Technology vs. Evolution

Introduction
Products of technology have effectively provided a buffer between nature and us. We, like every other species, evolve by natural selection acting on heritable phenotypic variations present in the population. However products of our technology, such as medical advances, allow us to transcend our natural limits and seem to have provided a wedge between evolutionary laws of nature and man. What are the consequences of this wedge? What are the specific domains of human evolution affected by this wedge? Is technology a friend or foe?

Defining technology from a biological standpoint
The general use of the word “technology” leaves one with the feeling that technology is something “unnatural”, something outside the realm of biology. But we could easily manoeuvre our way around this and consider technology from a different angle: technology is just another human phenotype. Hardly ever will we argue that Larry, the little birdie, is countering natural evolutionary laws with technology when building a nest. In fact, we will most likely marvel at the extent to which very natural genes, coordinating very natural biochemical reactions can achieve such complex behaviours and lead to something that is conceptually not far from a house. The cute little nest and the latest biomedical advance are conceptually indistinguishable, and if birds are dully confined to the workings of evolution despite their technologically advanced nests, so are we!

Nonetheless, something strikes us as intuitively true: human technology is somehow different. Clearly, before we can scrutinize what exactly distinguishes human technology from Larry’s, we need a better biological definition of technology. In order to do this we first need to introduce a concept developed by Richard Dawkins: the extended phenotype (1,2).

When we think of phenotypes, we immediately think of the morphological features of living organisms, i.e. the way they look. As we think harder, other phenotypes start popping up: metabolic capacities and limitations (which is the microscopic version of “the way they look”), behaviour, etc. It appears as though one thing most phenotypes have in common is that they are somewhat confined to the physical boundaries of the individual. Even most behaviours are things individuals do with their bodies, and are therefore in a way confined to their physical boundaries. Dawkins says: think of a beaver’s dam. When a beaver builds a dam, the consequences of that behaviour (phenotype) extend for hundreds of square miles. That is, according to Dawkins, an extended phenotype, a phenotype that transcends the physical boundaries of the individual. Defined as such, many phenotypes are extended. The excretion products of a bacterium are extended phenotypes; an elephant stepping on shrub while walking down the savannah is an extended phenotype… Well, you get the picture.

However, there is a significant difference between most extended phenotypes and the beaver’s dam, Larry’s nest and our antibiotics. The dam, the nest and the antibiotics were modifications to the environment with an intrinsic adaptive value. The adaptive value for the bacterium to release its toxins into the environment is not in having toxins around, but in getting rid of them (i.e. cleaning up its inside). The adaptive value of walking for an elephant is not in destroying the shrubs it steps on, but in moving its body. On the other hand, the beaver’s, Larry’s and our offspring survive better because of the dam, the nest and the antibiotics.

These modifications of our environments bear an intrinsic adaptive value. So let us define technology as an extended phenotype with an intrinsic adaptive value. Furthermore, allow us to create a new term that may better describe this specific type of adaptation, much like Darwin and Gould came up with concepts such as “pre-adaptations” and “exaptations” respectively to refer to other specific kinds of adaptations (3). We would like to give technology the following biological alias: techaptation (4).

Before we go on, allow us to formalize this definition of techaptations. If you ever took a basic biology course you may remember the axiom

P = G x E

A phenotype (P) results from the interaction between a genotype (G) and the environment (E). It will get more complex, but for now bear with us and stick to the simple

TA = G x E

Drawing the line: Distinguishing between human and other species’ techaptations.
We began this article raising the concern that human techaptations (technology) may hinder our capacity to evolve as a species. But it seems as though our definition of techaptations might fully incorporate human technology into human biology and, by extension, human evolution. However, are human techaptations just like any other techaptations in nature? In other words, would the same evolutionary “rules” that apply to other techaptations apply to human technology as well? Again, there is something intuitively nagging about that idea.

The human capacity to acquire techaptations has a unique property that seems to distinguish it from, again, little birdies’. Humans acquire techaptations at a much faster rate than any other species. Larry and beavers (we resist giving the beaver a name because this is Dawkins’ beaver, not ours) would acquire techaptations at a rate limited by evolution’s work-pace. With human technology, this seems NOT the case. The human brain has allowed the development of many such techaptations in what is an instant on the evolutionary time scale. As a result, the variety and complexity of human techaptations is greater than any other species’. So while Larry’s nest and our houses are essentially the same (they are techaptations), Larry’s capacity to acquire techaptations and ours are quite different. That humans acquire techaptations significantly faster that any other species bears, we think, the responsibility of giving technology that unnatural aura that raises the red flag about its impact on human evolution.

