May 19th, 2009


The "Eonic effect"

This website is an unabashed promotion for a book, but I find the subject matter interesting enough to justify linking to. In a nutshell, the idea is, the genetic history of organisms is not the best basis for exploring the concept of evolution; a better basis is the content of the documented history of humans, since we have such a vast volume of it, and since principles of evolution can be seen at work in the shaping of civilization.

The term "non-genetic evolution" is applied to this phenomenon, to separate it definitively from genes. The author of the book, John Landon, claims that this is a type of evolution that acts "directly on human consciousness", that is, it is expressed as changes in the ideas and habits of individual people, within their lifetimes.

This seems like a compelling field of research but is also hamstrung by - as far as I can tell - a lack of strong scientific rigor. We may not be able to see large-scale genetic evolution happen, but we can at least verify that the underlying mechanics are sound by performing straightforward genetic experiments. Is this so with the evolution of civilization? Would a study of this lead to basic evolution-like principles that can be tested by equally straightforward experiments, like some of the ones I've read about in behavioral science? I don't know.

I do know, at least, that an evolutionary process that happens within "human consciousness" cannot be wholly independent of genetics. At the very least, the shape of the playing field, if not the rules of the game, are defined by the collective shape of the genes of the participants. For example, genetic evolution has given adult men and women different sounding voices, such that a person listening to an audio recording can often guess the sex of the speaker. This has, no doubt, an effect on the levels of influence that different speakers have on different audiences. We are able to group speakers into men and women, and sometimes, just having the ability to make those groups can unduly influence our reception of the speaker's words. On the other hand, if genetics gave our voices the same range across males and females, this would not be a shaping factor in culture and civilization.

With genes and consciousness linked together this way, it seems that the only way to study a "non-genetic evolution" of consciousness by itself is to assume that the genetic footprint of your study group will not change during the interval you study. But the best assumption you can reasonably get away with is that the genetic footprint will not change enough to skew your data. In other words, you have to assume that consciousness "evolves" much faster than species do. (Is this a reasonable assumption, given that there is no mechanical difference between the "micro-evolution" within species and the "macro-evolution" that creates species?)

An example of "non-genetic" evolution that leaps to my mind when considering all this is the act of a mother cheetah teaching her offspring how to hunt properly.

For the cheetah to be successful, those lessons had to be passed down from one generation to the next in an unbroken chain. In effect, the knowledge required for survival was delivered as part of a package that included the genes necessary to build an organism that could both teach and learn that knowledge. But the knowledge doesn't derive from the genes so much as ride along on top of it. Is it shaped in the same way? By the same conditions?

I've always thought that a handy analogy for understanding this interaction would be to consider the paths that animals make through forests. Over decades, the routes selected by individual creatures (no doubt leading their young offspring along) through a forest erode pathways that make subsequent path choices easier for similarly equipped animals. The layout of those pathways establishes a reinforcing feedback into the genetic destiny of the animals that tread them, by skewing their environmental survival conditions. In much the same way, the knowledge that offspring gain from imitating their parents and peers constitutes a set of pathways through life. Physical pathways, neural pathways ... same deal.

We all start by dutifully following our elders down the paths. How far back would human "progress" be set if we, for example, instantly and universally erased the paths for agriculture? The books, the tools, the knowledge of the elders, the seed stores? How many successful genetic variations of humans would be extinguished while we floundered to make that pathway again? And yet, this influence is exerted for reasons that genetics alone is woefully inadequate to explain.

There's definitely an evolutionary principle at work here. But claiming, as John Landon does, that human civilization adheres to a "punctuated equillibirum" model of evolution simply because its history can be roughly separated into three "eons" is like claiming that Mars is inhabited because it's apparently got canals all over it. A closer look at the data may reveal entirely different principles at work.