Future Human Evolution

This is one of the dumbest things I’ve heard of, for many reasons.

While there does seem to be some evidence of the division into “gracile” and “robust” forms in primates, Oliver Curry mistakenly says that chimpanzees split into robust chimps and gracile bonobos. This is not true. The common ancestor of humans, chimps and bonobos split into the descendants of chimps and a second group that itself split into the descendants of the bonobos and the descendants of the humans. We can see this in the fact that we are more closely related to bonobos and that we share some anatomical and behavioral features with bonobos, though many of our behaviors more closely resemble chimps, while bonobos physically resemble chimps more. So the evolutionary picture is more complex than Curry suggests.

The next bizarre statement, from an evolutionary point of view, is that “human evolution will reach its peak in about the year 3000.” I don’t know what this could possibly mean. Evolution does not have “peaks” in the sense that a species is as good as it gets. Species are always adapting to their environments. Humans are a strong generalist, and we are thus highly adaptive to practically every terrestrial environment. This leads into the nonsense about genetic regression. There is no such thing as genetic regression — there is only more or less adaptive species to their environment.

This then leads me to the issue of evolution itself. When a species is as mobile as our own — especially in the modern world — natural selection as adaptation to the physical environment no longer occurs. What we have now in control is population dynamics, where a genetic change spreads rapidly and evenly throughout a population after a few generations. Now, Curry mentions sexual selection. But I see little evidence for major differences in sexual selection. All the studies that have been done my evolutionary psychologists show that people universally find the same general proportions physically attractive. Globalization is, again, even eliminating many of the cultural differences that may (as unlikely as that is, since those differences were never actually substantial) have contributed to sexual selection. The elements contributing to intelligence, as I noted in a previous post, are so numerous as to make it difficult to determine what combinations are best.

This is not to say that over the time span he mentions — 100,000 years — that human evolution won’t occur. Sure by then we will have colonized the moon and Mars, perhaps even the stars. And one would expect those isolated populations to evolve. But to keep things more down-to-earth, Curry fails to mention another type of evolution. It is a more important kind, and it is the kind that gave rise to human intelligence itself. And that is the evolution of more complexity. It is possible that certain people might evolve to have more complex minds — perhaps as much more complex than humans as humans are over chimps and bonobos. It is unlikely they would appear to be physically any different, as the difference would be in the minds of the people who emerged into the more complex forms of thinking. This kind of evolution seems more likely, and it seems more immediately likely. And if Claire Graves, Don Beck, and Christopher Cowan are right, it may have already happened in a small group of people. That is a much more interesting kind of evolution in my book.

Interdisciplinary Education for an Interdisciplinary World

Part of the problem with education is students do not know what relevance many topics they study have for them.

I remember throughout grade and high school that I thought math to be utterly unimportant and irrelevant to anything I was ever going to do. And throughout most of my early years I had wanted to be a scientist. How could teachers have allowed me to think that math was not important? I did not really learn math was important until I took chemistry in high school. It was only then that I truly understood fractions for the first time.

And, even though I loved to read, I thought literature pointless (it did not help that in high schools they seem to go out of their way to find the most boring literature available –- I learned how wonderful literature was in college, when we were made to read books and stories that were actually interesting). Literature had nothing to do with biology, after all, and that was what I was going to go into. This attitude is not unique to me or to high school –- it prevails in most students, and through college.

It was only later, after I had decided to pursue literature and especially after I started working on my Ph.D. that I began to see how interconnected everything was. For my dissertation, I was able to use my biology (after all, I wrote a dissertation titled Evolutionary Aesthetics), and I further discovered that it would have been a much, much, much better dissertation if I had known a great deal more math (fractal geometry and statistics in particular) and had learned to program (I actually needed to learn how to program much, much earlier than my Ph.D. dissertation, for my first attempt at grad school, but after I dropped out of my Master’s in biology, I didn’t think I needed to learn the programming I had needed to learn to finish my Master’s thesis–wrong again!).

I learned as I progressed through grad school that I actually needed many more tools from many more disciplines to do the work I wanted to do. For my dissertation, I needed to know social psychology, evolutionary psychology, sociobiology, economics, linguistics, neurobiology, molecular biology, mathematics, chaos theory and fractal geometry, programming, literature, and philosophy. And I didn’t know the math or programming I needed. I found a programmer, fortunately, but even then it would have been much better if I could have done it, and I couldn’t do the math I needed to do certain analyses to more definitively prove my thesis.

The disciplinary approach to teaching is breaking down. Students are siphoned into what they enjoy, and these same students then ignore everything else, complaining about anything that intrudes on the one thing they want to learn. This kind of hyper-specialized education is fine if all you want to produce is worker bees. But if you want creative thinkers, those who can come up with new things –- the kind of people who will make more wealth and produce more value in and for the world –- then disciplinary-only educations will not work.

