Category Archives: Evolution – Cultural

Can We Evolve Fast Enough to Survive?

(This article was reprinted in the online magazine of the Institute for Ethics & Emerging Technologies, January 12, 2016.)

In response to my post, “Yes, America Is Descending Into Totalitarianism,” the computer game designer Chris Crawford, shared some good news in yesterday’s post—Trump may be impeached. Later he shared his bad news:

The species Homo Sapiens was shaped as a hunter-gatherer creature in the savannah and mixed forest of Eastern Africa. We are optimized to perform well in such circumstances. We have not an iota of civilization in our genes; that’s a cultural overlay.

One of the important factors in the establishment of human dominance over other creatures is its cultural plasticity. Culture can be adapted to the specific needs of a particular environment, permitting humans to live in places radically different from the grasslands and open forests of Eastern Africa. Too cold? No problem — let’s wrap ourselves in furs!

Now, genes are capable of adapting to new environments, but generally they take about 10,000 generations to pull off a significant change. That would be about a quarter of a million years for Homo Sapiens. Our reliance on culture permitted much faster adaptation, but even culture can’t turn on a dime. It typically takes a few generations before a culture can adapt to new circumstances. Any serious environmental change that takes place in less that 50 years is probably too fast for human culture to handle.

Now let’s throw in the idea of progress. We didn’t even notice that civilization was progressing until a few centuries ago, and by the 19th century progress was all the rage, an infatuation that only grew in strength with time.

Progress changes our environment. If our environment changes, our culture needs to change to adapt to the new circumstances. But culture can’t turn on a dime; it takes a few generations to work out an appropriate change.

Our base of scientific knowledge is growing faster every year. The technology that this scientific knowledge inspires is also progressing faster every year. And that means that we change our environment faster every year.

Unless we stop this process, we will inevitably reach a point at which the environment is changing faster than we can adapt to it. At that point, we will no longer be adequately adapted to our environment. And Darwin is unforgiving: any species that cannot adapt to its environment always goes extinct.

Here’s a small bright note: I don’t think that we’ll actually go extinct. I think that we’ll only destroy our civilization and then regress to our hunter-gatherer roots. But we’ll never be able to repeat the success of current civilization, because it has already consumed all the easily reached resources such as fossil fuels.

Getting back to Gloom and Doom, I think it safe to say that civilization must collapse. Indeed, there’s a solid argument that we are already seeing the first seeds of an inability to adapt in the matter of anthropogenic climate change. Here’s a very real threat to our civilization, and we’ve got a president-elect who denies the very existence of the threat. The March to Doom may well have already begun.

Steven Pinker: A Critique of Robert Wright’s Progressivism

Steven Pinker (1954 – ) is an experimental psychologist, cognitive scientist, linguist, popular science author, and the Johnstone Family Professor in the Department of Psychology at Harvard University, where he earned his PhD in 1979. He regularly appears on lists of today’s most influential scientists, thinkers, and public intellectuals.

Pinker agrees with Wright that biological organisms and cultures get more complex over time and that there has been cultural and moral progress. Yet he is not convinced “that the cosmos has, in some sense, the “goal,” “end,” “purpose,” or “destiny” of producing complex life, intelligent species, societies, and global cooperation … natural selection is a feedback process with a kind of “goal,” and so is human striving. But do the two have the same goal, and is that goal an increase of complexity in the service of cooperation?”[i]  Pinker argues that the answer to both parts of this question is no. But why?

First, the goal of natural selection is to enhance reproduction; increasing complexity and cooperation are sub-goals in the service of this primary goal, as are increased size, speed, energy efficiency, parental care, weapons, etc. All may have increased over time, but they are not the goal or destiny of evolution. Second, human intelligence was no more destined to be than elephant trunks or any other biological adaptation. Brains evolve only when their benefits exceed their costs, an occurrence quite rare in living things since most things never develop brains. Third, humans don’t seek cooperation and societal complexity; they seek pleasure, friendship, knowledge and the like. Complexity may help us be happy, and it may help organisms reproduce, but that doesn’t mean they were evolution’s goal. Finally, Pinker argues that cooperation and moral progress will not increase toward a limit, but cease when the benefits of cooperation are balanced by its costs. Organisms and societies have become more complex, intelligent, and cooperative over time, but that doesn’t mean they were destined to become so. There may be some progress, but it is not inevitable, it is not built into the nature of things.

