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Evolution: Biological, Technological, and Societal

Posted: Fri, August 30, 2013 | By: Indefinite Life Extension



By: G. Stolyarov II

The concept of evolution is all too frequently given insufficient attention by self-proclaimed proponents of liberty. However, an understanding of biological, technological, and societal evolution – including the similarities and differences among these processes – is extremely helpful and perhaps indispensable for a full appreciation of the nature and benefits of individual liberty, free markets, and limited government.

Biological Evolution

Biological evolution is the change in the physical structure, processes, and functionality of organisms over the span of generations. Biological evolution does not occur on an individual level, but rather on the level of populations and often entire species; the accumulated changes constituting biological evolution can result in the formation of entirely new species over hundreds of thousands and millions of years. Indeed, contemporary understandings of evolution hold that all living organisms are related and share a common ancestor. Evolution can explain the greater genetic similarity of certain species to certain others by pointing out that those species shared common ancestors in the more proximate past. The driving force of biological evolution is natural selection. Certain traits allow individuals to survive to reproductive age more reliably and therefore to pass those traits on to their genetic offspring. Biological evolution does not itself create the traits that are more suited to a given environment; those traits arise randomly as a result of genetic mutations. The overwhelming majority of these mutations are deleterious to an organism’s survival, but on occasion a mutation arises that facilitates superior adaptation. The organisms exhibiting this mutation then become more prominent and widespread within their population or species.

Technological Evolution

Technological evolution is the change in the machines, infrastructure, and methods of communication used by human beings. The generating force of technological evolution is invention by individual humans or by intentional collaborative human efforts where a division of labor exists. Subsequently, technologies are adopted or fall into disuse based on commercial selection – the process determining acceptance within a market of buyers or users. Consumers judge technologies based on their ability to fulfill the consumers’ goals as individuals or to adequately perform in the production of still other goods. As new technologies are developed, they frequently displace older technologies that were intended to accomplish a similar role but did so less efficiently – that is, they did not accomplish the goal in question as quickly or with the same level of quality. Although the human biological makeup has remained approximately the same throughout recorded history, technological developments have been able to dramatically alter, improve, and lengthen human lives and well-being during the past ten millennia. Unlike biological evolution, technological evolution occurs on a scale that is perceptible by individual human beings. Moreover, the rate of technological evolution has dramatically accelerated since about 1750.

Societal Evolution

Societal evolution is the change in human institutions – including political systems, cultural practices, worldviews, languages, ethical norms, forms of art, and economic interactions. Societal evolution, at its most fundamental level, is driven by individual choices made during day-to-day life. However, those choices are often influenced and conditioned in substantial ways by institutions which were the result of prior societal evolution. Most individuals in most societies choose to simply mimic existing macroscopic institutionally suggested societal arrangements rather than developing their own or even incrementally improving upon the status quo. Thus, the majority of large-scale societal evolution occurs due to the efforts of a relative handful of individuals in any field of endeavor. These can include authors, major artists, politicians, successful entrepreneurs, and philosophical or religious figures. However, advanced societies also exhibit subcultures or niches in which any given individual’s barriers to influencing behavior within the group are much lower. In smaller niches, each individual can be a considerable influence on societal evolution, and the resulting state of the niche can also exert some degree of influence upon the larger society.

The scale of societal evolution, like that of technological evolution, can be perceived by individual humans in most cases. However, while technological innovations feed on one another to generate an accelerating rate of evolution, the pace of societal evolution is more variable and differs when we consider various aspects of society. Some social norms and behaviors can change dramatically in a matter of days or weeks; consider, for instance, the popularity of certain songs, movies, and “bestseller” books. On the other hand, much slower evolution – on a scale of centuries to millennia – can occur in such institutions as languages, the layout of roads, the set of esthetic works generally thought to be “high culture,” and ethical norms. The rate of societal evolution may have been accelerated by recent improvements in communication technology – although any impression of this may be due more to the greater ability to be aware of evolutionary changes among various societies and social subgroups as well as to record those changes, which might have gone unnoticed in the past.

