Friday, 22 November 2013

Medicine vs microbes: comparing evolutionary rates

Much has been written about how cultural evolution is faster than organic evolution. Unfortunately most of it is nonsense. The problem is that people compare the rate of evolution of humans with the rate of evolution of memes - which typically have a much shorter generation time. This comparison is unfair and unhelpful - as I've previously documented my previous article: On the rate of cultural evolution.

A fairer contest would be to compare cultural evolution with the evolution of organic microbes. A natural experiment is currently doing that on an enormous scale. Hospitals and medical organizations wage constant war on microbes. In some cases, humans care quite a bit about the outcome - it can't be claimed that they aren't trying. This contest gives us some data about the relative rates of evolution in the two realms.

Looking at this data, it's hard to make much of a case for cultural evolution being faster. The extinction rates of disease causing microbes are especially poor. Perhaps, one day, cultural evolution will clearly outstrip organic evolution - but we don't seem to be quite there yet.

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