Saturday, March 30, 2013

Technology and Future Human Evolution

Alternative titles:

"Another post inspired by conversation with David Friedman: Deal with it, haters"

"I bet Robin Hanson already talked about this much more clearly"


I feel like Friedman is confused about a point I've been making about technology and human evolution, so I want to flesh it out a little more here and get your thoughts on it.

Genes are selected by reproducing themselves successfully. David talked a lot in the prior comment thread about what I call a brute force approach to this objective. You could imagine a gene or set of genes that just gets the organism to reproduce early, often, and in large volume. An organism with those sorts of genes would literally be a cancer on the planet, but as we know - cancer tends to do pretty well for itself. Lesser versions of this are out there, of course: cockroaches, rats, etc.

But obviously genes get along fine without this approach and persist using other strategies. Instead of the cancer strategy you could just be good at keeping your host organism from dying before reproducing. You're not going to overtake the Earth, but there's no Charles Darwin Prize waiting for the gene that overtakes the Earth like a cancer. Genes get one of two "prizes": are you around next year or aren't you? There's no valorization of any particular outcome when it comes to evolution except for perhaps whether your mechanism for being around next year helps or hinders you chance of being around two years from now.

Enter technology.

There's an awful lot in this world that helps humans survive that isn't directly tied to our genetics. My furnace has done an excellent job keeping me alive this winter, but I didn't and couldn't build it myself - and there's nothing in my genetic make-up that could whip up a furnace back in October to ensure its own survival.

And this has been my essential point - science and technology are generated and distributed according to different principles from genes. In other words I, with my genes, will access technology, survive, and reproduce even though I don't have any genes to pass on to produce that technology myself (I may have genes that lead me to truck, barter, and exchange because that's how I got the technology in the first place - these would be passed on).

David seems to think (and I may be misinterpreting him) that this poses some sort of problem. That we are outrunning the slow process of evolution but that it will catch up to us and the fact that the techie-gene has allowed lots of non-techie genes to persist spells trouble for the whole business model.

I have my doubts about that, but I do think it will dramatically change the way that the human species evolves over the next several millennia.

Think about how humans thrive in the modern world. As I noted before, they thrive by accessing technology (whether that's safe food, medicine, or a furnace). Humans that do this pass on their genes. The problem is, lots of humans access technology and thrive that don't create technology. Will their genes crowd out the techie genes?

Well think about the people with the techie genes. How do they thrive? They thrive by trading their technology and getting the resources to acquire someone else's technology. People with the genes to produce value do well in this world, so the question really is what force is going to win out: the positive externality of techies shielding non-techies from failing to reproduce, or the internalized benefit of the tremendous value produced by techies? Or perhaps that's the wrong way to pose the question since we're surviving in a world of comparative advantage.

It's not a foregone conclusion either way, but it seems to me comparative advantage principles argue strongly in favor of this being a virtuous cycle we've stumbled into. Certainly it has been for the last two centuries or so. But if this is going to last it means that the composition of future generations of humans is going to be substantially determined by social and technological forces rather than genetic forces (or, if you like, you could say that I think that genes that produce certain social organizations will be highly fit in future generations).

Remember, survival for modern humans is grounded in comparative advantage. It's Darwin's Difficult Idea meets Ricardo's Difficult Idea. That means that gene's will be selected in the context of their cooperation with someone else's genes, on the other side of the transaction. All I'm saying is that that's a very different dynamic than non-trading, non-technological species.


  1. Original Friedman link?

    1. Starting here:

  2. This reminds me of the Fermi paradox with its simple model of exponential growth in a world that has already largely made the demographic transition. Nor does it seem the capability for unconstrained growth is much power for domination or threat to the growth of other species even if man is dominate and a threat to many, he is also a resource to others. They grow with their resources but are constrained by their availability and are bound by their genes and their culture and technology. Consciousness of the latter will direct evolution of the former, and we will be as good as we can make ourselves.

  3. "People with the genes to produce value do well in this world"

    Does "do well in this world" mean "pass on more copies of their genes than other people do?" In particular, does it mean "pass on more copies of their genes than people whose sole objective was passing on copies of their genes would?" That's all that is relevant for the effect of natural selection on the distribution of genes, hence the innate characteristics, of the future population.

    I think the first claim might be true, although I see no good reason for confidence—income can be used as an input to producing successful offspring, but it can also be used to produce substitutes. I think the second claim is very unlikely to be true. Hence if a phyloprogenitive gene is within the range of what natural mutation can produce, and if humans evolved fast enough to reflect the implications of modern technology, the result I described in my earlier post would follow.

    1. You keep speaking as if evolution is a numbers game in the sense that the genes with the most copies win. I don't think that's quite right. There is no winning evolution or if it is it's that your genes survive. There are many more bacteria in the world than there are humans or sharks but I personally feel that humans should feel pretty good about themselves and sharks oughta feel really good about themselves. I don't think more copies is the right metric (if we have to choose metrics at all).

      In the sentence I meant to things at least: our evaluation of the sort of life - are we thriving, and of course the evolutionary question of survival of the genetic traits that make us human (and perhaps a specific gene, if that interests you). I like how densely populated we are relative to a thousand years ago, but aside from simply liking that as a personal matter I don't think there's any particular reason why "more copies" is more of a success than "less copies".

      It's the survival - the persistence - of the gene that matters.

      There's nothing wrong with being happy in a your niche!

      I think the second claim is probably likely to be true. I'd imagine genes that fail to contribute adequately (or actively hamper) the propensity to truck barter and exchange as well as to invent and innovate have either largely been selected out of the gene pool already (competing hominids) or are going to continue to whither out of it.

      The point I'm making with comparative advantage is precisely that this is not just a small population of techie genes emitting a positive externality that will one day crowd them out. We need to be thinking about how Ricardo works with Dawkins. Low absolute ability can produce a lot of value in the context of the right social infrastructure (and thereby contribute to your "first point").

  4. "You keep speaking as if evolution is a numbers game in the sense that the genes with the most copies win. "

    Yes. That's what reproductive success aka fitness is. It wins in the sense that its genes become more frequent in the population, with the result that later generations are more like it.

    Suppose someone who has the normal inclination to truck and barter also has the objective of maximizing the number of children he produces and rears as productive individuals capable of themselves producing and rearing children, instead of the objective of maximizing his own utility with a reasonably conventional utility function.Further suppose that this objective is hardwired into his genes, so that his descendants are likely to have the same objective.

    My claim is that, over time, the number of people with that gene, hence the number who behave that way, will increase. Do you disagree?

    You might find it worth actually reading _The Selfish Gene_, which I gather from your earlier comment you haven't done. I may be mistaken, but it sounds as though you have a seriously confused picture of how evolutionary biology works.

    1. This is weirdly teleological, David.

      Dawkins says over and over that they are "survival machines", not that evolution is something you win by having the most of your gene.

      Evolution by natural selection at the genetic levels is simply that the genes which survive will be those which are best capable of surviving.

      Bacteria haven't "won" evolution because there's more of them than us. To the extent that anything has been "won", they've "won" because they've survived.


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