Profiling from an Evolutionary Perspective: Interview Part II, William B. Miller Jr., M.D., Evolutionary Biologist

 Dr. Miller is a graduate of Northwestern University in Biology, Northwestern Medical School, and is a member of the medical honor society, Alpha Omega Alpha.  He currently serves as a scientific consultant to the microbiome industry. He is the author or co-author of three books  and over a dozen peer reviewed articles on evolutionary biology and the science of the microbiome. Besides his medical work, Dr. Miller  has been painting in oils since his teens. He now paints figurative works and portraits in his studio n Phoenix. Arizona and his figurative work is featured at Hilliard Gallery in Kansas City.

 NP: Definitions of profiling are complicated. For example, currently profiling is primarily associated with human beings. It includes “ a recording & analysis of a person’s psychological & behavioral characteristics. The purpose is to assess or predict their capabilities in a certain sphere or to assist in identifying a particular subgroup of people.”

A) Is profiling an evolutionary characteristic to all animals including mammals?

B) In determining that which is dangerous to their survival do animals/mammals including human brains automatically or instinctually “profile” others? And is profiling an accurate or adequate term for how the mind works? Or does the very word profiling reduce the human brain to a specimen on a petri dish to be studied?

C) Is the current human profiling a natural outcome of evolution itself? What are the problems with this line of thinking from an evolutionary standpoint? What does it bode for the future and how people and their brains might be manipulated?

Miller:  In any casual consideration, ‘profiling’ would seem to be a distinctly human trait that directly links to our unique intellectual gifts. Yet, biological research informs us differently. Profiling  is intrinsic to life itself and extends across the entire arc of evolution on this planet.

 When did profiling originate in life’s timeline? It began at the beginning. The key to that understanding is that the inauguration of life is also the origin of self-identity. This property of self-identity, or self-awareness, permits us to distinguish between‘self’ and ‘other’. This faculty is an absolute necessity for the living state and is the most crucial property of all cells as it is how cells accurately assess the outward environment and survive. To do this, information must be efficiently categorized. That is profiling as a shorthand means of sorting complex sets of information.

Why do all living things profile?  A cell is a bioactive unit surrounded by a permeable membrane. Consequently, there is an inside and an outside. How might a cell use its limited self-aware faculties at its scale to maintain its internal state and enhance its survival?  It must measure. Any accurate distinction of an  ‘inside’ versus an ‘outside’ that enables an organism to thrive and survive is necessarily a measurement. Cells are  not automata. They are not living machines even though, at one time, it was assumed that cells were just that, functioning on autopilot almost like a series of thermostats. Instead, research confirms that all cells are cognitive entities that are capable of individual purposeful actions in response to environmental impacts. Of course, cellular cognition is in no manner like our human form. Nonetheless, cells can sense their surroundings and make discriminatory measurements to meet environmental stresses to better deploy their resources.

This cognitive sensibility began with life on this planet 3.8 billion years ago, although its origin is a mystery. Within a brief  timespan, at least in geological terms, self-aware cells learned that they  sustain their internal equilibrium and improve their predictive odds of survival by collaborating with other cells. The odds of survival improve when  uncertain information can be assessed more accurately. Cells form multicellular units to improve their measuring assessment of environmental uncertainties. Truly, it is the ‘wisdom of crowds’ at the cellular level.  The result is collaborative multicellular partnerships, which is the dominating form of life on this planet and ever has been.  Cells also partner to improve their access to nutrients and save energy. 

It follows that for this type of collective life to persist, a consistent pattern of cooperation must be established. Within these cellular partnerships each cell measures to gauge its participation in that partnership. In doing so, they must discriminate among a variety of potential partners to seek the most productive ones to suit their very narrow cellular interests. They accomplish this in a manner which is just the same as we do at our scale. They construct short-hand decision trees. It is important to recognize this is not just an interesting cellular pattern that resonates with our human proclivities. It is quite the other way around. We can do it because our cells can do it. It is the measuring capacity of cells that permits the discrimination between informational cues that  forms the basis of our own idiosyncratic form of ‘profiling’.

Despite any societal pejoratives, profiling is no more than categorization. All living creatures sort the myriad amounts of information that they sense through categorization. Our survival depends on assessing and sorting an astounding variety of environmental inputs into manageable categories.  Without this necessary shorthand, no living organism could cope with the vast array of consequential inputs it experiences daily. Given that the efficient discrimination and categorization of environmental stresses is a living requirement at our basic cellular level, it should not be surprising that we, humans, as totally cellular beings, might have our own idiosyncratic manifestations of this  fundamental living necessity.

