Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Post-Biological Evolution and the Colonization of Subjective Space

In Matt Ridley's The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves, he posits a theory for why things are always getting so much better. While the arrow of progress goes up and down over the short term, if you take a longer view -- decades instead of years, centuries instead of decades -- the differences are dramatic; they are not just linear, but exponential.

At least if you begin with the proper boundary conditions. It took mankind thousands of years to discover these boundary conditions, which is why it took until three hundred years ago for things to really take off. World GDP per capita was essentially stagnant for 1700 years before there was a sudden breakthrough several hundred years ago.

But all along, there have been forces opposed to the very conditions that make progress possible. We see those atavistic and conservative (in the negative sense) forces today in the form of Islamist and progressive statists (and the unholy alliance between them).

Take virtually any variable and compare it with the past, and you will see that we are vastly better off today, whether it is violence, murder, disease, hunger, housing, infant mortality, whatever. Ridley provides many eye-opening statistics.

For example, the average Mexican today lives longer than the average Briton did in 1955. In South Korea, the average person not only earns fifteen times as much, but lives twenty-six years longer than in 1955. Even the UN "estimates that poverty was reduced more in the last fifty years than in the previous 500." Indeed, "it is hard to find any region [of the world] that was worse off in 2005 than it was in 1955."

Statistics on murder and violence are especially illuminating. I mentioned these in my book, but they are worth recalling. Among hunter-gatherers about 30 percent of adult males die from homicide, which would equate to two billion war-related deaths in the twentieth century instead of the mere 100 million. (And note that the vast majority of these deaths were caused by illiberal fascist/leftist/communist states that directly oppose the very mechanisms and institutions that unleash progress and undermine the causes of war.)

I tried to tackle the same subject in my book, except that I took for granted the factors that Ridley puts forth as conclusions. His premise and his conclusion are quite simple: that progress is a function of exchange, not just physical trade and barter, but the exchange and "mating" of ideas. This is what lifts man above biology in a way that no other animal has achieved. Biology has transcended itself in man, but only through very specific conditions.

Beyond this assertion, Ridley is essentially reduced to saying that it must have happened "somehow." As he properly notes, it cannot simply have been because human beings have a bigger brain than most other animals, for no matter how large the brain, it will come up against an evolutionary wall if it isn't an open system that exchanges information and emotion with others.

Nor can it have been a result of language, which was surely a necessary but not sufficient condition for our post-biological evolution (i.e., even Islamists and trolls have language).

As Ridley writes, "It was not something that that happened within a brain. It was something that happened between brains" (emphasis mine). But what does it mean to say that things can happen "between" brains? What is the nature of this "between," and how did it get here?

As I also noted in my book, human beings were genetically complete long before the "cultural explosion" took place, so there must be a non-genetic explanation (or again, genes are necessary but not sufficient causes for our humanness).

Note also that it is not simply a matter of saying that "man has culture," for that is begging the question. After all, culture cuts both ways -- and usually the wrong way. Most cultures stagnate because they simply self-replicate. It is similar to what would happen if a family only reproduced within itself, or universities only hired ideologically identical faculty members (not that that could ever happen in America).

Indeed, Ridley notes that "Exchange is to cultural evolution as sex is to biological evolution." But cultures resist change, in the same way that any adaptation does: "in evolutionary terms it is quite normal," as "most species do not change their habits during their few million years on earth or alter their lifestyle much..." Natural selection "spends more of its time keeping species the same than changing them."

But I believe that Ridley too ultimately begs the question of where all the Slack comes from, largely due to his blind anti-religious bigotry. For it is entirely correct that the blessing of widespread human leisure "comes from exchange and specialization and from the resulting division of labor."

But Ridley is curiously incurious when it comes to discussing the ontological status of this newly discovered post-biological space that human beings began to inhabit. Well, actually it's not curious at all, because for any variety of materialist, it must be just a freak accident, a weird side effect of physical processes.

