Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Adaptation is not Evolution

I had a discussion the other day with friends. During the course of it, the whole issue of the influence of computers on our society and future etc came up. Being who I am, I pointed out that computer-human interaction is fundamentally unsuitable for the brain, which simply isn't designed to handle this kind of interaction. The increasing ubiquity of the interaction though, as well as the long-term exposure of especially developing human beings to computers, and even more so, of the internet, will have consequences that are mostly unforeseeable, though modern science is well on the way to at least trace some of its neurological and psychological effects. None of these are pretty, and most are very damn scary.

One of my friends pointed out that we'd 'evolve' to have all this work out. Give it a few generations, or maybe more than a few, and it'll all work out. It's the kind of conjecture you might have heard in a different form once upon a time when applied to the human-car interaction, which was supposed to eventually presumably produce humans optimally designed to operate cars, with those body parts not required for car operation degenerating over the course of time.

Thing is, it just doesn't work that way. Evolution is a process that works through death, and through killing of certain members of a population before they can reproduce; while others go on reproducing happily along and eventually outbreeding those who are, in that context, less 'fit'.

Without death there is no evolution. Without preventing people with certain characteristics from reproducing, their characteristics cannot be eliminated from the gene pool. Not yet anyway. We may, of course, in due course be able to modify genes in other ways, and even change those that will end up in the offsprings' gene pool. But that's a different story. It not 'evolution'. It's something completely new, for which there is, as yet, no definite term.

Evolution is pretty much dead, given the current level of technology and health-care available in many places. Of course, should we suddenly take ourselves back to some pre-technological time, that would be different, but we're assuming that our health-maintenance capabilities are, if anything, only going to increase. Since evolution, under those circumstances anyway, is dead, so is the argument made by those who oppose extended human longevity (>200 years, say), at least as far as the "Oh, but you'll stop evolution!" nonsense is concerned. It's already stopped, folks!

What my friend was talking about when he said that we'd 'evolve' to be better adapted to a world with ubiquitous computers and the internet and maybe even more influential and cognition-impacting cyber-things, was really just 'adaptation', which is a completely different animal.

Adaptation is an adjustment of an organism's behavior, physiology or anatomy in response to encountering a particular set of environmental circumstances that require such adaptation, in order for the organism in question to function optimally. But while the ability to adapt may be bestowed on the organism through an evolutionary process, that doesn't mean that the adaptation itself will be transmitted to offspring. Only the ability to adapt will—this is the best one can hope for.

This means that, with evolution being out of the picture, that the next generation will be no better adapted, at birth, to, say, being exposed extensively to computers and the internet, than the current one. And if—as is highly probable given the evidence—our brains really are not really suited to extensive human-computer interaction of the 'intensive' kind, then that means that the next generation's brains also aren't adapted 'naturally' to it either. Meaning that what can be shown to damage the brains of this generation (whatever 'this' generations happens to be), will also damage the brains of any generation following.

I'd go further than just confining the applicability of my jaundiced view to individuals and the way computers completely screw up their cognitive systems. I think that our societies are at a stage which actually constitutes a form of reversion to a more primitive state. The thought and emotion control being imposed on people through computer-enhanced state/government/media/education systems are taking us back to pre-intellectual days, into the dark ages of humankind, when the notion of individual liberty, choice and 'free thought' was, if it existed at all, confined to very few.

The grim irony is that we actually think we're 'progressing', when in truth we are falling back into mindless, uncritical conformity. And, yes, I know, many will argue that this is patently wrong, because isn't there so much more critical discussion now than ever before?

Well, no. There isn't. I admit that the world of human thought is divided into a number of camps—and there really aren't all that many, though each have factions of sorts—this I admit. Some think this and other think that. But are they 'critical'? Hardly. The only 'criticism' you get is that of those from one camp criticizing those from other camps. In other words, virtually all so-called 'criticism' is camp-oriented. And that, in my book, isn't criticism, but pretty much the same as a bunch of Christians berating a bunch of Muslims. Republicans bitching about Democrats. Liberals berating Conservatives. Religionists slamming Atheists. Objectivists deriding Collectivists. You get the idea, yes?

It's all pretty stupid and silly. Intellect doesn't come into this, except as the slave of already-existing convictions. And while reason tends to be a tool, as it should be, for dealing with the world, our cowardice in applying it to uncover things that may be uncomfortable to us or endanger our world-view is truly pathetic. The computerization of our societies and the use of information technology to exert social and mind control is going to hasten our decline into more of the same of this.

It need not be that way, of course. But, like always, what can be used for great good invariably can also be used for a similarly great evil. IT is one of those things. It has allowed us to discover things that previously were hidden; solved problems and created machines that perform feats once only dreamed of by SF writers. It has been used to save millions of lives. In the final analysis, it will result in a decrease of environmental damage, even though its development caused and is causing quite a lot. It has brought us breathtaking, revealing images of the universe. I could go on and on about the benefits of computer technology—and about its evils, which people, in their apparently infinite stupidity and venality, insist on bringing into the world.

None of this will help, of course. Like the dumbwits we are, we may muddle through by sheer good luck. Maybe enough of us will get through this without being integrated into the mindless hordes of opinion camps littering the world today. Maybe some of us, and maybe some of our children also, will continue to be able to think for our- and themselves; as individuals, and not as parts of group-thinks.

Maybe a few piggies will continue to be able to fly.

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