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Cultural Evolution

By Nanook - Posted on 20 October 2010

Biological Evolution

"That’s correct. I think the other critical factor is that LIFE IS INHERENTLY RESILIENT. Remember, the basis of evolution is NATURAL SELECTION: survival of the fittest. But evolution only requires that creatures survive long enough and in sufficient condition to insure propagating the species. This basically means they only have to survive long enough to allow the next generation to be born and survive. There is a lot of tolerance for the condition that a creature is in when the next generation is launched.”

"By that you mean the parents could be half blind, missing arms and legs and talk gibberish, as long as they could have children and feed them until they are on their own, right?"

“Generally, that’s correct. But there’s a much larger element relating to how life deals with variations and shortcomings. Anyone who understands evolution knows that the process works by continuously favoring slight survival benefits which over time produce more offspring. But in the process, a large number of creatures with significant faults are also carried along.

In any population of creatures, there is a wide variation in attributes. The question is, do these attributes affect the number of offspring launched into the next generation? Many attributes may cause unusual behaviors and appearances. But in the end, if they don’t affect the number of offspring, they don’t count.”

"So, are you saying that all the LIES we hear, all the misinformation, is just noise?"

Obstacles to solving world problems

"From an evolutionary standpoint, yes. If you choose the wrong political party and support all the wrong causes, but still have a good job and lots of kids, then it doesn’t effect the equation much. In modern society, the phrase ‘ignorance is bliss’ has a lot of merit to it. In fact, there are some real negatives for individuals who try to understand the world too completely. Let me read you a few passages from a book by the philosopher Nietzsche.”

George got up and walked to one of his bookcases. This was the first time he did this that night. It was only the beginning.

“Friedrich Nietzsche: Beyond Good and Evil, page 35:”

"Very few people are capable of being independent; it is a privilege of the strong. And whoever tries it, however justified, without having to, proves that he is probably not only strong but bold to the point of complete recklessness. For he walks into a labyrinth; he increases a thousand fold the dangers which are inherent in life anyway. And not the smallest of his dangers is that no one can witness how and where he loses his way, falls into solitude, or is torn to pieces by … Conscience. When such a man perishes, it happens so far from human understanding that other men have no feeling for it, no fellow feeling… there is no return for him – not even a return to human compassion.
Page 65: Who has looked deep into the world can well understand the wisdom that lies in the fact that men are superficial. It is their instinct for self-preservation that teaches them to take things lightly, to skim over the surface, to be false."

"So what are you telling me? That I should stop trying to understand all of the things you and Bill and Ben and Father Vincent have been telling me? I don’t understand."

"Nanook. I’m afraid the problem Nietzsche describes is going to be a serious challenge for you. But one you have little control over. A person can’t select their intelligence when they are born. You happen to be born with an intellect that puts you near the top of the bell curve. All your life, I’m sure you knew this, or at least saw signs of it. And I’m sure your parents and others kept giving you commendations for it, telling you how lucky you were. But, as Nietzsche tells us, it comes with a heavy price. On one hand you will be told that the world has many problems and that you, because of your abilities, will be well positioned to solve them. You will be told that society WANTS solutions to their problems. But, when you try to help solve those problems, you will repeatedly be slapped down. No, I’m not telling you to stop learning and trying to understand. In fact, I am most strongly encouraging you to keep learning, to keep trying to understand. BUT, I am also saying it with the strongest caution. You must forget about doing this for the world. Even if you solve the greatest questions of the ages, MOST of the world will not listen to your answers. They will reject your guidance. Your brilliance will be seen by many people. But those who see it will use you for their own ends, which will be very far from the values you are trying to bring to the world.”

"So, what about taking the other road? What about just ignoring the intellectual end?

"There is a lot to say for that approach. If you can find fulfillment in life just enjoying nature and the natural world around you, that is a very good alternative. It may also be a much healthier road to follow due to much lower levels of stress. You won’t know unless you try it. But, as they say, ‘no man is an island’. So you will have to turn your back on the endless injustice you will inevitably see around you.”

"It sounds like you want me to become a hermit."

"Or possibly join us up here in Alaska? I’m not just telling you this story lightly. If you allow yourself to be pulled into the cries for help from of our culture, and you don’t understand the narrow rationality behind those cries, you will find yourself dragged to your doom in quicksand.”

"But isn’t there anything I can do? I can already see so many problems in society that I have easy solutions for."

"Sure. But you are fooling yourself about having easy solutions. Like so many others, you are still naïve and gullible. You only see the functional parts of the problems. For example, you see hunger all over the world. For you, the obvious issue is food. So, you think of many ways to improve food production or food utilization. But a shortage of food is hardly every the problem when we see hunger. And the problem is very, very seldom a technology problem. The true problem lies with the people who have leadership positions in the societies we see starving. Because of their ignorance, or greed for money and power, they not only don’t solve the food problem, but they stifle any attempt by others to solve it. If you try to bring a direct technical solution into such a situation, you are very likely to be killed rather than rewarded.”

"OK. But let me ask my question again. Isn’t there anything I can do in such a situation?"

"Sure. Look for WISDOM. Try to understand the larger problem. And if you can get the information you need to understand it, then also search for avenues that will result in solutions. And remember, forget looking for technical solutions as the first step. Technology always captures people’s imaginations. But technology only adds to the problem if the underlying leadership problems are not solved first.


OK, enough sour grapes. We were in the middle of exploring the evolutionary contribution to the ‘fairy’ problem. Do you want to keep going?”

"Wow! My head is spinning again. There are so many side paths in this jungle."

BUT, there are so many ENTIRELY NEW WORLDS I have yet to tell you about. Places I’m sure you’ve never even heard of. For example, did you realize that the fundamental process of evolution itself is now radically changing!”

"What? How can evolution FUNDAMENTALLY change? I mean, evolution is a basic life process. This I’ve got to hear."

"I have been careful in my previous statements about evolution to refer to the evolution of ‘creatures’. Have you noticed that?”

"Well, no."

"Right. And I wouldn’t expect you to. But there is a reason to make that distinction. When Darwin outlined his theory, he primarily focused on the BIOLOGICAL elements of evolution. What he presented in Origin of Species, which people refer to as Darwin’s theory, is BEHAVIORAL EVOLUTION. In that theory, what ruled survival was how animals behave in response to external stimuli. The mechanism that drives animals to seek food and reproduce is instinctive. It is mostly inherited as part of their genetic code or learned by simple imitations of the actions of others like themselves. What these animals specifically DON’T ever do is sit down and discuss what they plan to do tomorrow.

**Cognitive Evolution

With the arrival of the higher primates, including the predecessors of man, came the development of what are now called COGNITIVE functions. That is, in relatively recent evolutionary time, some animals gained the ability to THINK and COMMUNICATE using SYMBOLS and ABSTRACT CONCEPTS. These animals, in their brains, can form complex mental images of the past, present and future. They know how to evaluate what they see in the world, how to plan to change it, and how to do so on an extensive scale. Does this make sense?”

"Sure. Enter the humans."

"Right. But don’t you think this might have an impact on the entire process of evolution?”

"Sure. The human brain gave humans an advantage over the other animals. That’s why we have dominated the planet."

"Agreed. BUT, don’t you think this fundamentally changes the very basis of how evolution works as well?”

"Hmmm . . . I don’t see how. Humans still have to perform the basic life functions. They have to compete for food. They still have to reproduce and pass on their genetic information to the next generations."

"Agreed. BUT, with this new thinking ability, there is a whole new set of criterion for how those behaviors get decided. Think about it. Out on the savanna, when a lion was hungry, it went to stalk prey. Faster lions presumably did better. So, natural selection favored faster lions. Faster, stronger, healthier, and more camouflage were advantageous traits that were common across most species. Mating behavior developed to follow that pattern as well – brightly colored males, dull camouflaged females.

Now, think about the new world we live in. Machinery delivers food to our door even if we can’t walk. Medicine allows people with very poor health to live. Religion, culture and nationalism modifies mating behavior with all the misinformation we see floating around in our culture. Religious and cultural beliefs lead to wars that selectively wipe out particular types of humans in huge numbers. For humans, the old biological evolution rules no longer apply, where those rules were essentially: ‘survival of the FITTEST’, where fittest meant STRONG and HEALTHY in relation to a very local environment. Do you understand what I’m trying to tell you?”

"Wow! Let me think about this a minute. This is really profound. For over a billion years, life on earth struggled and evolved based on biological rules related to food and reproduction. Now, in just a few generations, with our weapons of mass destruction, with medicines, with machinery, we are totally able to change the whole equation. What you’re saying is that the evolution of the thinking brain has itself changed the fundamental rules of evolution!"

