Evolution Works, Shit Happens
In his classic work The Structure of Evolution, Steven Jay Gould described the idea of evolutionary spandrels. Traditionally, a spandrel is the triangle formed when an architect places two arches next to each other. In medieval cathedrals, these arches were often highly decorated and could have been seen as a spot specially created for artists to present religious wonders. The reality is that the arch was necessary for stability, the spandrel just appeared, the art was an after thought.
Perhaps my favorite spandrel is the idea of memetics codified by Richard Dawkins in his 1976 book The Selfish Gene. A meme is the mental equivalent to a gene;it is another word for idea but with evolutionary connotations. It exists, is passed from one organism to another, one generation to another, mutating and replicating along the way. While most memes disappear quickly, literally forgotten, extremely successful memes transmit themselves through society; some are useful – like the idea of writing – some memes serve little or no purpose, useful only for replicating themselves. An example of these might be found in this week’s Top 40 play lists – in 20 or 30 years one or two of these “hits” might still be recognisable, some for toe tapping, others cringe-worthy.
Interestingly, Dawkins hadn’t planned on creating a meme when he wrote his fateful chapter on memetics. As a matter of fact he was simply looking for an example of something other than genes that could be described as replicating itself in an evolutionary manner. That his idea would even give rise to a short-lived scientific journal wasn’t really planned. Ironically, memetics seems to be the ultimate – um – memetic spandrel. (Which in and of itself is ironically humorous seeing that Gould and Dawkins almost never saw eye to eye on much.)
But the idea of memes and spandrels leads to an interesting observation about evolution.
First a slight comment on evolution.
Despite what some people might think, evolution doesn’t necessarily always produce the best solution, it produces solutions that work best locally to solve the problem at hand, often with the tools available, mixed and matched in a slightly different ways. Those characteristics that work survive, those that fail disappear. Written memes, like unused genetic sequences can sometimes reappear if the conditions change. As a meme, Gregor Mendel’s experiments disappeared into the dusty archives of scientific literature until rediscovered years after his death. The basic genes for expressing the light and dark coloring in peppered moths (Yeah creationists – I know. Just get over it. ) were likely still available to all offspring but the dark/light trigger was expressed in different populations at different times.
Arguably as a scientific theory, memes leave much to be desired. They really don’t predict much that other theories don’t already cover. The advantage of memes is their convenient function as a metaphor for ideas and how divergent thoughts can join, move and change with time.
That’s why I’d like to use memes to describe what I think happened at the start of the Industrial Revolution and finish yesterday’s post.
Spurts in evolutionary change are almost always accompanied by a change in the fitness landscape. A species might be introduced to a new environment taking over from less efficent populations; a disease or disaster might decimate certain populations leaving room for “less successful” species to move in and fill the gaps; something that happened to the dinosaurs much to our advantage.
It is just that kind of change in the mental fitness landscape that allowed the Industrial Revolution to start.
The education meme had caught on in Europe during the 17th century with the rise of secular university systems teaching a systematic, structured study of nature. The first scientific journals were published. This caused intellectuals and the now largely literate social elite to become susceptible to even more memes which became available in larger and larger quanities.
That accelerated the pace of progress caused more and more ideas – memes – to be thrown together in more and more mental test tubes. These people in turn produced new mutations, better ideas, better inventions. Each generation of meme able to build on the previous.
Engineering, mathematics, the sciences, philosophy: each of these areas was able to advance by leaps and bounds by the end of the 18th century. Not only because there were far more people working on the various problems, the very methods being used were becoming codified and traditional. The origins of the scientific method and mechanisms of science were being laid down.
One of the most important factors was the fact that the playing field was largely empty. There were great strides to be made because there were so few prior advances; each tiny step seemed a huge milestone, something we wouldn’t even notice today.
At the same time, in England, thanks to its relative protection from the continent, was able to devote more resources in thinkers and less in fighters.
Of course the 18th century was far from calm in England. There were upheavals, famines and wars. But the advantage England held was that the most important weapon in both defense and offence was the fleet – something harder on the royal purse than on the population or the countryside. England needed more money than it needed men.
This forced England into the paradoxical situation of trying to make money to fund the fleet while using the fleet to protect the methods for making money. All that forced the English intellectuals to think about better ways of making money feeding back into the ever growing pool of memes.
That’s what I think caused the Industrial Revolution in England.
It wasn’t inevitable and the form it took would have been completely different had it started in Spain, Germany or Russia. Once it started, the memes – the ideas – set free were powerful enough to move through most of the populations in Europe and America. Those areas where enough excess wealth had accumulated in the hands of a few, and where those people were willing to spend that money to improve their lot in life from just being good to being luxurious.
In those areas where the memes couldn’t travel, where the population was largely illiterate (like Russia), where there was little excess capital and the language barriers or cultural (meme) barriers too high to be overcome, the process slowed and faltered. These areas were unable to adapt quickly to the overwhelming power produced by industrial countries thus producing a century of colonization.
And that’s the rub. Remember. Evoltion finds local solutions. It doesn’t find necessarily the very best solution. It finds a better solution than other solutions nearby. Colonization was necessary for European powers because it was the best thing available at the time. Almost unavoidable; the fitness environment required it. But wasn’t the best solution long term. The world is still being rocked by the repercussions arising from the fall of the colonial system when the fitness environment shifted.
Thus the evolution of ideas isn’t always a good thing. And that’s where I want to go tomorrow. I finally want to approach the question of whether democracy is really ideal or just another local spandrel.