You Didn't Create That: Humanist Society Talk
By Robert Bernstein
"Cultural Evolution: The Darwinian Basis of Change and Innovation and Why it is Important" was the title of our latest Humanist Society of Santa Barbara talk.
Perhaps "You Didn't Create That" would be a more appropriate title to convey the revolutionary perspective that was offered! This is my paraphrase of President Obama's statement to businessmen "You didn't build that" in reference to the infrastructure that allows their businesses to exist. Read on to understand why things are not as they seem.
Speaker Peter Compo worked with Humanist Society President Judy Flattery and her husband David Flattery at DuPont, a fortunate connection that led to our hearing his ideas.
Dr. Compo is a scientist, engineer, corporate business veteran and author of the upcoming (mid-2021) book "The Emergent Approach, a New Approach to Strategy”. He is also a musician from a family of musicians. He made use of his diverse background to make connections that others might have missed.
He also has strong Humanist roots, having joined the American Humanist Association in the 1980s when Isaac Asimov was president. He sees cultural evolution as central to humanism because it asks "How does change and innovation occur?" Just as important: "How to drive positive progress?"
Compo very kindly has shared his slides with us here.
Compo’s central point is that innovations in "cultural species" are not planned or “intelligently designed”. They emerge from generations of selection processes. Just as in biology.
He started by comparing patterns of evolution in Biology with Cultural Evolution.
He suggested several books for background:
The Evolution of Technology – George Basalla
How Innovation Works – Matt Ridley
Emergence (and other of his books) – Steven Johnson
From Chaos to Order – John H. Holland
A species in biology is defined by combinations of form, physiology and behavior.
What can evolve in culture? He offers combinations of three broad areas and examples of each pointing out that classification is difficult, even in biology:
1) Idea/Representation: Ad campaign, law, constitution, poem, Internet meme, scientific theory, song
2) Behavior: Studying, fighting, playing soccer, getting angry, communicating, traditions
3) Physical Entity: Phone, transistor, arrowhead, gun, love potion, violin, statue, shelter, office complex, satellite
He points out that some cultural entities are large Combinations: Corporation, corporate culture, army, city, economy.
Compo gave other parallel diagrams of the evolution in biology and culture. The first compared the horse and the iPhone both showing a genealogical tree and diversification over time. He pointed out that we call each new iPhone a generation, but they are really species of iPhone.
He added the genealogies of several languages, perhaps the most well-studied example of cultural evolution. And genealogies of musical instruments, photography methods and music playback formats.
Biology has arms races. As the prey gets faster, so does the predator and vice versa. Culturally we do the same with militaries. During the upheaval of wars this technological evolution speeds up.
Why are there no 100MPH deer? There are tradeoffs. You can't maximize all parameters. Think of a car. You can't have the speed of a Bugatti, the low price of a Hyundai, the comfort of a Rolls Royce and the energy efficiency of a Tesla.
The original subtitle of this talk was "What do Archaeopteryx and Little Richard Have in Common?" The answer? Both were transition species.
Archaeopteryx was discovered in 1861, two years after Darwin's "Origin of Species" was published. It was a valuable "missing link" between dinosaurs and birds, sharing characteristics of each. Countless transitional species in every domain of nature have been found since.
Little Richard's music was transitional between Jazz and Rock. The drums were swing/jazz style. But the vocals and keyboard were more like rock. Compo played "Tutti Frutti" to demonstrate this.
He then showed photos of the first 1886 patented vehicles by Benz and by Daimler. They were transitional “horseless carriages”.
He finished this introduction of similarities between Biology and culture with "living fossils" that survive surprisingly long with few changes. Crocodilians have been around for nearly 100 million years. The original VW bug survived with only modest changes between 1949 and the last one produced in Mexico in 2003.
Compo's career path took him from music to science to business. In his DuPont career he worked in technology, supply chain, marketing, and business management. He was drawn to the study of cultural evolution because he saw the same evolutionary innovation patterns in every subject.
Compo reviewed biological evolution. He showed that environmental stressors acting on variations of living things leads to the destruction or dying away of the less fit to that environment. He argued that "Natural Destruction" might be a more appropriate term than "Natural Selection"!
The complex eye evolved perhaps 40 separate times due to millions of generations of variation-selection (destruction) and heredity because it had such survival value.
"What good is half an eye?" is the wrong question. Some seeing is better than none.
The eye led to the "super predators" like a three foot long shrimp-like creature Anomalocaris.
Compo corrected several myths and misunderstandings: natural selection:
1) Does not requires DNA and genes – Darwin did not know these things
2) Is not slow – slow compared to what?
3) Is not all random – there are chance elements
4) Does not require competition –just stressors
5) Does not always leads to "better" or “optimums”
6) Fitness is not defined as "what survives;" fitness is the ability to resist environmental stressors
Why was "Origin of Species" so sensational? Others, including Darwin’s grandfather Erasmus had already promoted "descent with modification" from lower forms. But Darwin’s explanation, natural selection, was radical in new ways:
1) There is no designer or orchestrator
2) No goals or foresight (it is blind)
3) Chance plays a role
4) Destruction is the creative force
5) All done by repetition of a "puny mechanism"
These radical ideas were rejected by other naturalists. In addition to those who could not accept conflict with scripture. It’s hard to believe there is no designer of biology. And it is even harder to accept this in cultural evolution!
