The Omega Point?

Charlie Stross has observed that we are as stupid as it is possible for an intelligent species to be, there being no evolutionary pressure to be any smarter. What he means by this gnomic remark is that all creatures are on a very strict energy budget. Wastefulness is penalised, inasmuch as another individual of the species that spends the equivalent energy on something else will survive and breed at the expense of the profligate. The motto of evolution is not only that “Whatever works, works” but also “Do the minimum work necessary”. When 2% of our mass consumes at least 20% of our energy budget, we might wonder whether our brains are not after all a blind alley. Human stupidity is still with us insofar as it is not a reproductive disadvantage to the stupid individual. Of course, our collective stupidity may yet lead to our extinction by nuclear war or climate change; but evolution cannot look ahead.

On a mountain, when you get to the summit you stop climbing; the metaphor therefore suggests that the pinnacle of evolution ought to be a creature that has ceased to change because it is perfectly adapted to its environment. The crocodile and the shark have both been nominated for this award, on the grounds that they haven’t changed for a hundred million years. There is nothing wrong with not evolving; the notion of “stagnation” is a political and not a biological one. The same goes for the concept of “decadence”. Extinction is accidental; species do not get better at surviving with practice, neither do they become decrepit with age.

If there is to be any kind of “advance” towards becoming a kinder, gentler species, this will have to be cultural, rather than being anything to do with evolution. And culture does not work in the same way. Evolution will not have us climb back into the trees and become monkeys, much less crawl back into the sea and become fish, but cultural advance is all too reversible. Nor is it encoded in our genes; parents and society must teach culture to the new generation. They may easily neglect to do so, or they may be defeated by the adolescent meme that all socialisation is an offence against individual self-realisation.

If anyone should talk about mankind’s mental evolution and mean something along the lines of our “learning to study war no more”, therefore, either he is an ignorant Lamarckian or else he is using the word “evolution” very loosely, dressing up the notions of sanctification, cultural advance and institutional improvement in stolen scientific clothing. This popular notion of transcendence may call itself “evolution”, but it has nothing whatever to do with evolution by natural and sexual selection. The only possible way in which evolution could be about us becoming “nicer” would be if all human beings who were somehow born “nicer” than their contemporaries had a survival and reproductive advantage over them. That would require individuals with genes for greater kindness and gentleness to reproduce faster, and continue to do so indefinitely, even when they were in the majority and so were easy prey for the unkind and ungentle minority. The popular mind tends to think that the opposite is in fact the case, namely that “nice guys finish last”; but the popular mind cannot have it both ways.

There is no reason whatsoever why Homo sapiens should be a stopping-point, no reason whatsoever why we should not be a stage in the evolution of something else. Nor need that something else be “better” in any meaningful way. The first amphibian may have thought itself the pinnacle of evolution; or it may have told itself that it was a stage on the ascent to the Omega Point; but in reality, it was merely, like Republicans, an intermediate stage between bony fish and ourselves.

Charlie Stross has also suggested that the destiny of intelligent tool-using life is to be a stepping-stone in the evolution of business models. He may have had his tongue in his cheek; but even so, there are valid points underpinning the goof. Life is merely an algorithm – and an algorithm can run on platforms of meat, silicon or procedural manual.

Posted on April 6, 2009 at 11:11 by Hugo Grinebiter · Permalink
In: AGAINST NATURE, Evolution Is Not Marching Anywhere

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  1. Written by Urban Djin
    on April 6, 2009 at 19:47

    “but cultural advance is all too reversible. ”

    So true. If Vico is right, and he’s got a much better predictive track record than, say Marx or Fukuyama, we are either about to enter or have already entered a new Age of Barbarism, thus restarting the cycle. So much for the Enlightenment!

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