Monday, 3 November 2014

On Coyne on Kelly

I read Jerry Coyne's review of What Technology Wants - and now duty calls.

Coyne argues that technological determinism is "a theory of such mind-blowing generality that it can’t be disproved". I think that this is contrary to conventional understanding of the issue - we can see to what extent technological determinism is true by looking at convergent evolution - much as Kelly does in What Technology Wants. Coyne goes on to write:

Kelly is strangely keen to tie his theory of technological development to biological evolution. I am not sure why; perhaps he thinks his progressive view of technology is more credible if it’s seen as an extension of the established scientific vision of evolution. But his take on biological evolution is one that, while beloved of creationists, is completely rejected by scientists: he sees it as teleological, driven by external forces to achieve certain goals. Sadly, evolution doesn’t work this way.

Coyne's answer to technological determinism is Stephen Jay Gould's "contingency". He rattles off Gould's argument that evolution is directionless as though it is an established fact. Let's get one thing straight here. Gould was politically motivated to weigh in against evolutionary progress - because progressive evolution punches big holes in the precious idea that everyone is born equal. If there is evolutionary progress, that would probably mean that there are higher and lower races and cultures - and then, oh, the horror. Gould's scientific egalitarianism was political, not scientific - in much the same way that his farcical book on intelligence testing was. Gould is a terrible authority to cite on this topic - because of this obvious politically-motivated bias.

The truth surely lies somewhere between the extreme positions. Contingency plays a role, but there is clearly evolutionary progress - due to technological determinism and its pre-human equivalent. Not just the passive kind of progress that Gould fantasized about - but one due to progressive optimization. Ecosystems are getting progressively better at seeking out energy gradients and dissipating them. Evolutionary progress is one of the commonalities between biological and cultural evolution. Just as cellulose and chloryphyll allowed some organisms to better degrade sunlight, these days, progress in solar panel technology is repeating this feat. This isn't some kind of idle coincidence - evolution is a gigantic optimisation progress. It accumulates natural and human-made technology / innovation - which gives it a ratchet effect: early there are few inventions; later there are many. Under the sufficiently low-frequency of cosmic bombardment that we happen to observe, that process results in evolutionary progress.

Maybe when our descendants are all near-perfect angels there will be a shake-out of accumulated evolutionary contingency. However, for the moment, there's some contingency too. Bats and birds both have wings, but there are some differences - for example birds have feathers. Dolphin brains and human brains exploded in a similar fashion, but they aren't exactly the same.

In his review, Coyne argues that Kelly is mistaken. However it is Coyne who doesn't understand here. He doesn't understand the links between organic and cultural evolution. He doesn't understand evolutionary progress. He isn't in a good position to review Kelly's book because he doesn't understand the topics it deals with.

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