Edge.org has an article in which Mark Pagel (right) presents a fresh and intriguing view of human evolution. Like all scientific work, he also speculates, if not quite predicts, that humans have reached a point beyond which we are possibly going to get more stupid — thus the title Infinite Stupidity.
Readers are advised to first read it or view the video before returning here.
In a nutshell, Pagel argues that with the emergence of homo sapiens on this planet, a process of evolution through cultural selection of ideas has become the main driver of change, taking over from the antecedent evolution through natural selection of genes. He also argues that the former has many of the same characteristics as the latter.
More specifically, where genetic mutation is random, so, he posits, might mutation of ideas (or what we commonly call innovation). Just as genetic mutation is a relatively rare phenomenon, with replication being more common, so in cultural evolution, innovation is rare, but copying is common.
Genetic mutation is a highly risky event. Most of the time, it fails to make the organism adapt better to its environment or convey any benefit to its reproductive potential. Likewise, idea innovation is also a highly risky event. It entails much effort, and the better strategy for other individuals in a population would be to copy than to invest effort in creating anew.
Pagel then brings in the internet and its related phenomena such as social media. These technological changes further lubricate the spread of ideas (copying) and thus further reduce any advantage in innovating. He strikes a pessimistic note for the future as a result.
But on the whole, his main point is that humans are not the species we we often think of ourselves as: we are not directed innovators, creating “progress” through deliberative advancements. Any innovation we have come up with might largely be mere chance, and that the average individual is no innovator at all, but a copier.
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What I find troubling with the above analysis is the tacit equation of copying behaviour with stupidity. Surely copying is not totally passive. People make choices as to what to imitate and which ideas to take on board. In many situations, one is presented with different new ways of doing or thinking, which may be mutually exclusive, in addition to the option of just sticking with the old. In making a choice, some intelligence must surely be operating. It may be faulty in that the application of intelligence or rationality, or whatever form it takes, occurs in a setting of incomplete information or of subconscious bias (something I will come back to in a minute), but the long-term record of our species suggests that on the whole, the choices that the 99 or 99.9 percent make and which drive the cultural evolution of which Pagel speaks, has been remarkably successful. Here, I use the term “successful” in an evolutionary sense, in terms of breeding numbers and adaptation to new environments.
It may very well be that 1:99 or 1:99.9 ratio between innovators and copiers is optimal — and naturally selected to be optimal. Too many innovators and too few copiers may mean a population that keeps on generating novelty with an ineffective mechanism for sifting through all that novelty to determine which ones benefit the species and which do not. As Pagel himself has argued, innovation may be more driven by randomness than design, and precisely because it is mostly random, one cannot know what innovations are “useful” or “good” unless they have been “field-tested”, so to speak, through the choices of the 99 percent. However, such a perspective would give due credit to the copiers, because it then becomes clear that they and their intelligence have a role to play.
In the same vein, one can take issue with Pagel’s pessimisim about the effects of the internet and social media. He argues that these tools make copying so much easier, people would prefer to copy than to innovate.
I do not know if we can definitively say the people innovate from necessity, which the above argument implies. The oddballs among us in the human species are odd for reasons that are, well, odd. They are the ones who ask searching questions about the most quotidian of observations — like why does an apple fall down and not fall up? They are the ones who enjoy probing some tiny corner of the universe — asking, for example, what bacteria thrives in the neighbourhood pond? — with no prospect of utilitarian return. They are the perpetual malcontents, that no matter how comfortable or rational the existing situation is, can see something wrong with it and itches to either speak out or fix it.
Very much like genetic mutation, cultural mutation does not come about to “serve” any purpose. But also like genetic mutation, cultural mutation may occur at a certain rate. There is then no reason to believe that making replication or copying more efficient has any effect on the naturally occurring rate of mutation.
I think the fact that technological and cultural change has accelerated in tandem with human population growth supports the above point.
On the other hand . . . .