For the implication of Ridley's view would be that human beings have no nature, no essence, no reason for being. And if this is the case, then liberty cannot be our sacred birthright, and there is no reason why the state or collective cannot appropriate us for its ends, just as it has done through most of history.

Our ultimate protection from this fate is that we are grounded in something more real than biology and physics. And once some particularly wise men adopted this as their founding principle some 235 years ago, things really took off. In the end, reality prevails, but it's always a struggle.

9 Comments:

Blogger Anna said...

wv: bless

8/17/2010 12:25:00 PM  
Blogger mushroom said...

Indeed, Ridley notes that "Exchange is to cultural evolution as sex is to biological evolution."

Evolution really began to gather steam with sexual reproduction, as opposed to cellular fission or asexual budding, because there is an exchange of genetic material. Modern academia and academic researchers have reverted to budding. They are no longer intellectual eggheads but potatoheads.

8/17/2010 12:53:00 PM  
Blogger black hole said...

Mushroom: At our institution, there's a LOT of exhange of genetic material. Literally.

Now intellectual exchange is another matter. We tend to discourage that, because we don't want people getting ideas.

8/17/2010 01:18:00 PM  
Blogger mushroom said...

Swoosh.

8/17/2010 07:52:00 PM  
Blogger Tigtog said...

To Gagdad re: Zarathustra

I have been reading Paul Kriwacek's "In Search of Zarathustra: Across Iran and Central Asia to Find the World's First Prophet" while traveling in Azerbaijan. I was wondering if you could find time to read it and give your comments. It has provided a lot of the answers I have been seeking regarding Judaic syncretism of Zoroastrianism (i.e., good versus evil, Satan, Heaven, angels, etc.). The author stroll covers a great swath of history, making claims and connections that are thought provoking. This is especially true of dualism with regard to heresy in Europe. If you have the tie and inclination, I would appreciate your thoughts on his work.

BTW - Happy Anniversery

8/18/2010 07:03:00 AM  
Blogger USS Ben USN (Ret) said...

black hole said...
"Liberty cannot be our sacred birthright, and there is no reason why the state or collective cannot appropriate us for its ends, just as it has done through most of history."

Bravo. You get an A."

Still in between brains I see.

8/18/2010 08:02:00 AM  
Blogger USS Ben USN (Ret) said...

"While the arrow of progress goes up and down over the short term, if you take a longer view -- decades instead of years, centuries instead of decades -- the differences are dramatic; they are not just linear, but exponential."

You can say that again. Perhaps that explains how po' folks can fat, or exponentially fat in some cases.

Okay, I'm bein' jest a bit tongue in cheek there. Obviously, I was using the democrats definition of "po'" which is exponentially different than actual po' (their idiotic excuse that po' folks are fat because they can only afford fattening foods not withstanding).

Afterall, if the definition of poverty includes ownership of one or more cars, cell phones, color tv's, a house, AC, a stereo, mp3 (or whatever they call 'em now), dvd and/or vcr player, computers, etc., then maybe, jest maybe that ain't the real definition of poverty.

I mean, that's what folks used to call middle class, or lower middle class. Heck, I remember when it was rare for lower middle class to own AC, let alone more than one car or tv or "entertainment center" or a host of other things that most "po'" folks now own.

Is Congressional critters tellin' the truth or are they simply exponentially dishonest?
Do I really hafta ask that rhetorical question?

8/18/2010 08:24:00 AM  
Blogger USS Ben USN (Ret) said...

Can BE fat, that is. Be bein' the word I couldn't afford the virtual ink for in that last comment.

8/18/2010 08:26:00 AM  
Blogger Van said...

"His premise and his conclusion are quite simple: that progress is a function of exchange, not just physical trade and barter, but the exchange and "mating" of ideas. This is what lifts man above biology in a way that no other animal has achieved. Biology has transcended itself in man, but only through very specific conditions."

In such a real sense, that is so true, and especially in Science. Gives new meaning to 'be fruitful and multiply'.

But watch out for them darn donkeys.

8/18/2010 05:36:00 PM  

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