Thursday, 22 May 2014

Stephen Hawking on cultural evolution

In 2009, Stephen Hawking made some comments about cultural evolution. He said:

with the human race, evolution reached a critical stage, comparable in importance with the development of DNA. This was the development of language, and particularly written language. It meant that information can be passed on, from generation to generation, other than genetically, through DNA. There has been no detectable change in human DNA, brought about by biological evolution, in the ten thousand years of recorded history. But the amount of knowledge handed on from generation to generation has grown enormously. The DNA in human beings contains about three billion nucleic acids. However, much of the information coded in this sequence, is redundant, or is inactive. So the total amount of useful information in our genes, is probably something like a hundred million bits. One bit of information is the answer to a yes no question. By contrast, a paper back novel might contain two million bits of information. So a human is equivalent to 50 Mills and Boon romances. A major national library can contain about five million books, or about ten trillion bits. So the amount of information handed down in books, is a hundred thousand times as much as in DNA.

Even more important, is the fact that the information in books, can be changed, and updated, much more rapidly. It has taken us several million years to evolve from the apes. During that time, the useful information in our DNA, has probably changed by only a few million bits. So the rate of biological evolution in humans, is about a bit a year. By contrast, there are about 50,000 new books published in the English language each year, containing of the order of a hundred billion bits of information. Of course, the great majority of this information is garbage, and no use to any form of life. But, even so, the rate at which useful information can be added is millions, if not billions, higher than with DNA.

This has meant that we have entered a new phase of evolution. At first, evolution proceeded by natural selection, from random mutations. This Darwinian phase, lasted about three and a half billion years, and produced us, beings who developed language, to exchange information. But in the last ten thousand years or so, we have been in what might be called, an external transmission phase. In this, the internal record of information, handed down to succeeding generations in DNA, has not changed significantly. But the external record, in books, and other long lasting forms of storage, has grown enormously. Some people would use the term, evolution, only for the internally transmitted genetic material, and would object to it being applied to information handed down externally. But I think that is too narrow a view. We are more than just our genes. We may be no stronger, or inherently more intelligent, than our cave man ancestors. But what distinguishes us from them, is the knowledge that we have accumulated over the last ten thousand years, and particularly, over the last three hundred. I think it is legitimate to take a broader view, and include externally transmitted information, as well as DNA, in the evolution of the human race.

The time scale for evolution, in the external transmission period, is the time scale for accumulation of information. This used to be hundreds, or even thousands, of years. But now this time scale has shrunk to about 50 years, or less. On the other hand, the brains with which we process this information have evolved only on the Darwinian time scale, of hundreds of thousands of years. This is beginning to cause problems.

This content seems reminiscent of my A new kind of evolution essay/video - from 2008.

However, the proposed Darwinian / external transmission dichotomy does not seem to be viable to me. For one thing, external transmission is going on all the time - even with primitive creatures. It's called "environmental inheritance".

Stephen also has a section about what I refer to as the coming memetic takeover:

It might be possible to use genetic engineering, to make DNA based life survive indefinitely, or at least for a hundred thousand years. But an easier way, which is almost within our capabilities already, would be to send machines. These could be designed to last long enough for interstellar travel. When they arrived at a new star, they could land on a suitable planet, and mine material to produce more machines, which could be sent on to yet more stars. These machines would be a new form of life, based on mechanical and electronic components, rather than macromolecules. They could eventually replace DNA based life, just as DNA may have replaced an earlier form of life.

This mechanical life could also be self-designing. Thus it seems that the external transmission period of evolution, will have been just a very short interlude, between the Darwinian phase, and a biological, or mechanical, self design phase. This is shown on this next diagram, which is not to scale, because there's no way one can show a period of ten thousand years, on the same scale as billions of years. How long the self-design phase will last is open to question. It may be unstable, and life may destroy itself, or get into a dead end. If it does not, it should be able to survive the death of the Sun, in about 5 billion years, by moving to planets around other stars.

Stephen seems to think that Darwinian evolution is coming to an end. For instance, he says:

There is no time, to wait for Darwinian evolution, to make us more intelligent, and better natured. But we are now entering a new phase, of what might be called, self designed evolution, in which we will be able to change and improve our DNA.

This is partly a terminology issue: the issue of what set of processes the term "Darwinian evolution" refers to. However many thinkers have put forward a good case for classifying human cultural evolution as being "Darwinian". Basically a) we should give Darwin credit and b) it is challenging to produce a sensible definition of "Darwinian evolution" that includes the process that produced plants and animals, and excludes the processes that go on inside brains and are responsible for thought processes. Once the need to keep Darwin in mind is properly understood, it is hard to go back to classifying mental processes as - in some sense - non-Darwinian.

The main points used to classify cultural evolution as non-Darwinian revolve around the issues of the 'randomness' of mutations and 'Lamarckian' inheritance. This is ironic - Darwin knew little about the source of variation, and he pioneered the idea of 'gemmules' - which were mediators of the inheritance of acquired characteristics. Calling cultural inheritance non-Darwinian on either of these grounds surely involves historical revisionism.

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