Saturday, 13 February 2016

Evolutionary progress and political correctness

I've long supported the idea of evolutionary progress. I've previously argued that cultural evolution will cause a reexamination of the topic. One author who understands cultural evolution - Kevin Kelly - has argued in favor of evolutionary progress - in What Technology Wants. However, few students of cultural evolution seem to have publicly addressed the topic - which is rather disappointing.

I think the story of the suppression of the idea of evolutionary progress has to do with political correctness. Ever since Darwin wrote "Never say higher or lower" in a notebook margin, evolutionary progress has been a hot potato - because of the political implications of some individuals or groups being 'higher' than other ones. Many humans have a sense of egalitarianism; they favor equality, and strive to create it where it does not exist. Evolutionary progress conflicts with the idea of egalitarianism in a number of ways - by denying that equality exists, and by casting doubt on the idea that equality is desirable. In the face of this conflict, many keep their egalitarian ideas and reject the concept of progress.

For me, this seems like a fairly common situation. Political correctness says one thing, and scientific truth says another. Racial and sexual equality run into the same problem: science says one thing, political correctness says something else and then the humans get their panties in a knot.

Evolutionary theory doesn't do equality. The whole idea of evolution is predicted on some creatures doing systematically better than other ones. Cultural evolution compounds the problem - by proposing that differences between humans can arise as a result of cultural transmission - and so can be very large.

The link to political correctness doesn't seem to be much of a secret. One of the most famous proponents of denial of evolutionary process was Steven J Gould. Gould made no secret of his Marxist tendencies.

The influence of political correctness on science is an insidious problem. As we race towards an era of intelligent machines, it becomes increasingly important to have accurate models of our situation. Massive wealth inequality mocks our preferences for egalitarianism. Humans will face increasing cognitive dissonance as their superstitions conflict with the facts.


  1. "Evolutionary progress conflicts with the idea if egalitarianism in a number of ways - by denying that equality exists, and by casting doubt on the idea that equality is desirable."

    No, not exactly. Egalitarian sociality isn't unheard of in the animal kingdom, depending on how strictly you want to interpret "egalitarian" (in my experience, few people who profess belief in equality go as far as saying total equality is desirable). In fact, we're pretty high-ranking in terms of egalitarian species, the functional purpose of inequality in large groups seems to be domestication to maintain efficient scalable social structures and group cohesion. Upholding social norms and coordinating is much more difficult on a personal level for a large group due to a number of human limitations, so bureaucracy is a more effective way in civilized life.

    But that said, there's plenty of evidence for the benefits of increasing various varieties of equality (in a non-absolutist sense) in human culture. It's true that lately there's been a trend towards more economic inequality, but we seem to be doing pretty well in other forms of equality. It largely seems to be opportunism in the face of accelerating technological development, and a culture that's very slow to catch up to modernity, and so opportunists can easily shape policy in their favor. Eventually the situation will stabilize.

    As for racial and sexual equality, I can't really take the view that it's undesirable seriously. Regardless of whether people of different gender and race have gaps in abilities due to a genetic basis, the fact is we have a very low level of sexual dimorphism relative to other species due to a long process of culture-gene coevolution. And "miscegenation" is proven to have number of benefits, as well. Wanting to halt or reverse this process out of a dislike of political correctness and emotion-driven conclusions is ultimately just as guilty as what it criticises.

    But, considering you're explicitly advocating eugenics based off "good science", I'm not sure to what extent you're going for. "Liberal eugenics", based on parent choice? A more social democratic approach, like James Hughes? Because the traditional approach to eugenics is unlikely to have much public appeal, to say the least. Even the former options are very much a stretch with the current climate.

    In this age, we're extremely homogenous as species genetically. While it's true this may be undesirable, this has nothing to do with equality or inequality. Simply a matter of the value of biodiversity for a large variety of biological reasons. Humanity undergoing adaptive radiation, if that were to happen, would almost certainly be different in natures rather than unequal or equal, because "inferior" species would be wiped out and "equal" species would be competing in the same niche.

    But, we're very much not inclined to form subspecies, though with advanced biotech who can say.

    Meanwhile, it's very likely sexual dimorphism, to the limited extent it exists in humans, will become more and more irrelevant due to technology and cultural evolution. I can only see it as delusional to think people will view sexual equality as undesirable in the future. That's never going to happen, and moreover it's disingenuous and unscientific to suggest people "convert" to your worldview to be more attune with nature, and hypocritical considering your promotion of evolutionary progress.

  2. Since this seems like partly a misunderstanding, I'll try and be more specific. When I wrote that the idea of evolutionary process casts doubt on the idea that egalitarianism is desirable, what I means was that progress depends on fitness differences and the elimination of deleterious mutations in unfit individuals. Efforts to make everyone more equal reduce the power of selection to eliminate unfit individuals, leading to an accumulation of deleterious mutations in the population. This can be expected to lead to populations where everyone suffers from more genetic problems. This problem was something Bill Hamilton was very concerned about - as he made clear in his autobiographical volumes. He though there was a risk that our compassionate efforts to reduce natural selection on humans by preventing unfit individuals from being eliminated would lead to an accumulation of deleterious mutations.

    This idea is different from whether people will regard sexual equality as undesirable in the future. For a start, it has nothing to do with sexual equality. For another it isn't to do with what future people will think. Instead, it is to do with the consequences of promoting equality.

    I am not clear why you say it's "disingenuous" and "unscientific" to suggest people "convert" to my worldview. Did I say something that was unscientific? Or did I perhaps say something that was not politically correct? In my experience, that often gets people fired up.

  3. Nah, you're good.

    I wasn't suggesting that converting people was unscientific. Rather I was saying that appeals to an ancestral natural state to justify beliefs aren't tenable in perspective that takes cultural and biological evolution seriously as a factor in human society. Not that there's no insight to be gained by understanding the past, but change is the name of the game.

    I'm not entirely sure of the validity of the dysgenic theory. While undoubtedly it's at least partly correct, I don't think it's the whole story. See the book "Evolving Ourselves: How Unnatural Selection and Nonrandom Mutation are Changing Life on Earth". I haven't finished reading it, got a huge backlog, but their point is that for both good and ill, (un)natural selection is still very much at work at a very fast pace (particularly in our microbiomes).

    So I feel the perspective that modern disease is result of weak selection forces causing accumulation of bad genes, is a bit off the mark if not entirely inaccurate.