Compo then addressed the mechanism of cultural evolution. He pointed out that there is more agreement on the observation that culture shares patterns with biology, than there is agreement on the underlying mechanism of cultural innovations.
He showed that the hugely successful Blackberry phone declined quickly after the introduction of the iPhone, and Blackberry’s operating system is now extinct while the iPhone evolves with new features and capabilities yearly.
How do myriad iPhone innovations arise? Can we control it, improve it, learn from it? He discussed three options:
1) Evolutionary transmission between people and objects
2) Intelligent design
3) Darwinian variation/selection mostly in the mind
Transmission of ideas between people as the cause of innovation is one current evolutionary explanation. But while transmission is crucial for understanding how successful innovations radiate to new places, and for understanding how new variations can be communicated, transmission cannot explain how an innovation happens in the first place.
The transmission of Little Richard and other rock and rollers’ music influenced the Beatles profoundly. But Little Richard certainly didn’t transmit to the Beatles the extraordinarily innovative music that they created.
A non-evolutionary explaining for cultural innovations is the concept of intelligent design.
Yuval Noah Harari wrote in "Sapiens" that natural selection plugged away for four billion years, but around 2050 Intelligent Design will take over: Bio-engineering and cyborg engineering. He suggests that we may dispense with the organic completely in these creations.
Compo agrees with the spirit of Harari’s narrative, but not with the implied mechanism of intelligent design. With this very poor choices of words Harari implies that we are becoming god-like designers of future technology, just as a supernatural designer created life.
Intelligent design implies seeing and planning the future. It implies a certain omniscience. It rejects the radical conclusions of Darwinian selection. And besides being wrong, the concept of intelligent design encourages our worst inclinations about innovation.
We want to believe that futures are seen and planned by leaders. It’s simple, it’s easy, and leaves little room for uncertainty and chance. It reinforces our desire to be able to predict and forecast the future. Compo challenges such conscious planning.
He gave several examples to counter the idea of intelligent design and to demonstrate that cultural evolutions are in fact the third option—a strict analog to Darwinian selection.
One example was Marie Curie's discovery of radium. She was trying to understand why pitchblende (now the mineral Uranite) was so radioactive. She tested every known element, sometimes 10 or 20 times, and decided there must be a new yet undiscovered element in pitchblende causing the radioactivity.
Academic leaders assumed she had just made a mistake, but her conviction drove her to spend four years stirring vats of boiling acid to extract one tenth of a gram of radium salt from tons of pitchblende ore.
(Compo noted that Marie Curie's notebooks are so radioactive that they still cannot be approached!)
He went on to argue that Curie did not see a new element in some kind of "Eureka" moment or with a vision or planning. As in all selection processes, she destroyed all of the other options. A new element was the last explanation standing.
Another example? Comparing the extraordinary Sagrada Familia Basilica of Gaudi with a termite mound. A wonderful example taken from a talk by Daniel Dennett, the author of "Darwin's Dangerous Idea". Clearly, the former is planned and envisioned and the latter came from a blind process of natural selection.
But Compo pointed out that Gaudi's "Intelligent Design" was also evolved from generations of previous cathedral designs. And that Gaudi was adding the next innovations.
Paley's Watch was supposed to prove Intelligent Design. If you find a watch you just know it was designed and not the result of random chance. But no one person ever designed a whole watch.
A watch design is the result of countless tiny improvements over the millennia. Many made by people who are not even watch makers. For instance, glass blowers and metallurgists.
Dennett suggested that Gaudi directed people as a conductor directs musicians. But Compo proposed an experiment:
Suppose you pull 80 people off the street. Give them good instruments and the parts to the Brahms 4th Symphony. Could any conductor make good music with them? Obviously not.
The conclusion was that the third option is the predominant source of cultural innovations: A selection process in the mind. People have ways to create and destroy unfit variations.
Over and over Compo showed that what we think of as planned and envisioned in fact is always Darwinian. And that what is unknown is the next innovation, just as in biology. Even if we have a habit of seeing foresight and planning in everything new.
The implications for society are large. For instance, we need a new approach to strategy. Current linear and predictive methods are not useful. We want a planned future that gets us from A to B but there is no such thing. Business people would love the perfect formula for success. But no one ever “intelligently designed” a billion-dollar business, even if they think they did.
After Compo finished his talk, I reflected on my passion for trying to understand consciousness. He gave me a valuable new insight. We like to think of consciousness as the homunculus in the driver's seat of our body. But most of what we do has no conscious driver. Ask a great musician, artist or scientist where their great ideas come from. They may have a story of planning. But it is almost certainly wrong.
Compo has given us the first step to progress: Recognizing that natural selection is what drives even the best-planned designs. He has also left us with a challenge: How can we improve on that "destructive" process?
If you enjoy our Humanist Society talks, I encourage you to join the Humanist Society of Santa Barbara! You can do so here: