Thursday, October 9, 2008

Evolution and Technology

I've talked about the affects of technology on evolution before, but I feel I didn't do the subject proper justice. There seems to be this notion that human technology has somehow halted evolution. That man has risen above the force that has shaped all creatures on Earth. This is a misunderstanding that reveals an ignorance of evolution, even among the educated.

I think the term "survival of the fittest" is the main source of the problem. This phrase is truly a misguided characterization of the process. Survival is an important aspect of evolution, but not quite the defining feature. It is really just a prerequisite for the replication of organisms. The more copies a species is able to make of itself, the more able it is to pass its genes from generation to generation. We are only concerned with whether or not an organism was able to live long enough to reproduce.

The "fittest" is a poorly chosen word as well. The term fittest implies that an organism is the smartest or strongest. Again, this is not the case. An organism is fit if it is able to survive and reproduce in its environment. I can not stress that enough. It is certainly possible to imagine an environment where the dumb and weak are more fit, even if it is a fabricated one.

I suppose if I'm going to bash the terminology I should probably propose an alternative. Here's what I came up with:

Replication of the most reproducible mutations in a given environment.

It's not perfect, but it's a start. Now that we've got some of those pesky misconceptions out of the way, let's do some practical applications.

Going back to technology's affect on evolution, technology does indeed affect evolution but it does not halt it. Technology merely changes the environment. Weak and dumb humans are fit in our environment if they are able to reproduce and pass their genes. It's really as simple as that. There are many factors that go into the makeup of the environment, and many things are relative.

The best example I can give of relativity is this little anecdote:
In a land of honest people, the liar is king.
There is a certain balance to this. A liar can indeed be successful in an environment where everyone else is honest, but it breaks down if there are too many liars. What can a liar hope to achieve when there is no one to swindle? It is also easy to see how honesty can be advantageous. If you build a reputation of honesty, others will be more willing to cooperate with you.

Now let's take a little trip to the dark side of all this. It is very possible to evolve ourselves out of existence. If we become so successful at replicating, we could overpopulate. Overpopulation creates a strain on resources and we could potentially doom ourselves to starvation.

It has also become very apparent that dumb people are very successful at reproducing. Now this certainly makes them more fit in the current environment, but it also makes them less adaptable. The ability to adapt is a strong survival feature. If we lose that ability, a sudden change in the environment could easily lead to our extinction. Now we could certainly guide our reproduction to ensure the best humans are replicated (notice I used the word "best" instead of "fit"). This is still evolution though, because our artificial guiding hand is still just another environmental factor. If we for some reason decide to save the beautiful and kill the ugly, then it is evolutionarily beneficial to be beautiful in that particular environment.

Well we went over quite a bit of stuff. There is certainly much more to say, but I'll leave it at that for now. As always I welcome your comments, questions, and challenges.

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