Reader be warned! I wrote this over two weekends in April, but have been sitting on it for over a month, wondering what to do with it. Should I break it all up, and publish it in separate sections? But the argument is too tightly joined… Should I expand on it and turn it into a book? But I don’t have the time…
Instead, I am publishing it as it is - raw and real. Let’s call it a rough draft. For my creative process, I need to keep publishing, because thinking builds on itself. So I can’t have this hold me up any longer. I’m just hitting the publish button.
If anyone actually reads this, e-mail me! I’m curious to hear your thoughts. If you’ve been following the series, then this is my attempt to go deeper, to explain how the pyramid works, where it came from and how it gives shape to new technologies, especially at the top.
What follows is Part 1 of 2. Part 2 I’ll publish tomorrow.
Without further adieu:
Of all the megatrends shaping our world, the one that fascinates me most is human evolution. It can help us understand how market opportunities unfold through time.
What is “evolution”?
Let’s talk about the word “evolution” on its own, before thinking about how it applies to humans specifically. Here’s Wikipedia’s definition:
Evolution is the change in the inherited characteristics of biological populations over successive generations.
I have two issues with this definition. I am but a layman, though, so humor me.
Firstly, it’s too broad. It avoids explaining how evolution works. Instead of saying that evolution is “a process that results in changes in…” it says that it “is the change in”. That’s seems like a dodge. I want to know how these changes happen.
Secondly, it’s too narrow. It restricts itself solely to biology. In biology, of course, evolution is the organizing principle that scientists rely on to explain why any organism is the way it is. But as an abstract process, why can’t it extend into sociology and beyond?
Yet, despite both these issues, it has this redeeming quality: it focuses on evolution as change. That is consistent with how I understand it. Although I don’t think evolution is the change itself, but rather the mechanism.
If evolution is a change mechanism of some sort, what type of change does it produce, and under what circumstances?
A biologist (which again, I am not, so please humor me) might explain it thus:
Evolution is a process whereby any organism with a random genetic mutation which improves its survivability then spreads that successful trait to the rest of the species through reproduction and natural selection.
I am sure this can be improved on, expanded and made clearer. But it strikes me as narrower and more descriptive. One more step remains: broadening it to encompass the meaning we give the word as we use it in every-day English, when we say things like “technology has evolved rapidly since 2007” or “the law is slowly evolving”.
I’ll attempt a final definition:
Evolution is that process whereby capable entities respond to internal or external pressures by making or undergoing improvements and then spreading these improvements to others, such that, over time, improvements compound.
This is the best definition that I can come up with. Because it is abstract, it applies wherever the process it describes is observed. Otherwise it would have to be given a context, such as biology, and have our understanding of it restricted by the nuances of that context.
Some words have so much meaning. Defining them forces us to think about them carefully, perhaps revealing something we’ve missed.
The End of Biological Evolution
For the last time, I’ll ask you to humor me as a non-scientist. But it seems to me pretty clear that for humans, biological evolution has slowed down, if not stopped entirely.
When you peer into the deep past, into the millennia preceding civilization, into the two million years of homo sapiens before that, and into the three billion years or so of life on this planet, you see vast stretches of time where evolution moves at an utterly slow pace.
Biological evolution is passive. It does not “make” improvements, it “undergoes” them.
That’s why it took so bloody long to produce homo sapiens! Mutations were random so most of them were not improvements, and those that were, those precious few chances, may have had their carriers die before reproducing, squashed by some happenstance of nature totally unrelated to their potential contribution.
As a passive process, it has another disadvantage: the only improvements which mattered were the ones that improved a species’ “survivability” - its rates of survival and reproduction.
(With non-biological evolution, which we’ll discuss shortly, survival is not the only improvement - just the first. That’s one reason why I felt the need to carefully define “evolution”. I wanted to get away from words like “survivability” or phrases like “natural selection” and “survival of the fittest”, because conflating the concepts of evolution and survival is not helpful outside the prehistoric jungle.)
Let’s break down the definition from the previous section. Evolution is a process that will occur in any setting where three ingredients are present. Those ingredients are: 1) entities capable of improving, 2) a way of spreading improvements between entities, 3) and a reason to improve - a “pressure”, such as survival.
As civilized human beings, we’re missing the third ingredient. We are still entities capable of improving, in that random genetic mutations will still occur, some of which may be useful. We can spread an improvement to other entities, through sexual reproduction. But we no longer have the pressure, or forcing function, that biological evolution requires: the pressure to survive. Therefore, our biological evolution has slowed down, if not stopped.
