk. This is another case of a bad model out-performing no model.

Map is not the Territory

We don’t have the capacity to process all the inputs, so we by necessity need models. I’d argue using any model over time is better than using none. The lack of a global coherent framework suggests this.

“Napoleon is reputed to have had a profound insight into the human soul; Shakespeare also. And their vision has nothing in common.” - Shestov

Whether you side with Girard, Nietzsche, or Shestov seems to matter little in the same way that it doesn’t seem to matter much if you side with Graham, Grove, or Buffet. The only universal similarity is that the successful at least believe and vocalize that they have a grounding model.

For many, the opposite of truth in human matters isn’t by default falsehood. If we have a model, we can begin to play with house odds. If time is applied, the model seems to work itself out.

All models are wrong, but some are useful

Certainly those with an understanding of integrals or convexity, can be better prepared than those without. What if you had to invest in companies without the idea of slope? What if you had to calculate profit without algebra? It becomes increasingly clear that our mental toolbox unlocks new possibilities which translates to better real world outcomes.

We know Newtonian physics is incomplete, but certainly someone with an intuitive understanding of Newtonian physics is evolutionary more fit than one with a pre-Newtonian understanding. When we’re creating new models of the world, it may be interesting to ask if someone with a new model is more fit than the old? For example “Does someone with a modern understanding of physics outclass their simple Newtownian counterparts?”


Mental tools give us new ways of unlocking our biology. Many of them may be incorrect or incomplete, but are still extremely valuable and evolutionarily advantageous. Knowing this, it may prove wise to simply collect as many models as possible. Successful entrepreneurs with diverse book tastes may be the best modern example of this.

Parting Thought

What things are in the world today that are likely wrong, but good for us?