Technological and biological evolution

March 25, 2008

A few weeks ago Nature published an interesting article on a the memory of slime mould, a common bacterial film. Bacteria form aggregates with emergent properties, one of which is memory. This triggers some interesting considerations, some of which should not surprise complexity sympathisers. Bacteria are close to zero intelligent agents, like certain financial traders in modern agent based modelling simulations. However, by interacting with each other they form a kind of super-organism and develop memory.

Now, one of the common ideas about evolution is that biological evolution and technological evolution are qualitatively different. Even smart people like Steven Jay Gould subscribed to the view that cultural evolution is Lamarckian and genetic evolution is Darwinian. People have intentions, biological species don’t. The transmission of acquired characteristics – Lamarckism – is what we call education. End of story! For the ones of us with a sincere passion for evolution (and the suspicion that there is lot to learn from biological evolution), the maximum we can do is to appeal to the ‘biological metaphor’ and risk the paternalistic comments about lack of rigour, etc.

End of story?

Well, I think there is hope for at least three reasons.

First, in a delightful short book (The music of life) Oxford biologist Denis Noble shows that out of the about 200 types of cells we have in our body, 199 of them ‘misbehave’ and seem to ‘follow’ Lamarck rather than Darwin. There is only one type which ‘obeys’ Darwin (by the way, if you are irritated by the uncountable conservative economists management and consultant gurus who think that evolution is all and only about mutation, selection and retention, this is your book!). The divide between cultural and biological evolution is less wide than it seems.
Second, our community of bacteria shows behaviours that go beyond the single bacterium genetic database (not program). Memory is emergent, it’s not in the genes. Likewise, the argument that cultural evolution is different (from biological) because humans have intentions and free will, may be equally moot as the evolution of artefacts and technologies largely takes place at the aggregated level of societies, where individuals’ intentions only play an indirect role.

Third, the whole Darwinian evolutionary castle is based on an asymmetry: species adapt to the environment, not viceversa. Humans instead control their environment by cultural evolution. In a splendid book called, ‘the extended organism’, Turner shows how the humble earthworm (which is really a freshwater species) created an environment which works as its external kidneys. This environment is called the soil and agriculture is a fortunate consequence of the activity of the earthworm. But this is exactly what we humans do. We build the environment that suits us. The environmental asymmetry doesn’t apply either to us, nor to many species.

Conclusion: as we can not rule out that both technological and biological evolution follow common dynamical patterns, we can at least risk and apply learning from bio evolution to tech evolution and see what we can learn from it. In my next blog I will show one of the interesting results of this method.

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