Summary – Biological and cultural evolution do not have a destiny.

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[i] http://www.slate.com/articles/arts/the_book_club/features/2000/nonzero/_2.html

The Main Thesis of Robert Wright’s, The Logic of Human Destiny

Robert Wright (1957 – ) is a journalist, and prize-winning author of books about evolutionary psychology, science, religion, and game theory. He is a graduate of Princeton University, where he has taught courses on the evolution of religion.

In Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny, Wright argues that biological and cultural evolution are shaped and directed primarily by non-zero-sumness—a concept in game theory that describes situations where both parties involved in an interaction can gain something. (As opposed to zero-sum games where one party’s gain is the other party’s loss, that is, the sum is zero.) As a result of the interactions between individuals in non-zero sum situations, increasingly complex information-processing individuals who cooperate more readily with each other emerge, implying that we are here because of a process that made the evolution of intelligent beings likely. As the complexity of individuals and societies increases, their ability to reap the rewards of cooperation increases, thus perpetuating further cooperation and developmental complexity.

The majority of Wright’s book summarizes the biological and cultural development which follows almost by necessity from non-zero sum interactions. However, at the end of his book, Wright intimates that we may be on the threshold of developing a global consciousness along the lines suggested by Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, a thinker we will discuss later. This leads him to wonder if there is any spiritual or moral directionality in evolution, and ultimately to the question of whether such progress is connected with the meaning of life. The connection, as Wright sees it, resides in the fact that consciousness imparts meaning.

A strictly empirical analysis of both organic and cultural evolution … reveals a world with direction—a direction suggestive of purpose … Life on earth was, from the beginning, a machine for generating meaning and then deepening it, a machine that created the potential for good and began to fulfill it.[i]

Summary – An analysis of biological and cultural evolution suggest a purposeful direction toward more meaning and goodness.

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[i] Robert Wright, Non-Zero: The Logic of Human Destiny (New York: Vintage, 2001), 331

Jean Piaget: Knowledge Evolves

Jean Piaget (1896-1980) was a Swiss biologist, psychologist, and philosopher known most prominently for his studies of the cognitive development of children. He was a voluminous writer in multiple fields whose publishing career began at age ten and continued unabated for about seventy years. He is one of the most important psychologists and cited intellectuals of the twentieth-century.

The desire to find a bridge between biology and knowledge was Piaget’s lifelong goal, and evolution provided that bridge, since both life and mind evolve.[i] What Piaget discovered after decades of empirical study was that interactions between biological organisms and their physical environment were strikingly parallel to those found in the relation between minds and reality—in both domains evolution proceeds similarly.

The key concepts in Piaget’s thought were: organization, adaptation, assimilation, accommodation, and equilibration. An animal is an organization, a complex, physical structure. If a biological organism is in a state of disequilibrium—for example it’s hungry—it is motivated to adapt to its environment—search for food. This process of adaptation comes about by assimilating from the environment—eating—and then accommodating to what’s been assimilation—undergoing the digestive process. The end result of the adaptive process is that the organism returns to a state of biological equilibrium—its hunger satisfied.

In a similar way humans exist as organisms in a cognitive environment. If an organism is in a state of cognitive disequilibrium—say it’s unsure of a truth claim—it is motivated to adapt to its cognitive environment—say by signing up for a class about the topic. This process of adaptation consists of both the process of assimilating new knowledge—attending a lecture—as well as accommodating to what’s been assimilated—by reconciling the new information with previous cognitive structures. The end result of the adaptive process is that the organism achieves a higher level of cognitive equilibrium.

Together organization and adaptation constitute what Piaget calls the process of equilibration—essentially a biological drive to produce optimal states of equilibrium between organisms and their physical and cognitive environments. The result in biological evolution is organisms more adapted to or equilibrated with their physical environments, and in cognitive evolution organisms more adapted to or equilibrated with their cognitive environment.