How did this happen?
When everyone survives…
The more civilized our society, the less likely it is that undesirable traits are selected out of the gene pool. That’s because we are humane: we take care of our dependents, disabled, unwell, and “un-fit”. You see this play out sociologically: both the welfare state and “pop” capitalism (McDonald’s billboards, Jersey Shore, etc.) cater to the lowest common denominators.
To project this trend into the future, watch the Pixar film WALL-E, which features the supine citizens of the future, drinking milk shakes while playing video games in space stations. Machines take care of all human needs. In an environment like that, there’s no pressure to survive, so biological evolution can’t happen.
The culprit is civilization. Instead of adapting to our natural habitat, we created an artificial one - civilization - in which our prospects improved, and improvements compounded over time. How did we do it?
Unlike other species, our capacity to invent tools let us transcend the limits of our scrawny biological abilities. Also, our capacity to form communities let us coordinate activity, both centralized (government) and decentralized (trade), and pass on improvements through sharing tools, systems, information, etc. These improvements compounded over time, ultimately giving rise to the marvel of modern civilization, with all of its complexity and sophistication.
We’ve changed our environment, instead of ourselves. The problem is, without the pressure to survive, biological evolution slows down, stops, or worse - there’s risk of regress.
Even if, for these reasons, the natural selection of successful random gene mutations ceases to be the primary carrier of human evolution, that does not necessarily mean that biological change won’t come in other ways.
Taking up a suggestion from my uncle Jorge, I recently read an essay by a scientist (a “biological anthropologist”, to be exact) named Helen Fisher in a book called This Explains Everything about “epigenetics”. The key passages:
“Environmental forces can affect gene behavior, either turning genes on or off…Genes hold the instructions; epigenetic factors direct how those instructions are carried out. As we age, these epigenetic processes continue to modify and build who we are… If epigenetic mechanisms can not only modulate our intellectual and physical capacities, but also pass these alterations to our descendants, epigenetics has immense and profound implications for the origin, evolution and future of life on earth.”
Interesting, no? Even if our genes don’t evolve, our environment and behavior can turn on (“express”) some genes and turn off (“repress”) others. These “epigenetic traits” can be passed on!
Even if, because of epigenetics or for other reasons, our biological evolution does not completely stop, the argument stands: civilization is slowing down an already slow process.
Civilization as the problem… and the solution
Where there’s room for debate - indeed, for it has been one of the great debates of history and has engaged some of our best minds - is whether we should see civilization as the problem or as the solution.
Rousseau, Marx, Nietzsche and Malthus come to mind as being on one side. Rousseau, for example, romanticized the “state of nature”, and saw civilization as a trick perpetrated by the powerful on the weak. To undo the unnatural perversion of inequality, the “general will” of the people should arrive at a social contract which, by government intervention, provides for equality and restores natural abundance.
Hobbes, Hayek, and Smith are a few on the other side. Nature is not bountiful, it is cruel. Before civilization, humans had a miserable existence. Without peace and stability, nothing of value would be invented, no property would be cultivated, and no wealth would be protected. Ultimately, government emerged, like a Leviathan rising from the sea, to impose peace by force. Given law and order, trade could flourish. Trade would benefit everyone, because even though people act in self-interest, they are motivated to sell products and services to each other. This gave birth to a culture of “liberty” - the principle that, under the law, any individual may exercise his or her freedom to its fullest extent so long as it does not infringe upon the freedom of another. In this meritocratic system, everyone would be equal under the law, but economic inequality would be unavoidable.
Returning to our theme: biological evolution had existed in what these sociologists would have called “the state of nature”, but it exists no longer. Civilization ended it.
If the state of nature was paradise, but paradise is now lost, then civilization is the problem. If the state of nature was hellish, like a passage through Dante’s Inferno, but civilization saved us from it and its “nasty, brutish and short” fate, then it is the solution.
Some remarks on the politics of evolution
If civilization is the problem, what is to be done about it?
There were a few approaches tried during the 20th century.
Fascism: use eugenics programs to weed out the “un-fit”. The horrible Nazi regime was influenced by Nietzsche’s idea of the Übermensch. Evolution through artificial selection.
Communism: use the government to re-engineer society. Evolution through social conditioning and central planning. Marx’s idea.
