mixing technology and evolution yet again…

It's often tempting to compare advancements in technology to evolution. But they're two fundamentally different processes.

phone evolution

Jerry Coyne recently reviewed technophile Kevin Kelly’s new book about the evolution of technology and in his synopsis points out the aggravating tech trope of confusing biological evolution with gradual improvement based on consumer demand and more advanced engineering practices. Being a biologist, Coyne takes aim at the argument that complexity is somehow woven into evolution, noting that the overwhelming majority of all life on our planet is microscopic and very simple. Certainly they’ve evolved since the Precambrian, but since microbes are really good at what they do, they’ve changed relatively little in the grand scheme of things. There wasn’t much selective pressure for them to grow in complexity. Likewise, a lot of macro life has evolved to suit its particular niches and finds its current complexity fine as it is. Technology, on the other hand, hasn’t really evolved as much as it was, and still is, constantly updated to meet the new needs its past iterations created.

Let’s say we’ve just invented the wheel and thought of attaching two to a cart, strapping that cart to a horse, then hauling a whole lot of lucrative goods to the next city state, since we’re in ancient Sumer and at the time, city states are the big trading hubs spread across the desert. We’ve just delivered our huge haul and got paid for it. So far, so good. But as we get ready to do it again, we’ve got problems. The word is now out that there’s some new group of merchants using a new contraption to carry more goods than ever before, making us big targets for desert marauders. Worse yet, our wheels can break and wear out so we need to create something that will let us either mend a broken wheel or replace it. And that’s on top of hiring security and inventing some way for them to spot marauders when we have a chance to scare them off safely out of their range. We end up with an improved bow, and a wheel repair and replacement kit. A technological problem solved by filling in the gaps that our new technology left behind. Now, Kelly would argue that during all this, we’d try multiple ways of moving lots of cargo across the desert and select the best one for the job, then proceed to do the same for all the other inventions, like evolution does with organism. But that’s not right at all.

Evolution is the process of trying as many permutations as possible in a given environment, then subjecting these permutations to selective pressures. Technology custom-builds tools to solve a particular need and in the process of testing those tools, upgrades and updates them until these tools are no longer needed or are absorbed into the function of new, more elaborate tools built to meet more complex and abstract needs. This is why you no longer have to write assembly code to make your computer do something. It’s taken care of by a tool known as an operating system, which distills a program you want to run down to machine code. There’s no selective pressure acting on computers, only user demands and customer preferences. Even more, Kelly is off base in his conception that technology necessarily evolves towards greater complexity. It doesn’t. Often times, it moves in a cycle in which new features and tools are invented, elaborated upon until they become far too complex to remain practicable, and are then reinvented in a simplified, more straightforward form. This is because technology’s goal is to let you accomplish something rather than grow in complexity.

I suppose you could argue that the process of inventing new technologies, refining them and whittling down the best approaches from which new devices and tools emerge can be compared to evolutionary algorithms, and ultimately biological evolution. But then you’re just dwelling in the realm of the metaphor and ignoring all the things happening behind the scenes of technological and biological development. If anything, technology is now borrowing from evolution to come up with different and efficient designs, though it does so in a narrow context of a specific problem. Evolution, on the other hand, constantly changes to go with the flow or against it due to the constant flux of genomes. This is why comparing technology and biology is a clumsy at best. Kelly is a writer, not a biologist, or an engineer, or a computer scientist. Because he doesn’t observe the details of the processes he so quickly and passionately equates, arguing that the tools we use today were driven by an evolutionary drive, just like our development of bigger brains, he makes such clumsy similes with ease, thus reinforcing the strange notion that technology and evolution are somehow joined at the hip rather than one of them being an indirect product of the other, i.e. technology arising as an evolutionarily selected ability to meet well-defined and organism-specific needs, used by great apes, early hominids, and eventually, us.

# tech // books / computer science / technological advancement / theory of evolution


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