In order to determine how this increased rate with which humans acquire techaptations might affect our evolution, we will examine separately its impact on the two core pillars of classical Darwinian theory: natural selection and descent with modification (5).

Techaptations and natural selection
One of our original concerns was that techaptations would often create wedges between natural selection pressures and us, and that the constant accumulation of techaptations that represents human technology could fully uncouple men from all selection pressures. However, while adaptations neutralize specific selection pressures, they also create new ones. When Larry’s ancestors built a nest for the first time, a significant portion of the outside world had indeed been neutralized (cold) but as a consequence new pressures arose. Suddenly, the birdie that could make a nest that was most resistant to wind, farthest away from predators or ruthless parasite birdies and from which its offspring was least likely to fall off, had a better chance to out-compete the others for descendants.

Let us incorporate the above argument into our definition of techaptations (and note that the following argument extends to all adaptations, both primary and extended)

TA0 = G0 x E0,

TA1 = G1 x E1 = G1 x ([E0-e0]*w0)

A techaptation acquired in generation t=0 (TA0) is a phenotype that results from the interaction between the genotype at t=0 (G0) and the environment at t=0 (E0). A generation (or many) after, a new techaptation (TA1) may be selected in response to pressures imposed by a new environment E1. This new E1 will in fact be fairly similar to the previous environment E0, except for it lacks some factor (e0) that has been neutralized thanks to the previous techaptation TA0 and the fact that a novelty arose, which interacts in some way with E0-e0 creating new selection pressures and constraints. In the case of techaptations, this is the famous wedge (w0) created by TA0 that concerned us at the beginning of our analysis. A key point in our argument is that even if a big factor has been neutralized, and E0 differs significantly from E0-e0, the interaction of w0 and E0-e0 will create an E1 of a complexity that is similar to that of E0. In other words, the neutralization of an environmental factor by adaptations (primary or techaptations) does not reduce selection pressures significantly; it just changes them. That human technology (back to computer chips and chronopharmacology) is a wedge between humans and many, many components of the “natural world” does not mean we can uncouple ourselves from natural selection pressures.

By our previous formalization, after n generations of technological advances we humans live and evolve in En, an environment in which several natural elements have been neutralized (Σei, i=0 to i=n) but in which equally several interactions between the “remaining” of the natural world (E0-Σei) and human wedges (Σwi) have been spurred. The minute we accept technology is just another adaptation to nature, we need to accept the fact that technology cannot uncouple humans from selection pressures of the natural world. Furthermore, we suspect this is due to the fact that co-adapting components of a closed system (like the biosphere) cannot possibly uncouple from one another; unfortunately we lack the know-how to attempt a formal analysis of this proposal.

When technological advances happen in response to natural selection pressures, i.e. when humans acquire techaptations, it is nature that talks back. Technology created antibiotics and vaccines that significantly extended human life? Nature responded with multi-drug resistant pathogens and “new” diseases (e.g. cancer) that serve as true novel selection pressures. Technology created ways to make limited natural resources a little less limited through agriculture and commerce? Nature responded with fairly catastrophic, non-linear consequences to over-exploitation, like depletion of fish from the oceans and the devastation of soil. Technology has made it possible to inhabit every corner of the planet and, more importantly, move between them? Many fear that nature will soon respond with a global pandemic of some lethal disease, like the avian flu.

Techaptations and descent with modification
In the previous section we argued that the mind’s ability to rapidly create numerous wedges between selection pressures and us was not be enough to sever human evolution from natural selection. What about the other core component of Darwinian theory; can the speed with which humans develop techaptations interfere with heritability? Figure 1 illustrates what we have so far.

Figure 1: Human technology cannot uncouple man from nature because technology constantly creates new selection pressures that will in turn keep the wheel of evolution well oiled leading in effect to the acquisition of further techaptations. Classic evolutionary rules involve natural selection working upon the interaction of genes and the environment and thus leading to a greater chance of adaptive genes being passed to future generations. In other words, by classical evolutionary theory organisms A and B will be genetically different.

Let us analyze this diagram in more detail, for there is something in it that is still creating misery. In a classical evolutionary sense, if we substitute Larry in the diagram, Larry and Larry’s descendants will be genetically different. With humans, on the other hand, the scenario is not the same; the fact that human techaptations evolve at a much faster pace may imply that humans possess the ability to bypass the heritable requirement of classical evolution. For instance, we create a pill to cure tuberculosis. Soon after, tuberculosis re-emerges stronger… Well, we create another pill. Tuberculosis comes back even stronger…? – Another one. The point here is that humans living before resistant tuberculosis and the fourth or fifth generation of resistant tuberculosis strains need not be genetically different. The mind’s ability to generate complex technologies simply nullifies the requirement to develop new adaptations by genetic modification. The bird, on the other hand, is limited by how much it can acquire new techaptations without genetic modification.