Socialism: use the government to re-distribute some wealth to provide for equality and restore natural abundance. Rousseau’s idea.
If civilization is the solution, a different approach is taken.
Liberalism: use the government to provide peace and order, serving only limited and irreplaceable functions, otherwise letting society organize itself through the principles of individual liberty, capitalism and the free market.
I am an advocate of this last approach. Let me explain why.
What allowed humans to birth civilization was our ability to create tools and communities to solve our problems, as we have discussed. The first problem we had to solve was survival, which had the unintended bi-product of halting biological evolution. Since then, the developed world has seen living standards and life spans rise steadily since the industrial revolution began. The developing world is improving also, although there is still much work to be done.
Less people starve. Less people die of disease. This is progress. So the question then becomes: what caused the progress? Which tools and which communities, specifically, and how?
As for tools, let us ignore that for now. Every technology has, of course, played its own role, with some inventions being particularly significant. But in some communities, innovation has thrived, and in others, it has stagnated or regressed.
Communities, remember, let us co-ordinate activity and pass on improvements. These functions can either be centralized or decentralized. The form of organization for centralized activity is government, and for decentralized activity there is the corporation, and ultimately, individuals in networks.
Either progress has primarily been brought about by centralized activity, co-ordinated by governments pursuing one or more effective policies over time, or by decentralized activity, co-ordinated by supply, demand and prices.
Any careful study of history should force a confrontation with, and logical explanation of, facts. One of the facts of the narrative of economic development in the world over the last three hundred years is that almost all of the “developed” countries - the ones that have experienced progress - have embraced Liberalism in some form. In so doing, they rely primarily on de-centralized activity to solve problems, which allows for maximum experimentation.
There are three explanations for this.
The one I espouse, again, is that Liberalism works.
The second is that progress is an illusion, it is just the rich stealing from the poor. There is the class version of this, from Marx. There is also the colonization version of this, from Edward Said and others.
The third is that progress is an illusion, it is just humans stealing from the environment. That’s the Malthusian position. Improvements come at the expense of limited natural resources. As improvements compound, it encourages a vicious cycle of population growth, increased production, and further resource strain. Ultimately, this leads to an apocalypse of some sort: famine, global warming, etc.
Again, it goes back to the debate: is civilization a good thing and we’re making progress, or is it a bad thing that needs to be either slightly adjusted, re-engineered or even eliminated entirely?
The Origin of More Than Just the Species
Let’s take a moment to recap the state of the argument.
First, what is evolution? Evolution is a process with three ingredients. 1: entities capable of improving. 2: those improvements need to be able to spread, otherwise they will not out-last their host, and they will not be able to compound over time. 3: internal or external pressures to improve.
Second, the end of biological evolution. Through creating tools and communities, human beings have created an advanced civilization, which has removed external pressures to survive which would have selected for successful mutations. As a result, civilized human beings are missing the third ingredient, so the passive process of biological evolution has broken down for the species. Human beings have noticed and have been debating about what to do. Various centralized approaches have been tried to “fix” the problem to restore progress, none of which have worked. Meanwhile, a decentralized approach, called Liberalism, has created a different kind of progress.
In this section, we are going to discuss civilization as an evolutionary process of its own, and think more about how it works.
Genes evolve passively, humans evolve actively
Evolution is the origin of more than just the species. Civilization evolves too. But it evolves differently.
Returning to our definition:
Evolution is that process whereby capable entities respond to internal or external pressures by making or undergoing improvements and then spreading these improvements to others, such that, over time, improvements compound.
Let’s draw a matrix:
ACTIVE / PASSIVE INTERNAL / EXTERNAL
What do these words mean, in the context of evolution, and how do they relate?
Some pressures are internal and some are external. Those arising from within an entity are internal, and those arising from outside an entity are external.
Every internal pressure is either a need or a want. Needs are whatever is required to survive. Wants are whatever is desired, but not needed.
Every external pressure is either environmental or competitive. Environmental factors relate to surroundings - the natural world, physical forces, inanimate objects and raw materials - literally, every thing that exists around the entity, especially those that threaten, or are necessary for, the entity’s ability to fulfill its needs or wants. Competitive factors relate to other entities, which in acting to fulfill internal pressures of their own, may come into conflict with one’s own interests.
Some entities are actively capable of making improvements, while others are only passively capable of undergoing them.
