The Evolution of Genes and Meaning
I've been studying for an "Evolutionary Salon" -- a gathering of about 30 evolutionary scientists and social thinkers to learn lessons from current evolutionary theory that can help us navigate the evolutionary challenges of the coming century. I'm learning a lot -- and developing a lot of questions. Among the things that fascinate me are the connection between individual and collective evolution, and between cooperation and competition in evolution.
Many people think Darwinian evolution is about the survival of organisms. But it is actually grounded in the ability of organisms to pass on their genes to their offspring. In a sense, the whole point of organisms (from this basic Darwinian perspective) is to move genes from one generation to the next, like passing the baton in a relay race. The survival of the individual animal or plant is only of concern because it needs to be alive to pass on its genes. The more successful it is at passing on its genes, the greater an evolutionary success it is. If it fails to transfer its genes -- or enough of its genes to adequately match the competition -- it is considered an evolutionary failure and its genetic line stops. This is "natural selection." Its genes are weeded out of the gene pool. (Weeding a pool? Ah well...).
Genetic transfer is thus intimately tied to the survival and behavior of individual organisms. If a genetic characteristic doesn't help the individual organism successfully reproduce, the genes won't get passed to the next generation. Thus there are evolutionists who don't believe that groups play a significant role in evolution; the whole thing is about individuals.
Many of the evolutionists I'm reading, however, focus on the fascinating, seemingly paradoxical evolution of cooperation. How did cooperation ever get started when genes are so tied to individual self-interest? Genetically speaking, wouldn't immediate self-interest always trump long-term collective welfare? Whenever cooperation was tried, wouldn't the cheats and parasites be able to tap the benefits of cooperative effort with none of the costs, and thus be more successful?
Therein lies a story, and for now I'll leave it to books like
"Evolution's Arrow: The Direction of Evolution and the Future of Humanity"
and Robert Wright's
"Nonzero : The Logic of Human Destiny" to tell it. Suffice it to say that we need to expand our cooperation today and overcome our evolutionary bias towards self-interest. But right now I want to share some explorations of another kind of evolution that parallels biological evolution.
As evolution develops more complex cooperative collective arrangements (from multi-cellular organisms to multi-human civilizations), a new form of evolution -- the evolution of meaning -- is born and then runs parallel to genetic evolution. In this evolutionary trajectory what is being created, altered, tested and passed down to later generations are patterns of meaning -- from chemical signals (in cells and ants) to tribal stories to scientific knowledge.
Patterns of meaning are not primarily individual. They are collective. Although we each do our personal variations on our culture's themes, most of meaning in our lives is firmly rooted in that culture. We share the vast majority of our mental models with our fellows, starting with the models implicit in the way our language carves up reality.
But evolution involves change. So instead of genetic mutations, the evolution of meaning progresses through all the misunderstandings, individual perspectives, learnings, innovations and other ways that meanings can change as they pass from one person, group or generation to another -- or even from one moment to another in a single person. In this case, natural selection looks like people adopting what they like, or what works -- while other meanings get ignored or suppressed. This evolutionary process is not tied to the birth, survival and growth of an individual organism. It flows constantly through the sea of humanity as cultures evolve. And we keep developing methods to help it happen faster and more efficiently (if not always more wisely).
In this century our evolving capacities to model reality and make meaning are merging with genetic evolution. Most obviously, we have biotechnology manipulating genes according to powerful advanced models. But this is only one manifestation of our clever manipulations of nature and each other in search of gratification of various sorts. Sitting troublingly beside this reality, we have the reality of our primitive genetic heritage -- our 10,000 year old cave-man cognitive and response systems -- which distort our ability to model complex issues clearly, while being captivated by stimulating trivia and emotion-laden images and stereotypes. The oversimplified way we grasp and respond to the world is radically out of step with the complexity and danger of the world we are creating around us.
(See Robert Ornstein and Paul Ehrlich's
"New World New Mind: Moving Toward Conscious Evolution" for a compelling description of this situation.)
How wise is it to develop infinite power whose full ramifications can barely be comprehended by those who develop and use it -- as brilliant as they are -- and that can barely be understood by the population at large? It calls up visions of the "Sorcerer's Apprentice" morality tale: To make his life easier, an immature sorcerer's apprentice uses special powers to get a broom to carry water. Soon the empowered broom goes wild, taking on a destructive life of its own which he doesn't know how to stop.
Just as we have developed the collective capacity to monitor and shape nature in powerful ways, so we need to develop a wisely powerful collective capacity to monitor and shape our own activities -- not toward immediate gratification, but towards the long-term vitality of the larger living systems we are part of.
The real genius, of course, would be to design systems in which most people, simply by pursuing their own happiness, end up furthering the long-term vitality of the larger living systems they are part of. That would entail true collective wisdom.
Where shall we turn for that wisdom?
posted by Tom Atlee on Tuesday May 10 2005
updated on Saturday September 24 2005
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