On the road to the Technological Singularity where machine intelligence catches up to human intelligence, we are seeing a symbiosis of mankind and machinekind taking place what with nanobots, brain implants, genetic engineering, etc.
The essence of the humankind/machinekind co-evolution was captured by Marshall McLuhan. In Understanding Media : The Extensions of Man, he wrote
“Physiologically, man in the normal use of technology (or his variously extended body) is perpetually modified by it and in turn finds ever new ways of modifying his technology. Man becomes, as it were, the sex organs of the machine world, as the bee of the plant world, enabling it to fecundate and to evolve ever new forms. The machine world reciprocates man’s love by expediting his wishes and desires, namely, in providing him with wealth.”
Thus, from cave painting and art to writing and manuscripts to printed books to the telegraph to the telephone to cinema and on to radio, television and the computer, these media have provided humankind with tools to extend the reach and depth of intelligent activity. For example: except for those working on numerical algorithms like Linear Programming, research mathematicians were indifferent to the development of computing power – until they learned that computers could draw! Then with visualization yielding insight, challenging long-open problems were solved – notably ones dealing with fractals and chaos!
McLuhan also foresaw the globalized world of today which he called “the global village.” The phenomenon of people all over the world staring into their smartphones and communicating over the World Wide Web would probably delight him.
But all this co-evolution is just the latest chapter in a long saga that goes back millions of years. For example, mastery of fire was a technological breakthrough that transformed humans from folivores into omnivores and from fearful prey into fearsome predators. Professor Richard Wrangham of Harvard’s Department of Human Evolutionary Biology, is the author of Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human. There he argues that mastery of fire was responsible for the extraordinary development of the human brain: apes spend their whole day eating raw food which requires enormous caloric expenditure to digest; cooked food is quickly eaten, easily digested and cooked meat especially is a marvelous source of protein; as a result, energy was liberated from the task of digestion and reallocated to power a larger brain (which itself requires enormous energy); the resulting free time was reallocated to a wider range of activities such as tool making which in turn drove technology further along.
The significance of human control of fire was not lost on the ancient Greeks: this empowerment of humankind by the titan Prometheus so shocked the Olympian gods that Zeus had him chained to a rock where vultures would pick at his liver for all eternity! (Luckily for Prometheus, he was eventually set free by Hercules.)
More recently (so to speak), the development of agriculture began but some 12000 years ago with the Neolithic Revolution and this powerful technology has directly impacted human evolution in multiple ways. Indeed, when hunter gatherers metamorphosed into farmers and began civilization as we know it, they traded a life-style where they were taller, healthier and longer-lived for one in which they were shorter, less healthy, had a shorter life span and (to make it worse) had to endure the economic and social hierarchy of a structure built on inequality, private property, slavery and a class system dominated by priests, nobles, chiefs and kings. To this list of negative developments, add warfare on an increasingly deadly scale and poxes from domestic animals.
It is hard to divine what true advantages agriculture and a sedentary life-style might have held for humans. Could population growth be an end in itself from an evolutionary biology point of view – genes selfishly seeking reproduction? Thinking cosmically, agriculture and sedentarism tapped into the extraordinary power of the sun to create surplus production. For French philosophical writer, Georges Bataille, this created a driving force for the human species: wasteful, excessive expense: “la dėpense improductive.”
BTW, Bataille is also known for his elegant erotic fiction, described by Susan Sontag as “the most original and powerful intellectually” of the genre.
An insight of Bataille’s is that institutions that can exploit the intimidating power of wasteful expense are the ones that emerge and endure. Agriculture and wasteful expense indeed did lead to more complex societies and to constantly improving technologies. Bataille’s work (La Notion de dépense, La Part maudite) is not in the tradition of Adam Smith or Karl Marx or John Maynard Keynes but rather in that of Nietzsche and Freud – using the tools and logic of myth: which is most appropriate as this is an area that we don’t have detailed data for.
As examples of such wasteful expense, nobles and kings flaunt their wealth most spectacularly; warfare provides a most dramatic example. Moreover, archaeological evidence points to the fact that one of the first things these new farmers did do was to make beer by fermenting grains – eventually tied to religious Bacchanalian rites. Indeed, religion offers a rich set of examples of wasteful, excessive expense from priestly raiment to magnificent temples to Homeric hecatombs to human sacrifice. Organized religion has the power to mobilize large numbers of people in nations and empires – even beyond national or imperial boundaries. Warfare and organized religion together are a most deadly force for waste and destruction: it was Pope Urban II who launched the Crusades with the cry “Deus Vult” (God wills it). As another example of religion’s ability to motivate people beyond tribe and nation, there is today’s Islamic Terrorism.
Technological acceleration and evolutionary acceleration are intertwined processes. Even after branching off from apes, human evolution proceeded very slowly, sped up in the last 2.5 million years, then again in the last million years and then even more quickly in the last 500,000 years. What feeds the steps in both technology and biological evolution is complexity – once the system reaches a certain complexity with high level controls, the step to the next level comes all the more quickly and leads to yet more complexity sometimes to the point that technological progress can be exponential: there is the example of Moore’s Law that the power of computer chips doubles every 18 months; this has held since the mid 1970s.
All this means that technology is interacting with the ongoing process of human biological evolution, a process that itself is very much alive. For example, the mutation in Northern Europe for lactose tolerance in adults only goes back 4300 years. A similar mutation for lactose tolerance in East Africa only goes back 3000 years! The technology associated with these recent evolutionary events is cattle husbandry.
Interestingly, along with all this technological acceleration, the size of the human brain has been shrinking for thousands of years now and technology is needed to bolster it. It turns out that progress and modern life are contributing to this. Indeed, civilization is a form of domestication which dulls intelligence. Just as dogs are less intelligent than wolves and have smaller brains than wolves, we have measurably smaller brains than our cousins the Neanderthals did.
Environmental and cultural factors also influence natural selection and stone-age people encounter more challenges than the couch potatoes of the civilized world. To quote Jared Diamond, author of the influential high level history of civilization Guns, Germs and Steel :
“modern ‘Stone Age’ peoples are on the average probably more intelligent, not less intelligent, than industrialized peoples”
Diamond adds that Stone Age populations are typically multilingual which also makes them more intelligent and, what is more, this makes them less susceptible to Alzheimer’s Disease!
The evolutionary explanation for this decrease in human brain power is simple – large brains are great consumers of energy and, as life gets easier and as technology assists us in our intellectual endeavors, brains can lessen in size and power as the requirements for survival of the species change. The difficulty of human birth also has something to do with it. Large head size means fewer surviving children and mothers so this is resisted by evolution. Ultimately, intelligence is selected for only if it enhances survivability: evolution does not select for intelligence as an end in itself and civilization’s sociology and technology now make it possible to survive with less mental effort.
In the end, this is a tricky topic to discuss. Even the most rational scientists probably believe in their hearts that there has been some Design and Purpose in the evolution of human intelligence – especially their own. The nihilism of modernity serves up a gruel too thin. Futurist doctrines which hold that humanity is serving as a pass-through to introduce intelligence to the cosmos provide little comfort. Things have moved too far. Per Yeats’ The Second Coming : “The ceremony of innocence is drowned .”
Human-machine co-evolution has moved into a new phase today as man’s body and mind are connected to external devices and devices are implanted even into the human brain. Going forward, technology can serve to make up for the dulling of the human intellect. Human intellection will likely become a hybrid of biological and non-biological intelligence that risks becoming increasingly dominated by its non-biological component. Even short of reaching the Singularity, the social implications of all this are exhilarating for a futurist and frightening for a humanist. More to come. Affaire à suivre.