Guest Commentary: Buggy Biological Software

A black laptop sitting on a table next to a mug full of coffee

A black laptop sitting on a table next to a mug full of coffee

By Mark Dempsey

Those familiar with computer software also know that it’s almost inevitable that it has some bugs. For example, unless a programmer catches it, some processes can divide by zero—producing an undefined result and halting the program.

Another condition called a “memory leak” occurs when a program consumes more and more memory without limit and crashes the computer.

These bugs produce undesired results. Perhaps less obviously, living beings also have a kind of “software.”

For example, when you stand up, your heart automatically starts beating harder, raising your blood pressure—otherwise, you’d faint. Most people know how it feels to get up too fast for that particular bit of biological programming to prevent feeling dizzy.

One variety of biological bugs is called “Supernormal Stimuli.” These exist even in animals. For example, a peahen is attracted to larger peacock tails. Some zoologists wondered whether there was a limit to that attraction and built peacock models larger than any real bird could be. The peahens preferred them.

Stuart McMillan has a wonderful cartoon collection of such Supernormal Stimuli:

(Here is the rest of the comic

Deirdre Barret has also written a book about this: Supernormal Stimuli: How Primal Urges Overran Their Evolutionary Purpose in which she examines how such unlimited appetites distort healthy behavior.

McMillan points out things like the “seven deadly sins” (pride, wrath, greed, envy, gluttony, sloth, lust) are probably examples of this buggy software.

I’d add that virtually any obsessive thought can enter the Supernormal realm, even when they are “noble” ideas like justice, indignation, safety, payback, or even truth. Yes, even truth told without taking present circumstances into account can be damaging.

One can expect virtually any train of thought that takes no account of present reality is buggy software in action. Like the buggy computer software, the Supernormal Stimuli also halt sensible thinking. They may indeed be the reason common sense is so uncommon.

So…the next time you’re obsessed with righteous indignation or any of the other obsessions to which flesh is heir, file a trouble ticket with yourself. It’s what good software developers do.

About The Author

Disclaimer: the views expressed by guest writers are strictly those of the author and may not reflect the views of the Vanguard, its editor, or its editorial board.

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