If an entity is actively capable of making improvements, it follows that it must also be an intelligent being. Only intelligent beings are capable of both having and recognizing their own needs and wants and contriving better means of satisfying them.
Conversely, if an entity is not capable of making improvements, but only of undergoing them, it follows that it must not be an intelligent being. Either it does not have or recognize its own needs and wants or it cannot contrive better means of satisfying them.
Picture a flower, for example.
A flower has needs, not wants. A flower needs to spread pollen and absorb sunlight and water. Those needs are its only internal pressures.
A flower has an environment and competition. Depending on the climate, the forest receives sunlight and weather, including rain, every season. There are bees and critters and wind, all of which spread pollen. This is its environment. Other plants, including weeds and trees, vie for sunlight and water. Those are its competition. Together, these are its external pressures.
Over time, the flower has adapted. Both internal and external pressures have encouraged some random gene mutations and discouraged others. Those mutations which improved the flower’s ability to meet its needs, given the environment and competition, were encouraged to spread, and those that did not, were not.
A flower evolves passively. Because it is not intelligent, it is not capable of wanting things, or of recognizing its own needs, or of contriving better means of satisfying them. It just responds to internal and external pressures, and lets its genes and natural selection do the work.
A human, on the other hand, has both needs and wants. A human needs a limited number of things: health, food, water, shelter, sex and other bodily functions. But what does a human want? A human wants a potentially unlimited number of things - comfort, entertainment, relationships, experiences, learning, achievement, and on and on - anything that it believes will increase its happiness.
A human is also an intelligent being, capable of recognizing its own needs and wants and of contriving the means of satisfying them.
Therefore, whereas genes evolve passively, humans evolve actively. They make improvements through inventing new tools, spread those improvements through communities, and over time those improvements compound, creating what we call civilization.
In 1953, Francis crick discovered DNA: one of the most significant breakthroughs in scientific research of all time. We take it for granted, but Darwin, a hundred years earlier, did not understand the mechanism by which hereditary traits were passed on. Across all biological evolution, only one thing evolves: genes. Going back to the flower example, the flower itself, per se, does not evolve, only its genes do.
Does civilization have “genes”?
It has three: ideas, culture, and technology.
Like the flower, humans don’t evolve. Instead, our ideas, culture and technology evolve. These carry the genetic code, if you will, of civilization, from one generation to the next.
Let’s examine each in turn.
Humans have ideas.
Because ideas help us. They help us satisfy our needs and wants, given our environment and competition. In other words, they help us respond to our internal and external pressures.
But ideas have internal and external pressures of their own.
An idea needs to be believed by humans. Like a virus, it needs a host.
Ideas exist within an environment. That environment is reality as experienced by its human host. As that reality changes, the human will have to adapt. So to, must the idea. For a human will believe in an idea only so long as it serves him or her better than the next best alternative. Which brings us to our next point…
Ideas also exist within a competitive system. If a better idea comes around, it will threaten the old idea. That’s because humans are capable of changing their minds. Humans are also capable of changing each other’s minds, through a process called persuasion, which may include reading, writing or some other forms of communication.
In this competition, the ideas which win are only as rational as the humans which choose them. Humans are not always logical, perceptive, and self-interested. They are also moved by emotion, peer pressure, and the zeitgeist, as Hegel might have put it.
So, ideas have all three ingredients required for evolution: - Entities capable of making improvements (humans choosing ideas) - A way of spreading improvements (communication and persuasion) - Reasons to change (dynamic competition and environment)
Cultures also evolve, and in much the same way.
What is culture? In this case, I am quite satisfied with the dictionary’s definition: “the customs, arts, social institutions and achievements of a particular nation, people, or social group”. This includes companies, families and any other human network, regardless of its structure or the nature of the interactions between its members. These networks provide the context (or environment) for ideas, histories, opinions, behaviors, and values. They produce them and give them meaning.
You might ask, why do ideas change at all? That’s what Plato thought. He conceived of Ideas almost like gods on Olympus: existing in a higher realm, frozen like statues sculpted and etched in perfect, undying detail, abstract and ideal, expressing their true natures. If the nature of lightning is to strike, it strikes. If the nature of Beauty is to be beautiful, it is beautiful. Fully, truly Beautiful. When we call a thing beautiful here on earth, we are simply recognizing that it is manifesting some shadow of the qualities from the true Idea of Beauty. Ideas don’t evolve. Nor are they created. They aren’t produced by and they don’t derive meaning from people - they derive meaning from themselves, they are objective. They are eternal.