"EXACTLY! The whole process of evolution has been totally changed. I call this new form of evolution COGNITIVE EVOLUTION. The human mind and its wildest fantasies are now driving evolution!” But more specifically, IDEAS, rather than physical strength or bodily health are now driving evolution. And the result is an unfathomable speedup in evolution. Let me read a summary of this speed up from a book by Daniel Dennett called Consciousness Explained. Page 190.”

" . . . for several million years after the split with protochimpanzees, our hominid ancestors got along with ape-sized brains, in spite of becoming bipedal at least three and a half million years ago. Then, when the ice ages began, about two and a half million years ago, the Great Encephalization commenced, and was essentially completed 150,000 years ago - before the development of language, of cooking, of agriculture. Just why our ancestors' brains should have grown so large so fast (in the evolutionary time scale it was more an explosion than a blossoming) is a matter of some controversy . . . But there is little controversy about the nature of the product: the brain of early Homo sapiens (who lived from roughly 150,000 years ago to the end of the most recent ice age a mere 10,000 years ago) was an enormously complex brain of unrivaled plasticity, almost indistinguishable from our own in size and shape."

“Do you see my point? Do you see the timescale issues?”

"Hmmm . . . Wow! I knew that the human brain evolved pretty slowly from the first human we call Lucy, who lived 3 million years ago, to it’s large size today. And while I call that slow, it is actually fast on the timescale of biological evolution. But this book also tells us that the brain size growth essentially stopped 150,000 years ago. Even though it was large, humans still acted like animals. And they kept acting like that for another 140,000 years until 10,000 years ago. Then something happened, and we developed language, cooking, agriculture etc."

“Exactly. And humans developed these new skills in only a matter of a FEW THOUSAND years. We know this from archeological studies that show these cultural traits were well established 4000 years ago. Let me read a little more.”

"This is important. The astonishing hominid brain growth was essentially complete before the development of language, and so cannot be a response to the complexities of mind that language has made possible."

“Do you see this point?”

"Sure. Someone might propose that once we had language, it gave us some evolutionary advantage that caused our brains to grow. But this shows that it couldn’t be that way."

"The innate specializations for language, hypothesized by the linguist Noam Chomsky and others, and now beginning to be confirmed in details of neuroanatomy, are a very recent and rushed add-on. . . Moreover, the most remarkable expansion of human mental powers (as witnessed by the development of cooking, agriculture, art, and, in a word, civilization) has all happened even more recently, since the end of the last ice age, in a 10,000-year twinkling that is as good as instantaneous from the evolutionary perspective that measures trends in millions of years. Our brains are equipped at birth with few if any powers that were lacking in the brains of our ancestors 10,000 years ago. So the tremendous advance of Homo sapiens in the last 10,000 years must almost all be due to harnessing the plasticity of that brain in radically new ways - by creating something like software to enhance its underlying powers."

Behavioral genetics - DNA – genetic changes

"OK. Now this is really becoming clear. The whole genetic role in evolution is out the window. The major changes in human culture: Babylon, Greece, Rome, the Dark Ages, the Renaissance, the industrial revolution, the nuclear age; all of these are occurring without genetic change. They are also happening at a speed ten million times faster than biological evolution. "

“Correct, but NOT exactly. Let me make one exception to what you said. I don’t think the genetic role is out the window. Far from it. Now that the human race has discovered the mechanism of DNA, we can drastically change life forms artificially in a matter of years. The genetic role is very much alive, but in a totally different form.

Rather than genetic changes waiting for random mutations, the changes in the future will be introduced by man. Rather than waiting for natural selection based on environmental changes, human traits will be selected by cognitive factors such as race or nationality and enforced by war, or government edicts, or wild cultural fads.

War now has such an all encompassing effect. It used to be reserved as a CONTEST FOR A MILITARY ELITE, who carried off the women and children as slaves. WAR NOW KILLS EVERYONE. Medicine now allows the weak and diseased to live and pass on diseases that formerly would stop through natural causes. Religion, culture and nationalism modify mating behavior. The entire world environment, the oceans, the forests, all animals and plants, through industrial activity, have been put in the hands of financial investors who only have their own interests at heart.”

"Whoa! Whoa! This is profound stuff."