Evolution, Spontaneous Order, and Uncertainty of Outcomes

All three kinds of evolution are spontaneous orders; the process and the entire results of evolution cannot be controlled, arranged, or even predicted by a single entity. Entities from atoms to human beings participate in evolutionary processes by following certain rules – be they the rules of molecular biology, the laws of physics and the principles of engineering design, or the laws of economics and the inclinations of self-interest. In following these rules, the participant entities generate a macroscopic outcome that is much larger than any of them – indeed, an outcome that may be beyond the ability of a participant entity to perceive and be aware of. No biological organism seeks to bring about new species formation in its attempts to obtain nourishment, escape predators, and reproduce. Likewise, the inventor of a new technology most often does not grasp the full range of economic and societal consequences his invention will have. Moreover, the originators of new social paradigms rarely, if ever, can grasp how their paradigms will interact with already existing paradigms and with paradigms that are yet to come. Neither with technological evolution nor with societal evolution is it possible to exhaustively and comprehensively predict who will use an innovation and how. With biological evolution, the long-term distribution of particular traits within populations and species are likewise difficult to predict, because natural selection is capricious; it does not favor the same traits in the same conditions. Radical and sudden environmental changes may come to favor a previously ill-adapted set of traits.

Evolution and Progress

Not all kinds of evolution are progressive, where progress can be defined as an improvement in the well-being, safety, and opportunities available to individual organisms – particularly intelligent ones such as humans. Biological evolution is notoriously non-progressive; it does not have any mechanisms for ensuring individual survival. Indeed, once an individual has reached reproductive age, reproduced, and reared offspring to near-maturity, biological evolution has no more regard for him, her, or it. As far as that individual’s survival is concerned, it is irrelevant to biological evolution. For this reason, many individual organisms have evolved decent self-preservation mechanisms prior to reproductive age; humans and other mammals do not senesce prior to reproductive age and generally have strong immune systems to protect themselves from disease until they reach the age when they can be expected to have near-mature offspring. Once the genes are passed on, however, the individual who passed them on is no longer necessary to the perpetuation his, her, or its genome. Thus, few mechanisms of natural selection operate to select for traits that preserve that individual after successful reproduction and upbringing have taken place.

Moreover, biological evolution does not even have built-in protections for the survival and advancement of entire species and lines of descent. There have been numerous observed evolutionary “dead ends,” where natural selection’s results were the destruction of an entire gene pool because of its lack of adaptations to certain environmental conditions – including bizarre and sudden environmental changes. Numerous times during the Earth’s history, more complex species with more advanced functionality have been wiped out and supplanted by more primitive species with less intelligence and fewer abilities.

Nor is societal evolution necessarily progressive. History is replete with examples of societies that have lost rights and freedoms hitherto enjoyed by their members. Moreover, commonly held esthetic tastes have decayed over time in many historical and contemporary societies. The English language is currently far more rigid and less receptive to innovation than it was during the era of Shakespeare and Marlowe. Other deleterious changes – such as the decrease in prevailing attention spans and increasing audience passivity – have characterized certain periods of 20th-century Western history. In academic disciplines, including economics, philosophy, and political theory, it is not infrequent that more truthful and accurate theories and ideas are abandoned it favor of fanciful, flawed, and even dangerous mental constructs.  The 20th century, in general, exhibited numerous instances of both social progress and massive social decay. On the one hand, decreasing racism and religious intolerance in the West were clear signs of progress; on the other hand, the horrors of the two World Wars, the massive growth in government power, and rampant inflation epidemics were just some of the counter-progressive tendencies of the 20th century. Societal evolution can be progressive – especially over longer-term intervals, as the immense general moral improvement and increases in cultural variety, political freedom, and individual choice during the past millennium have shown. However, there is no guarantee of societal progress during any term within the lifetime of an individual. While a person born in 1940 has certainly witnessed tremendous societal progress during his life, a person living from 1870 to 1940 would beg to differ.