Even if Plato was right, we live here on earth. We have news, weather, wars! Nothing is frozen, everything is dynamic, like a storm. We are acting and reacting to ourselves, each other and the landscape as it changes around us. There is change, lots and lots of it - big, small, threats, opportunities - and all of these changes affect the environment in which a culture exists and are pressures for it to respond to.
Given that, let’s just assume that Ideas are objective. Even if Truth is objective, it is not fully manifested on earth, and thus not fully knowable - so we have opinions about it. Same with Justice, so we have disagreements about how it applies down here. The existence of these Big Ideas does not preclude the creation, by humans - existing in temporal space, with a past, present, and future and thus change - of small ideas, ideas which derive all their meaning from specific context. For example, “we should invent an automatic hamburger making machine”, or “we should enact that law”, or “we should acquire that company”, or “we should have Caesar Salad for dinner” - all of these ideas were produced by and derive their meaning from culture: networks of people, larger or small, in specific contexts - technology, politics, business, family.
So, we have all the ingredients! Entities capable of change (cultures), a way of transmitting that change to other entities (by definition, the people within a culture interact with each other, cultures also interact with other cultures, and cultures have histories, behaviors and values that they pass on from generation to generation), and reasons to change (cultures exist in a world of change, so there are always dynamic environmental pressures of various kinds, some of them are internal).
Technology evolves too. Again, the ingredients:
- entities capable of change. a) entities: humans b) capable: have opposable thumbs, can think, make tools (technology) c) change: can change the tools, can attempt to invent improvements, if desired
- a way of transmitting change a) way 1: can speak, listen and understand b) way 2: can write, read and understand c) way 3: can amass and organize increasingly complex information in increasingly large amounts d) way 4 - META: can make tools to improve capacity to transmit change, i.e. paper and pen, libraries, printing press, the internet, wikipedia, networks, etc.
- a reason for change (using Maslow’s pyramid) a) internal pressure set 1: basic human needs
- survival, food, water, shelter
- means of continuing survival (such as economic wherewithal: skills, transportation, communication, information, and so on)
- comfort (such as entertainment and other luxuries) & means of increasing comfort (such as better skills, etc.) b) internal pressure set 2: social wants
- connectedness, love, respect, understanding, intimacy, ego, etc. c) internal pressure set 3: self-actualization wants
- satisfying curiosity, learning new skills, new experiences, creating value, realizing one’s full potential, etc. d) external pressure set 1: market demand
- Technology is not just created to satisfy the needs and wants of its creators but to satisfy the needs and wants of others, who will pay the creators money, so the creators can satisfy more of his needs and wants. Therefore, market demand drives the invention of new technologies. e) external pressure set 2: competition
- Creators of technology compete with each other to satisfy demand, which drives further innovation.
In this section, we’ve shown that evolution is the origin of much more than the species. It is the process underlying civilization, which evolves through ideas, culture and technology.
What Humans Want
Once needs are met, wants drive human evolution.
Earlier in this essay, we discussed the difference between passive and active evolution. Whereas genes evolve passively, only humans, or other intelligent beings, evolve actively. We defined intelligence as the capacity to have both needs and wants, recognize them (i.e. being self-aware), and then invent better ways to satisfy them. We also noted that while humans have a limited set of needs, they have an unlimited set of wants.
A few months ago I read a Foreign Affairs article by Jerry Muller, which contained a narrative of economic development since the Industrial Revolution, most of which I agreed with, but which made an argument in the conclusion which I disagreed with.
Still, it was a brilliant piece, which contained the following paragraph:
“The result [of Liberalism], as the historian Jan de Vries has noted, was what contemporaries called ‘an awakening of the appetites of the mind’ - an expansion of subjective wants and a new subjective perception of needs. This ongoing expansion of wants has been chastised by critics of capitalism from Rousseau to Marcuse as imprisoning humans in a cage of unnatural desires. But it has also been praised by defenders of the market from Voltaire onward for broadening the range of human possibility. Developing and fulfilling higher wants and needs, in this view, is the essence of civilization.”
Thomas Paine used similar language in the opening argument of Common Sense. Liberalism, by first meeting our limited needs, then allows us to invent new ways of satisfying our unlimited wants.
Why do we have unlimited wants?
As you move up Maslow’s pyramid, from basic to social to self-actualization needs, solutions become less obvious. Let’s think about this.
