Saturday, June 23, 2018


376. Will humanity survive its cultural evolution?

It has become customary to say that the biological evolution of humanity has been overtaken by its cultural evolution, and to applaud that: we are making our own destiny, and things move faster. I wonder. I doubt that humanity will survive that evolution.

There are two problems with the claim.

The first point is whether cultural development really is like evolution. The logic of evolution is based on the three factors of variety, selection by a ‘selection environment’, and transmission. In biology there is a distinction between ‘interactors’, the carriers of genes, which may or may not survive selection, and ‘selectors’, the genes that are carried and transmitted by the carriers that survive.

What are the equivalents in  cultural evolution? The equivalents of genes, the selectors, are ideas, it is claimed, called ‘memes’ (derived from the word ‘memory’). They survive and proliferate according to the interest they generate. What are the interactors: the carriers of ideas? Not only their inventors but also the people or institutions that adopt them? When ideas do not survive, the carriers still do, and may learn from it and come up with other ideas. They do not necessarily cease to exist. And the ideas may be picked up later, even after the death of its generators. That often happens.

Transmission takes place by communication, through different media. In the process they are interpreted and thereby distorted, and thus get mixed up with the process of the generation of novel ideas. The equivalent of that in biological evolution is copying errors of genes, which do happen, but not as systematically as interpretative variation in communication.

More importantly, the selection environment must be independent from the units that are selected, the interactors. In other words, there should be little co-evolution, where the interactors can affect their selection environment, create their ow selection. In nature that does happen, for example in symbiosis, but there also this is much more limited than in  culture.

In the economy the selection environment is supposed to be markets. But in marketing producers affect the choices of consumers. Large multinationals put pressure on government to give in to their demand in rules and regulations, such as taxes, competition policy,  and protection of the environment, on the threat of moving their business abroad when not satisfied. Politicians create new political movements. New media are created. Scientists who cannot get their papers published in existing journals crate their own, new journals. In democracies, laws, regulations and other institutions are adapted to the will of the people.

What is to a considerable extent autonomous in the present selection environment, is technical development. It is governed by what sells and what is technologically possible. That is very difficult to contain within the constraints of ethical considerations. Market considerations mostly win. Part of that problem is the one of externalities: what is preferred by individual consumers and firms often does not align with what is good for the collective.   

The second point is that the outcome of evolution, any evolution, is not necessarily ‘good’. Evolution does not necessarily produce improvement. That depends on the selection environment. In cultural evolution, now satisfaction of desire is the dominant selection mechanism, at the expense of other values. If tolerance and justice are in the way of individual material and emotional satisfaction, then for electoral reasons they are held back.  

In the present culture expression, hypes and emotions determine what survives and proliferates, at the expense of reason, facts, knowledge and public interest. Fake news wins. The environment, which was the old election environment, is not part of market mechanisms. The future, and future generations, are subservient to the present.

In this way humanity cannot survive, and will succumb to its own evolution.

The symptoms are becoming increasingly clear. Increasing inequality, injustice, racism, nationalism, egotism and narcissism, and blind, compulsive consumerism. Wars will lead to correction, in a renewed experience of shared hardship, or to ruin.