What we need is a truly interdisciplinary education. We need interdisciplinary thinking, interdisciplinary classes, and interdisciplinary education. Only an interdisciplinary education will allow students to see how disciplines are interrelated. Only an interdisciplinary education will create interdisciplinary thinkers who can create more value in and for the world. We need chemists who love Bach, biologists who love Goethe, businessmen who love Aristotle. We need philosophers who love biology and business and artists who love physics and economics. Only with an interdisciplinary education will we have people who think this way, across the disciplines, through the disciplines, complexifying their thought so new things can be thought. What would the world be like if our politicians actually knew and understood the economics of Ludwig von Mises, the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche, the plays of Sophocles, the linguistics of Chomsky and Pinker, the novels of Kafka, chaos theory, systems theory, evolutionary theory, the poetry of William Blake, and ancient Greek history? Could interdisciplinary thinking finally give the country great statesmen instead of demagogues? Could an interdisciplinary education create more ethical businessmen, since they would understand that there is not a conflict between ethical action and profit? Imagine a businessman who knew the value of a dollar, of his workers, and of a van Gogh. Imagine what an interdisciplinary education would do for teachers. Wouldn’t it make them – teachers? How can teachers teach when they know nothing? Teachers more than anyone should be interdisciplinary. They should know and understand the reason for having an interdisciplinary education, to understand and know the connections between the disciplines, and be able to help their students understand the importance of all the disciplines for understanding any one of the disciplines.

What is interdisciplinarity? It is not multidisciplinarity, where we have just a hodgepodge. It is not having students doing writing exercises in math class, or quadratic equations in literature class. That does not show students how the disciplines are interrelated. To have an interdisciplinary education, students need to know the value of each of the disciplines, how they relate to each other, the history of the disciplines. Students do not know how modern science arose out of natural philosophy and religion. Misunderstandings of ideas such as entropy make people reject evolution on the argument that more complexity could not arise in an entropic universe, where everything is becoming more random (this is, incidentally, not quite what entropy is about). We need to teach students about systems and complexity and information, so they can see how all disciplines relate to one another. This will give students an interdisciplinary education. And they will need an interdisciplinary education if they want to have an edge in this increasingly interdisciplinary world.

Cultural Universals

Anyone who tells you there is no such thing as human nature doesn’t have the foggiest idea what he or she is talking about. Or they have an ideological agenda for which the existence of human universals is inconvenient. This is why the left–postmodern, socialist, or communist–oppose the idea of human universals. If there is a human nature, you cannot force people into whatever mold you want. Your utopian schemes are always everywhere undermined by reality.

Frederick Turner points out that the forty-seven cultural universals (to which he adds combat, gifts, mime, friendship, lying, love, storytelling, murder taboos, and poetic meter) make it “tempting to propose that a work of literary art can be fairly accurately gauged for greatness of quality by the number of these items it contains, embodies, and thematizes” (The Culture of Hope, 26), since “it is the function of [literature] to preserve, integrate and continually renew this deep syntax and lexicon [of cultural universals], while using it to construct coherent world-hypotheses” (26).

We have, according to Wilson (actually, George P. Murdock, who Wilson is quoting), sixty-seven cultural universals (On Human Nature, 160):

age-grading, athletic sports, bodily adornment, calendar, cleanliness training, community organization, cooking, cooperative labor, cosmology, courtship, dancing, decorative art, divination, division of labor, dream interpretation, education, eschatology, ethics, ethno-botany, etiquette, faith healing, family feasting, fire-making, folklore, food taboos, funeral rites, games, gestures, gift-giving, government, greetings, hair styles, hospitality, housing, hygiene, incest taboos, inheritance rules, joking, kin groups, kinship nomenclature, language, law, luck superstitions, magic, marriage, mealtimes, medicine, obstetrics, penal sanctions, personal names, population policy, postnatal care, pregnancy usages, property rights, propitiation of supernatural beings, puberty customs, religious ritual, residence rules, sexual restrictions, soul concepts, status differentiation, surgery, tool-making, trade, visiting, weather control, and weaving

Whereas I could identify in that list only twenty which chimpanzees share with humans: bodily adornment, cleanliness training (in some), community organization, cooperative labor (i.e., when they hunt), education (active teaching), family feasting (a true ritual in chimpanzees), games, gestures, gift-giving, greetings, hygiene (in cleaning each other of parasites), incest taboos (admittedly a questionable one, since it is clear the Westermarck effect is in effect, but not yet clear that it is also socially transmitted), kin groups, medicine (Frans de Waal, The Ape and the Sushi Master, 254-255), postnatal care, property rights (chimpanzees are very territorial), ritual (see family feasting, above), status differentiation, tool-making, and visiting. And this does not include the cultural differences found among chimpanzee troupes. I say there are only twenty, but look at those twenty. Are we really so much better because we have developed calendars when chimpanzees have managed to develop medicine (albeit far more primitive than human medicine, to say the least, but quite impressive all the same). Many of those uniquely human cultural traits can be traced logically from this pool of twenty we share with our closest relatives. I have already mentioned religion rising from power (status differentiation, above), which would then naturally lead to things like divination and religious ritual (combining power with feeding rituals could do this). Government too would naturally arise in a species that has status differentiation and the need for rules. I could go on and on, but I think we can see how much of what we consider uniquely human is either shared by chimpanzees and bonobos or could arise quite naturally from a specialist species like chimpanzees to become a variety of things in a generalist species like humans.

Creationists of all sort love to deny our continuity with our ape ancestry. The religious creationists deny the biology outright, but the economic/social creationists on the left deny the continuity between ape nature and human nature, insisting humans magically became a “blank slate” species–which is a species of nonsense accepted only by the economic creationist left. If the left wish to remain relevant in any way, they need to reject their anti-scientific, anti-intellectual attitudes and embrace the findings of evolutionary psychology, sociobiology, economics, and the complexity sciences. Otherwise, they will be left a marginal world view with little actual impact on the world–much like their cosmological creationist cousins.