Basic needs are simple. I need to eat. Sell me food. I need to sleep. Sell me a house and a bed. I need to communicate. Sell me a telephone. I need to move. Sell me a car. I need to get a job. Sell me an education. Solutions have a clear “before” and “after” story. They are anchored in the physical and the pragmatic. They have a straightforward value proposition: “buy this” and you will continue to survive in comfort. There are a limited set of options for satisfying each need.
Social needs are more complicated. They are less urgent. If they are not met, you won’t die - unlike starvation or thirst. Taken as a whole, the social “need” is real - we may not die alone, but we suffer alone. Taken one at a time, they are wants, not needs. I want connectedness, love, respect, admiration, understanding, intimacy, attention, et cetera, et cetera. That et cetera is open-ended. Wants are endless.
What are you going to sell me? You could sell me fashion, if you can convince me it’ll get me attention. You can sell her lingerie, if you can convince her it’ll get her intimacy. You can sell me a fancy car, if you can convince me it will get me admiration. You can get me to spend time on a social network, if you can convince me I’ll feel more connected.
The point is that there isn’t a one-to-one ratio between needs and solutions. There are dozens of solutions to every want, with both more wants and more solutions being invented all the time. Social needs are not anchored in survival. They are less physical and more psychological. There’s a wider field of options.
Is this true for self-actualization, as well? Even more so! You want to have new experiences, learn new skills, explore your potential, create value, satisfy curiosity, and on and on… I can sell you anything! I can sell you travel. I can sell you education. I can sell you bungee jumping. I can sell you dance lessons. I can convince you to work at my startup.
As technology moves up the pyramid, consolidation increases
At the bottom of the pyramid, there are many big businesses. In the middle of the pyramid, there are fewer. At the top, there are fewer still.
Facebook is the biggest business in the middle of the pyramid. It created a monopoly position, of sorts, by representing a wide range of human relationships and social interactions digitally. It created a platform, a structure, for consolidating many wants under one umbrella.
Everest is working on doing the same at the top of the pyramid. We are representing all the things that people want to do in life, the interactions people with each other as they relate to those things, and the actions people take in pursuit of them. We want to build a platform for self-actualization that works for any want.
What evolution wants
Kevin Kelly, a technology writer, futurist and co-founder of WIRED magazine (along with Stewart Brand), wrote a book a few years ago called What Technology Wants. It also looks at technology as an evolutionary force, but attributes to it an agency of its own. He challenges our assumption that technology exists to do what humans want. Maybe we serve it, instead of the other way around.
From what technology wants, we can learn what evolution wants.
Inexorable but not inevitable
The argument is becoming easier to accept with every passing year, as technology almost visibly accelerates. Inexorable technological progress - progress that seems impossible to stop or prevent - has some scary implications. Take, 3D printing, for example. Even if you wanted to, how could you stop it? You can’t, you can only slow it down, and even then, only by drastic means, such that the chemotherapy is worse than the cancer. Pass a law banning it from the United States, and research and development would just move elsewhere. If Silicon Valley fell into the sea in a catastrophic earthquake, and all the companies here were lost, ultimately even that wouldn’t stop it. Short of extinction or a total global economic collapse, or the threat of such events, the work will go on. Fear and panic just increase the risk of R&D, but if the reward is great enough, there will still be capital for an exciting project.
If technological progress is inexorable, that does not also mean that it is inevitable, at least not in the sense that all of the specifics are certain and knowable in advance. As we discussed in a previous essay, ultimately, individual actors have to make it happen and give things their final shape.
In Hegel’s concept of dialectic, which we’ll discuss in a moment, evolution progresses in octaves of thesis, counter-thesis, and synthesis. If we look for that pattern with technology, it doesn’t take long to find it. Take, weapons, for instance.
With every measure there is a counter-measure.
One of my favorite childhood novels, Wings of Dawn, teaches an important lesson. ‘If for every measure there is a counter-measure, then what, Thomas, is the ultimate weapon?’ ‘I don’t know…’ ‘Knowledge,’ the old man replied.
The only real advantage is the ability to stay one step ahead. If you have the measure and the counter-measure hasn’t been invented yet, the field is yours. If the other side can reverse-engineer your technology fast enough or invent a counter-measure of their own, they can restore parity. If they can do both, they can regain the advantage, because they will have two weapons to your one.