Techaptations would then seem to weaken genetics as the mode of inheritance in human evolution, and this is a clear clash with classical evolutionary theory. That is, of course, if we think of evolution strictly as natural selection acting upon descent with genetic modification. But, what if genetics is not the only mode of heritability? Once again Richard Dawkins comes to the rescue; the answer may be memes.

Dawkins argued that ideas, much like genes, could be inherited (passed on from generation to generation) in ways that closely resemble the inheritance of genes (6), and could therefore be re-dubbed “memes”. Thus, some memes are inherited, some are not, some change along the way. Moreover, better memes have a greater chance of being inherited by future generations, i.e. memes are also subject to natural selection.

In fact, we can easily incorporate memes in the general equation of techaptations as follows,

TA= (G + M) x E

TA = (G + Σmi) x E = (G + Σmi) x [(E0-Σei)*Σwi]

Where mi represents each of the memes (ideas) acquired throughout human evolution that are inherited by later generations and contribute to the development of techaptations. M is simply the sum of all human memes, or “memome”.

This revised definition states that techaptations are a product of our genes, our memes and the environment. The contribution of our genes is two-fold: 1) they allow us the behaviours that are necessary to materialize techaptations (e.g. hammer a nail in order to build a house) and 2) they are the basis for basic mental processes that are quintessential to the generation and transmission of memes (such as abstract reasoning, teaching, learning and imitating). Memes, on the other hand, while made possible by genes, do become independent heritable entities that are the essence of the inherited component of most modern human techaptations.

In brief, even though humans before tuberculosis and after five generations of drug-resistant tuberculoses may be genetically identical… their memes are not. In other words, there has been some form of descent with modification.

Techaptations and human memetic evolution
Above we proposed that technology can be incorporated into human evolution if we consider genetic and memetic means as the basis for the inheritance of variation. This is more than a mere change in definition; it implies that while other organisms evolve primarily through genetic evolution, we humans may have shifted to a more memetics-based evolution. Bacteria evolve towards genetic make-ups that optimize their “genes x environment” products (i.e. their phenotypes) through natural selection. Here we argue that human techaptations are heavily based on memes (infinitely more than bacterial extended phenotypes and quite some more than Larry’s techaptations) and that we may have shifted to a more meme-based evolution, i.e. towards an optimization of our “memes x environment” product. Does this have any implications with regards to human genetic evolution?

To explore this possibility, let us re-write the equation for techaptations, but this time including evolution into it,

TAt = (G + Σmi) x Et = (G + Σmi) x [(E0-Σei)*Σwi]

TAt+1 = (G + Σmi + mt) x Et+1 = (G + Σmi + mt) x [(E0-Σei-et)*(Σwi+wt)]

As before, et represents the environmental pressure that TAt dealt with, wt is the new wedge created by TAt and mt represents (a) new meme/s spurred by TAt. Take, for instance, a car. Whoever thought of a car for the first time, had most likely seen a wheel before, and that was a previous techaptation’s contribution to the meme “car”. In fact, all modern technological advances are heavily based on ideas fed to our brains by an environment with abundant previous techaptations. A key point in our argument is that every techaptation opens the door for new ideas, and thus feeds many more new memes to the genetic-memetic combo (the heritable component) of future techaptations. If you repeat this cycle several times (and the key point here is that we humans repeat it several times a day, every day), you will notice that the sum of memes becomes gigantic compared to our gene pools. In other words, as selection pressures are more heavily placed on our memes, our genes find themselves under less selective pressure.

