A Grandiose Experiment
Evolution is an experiment on a grandiose scale with no hypothesis to test and no end goal in mind. Needless to say: it does not care about any species, let alone individuals. Don’t take this personally, but it has zero interest in you, or the human race for that matter. All it cares about is experimenting with various features and see what emerges as a result. Can it be, that these same basic principles are the reasons behind our predicament? If yes, how so? Well, let’s take a dive in the principles of evolution and see if they fit to our culture, or has anything to say about our civilization’s destiny.
As opposed to creating the most advanced species on Earth, evolution generates features and see if they work, or rather: fit. So it is perfectly possible that while a specimen got a lot of poor to mediocre traits, it has one or two features which happen to be extremely useful. It could be as simple as a longer than usual claw, or a strange beak. If it accidentally helps the individual to get more food, attract more mates and ultimately produce more offspring, then it will be propagated and eventually spread across the entire population. Evolution is a fitness contest between features, not individuals or species. It’s all about selecting the right traits for success at surviving and reproducing, not about exercise and strength.
Fitness of a certain feature, of course, depends entirely on the environment where it is put to test. So while a long warm fur, for example, is extremely useful on the tundra, it is not so on the savanna. Evolution works with an immense range of variables like fur thickness, color, length etc. encoded into genes. Most of which is simply sitting idle, unexpressed, waiting to be activated by a sudden change in environmental factors like temperature. These genes encode a lot of things which used to be useful in the distant past, and thus give a chance for a “quick” adaption, should the environment change suddenly. With that said, genes could not be turned on upon request, most of them are expressed at or around conception. One unusually fit individual cannot save a species either: it takes multiple generations for a particular genetic variant to become widespread.
Evolution is not a linear process though: it proceeds in leaps and bounds as opposed to a long steady progress. During a time of a major environmental change it “speeds up”, and consequently “slows down” when things stay the same for a long time. Such stable periods favor the emergence of large, slow to breed (and thus slow to change) animals and trees (so called K-selected species), while sudden environmental changes — like the ones we’re experiencing today — put an end to their existence. With ten, fifteen (or even more) years between generations and only a handful of offspring, these species simply cannot adapt fast enough to sudden changes. Not like rodents, bugs and other small critters and plants (or so called r-selected species): who leave a large number of progeny behind (with a lot of variants) every year, year after year. These species don’t “waste” much time on raising their kids, they expect them to find their way quickly, or get eaten fast.
As creatures live, breed, consume, excrete and die, however, they are constantly changing the living conditions around them. And while things may look just the same as yesteryear, the countless little changes add up over time. Resources end up constituting large trees, animals or get trapped in the soil. Pollutants and deadwood pile up. The entire ecosystem slowly becomes fragile and less resilient. This is why such calm phases are called states of unstable equilibrium, in which even a small disturbance can produce a large change. Long time spans of a quasi steady state are thus often ended with an abrupt change, walking hand in hand with extinctions and a large upheaval in general. This is the engine behind a repeating pattern, an universal phenomenon throughout the history of evolution, called the adaptive cycle with its four distinct phases:
- Growth or exploitation (r) — favoring small critters evolving in huge leaps and bounds
- Conservation (K) — favoring large animals and plants and a large accumulation of biomass
- Collapse or release (omega) — a massive die-off and a release of previously locked-up nutrients back into the ecosystem
- Reorganization (alpha) — from where the cycle starts all over (or ends for many species)
Humans are no exception to this pattern. We are the product of an evolutionary process, resulting in a species best fit for a foraging lifestyle on more or less wooded grasslands and forests. As we destroy our ecosystem and replace it with an artificial one based on finite minerals, however, we are becoming just as prone to extinction as any other K-selected, slow breeding species. What made our unusual “success” possible thus far, is that we have inherited a rather flexible, adaptable hardware with many features fit for a wide range of environments. Think: dexterous hands, bodies capable of walking/running large distances without overheating, or an ability to digest a wide variety of foodstuff and of course having a supercomputer as head. Thanks to the latter we have temporarily managed to sidestep evolution, and escape extinction several times by changing the software (habits, beliefs, values, culture) multiples faster than evolution could develop new bodily traits for us. Take for example our habit of taking the hide of other animals and wearing them as if it were ours when it suddenly turned cold or wet outside. No other animal could adapt that fast.
Contrary to the myth of progress and of human ingenuity, our societies and civilizations were just as a result of this evolutionary process. All of our cultural traits were a result of an unconscious ideation and selection process. Including our innumerable small habits, from rather obvious ones like what we wear as clothes, what we eat, or how we speak, to more subtle ones like beliefs, attitudes and an image of ourselves and our place in the world. Who would have thought, for example, that sport shoes designed for basket ball players would become status symbols over time and that people would pay a month salary to obtain a pair…?