Of the three kinds of evolution, technological evolution is the only consistently progressive one. Even as the world engaged in brutal carnage, punctuated by unprecedented economic crises, during the first half of the 20th century, technological progress continued to occur and to accelerate. Technological evolution is progressive because technological improvements build on one another. Existing innovations make it easier to develop new ones, because they economize on the labor, information gathering, communication costs, and other transaction costs required to do so. Existing computers, vehicles, and factory automata can considerably speed up the production of other technologies of their kind. While institutional and cultural factors can certainly affect the rate of technological progress, it is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to reverse. The knowledge of how to materialize a particular technological design is relatively easy to spread once it is originated; even if a widespread, coordinated effort to suppress technological innovation arises, somebody, somewhere will be able to learn how to create the needed technologies and will be able to actualize this knowledge.

Individuals – particularly individual humans – can benefit from their own technological and societal evolution, but not from their own biological evolution. Biological evolution occurs at an intergenerational level, and the individual’s only role in it is that of passing on a genetic code.

Human Planning of Evolution

At present, human beings have only limited control over planning the course of biological evolutionary processes. With selective breeding and genetic engineering, as well as the alteration of the environments in which non-human organisms exist, it is possible to exercise some manner of indirect guidance of biological evolutionary processes. But there are still many traits that humans can neither engineer nor eliminate in themselves or in other organisms. Technology may, however, soon develop to a point where a greater degree of human oversight over biological evolution can become possible. By far the majority of instances of biological evolution are not man-generated or planned by humans; they occur due to the impersonal processes of mutation and natural selection that have existed for billions of years.

Virtually all technological evolution is planned, in the sense that inventors and entrepreneurs deliberately introduce particular technologies into particular markets. However, while the elements of the evolution can be consciously designed and introduced, the consequences and interactions of these elements are virtually impossible to predict by any human being.

Societal evolution, like technological evolution, is man-generated, in the sense that humans and their actions are responsible for every component of societal evolution. However, societal evolution is much harder to plan than technological evolution; no one person, for instance, designed the first monetary systems, or any language, or even the majority of the groundwork for political and economic systems throughout history. Moreover, no individual, committee, or government can be said to have originated ethical, cultural, or esthetic norms – although many philosophers, politicians, and artists have influenced these norms in a gradual, incremental fashion. There are virtual no inventors for societal institutions, but there are piecewise tinkerers; there are also revolutionaries who tear down existing institutions without replacing them with viable alternatives – but these are most often the drivers of societal devolution.

Nonetheless, there can be a modicum of planning involved in societal evolution – as, for instance, with the influence of major philosophers, constitutional drafters, and paradigm creators in esthetic and academic disciplines. The effectiveness of this level of planning, however, is much rarer for cultural and political institutions than it is for technologies.

Status of the Loser in Evolution

In biological evolution, the losing individuals and species – the ones that do not withstand natural selection pressures – are eliminated. From this fact arises the notorious “law of the jungle” – the characterization of destructive competition in uncivilized nature.

In technological evolution, however, the losing organisms are not eliminated; the proponents of earlier, now obsolete technologies will most often simply adopt the newer, more efficient technologies. Earlier technologies, however, are most often displaced and assume the status of museum relics and curiosities. This was the fate of the horse-and-buggy, the biplane, and the 486 computer processor. Sometimes less advanced earlier technologies coexist with more advanced later ones over time – as has happened with the communications media, for instance – but this is not generally the case and may be due in part to imperfect substitution among the various communication technologies and in part to ingrained habits within certain segments of the population, which will no longer predominate as demographics shift.

In societal evolution, losing organisms are also not eliminated – unless severe instances of societal devolution, including wars, government crackdowns, and waves of crime, occur. Losing ideas and institutions are also seldom eliminated when they are displaced from prominence. In societies, there is always a market for niche ideas, habits, and organizational structures that can coexist with their different, more dominant counterparts. This is particularly true of more advanced societies which tolerate different philosophical, religious, esthetic, and political modes of expression. One’s candidate for office might be defeated, but one’s political ideology might not be affected by this. And if the majority of museum-goers begin to favor the paintings of Picasso, one is still free to enjoy the work of Vermeer and to have it within relatively easy access. It is possible for an institution to die out if it falls into sufficient disuse; there are numerous dead languages, political systems, and social customs. But, as a general rule, a societal institution that loses a contest against a rival will generally retain some sway in at least the intermediate-term future. When societal institutions die, it is due more to atrophy than to any revolutionary change.