It has not escaped our notice that our line of argumentation is heavily dependent on assuming that memes are not genetically coded. The idea for a better pill against a highly resistant tuberculosis strain did not exist before someone encountered such resistant strain for the first time (how could anyone have a specific idea on how to attack the resistant bug before the bug even existed?). However, the people who thought of this improved pill were genetically identical before and after developing and idea for the improved pill. This argues strongly against a genetic basis for ideas. However, we cannot formally refute the following alternative explanation: the idea to create a super-pill had always existed, genetically pre-coded, and the appearance of the resistant strain just set it free, permitted its manifestation (or expression, in molecular biology terms). To accept this explanation we would need to assume that all the ideas that humans could ever possibly conceive already exist, genetically pre-coded, waiting to be manifested in response to specific stimuli. However, we think that a more parsimonious explanation is that ideas are simply a phenotypical manifestation of the brain that depends very heavily on the environment (like many other phenotypes). This latter view might explain, for instance, why identical twins need not always have the exact same ideas about every situation they face on a daily basis. Therefore, although ideas are dependent on our ability to think in abstract terms (which does have a genetic basis) ideas themselves are likely not. Most importantly, however, we believe that even if we were to accept that memes are indeed genetically coded, our proposal that human evolution would progressively shift towards a memetics-based evolution would still hold, i.e. whichever genes code memes will progressively dominate the hereditary component of human evolution. A more detailed analysis of this argument exceeds the scope of this article, and we have therefore decided to exclude it from the present work.

More memes, less genes and so what?
The same way genes affect each other’s evolution, memes may affect the evolution of our genes. In other words, because of the explosive accumulation of memes, the genetic component of human techaptations may be under less selection pressure than the memetic one. Although evolution cannot be predicted, there are two corollaries that we find very interesting: 1) when it comes to techaptations, the lesser the pressure on the genetic component, as human technologies keep evolving, the genetically dumber we may become. As a species, we may collect very large numbers of memes, but some of our genes for more abstract reasoning might be replaced by memes, as long as they can be effectively passed from generation to generation; 2) our evolution of primary phenotypes (fingers, hands, immune systems) may be under ever weaker selection pressure by virtue of the memes that allow successful techaptations. This does not mean they will stop evolving. It means that their evolution will be shaped primarily by means other than natural selection (like genetic drift, neutral selection, etc).

Any techaptation that lessens selection pressure on gene/s may eventually lead to the loss of function of that gene/s. For example, if we eventually found a way to move around without ever having to use our legs, our genes that make legs will be first compromised and later lost altogether.

Can our genes ever reclaim their glory? There is a place for genes to come back strong and play an important role in human evolution, and that is to take care of selection pressures against which no meme has yet been able to drive a techaptation. In other words, as long as we keep tackling new selection pressures that our techaptations create and with which no previous meme has dealt with, there will always be selection pressure for those genes to keep evolving.

Finally, are we truly becoming genetically dumber? We may, as long as we do not keep the selection pressures for the genetic component of human techaptations alive. We reasoned that genes contribute to techaptations through conferring us that capacity for abstract thinking, for the “what if…?” behind most human technological advances. So there is one thing that we can do to ensure our genetic intelligence remains alive, and that is to push the limits of our imagination towards where no memes have ever been.

Concluding remarks
We started with a question of whether technology is a true advantage to humans. The discussion progressed to reveal that our definition of techaptations and the incorporation of memetics allow us to say that human technology is neither friend of foe; human technology is not outside of but within human evolution. Thus, the question of whether technology is good or bad becomes a question of whether evolution is good or bad, and the difficulty in answering this question has always been that it depends on being able to predict the future.

If the number of births and range of habitation determine success of a species, then techaptations are certainly advantageous in the short term. In the long term, the consequences might be different. Techaptations might lead to overwhelming our planet and compromising sustainability. On the other hand, it might be what saves us from our voracious appetites by always giving us a way to overcome the struggle against the limitedness of natural resources. One could argue that maybe it is safer to stay as close to nature as possible by not pursuing technological advancements. Well, every extinct group of organisms followed that rule. Dinosaurs went extinct because they could not overcome the selective pressure of surviving a meteor strike. Maybe we will. Or maybe nuclear weapons will never allow us to answer this question. The point is that the success of any trait is determined by the interplay of the organism and the environment at a particular time. The interplay is different from time A to time B, and therefore to know if a particular sum of techaptations is good or bad for us in a million years we will have to visit the future.

References

1. Richard Dawkins (2004). The Ancestor’s Tale – A Pilgrimage to the Dawn of Life. Weidenfeld & Nicolson, London, UK.

2. Richard Dawkins (1982). The Extended Phenotype. W.H. Freeman, Oxford, UK.

3. Stuart Kauffman (2000). Investigations. Oxford University Press, Oxford, UK.

4. To the best of our knowledge the term “techaptation” has not been previously used (A Google search for “techaptation” returned no matches as of March 2006).

5. Charles Darwin (1859). On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection. John Murray, London, UK.

6. Richard Dawkins (1989). The Selfish Gene. 2nd Edition, Oxford University Press, Oxford, UK.

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