From an evolutionary perspective all of these culture-elements are nothing but features vetted against the cultural environment in which they thrive. It is not us, the apes, who are running the lab. Our culture is just as part of the experiment as our bodies. Displaying the right cultural traits is thus just as important in attracting mates and in the overall success of an individual as having the right biophysical features. Their fitness can also be a question of life and death: think for example saying “heresies” or “forbidden things” leading to the denunciation, persecution or even execution of an individual. And finally, just as with physical traits: while in one environment certain features can lead to death, in others the very same ones can lead to praise and success.
Societies are built from individuals possessing all these cultural traits, but even in the most homogeneous cultures people often have very different personalities, approaches to novelty and problem solving, taste, prospects, desires and so on. In every culture there is always a rather wide variety of habits, ideas, attitudes on offer—they just remain hidden from the mainstream view — not unlike genes in a huge gene pool.
As large amounts of people start to form a society though (join workplaces, religions, and take part in the work of organizations etc) a super-organism emerges and the whole structure start to look much like a living creature with its organs, energy and nutrient flows, immune system and so on. This emergence of higher level structures from individuals is also a sign of evolution at work, and thus can be found throughout the animal kingdom from birds flying in flocks to ants building massive structures and even complex societies. It goes without saying that no one has designed modern society (or any society for that matter) to look exactly as it looks today. Those who have tried always failed miserably and caused the death of millions. Successful social structures have just happened to become what they are, because they could. The conditions were “right” for the “right” people with the “right” mindset to be selected… All as part of a Grandiose Experiment with no apparent end goal or hypothesis to test.
No cultural environment is meant to be stable though. As resources deplete and get increasingly locked up as “wealth” in the real world (not unlike biomass in a stable ecosystem), a gap starts to open between reality and the prevailing social order. Change (or rather: adaption) is resisted at all cost, until it no longer can be withhold and the slightest perturbation puts an end to the status quo. Does the word unstable equilibrium rings a bell here? Well, the adaptive cycle is not a unique feature to biological systems it seems, it is just as present in human cultures throughout our entire history. The rise and fall of civilizations are not without an analogy in Nature.
The reluctance of the “powers that be” to even the slightest of change is like having large K-selected species ruling over the land. Unwilling (or rather unable) to change course and by owning all the resources and wealth, they prevent the widespread adaption of new features much better adapted to the changed world. The underlying steady shift in the environment (and not just cultural but natural, economic, political, military etc.) is ignored by a ruling class in deep denial. Instead, every measure is taken to prevent any challenge to the status quo as long as it’s physically possible. (And then often beyond that through the means of propaganda and manipulation. This is why radical social change and even collapse catches most people by surprise.) From this perspective social trends, wars and geopolitics are nothing more than desperate attempts made at sustaining the unsustainable. As the situation keeps worsening though and as nothing seems to work, the dam withholding all the bad news, dissent, anger, etc. suddenly bursts open and washes away the old establishment.
Just as it is with evolution, the individual does not really matter: just take a look at policy decisions made by seemingly different administrations, but all pointing towards the same direction. Political decisions are not a result of individual choices, I argue, but of a relentless selection pressure to produce just the right type of leader at just the right time making just the right decisions. Thus replacing one leader with another (vetted against the same cultural environment) really does not solve anything. If the cultural environment does not adjusts itself to reality, nothing really changes. And since what people believe to be real are a result of constant PR messaging from the leadership class, aimed at preserving the status quo, how could we have anything else than an impasse…?
In this artificial self-perpetuating environment only the technically incompetent (but ideologically immaculate) thrive, as the ones raising objections were rooted out a long time ago. In this world math and physics becomes a matter of preference, ecologically insane ideas are pushed as sustainable, war is peace and fervid militarism becomes its own self-licking ice cream cone. Is it any wonder then, that all empires and great cultures all end up in the same way: collapsed?
The question poses itself: can we forgo this upheaval and start a change proactively? Well, can a giraffe with a much shorter neck hope to thrive in anticipation of shrubs replacing trees? Of course not. A short neck would be extremely detrimental in an environment where all the juicy leaves grow on high trees. Similarly, in such a crazy social environment pushing for sanity and “doing the right thing” remains maladaptive at scale. While certain people can make the change to a much more sustainable lifestyle, people en masse cannot. Mass adaption follows change, not the other way around: there is no such thing as “pre-adaption”, neither on the biological, nor on the cultural level.
It is very important however, to have such sane people around and to maintain a wide range of ideas in one’s mind. As the current social structure disintegrates due to reality slowly creeping in, these alternative ideas, lifestyle choices, habits etc. will germinate like seeds after a wildfire. Once the current position becomes untenable for the masses a rabid search for alternatives will begin and a new adaptive cycle begins. This is the moment for long suppressed ideas to emerge, coming up with appropriate low-tech solutions, starting community farming and a sharing economy at scale. Yes, it will be a rough ride, and unfortunately very short for way too many people, but when it comes, being prepared will prove to be much better than being shocked.
Until next time,