To borrow another concept from evolutionary biology, this results in a punctuated equilibrium. Each new weapon disrupts the last synthesis, bringing about rapid change. Eventually the system stabilizes and a new equilibrium is formed. Time passes. Then a counter-measure is introduced. The cycle repeats.
What does technology want? To take the next step. To go from thesis, to counter-thesis, and from counter-thesis to synthesis, which becomes the new thesis, which then invites a counter-thesis, and so on, in an endless dialectic progression.
With military technology, the competitive pressure is the ongoing war or risk of war. Research and development happens at a far faster rate when the risk of war is high or when there is an ongoing war than when there is low risk. In long periods of equilibrium, if there is peace, so neither side is deploying new weapons, and if neither side has intelligence on the other’s research and development, then the dialectic can stall. Both sides may invent the next weapon, but until they deploy it, they stall. In the absence of a counter-party inventing counter-measures, it is very hard to keep taking the next steps.
With artificial intelligence, the environmental pressure has been market demand. Ultimately, technology is getting what it wants because it is also what consumers want, and consumers are willing to pay for it. We want devices to do things for us. The problem is, unlike warfare, demand is not likely to stall. The more things devices do for us, the more things we want devices to do for us. When will it stop?
To take the next step
What does technology want? To take the next step. And so does evolution.
Forty years before Darwin published the Origin of the Species in 1859, the German philosopher Hegel (also Fichte and others) thought about how ideas and culture evolve through time, through a process called dialectic.
Hegel was not the first to discuss dialectic. Socrates was. It is as ancient as philosophy itself. That’s because it’s about how philosophy works: it describes the structure of rational discourse. That’s also why it is hard to explain, as it involves abstract logic.
Socrates’ dialectic method was to show how a thesis leads to a contradiction, thus forcing the withdrawal of the thesis as a candidate for truth. In logic, this is known as a reductio ad absurdum - the reduction of an argument to absurdity.
In the two thousand years from Socrates to Hegel, the importance of dialectic had been overlooked. Hegel focused on it, and in so doing, elevated it. He invented an alternative method, which helped him apply it to lots of things.
Hegelian dialectic proceeds in an endless progression from thesis, to antithesis, to synthesis - which becomes the new thesis. To transcend the disagreement between the thesis and antithesis, the synthesis denies a presupposition of both.
Take the French Revolution as a thesis. The Reign of Terror which followed the Revolution was its antithesis. Napoleon’s reign was the synthesis that resolved the contradictions of both. It then became the new thesis. The Restoration was its antithesis, and so on. That’s the classic example.
We can come up with one of our own.
Let’s use the following argument as a thesis: - Fast food is delicious (If A then B) - Delicious is good (If B then C) - Therefore, fast food is good (If A then C)
Now, here’s an antithesis: - Fast food is not healthy - Unhealthy is bad - Therefore, fast food is bad
A presupposition of both the thesis and antithesis is that good and bad are binary outcomes. If we negate that presupposition, we can arrive at a synthesis.
Synthesis: - If fast food is delicious, it is only partly good - If fast food is unhealthy, it is only partly bad - If fast food is delicious and unhealthy, it is partly good and partly bad
This synthesis becomes the new thesis. Suppose you agree with it. Eventually someone will disagree with you. Then while you’re disagreeing, some third person will come and disagree with something you both agree with, but probably didn’t realize you had in common, underlying both your arguments.
We could keep going, but you get the point. (Once, I tried to disagree with Hegel. It was ironic. Try it.)
Hegel saw dialectic everywhere. If he were around today, he might point out the dialectic progression in popular diets. Or how Lean Startup theory is merely a response to what came before, which was a response to what came before that.
Dialectic was Hegel’s insight into how ideas, technology and culture evolve. They want to take the next step.
Dystopian Visions of the Future
In Revelation, as the Apostle prophecies the end-times, he sees the horsemen of the apocalypse who will destroy the world.
The Six Horsemen of the Apocalypse
I see them too. There are six. One for each type of existential threat:
1. Natural (the sun exploding, an asteroid hitting earth, global warming, disease)
2. Economic (extreme collapse leading to famine and starvation)
3. Terrestrial warfare (humans killing humans, aided by technology)
4. Extra-terrestrial warfare (aliens killing humans)
5. Mutants killing humans
6. Computers killing humans
These are dystopian visions of the future.
Science fiction has made books and movies about each one. Here are a few:
- [Chicken Little](https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chicken_Little_(2005_film) (the sky is falling!)