 It should be noted that when it comes to forming successful living partnerships, cells have a distinct advantage over humans. Cells have no ego. They assess environmental cues and choose partners that will improve their ability to meet environmental stresses through a limited and efficient palette. Yet, it would be a mistake to assume that this decision matrix is simple. Indeed, how they trade nutrients and resources is highly complex and inventive. Cells measure to react to environmental impacts and to form internal predictions of the future environmental conditions that they will face. They are betting their survival on their measuring ability to predict the length and duration of environmental stresses. This influences the types of reciprocating relationships they will have with other cells. In effect, this is a form of cellular profiling. 

Is there any proof that discrimination and profiling are as old as life on the planet?  In answer, simply watch any nature documentary. Observe how baboons or birds or wildebeests interact. After all, how does an ‘alpha female or male’ exert dominance?  It is a carefully delineated orchestration that proceeds through rounds of successive profiling. Furthermore, at our level of sensibilities, who will deny that our falling in love is a product of measurement and discriminatory profiling?  Yet, crucially, this is not an exclusively human trait. All organisms of all types make discriminatory judgments to determine with whom they will associate. Indeed, that is obvious enough that Cole Porter celebrated this reality in lyrics from a hit song Let’s Do It,”  in 1928. Certainly, Cole Porter’s use of ‘let’s do it, let’s fall in love’ is poetic license, yet, the larger point still pertains. We, and all other creatures,  discriminate through the necessary shorthand of categorization to more efficiently determine our associations. This is profiling.

Given this inevitable imperative, how might we deal with this inherent requirement with human sensitivity? Unfortunately, there are no absolute answers. By its very nature, measurement and resulting discrimination are subjective. We  must accept that we live within a proscription that we are meant to subjectively discriminate. How might we approach this  conundrum?  How does one reconcile individual freedom with widespread interdependence? How do societies sustain individual freedoms when the protection of this elemental right is necessarily linked to complex societal interdependence?  Furthermore, in achieving any successful balance, exactly how does our obligatory instinct to profile reconcile with a just society? Certainly, we can agree that judgments should not be formed based on  indiscriminate or unscientific biases. What then might be a scientific basis for balanced discrimination? 

Surprisingly, we should look to our constituent cells to help us discern that  path. Our cellular selves inform us that our discrimination should be directed toward the protection of individual self-integrity above all else. Focused research on cells has revealed that they are immensely complicated and successful problem-solving entities. There is proof of this assertion. They are the only perpetual living forms on the planet. The basic cell types, akin to our species concept, have existed uninterruptedly for billions of years. On the other hand, our type of species, the ones that we can see with our eyes, is ephemeral.  99+%  of all the multicellular species that have ever been on this planet have gone extinct. Only the basic cellular forms have survived over eons. They have been able to sustain themselves by mastering the art of constructively balancing issues of self-identity with collective requirements to meet environmental stresses. How do they do this?

First and foremost, individual cells rigorously maintain self-identity to best face continual environmental stresses even when they are in the collective multicellular form. The individual has primacy. Healthy collective cellular networks live by this rule. Cancer does not.  Secondly, their living success is based on the further principle that cellular life is always an ongoing negotiation. Cells achieve collaborative harmony through negotiation, at their scale. By this means, they cooperate and engage in mutualized forms of competition to share scarce resources. Communal life is based upon the largely voluntary trading of resources based within patterns of discriminatory judgments about who will be a responsive reciprocating partner.

It follows from this background that profiling, from an evolutionary perspective, is neither inherently ‘good’ nor ‘evil’. It is a necessary process for our survival. Therefore, it defaults that in complex human terms, profiling is exclusively a matter of context. It is our burden, as measuring and discriminating individuals, to discern whether or not profiling is ‘worthy’ or an ‘anathema’ in its context. Yet, let none suppose that discrimination or profiling can be eradicated.  Evolution teaches us a contrary lesson. We are cellular beings. As cellular beings, we measure. All measurement is discrimination. It follows then, that we, as measuring instruments, are required to accurately measure. It is up to us to distinguish, through our human gifts, whether those measurements are being used for either good or ill.