Passing on of Acquired Traits

In biological evolution, it is impossible for organisms to pass on traits they acquired during their lifetimes. Rather, all the traits they will ever pass on are encoded in their genomes. By contrast, technological and societal evolution both allow individuals to learn new skills and habits during their lifetimes and teach it to their biological offspring as well as their friends, acquaintances, and associates. This capability makes technological and societal evolution far more adaptable and resilient than biological evolution. The individual does not need to perish if he has insufficient technological and societal skills and knowledge; rather, he can learn and improve himself in a way in which he cannot yet improve his own genome.

Evolution in Uncivilized Nature and in Civilization

Evolution in uncivilized nature – nature unaffected by humans – is almost exclusively of the biological kind. Non-human organisms do not engage in technological evolution; when they use rudimentary technologies – for instance, for the construction of dams and nests – they do not improve on their methods over time. It is possible to occasionally see traces of societal evolution in the societies of more advanced animals – but this, too, is quite rare, and it seldom survives past a generation. If a group of chimpanzees establish a pattern for more effective societal cooperation and organization, their grandchildren are unlikely to remember or replicate it.

Biological evolution, due to its lack of sufficient flexibility and intelligent guidance, has built-in upper limits. Because the status of organisms’ past reproduction and offspring development is irrelevant to biological evolution, the chances of mutation and natural selection alone favoring extremely long-lived or functionally immortal creatures are extremely small – even though one such immortal species, the jellyfish Turritopsis nutricula, is known to exist.  Moreover, random mutation is an extremely slow and unreliable way of generating superior environmental adaptations. Inventing new technologies has given humans the ability to survive in flight, in undersea travel, and in outer space – as well as to travel and communicate orders of magnitude faster than any unaided biological organism. Societal evolution has given humans institutions that enable peaceful cooperation and exchange of ideas unlike any that exists in uncivilized nature. With technological and societal evolution, humans have – at least partially – taken their future into their own hands and made themselves far more adaptable and resilient than any other living creature.

Flaws, Change, Interrelations, and Evolution

Both biological and societal evolution are marred by persistent flaws. Aside from the deleterious nature of most mutations, it is instructive to note that over 99.9% of all species that ever existed are now extinct – and the overwhelming majority of these extinctions were not caused by humans. Biological evolution is brutal in the collateral damage it inflicts, and it is utterly wasteful with resources and lives; truly, the delay in time and the method of “producing” better organisms that biological evolution employs are among the least efficient processes conceivable. The case for “intelligent design” of biological organisms falls flat on its face when we consider that it would be a supreme insult to any allegedly omnipotent, omniscient deity to suggest that he/she/it designed biological organisms and their interactions to be the way they are. Moreover, biological evolution frequently has strong component forces that resist beneficial changes. Many organisms in uncivilized nature seek actively to eliminate their more capable and otherwise better-adapted counterparts. Consider, for instance, what would happen if a pack of fire ants attacked any large, advanced mammal. To show the defects of both biological and societal evolution, consider also what would have happened in most Paleolithic hunter-gatherer tribes to an intellectual, inventive member who relished the pleasures of tinkering with sticks and stones rather than the macho excitement of the hunt.

Societal evolution’s flaws are evidenced by the tremendous waste of human lives and resources that many institutions – including most wars, governments, and religions, as well as many customs, superstitions, and expectations – bring about.  Moreover, less efficient and beneficial human institutions often put forth fierce, even violent, resistance to attempts at progress and improvement. The fates of Socrates, Galileo, Giordano Bruno, and most dissenters in totalitarian states testify to this tendency.