- The Day After Tomorrow (global warming)
- Armageddon (asteroid hits earth)
- Deep Impact (asteroid hits earth… again) - Exploding Sun
Economic Collapse - Atlas Shrugged - The Hunger Games
Terrestrial Warfare - Iron Man - Olympus has Fallen - Most of the James Bond franchise - The Sum of All Fears - The Hunt for Red October - Air Force One
Extra-Terrestrial Warfare - Ender’s Game - Thor, Transformers and here’s a list of about 100 more - woah.
Mutants Killing Humans - Star Trek: Into Darkness - X-Men - Hulk
Computers Killing Humans - The Matrix - See more and more
All six of these would be the result of an evolutionary process. There are traces of the first five anxieties in ancient civilizations, but only in the last hundred years have they been so intense and plausible.
Even science fiction, as a genre, is barely older than the 20th century, with H. G. Wells’ War of the Worlds debuting in 1898. As a serious academic concern, with organizations like the Oxford Institute for the Future being funded to think about them, they are indeed very novel.
I won’t comment on all of them, just computers and mutants.
Death by computer
Just because it is not inevitable does not mean that inexorable technological progress doesn’t have fascinating implications. You can draw conclusions from it - you can “think intelligently about the future” - but they are not foregone. People like Nick Bostrom spend a lot of time thinking about concepts like Technological Singularity and Artificial Intelligence.
If you read Ross Andersen’s interview with him, you’ll get an excellent explanation for why very intelligent people are very afraid of death by computer.
If computers become increasingly capable - especially if Moore’s Law maintains and they become capable at an increasing rate - then eventually, their computing power will rival and then ultimately surpass human intelligence.
If you can think it, it will happen. Because if you can think it, and it is both possible and desirable, either for you or someone else, then someone else will also think of it, and they will build it, even if you don’t.
Is it possible? I don’t know. There’s a whole debate about that, some of it deeply technical. Processing power doesn’t necessarily translate to intelligence. Again, inexorable doesn’t mean inevitable. It’s hard to know how intelligent artificial intelligence will be and if it will become uncontrollable and dangerous.
You will become a mutant
Don’t be too worried about artificial intelligence. That’s what technology wants, but hopefully it’s still a long way off. Aliens live far away, so hopefully they’re a long way off too.
Instead, let’s worry about mutants. They’re close by. You will soon become one.
There was some phase, lost in the mists of time, in which our homo sapiens ancestors distinguished themselves from their nearest genetic relatives, whom they either eliminated, or whom nature eliminated for them. But are we, today, still that same species?
That question raises the alarm. No scientist who values their reputation or career would dare introduce new species classifications for living humans. If some of us were homo sapiens but others were novum homines (new humans), what would that mean? It would undermine society’s premise that “all men are created equal”, resulting in destabilizing identity comparisons based on a matrix of superiority/inferiority by majority/minority (i.e. I am in the minority and I am superior), and it would be politically incorrect in the extreme, given the Nazi stigma associated with eugenics and the like.
Speaking of Nazi eugenics experiments, they feature in the plot-lines of the old X Men comics and recent films, which explore this fascinating subject: if homo sapiens were to take the next leap in evolution, what might it look like and what would its implications be for modern society?
As neurological and biological research progresses, this will soon be a very real concern. Retrovirus technology, for example, lets us write back to DNA. Someday, hopefully soon, Tocagen will use it to cure brain cancer, and other companies will find similar applications for it as well.
Once we start editing gene sequences, we will be able to do much more than cure cancer. We’ll be able to change who we are and how we function. We’ll be able to stop growing fingernails and hair, to stop storing fat so greedily for the winter, etc.
Machines will also become one with us. Google Glass is just the start. We’ll have ocular and auditory implants. No more screens, no more headphones or speakers. We’ll have nano-robots inside of us repairing, protecting, and enhancing our biological systems.
Perhaps death itself is just a disease to be overcome, as Aubrey de Grey argues.
What will we become?
Maybe the new humans won’t kill the old humans, like the mutants in X Men. Maybe these changes will be gradual or accessible, and we’ll all change at the same time. Will we all change in the same ways? Will we have a choice in the matter? If we have choice, will we be able to choose not only if we want different genes, but which genes we want? Like X Men, maybe this won’t be a progression from homo sapiens to novum homines, from one species to another, but from one species to many.
Once again, I ask… What will we become?