In pointing to the internet as a scene-changer in humans’ cultural evolution to come, Pagel may be on to something. Even if, as I have posited above, the rate of cultural mutation (or innovation) remains the same per million population, and even if the total incidence of cultural mutation continues to accelerate as population grows and become better educated, the dynamics of selection and adoption (copying, if you will) may well change.
For this, I would again refer to analogies from natural selection of genetic mutation.
Imagine a species that lived across a number of valleys, each separated by mountains they do not easily cross. Each valley thus represents a sub-population, in which genetic mutation occurs from time to time. Some mutations are beneficial and soon spread to the rest of the sub-population after a few generations. But this change does not easily spread to other valleys because of the physical barriers. Instead, other valleys have different sets of local mutations to select from.
The result is a species with different subspecies, and thus with slightly different adaptations and specialisations. When a new environmental threat appears impacting all valleys, there is a better chance that one or more subspecies have the wherewithal to cope. The diversity within the species endows it with resilience.
What the internet has done to human cultural evolution is to bulldoze the mountains away. Innovations springing up will very quickly find themselves having to compete with innovations from everywhere, without having the luxury of time to prove themselves on their home ground. There is no protected valley for a reasonable number of imitators to take up the local innovations, and no time to further develop them with subsequent mutations upon mutations.
The tendency is thus towards homogenisation. A few innovations spread very quickly, but a much higher percentage of innovations never a get a chance to be adopted, tested and developed.
Again and again we’ve seen this in recent human history.
As transport and communications infrastructure improve and national education systems spread, local languages are being wiped out. The energy-intensive “modern” way of life is widely adopted, or at least aspired to, as local adaptations to climate are ignored. Ignored too is the global threat to energy scarcity and climate change.
Ditto with business. There is the common complaint that opening borders to free trade and free foreign investment is not the unvarnished virtue it claims to be. It has terrible effects on local businesses, local brands, skills, trades and employment.
Or take something we see all around it: The awful spread of American fast food into our cultures. Hamburgers and fried chicken succeeded in America as a result of certain distortions in the country’s agricultural policies. The heavy reliance on corn-fed beef fattened in feedlots (where the cattle, infected with E coli, stand hoof-deep amidst their excrement) and battery-farmed chickens is what produced the phenomenon. Today the fast food chains are steadily destroying local food traditions as they spread around the world.
Now, I’m no traditionalist — I do not automatically valorise traditional cuisines over imports — but a good case can be made that American fast food is a terrible import. It is terrible in its effects on health and nutrition, and on the welfare of animals. Its heavy reliance on meat, an energy-intensive food, over plant-based ingredients, is also damaging our planet’s ecosystem. These are the new environmental threats that are magnified by the spread of American fast food (and fast food habits, such as accompanying each meal with fries and soda). For example, instead of obesity affecting just a sub-population of humans in North America, Britain and Australia, it is beginning to affect many other “valleys”.
So why are people from around the world adopting this cultural meme?
This questions brings us back to the matter of the intelligence of the imitator. Here is proof, you might say, that we shouldn’t see imitators through rose-tinted lenses. They don’t always exercise intelligence in making their choices as to what innovations to adopt. Indeed it is a complicated matter. What may be rational within certain data sets (e.g. the hamburger restaurant has a clean toilet, reasonably priced food and within walking distance when healthier food is further away, so I choose the hamburger) may be disastrously irrational (you’ll get fat and suffer a heart attack at age 63) when other data sets come into consideration.
And then there’s the well-demonstrated bias towards adopting innovations of ideas, habits and technology that others in the social circle have adopted. The same trait — humans are social learners — that Mark Pagel speaks of to explain how we broke the mould of evolution by natural selection of genes to cultural evolution, is both curse and blessing. We also adopt irrational, unintelligent ideas, technology and habits simply because others around us have done so and we have a subconscious need to belong.
There is no better example than the fact that large numbers of people, despite all the evidence, resist the idea of evolution by natural selection in the first place.