Monday, 19 December 2016

Cultural evolution and the future

One reason for developing a proper science of how culture evolves it to understand human social institutions, and then use this understanding to build better ones. We should have better educational, political, scientific, technological and religious institutions.

Human cultural evolution is the bleeding edge of evolution on the planet. Many of the current significant changes in the biosphere are due to it. Because cultural evolution itself is so important, its study is correspondingly significant. However until relatively recently, it was not being studied very scientifically, and an absolute basic requirement for any sensible study of cultural evolution - Darwinian evolutionary theory - was largely missing.

Thankfully that has changed over the last 40 years. In the mid-1970s scientists started looking at the topic and the field has been slowly snowballing since then. Part of the progress appears to be recent acceleration due to scientists getting on the internet and engaging in social networking activities. This has mostly made criticism easier and made misconceptions harder to sustain.

Science is intimately involved in predicting the future, and cultural evolution is the main science needed to predict future human evolution. So, what can be said? Here are four basic takeaway points:

  • Synthetic life is here already. Before I learned about cultural evolution I thought that creating synthetic life would largely involve building self-reproducing robots, or virtual living systems capable of undergoing open-ended evolution. However non-DNA life forms are already out there in the wild undergoing their own open ended evolution. They live in symbiosis with humans in the form of human culture. I think that I first clearly articulated this point in 2008 - in my video/essay Synthetic life is here already. Our roles are thus not that of creators but rather nursemaids.

  • A new kind of evolution. An important idea is that cultural evolution differs in some respects from the DNA evolution that preceded it. In next to no time, humans have conquered the globe and even landed on the moon. This is not evolution as normal, something new and different is going on. My 2008 video/essay A new kind of evolution covered this idea. The similarities and differences between cultural evolution and the largely DNA-based evolution that preceded it is a complex topic. One recent innovation is that evolution now involves intelligent design. Engineering is affecting both cultural evolution and the evolution of DNA-based creatures - but it illustrates one of the ways in which evolution itself is changing.

  • Engineered future. The future is likely to be be engineered. Intelligent design leads to better and more flexible solutions than is produced by older evolutionary forces - and these will out-compete any lifeforms that don't make use of engineering. My 2008 video/essay The engineered future covers this idea.

  • Memetic takeover A memetic takeover is likely to be imminent. DNA's near monopoly on high-fidelity information storage is over. The death knell for nature's one-size-fits all storage solution started with the evolution of brains. Progress accelerated with the evolution of culture, writing, printing and the internet. Now we can see that a one-size-fits all storage solution is not appropriate for living systems. Sometimes, random access is needed. Sometimes a read/write storage medium is appropriate. Storage should sometimes be volatile, and sometimes not. Power consumption and heat dissipation requirements can be quite variable. DNA storage meets only a few of these requirements and is currently hardly used at all by engineered systems. Most far future organisms are pretty unlikely to use DNA to store inherited information in. The idea is named after the genetic takeover of A. G. Cairns Smith. Here is my main memetic takeover page on the internet about this idea.

These points seem important. Some of them were forecast long ago - for example in the work of Teilhard de Chardin. Modern proponents of some of these ideas include Hans Moravec and Ray Kurzweil. However, understanding of these outcomes does not appear to be very widespread.

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