The empirical evidence to support his view comes from multiple sources. For instance, the cognitive development of a child—the evolution of individual mind—and the development of better scientific theories—the evolution of the group mind—both provide overwhelming evidence for the progressive evolution of knowledge toward better theories about the world, contra Kuhn. The equilibration process drives both individuals and groups to higher levels of equilibrium between mind and reality. In other words thought gradually adapts to reality. While Piaget did not discuss whether the evolution of cognitive structures would construct or discover meaning, we might infer that meaning, if real, will be approached by the increasing power of mind—mind that is the product of the process of equilibration that in turn moves mind closer and closer to truth.

Summary – Knowledge evolves in a progressive direction characterized by a better fit between mind and the real.

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[i] For more see John G. Messerly, Piaget’s Conception of Evolution (Lanham Md.: Rowman & Littlefield, 1996).

Will Durant On Cultural Progress

Will Durant (1885-1981) was a prolific writer, historian, and philosopher best known for his magnum opus, The Story of Civilization (11 Volume Set), and his book,The Story of Philosophy: The Lives and Opinions of the World’s Greatest Philosophers, one of the best-selling philosophy books of all time. He is generally regarded as a gifted prose stylist, was a winner of the Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction and a Presidential Medal of Freedom, and was one of the most beloved public intellectuals of the twentieth-century.

In a 1941 magazine essay entitled “Ten Steps Up From the Jungle,” Durant makes a historian’s case for cultural progress. He begins by retelling the story of Nicolas de Condorcet, the young French aristocrat, mathematician, and Enlightenment philosopher who penned one of the greatest tributes to progress ever written while hiding from the guillotine, the Historical Record of Progress of the Human Race. Given expanding scientific knowledge and universal education, Condorcet believed that there was no limit to human progress. Of him Durant exclaims:

I have never ceased to marvel that a man so placed—driven to the very last stand of hope, with all his personal sacrifices of aristocratic privilege and fortune gone for nothing, with that great revolution upon which the youth of all Europe had pinned its hopes for a better world issuing in indiscriminate suspicion and terror—should, instead of writing an epic of despondency and gloom, have written a paean to progress. Never before had man so believed in mankind, and perhaps never again since.[i]

Of course many legitimately question whether progress is real, whether our knowledge and technological achievements are good, for though knowledge is power, it is not justice or wisdom or beauty or kindness or hope. Civilizations have crumbled to dust and our technology may destroy us—thus pessimism may be warranted. So is progress real? Despite misgivings, Durant answers in the affirmative, for though history is full of war, it is also full of genius, the true source of the advance of civilization. The achievement of genius, preserved and transmitted as cultural heritage, transcends the fleetingness of states and empires, leaving us a legacy for which we are richer. Progress is real.

To specify this progress, Durant focused on ten salient progressive steps that together reveal cultural progress as self-evident. They are:

1) speech; 2) conquering animals; 3) conquering fire and light; 4) agriculture; 5) social organization; 6) morality; 7) developing the aesthetic sense; 8) science; 9) communication; and 10) education to transmit our cultural heritage.

Seen from a distance these steps show progress to be real and optimism justified. In the end this upward trajectory left Durant as optimistic about the future as Condorcet and Voltaire.

Do I have doubts about the future? Yes. Certainly, we shall pass through misery and terror. But I envy our children. I feel toward them as Voltaire felt when he came to Paris in 1778, aged 83, to die. He looked at the young men in Paris; he could see in their eyes the coming revolution. He knew they would suffer. That great men had died so many deaths to live so many lives—how gladly he would have died one more death to live one more life for those young men in Paris, to go through with them their revolution and their terror, their suffering and their creation. So he said to them what I should say to you: “The young are fortunate, for they will see great things. For us older ones, parents and teachers, it only remains to make straight their way.”[ii]

Summary – There has been cultural progress.

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[i] Will Durant, “Ten Steps Up From the Jungle,” The Rotarian, January 1941, 10.
[ii] Durant, 56.