“Nanook. What you just said is a major understatement. Humans can now alter all life on earth, which took a billion years to evolve, in a matter of just a few years. And because our culture doesn’t understand this, we can’t use logical processes to control it. In the world of animals, we talked about the law of the survival of the fittest. In the world of man, the new law is the FITTING of the SURVIVALIST. WE ARE A LIFE FORM OUT OF CONTROL.”

"I totally can’t believe what you’re telling me. I mean, I do believe it. It’s just way beyond anything I can digest."

“Think about it. Knowledge has become like a virus. It can reprogram our DNA. But unlike viruses, that mutate in a local environment, the knowledge base of every DNA change we make is being shared with all humans across the globe. So the ability for mutations to cross the whole genome is speeded up almost infinitely.


So, the next question is, what is driving this new evolution? A philosopher named Richard Dawkins defined a new term to describe the role of ideas. That term is MEMES.

A meme is any thought or behavior that can be passed from one person to another. Some memes are: thoughts, ideas, theories, gestures, behaviors, fashions, habits and songs.

Memes as independent life forms

But Memes are way more than just ideas. Memes can propagate. They can move through a culture. They can multiply in number and mutate. In many ways, memes have LIFE PROPERTIES and can evolve in ways similar to biological evolution. So, it is NOT a stretch to think about them as INDEPENDENT LIFE FORMS. That is, it is important to note that memes are INDEPENDENT of humans. And memes may even take control of human activities. Dennett presented a very powerful image that makes this clear. He said,”

"A scholar is just a library's way of making another library."

"Neat. So in this statement, a library is a meme."

“Exactly! And the library feeds on scholars like a parasite interacts with a host organism.

The processes of variation, mutation, competition, and inheritance influence an individual meme's reproductive success. Some memes will propagate less successfully and become extinct. Others will survive, spread, and, for better or for worse, mutate. That means, the memes most beneficial to their hosts will not necessarily survive. Rather, those memes that replicate the most effectively will spread the best. That allows for the possibility that successful memes may prove detrimental to their hosts. Does this make sense to you?”

"Sure. A good example would be snake handling. I read about this once. The Bible has some passage in it that says if people have faith, they can handle poisonous snakes and won’t get hurt. The article said this belief had recently caught on in the south. The result was a lot of people dying of snake bites."

“O. . K. . . I guess that’s a good example. In fact, that’s a very good example. ”

So why haven’t I ever read anything about either these memes or your idea about cognitive evolution?"

"Nanook. Nowhere in either the old or new theory of evolution does it say humans have to be WISE. WISDOM is not essential. The human race can live largely in ignorance and denial. The only requirement is that we SURVIVE! The sign posts are all there that we are royally screwing things up. But most humans either don’t want to see the sign posts, are not able to understand them, or are not responsible enough to face up to them.

In fact, you could have read about cognitive evolution. I’m not the first one to understand it. Darwin himself already understood the difference. His term for what I call COGNITIVE EVOLUTION was ‘artificial selection’ to distinguish it from what he called ‘natural selection’. The meme concept hasn’t really caught on yet. ”

"This is pretty scary stuff. I mean, if we can mess up such a major force as evolution, we are capable of doing a huge amount of damage to life on earth in a very short period of time."

Environmental damage

"HELLO! What do you mean ‘WE ARE CAPABLE’? Just think about what we have ALREADY DONE! Europe and Asia used to be covered with trees just like America was when the Pilgrims came to the ‘new world’. By the time of the Romans, that is, 2000 years ago, the great forests of Europe and western Asia had already been decimated. The Romans didn’t use stone for all their construction projects because it was an easy material to build with. Humans had already destroyed most of the trees! Do you know that, in the lower 48, the population of wild animals has been reduced by over 80% just from when the Pilgrims first arrived? The great herds of buffalo that covered the western plains are all but wiped out. Do you know that most of the natural trees in this country are also gone? Do you know that major fish stocks covering the entire globe are on the verge of collapse?”

"I hate to say it, but yes. I’ve read about this. I just thought that science and technology could find a way out."

"FIND A WAY OUT! What about RESPONSIBILITY! What about people taking care of the earth? Ironically, just falling back on science and technology is a BIG TRAP humans are setting for themselves. It’s a trap because it’s a DIVERSION. Science and technology CAN find a way out. But science and technology cannot overcome the Seven Deadly Sins!"