Technological evolution, on the other hand, is a process whose efficiency and rapidity are constantly on the rise and where, every step of the way, humans endeavor to minimize waste. Unlike biological and societal evolution, technological evolution does not resist change. New technologies are typically rapidly adopted and refined to bring about higher quality and lower cost. Technological innovation is much easier to implement and distribute than innovations in social, cultural, and political norms – in part because most people are not as closely wedded to particular technological methods as they are to their favored societal institutions.

In every kind of evolution, change generates further change. The emergence of new biological structures often serves to enable others still – as, for instance, with the evolution of the eye. Likewise, societal innovations inspire still others – as occurs regularly in art, philosophy, and politics. Technological improvements can often serve as components in still others – and the improvements in efficiency due to an earlier stage of progress are often necessary to make a later stage possible.

It is also important to remember that all three kinds of evolution are interrelated and affect one another. Technologies often enable particular societal institutions and change the incentives to adopt some and reject others. Societal evolution conditions the preferences of consumers for particular technologies over others. Biological evolution can often interfere with technological progress – as exemplified by the emergence of certain strains of bacteria immune to early antibiotics. Likewise, technological evolution can condition biological evolution through selective breeding, genetic engineering, and alterations to the environments of humans and non-humans alike. Societal evolution includes the development of attitudes toward technologies and ways of interacting with other biological organisms and thus often conditions the ways in which people approach scientific endeavors and even evolution itself.

Evolution and Liberty

Understanding biological, technological, and societal evolution can be crucial to a full appreciation of liberty – itself an emergent evolutionary phenomenon. Environments in which freedom can be effectively enforced and maintained require certain evolved societal and technological underpinnings, which bring about power symmetries among as many individuals and parties as possible, preventing any of them from oppressing the others. A fixed, static, unchanging, and unchangeable natural order dictated by a deity is not easy to reconcile with liberty, because if the structure of that order is already determined and knowable, then there is little room for innovation, experimentation, and progress. In that case, the liberty to act according to one’s choice is easy to jettison and replace by the specious “liberty” of only doing what is “right” by the definition of some political or religious authority. If there is nothing new under the sun, then why not force everyone to conform to the “best” ways of old? This view, of course, is a recipe for carnage, persecution, and mass poverty. Liberty is needed for individuals to discover the truth and to progress to something better than a nasty, brutish, and short primitive subsistence.

Liberty can be seen as the ability to participate in a multitude of evolutionary processes where the rules of selection are as non-punitive and non-destructive as possible. Instead of the brutal elimination-based approach of biological competition, selection of what happens in the future can be done by the far more gentle market competition, where the loser is, to paraphrase Ludwig von Mises, merely relegated to a more humble position in the division of labor. Likewise, instead of resigning themselves to the individually non-beneficial and wasteful forces of biological evolution, humans can rely more on the extraordinary abilities that technological evolution gives them to transform the world around them for the improvement of their lives.

An appreciation of all kinds of evolution also enables us to understand the limitations of overarching central planning. An impossibly omnipotent god who “designs” all life is only a step removed from a king, dictator, or government committee with similar pretensions of “designing” societies, cultures, and even virtuous conduct.  If such amazingly complex structures as living organisms have all been designed – then, surely, the ability to design any other aspect of existence is merely a matter of degree of ability. While many advocates of intelligent design would here invoke the severe limitations of human beings as compared to their god of choice, this is not an argument for liberty that can sustain scrutiny, because many of those same flawed human beings claim to accurately know what their god of choice is and what he/she/it wants them to do. Surely, if knowing the will of a god is accessible to humans, then so is the ability to design and regulate a society from the top down – a much humbler endeavor.

Evolution provides an alternative to design theories of existence. Even technological evolution – the kind most amenable to deliberate planning and engineering – is still immensely decentralized and lacks virtually any central coordination by a governing body or person. Technological, biological, and societal evolution and their byproducts are all examples of what Friedrich Hayek would call cosmos – or an emergent order – as opposed to taxis, or a centrally planned order akin to the arrangement of pieces on a chessboard. Emergent orders do not admit full comprehension – much less control – and the recognition that we ourselves are such emergent orders is sure to deliver a firm blow to the agendas of those who wish to restrict and regulate the non-coercive actions of the sovereign individual.

 

 



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