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Biological Evolution

People have said that, to a large extent, biology is destiny.

500,000 years ago, or so, on the edge of the Afircan savannah, chimps decending from trees to live on river strewn plains, moving upright, using their opposable thumbs to grip tools and weapons.  Tools led to skills, specialiation, trading and teaching.  Weapons led to specialised hunting roles and hunting plans.  Both benefitting enormously from communication which the chimps, with their agile mouths and vocal chords from living in trees eating fruit had the potential to develop.  For whatever reason, in that time and place, there was a high evolutionary advantage to increased intelligence which the chimps were uniquely positioned to take advantage of.  Perhaps because intelligence relates very strongly to brain size, and the pelvic changes due to swimming or walking upright allowed babies to have comparitively larger heads.

However the side effect of that was, to permit the comparitively larger head size, babies had to be able to exit the womb leave comparitively earlier in the maturation process.  Human infants are weaker and more in need of defence and stay that way for a far longer period than related animals.  In biological terms, from the view point of genes wanting to ensure their own survival, genes residing in female humans have three aims: 0) survive to do 1&2; 1) to snag a male who will provide resources and protection; and 2) to breed with genes from men who are as 'successful' as possible (for 'successful' read 'have the qualities most likely to ensure healthy kids who will go on to successfully spread copies of the gene', but is roughly equivalent to 'top of the current tribal pecking order').  The reason those two definitions of 'successful' are roughly equivalent is that genes residing in male humans have two aims: 0) survive to do 1;  1) to breed with genes from as many women as possible.    The male at the top of the primitive tribal pecking order was in the best position to spread his genes with lots of females.  If he had the qualities to reach the top, and could pass those on to the child so that child in turn had a good chance of raising to the top and so spreading the child's genes (and thus the parent's genes), then the two are equivalent.

You will notice that these two gene survival strategies are in conflict and the cause of that conflict is the female need for resources and protection when raising the children for such an extended period of time.  To 'snag' this help, the female offers a bargain: the female remains 'faithful' to the male (meaning that all her children are to be his offspring, even when genetic material from more successful males is offered to her) in return for which the male is 'faithful' to her (not providing resources to other females at the expense of her and her offspring).  A lot of human social history and conventions can be explained by this, and by the fact that it is in the interests of both parties to cheat on the contract if they won't get caught (and so there are biological instincts and urges to do so, as well as 'shame' and other emotions designed to patch things up when the bet does not pay off).  Sociologists observe that how much cheating happens, whether a blind eye is turned, and what bargains both sides will accept is mostly determined by the relative status of the individuals within the tribe, and how scarce resources are.  It also affects the probability of the gender of children conceived.  A low status woman in hard times is best off having boys, on the grounds that their girls are unlikely to win a provider.  A high status woman is also best off having boys, in good times and bad, because high status boys can pass on more genes than high status girls.  Middle status women are usually best off having girls, because they have the prospect of 'marrying upwards'.

Having specialised male and female roles, with the resulting effects of having to negotiate such bargains (admittedly also common elsewhere in the animal kingdom) and recognise others as individuals and remember past social history (can they be trusted?) cemented the evolutionary advantages to individual chimps of being able to think and communicate well.  And so, for the next 490,000 years the biology of human psychology evolved in the direction of increasing importance and complexity.

Social Evolution

The biology of human psychology has not changed much in the last 10,000 years.  On the other hand, there have been social and technological changes.  I've talked elsewhere about the rates of those changes and how those rates might have been increasing and continue to increase.  I've also talked elsewhere about the nature of intelligence, wisdom, education, and the prospects for fundamental changes in their current limitations.  And I and many others have talked elsewhere about the challenges facing humanity in the future in making sure we don't blow ourselves up or send outselves crazy by letting changes outstrip our ability to adapt to them, and how we could insure the future of humanity against such disasters.

What I'd like to talk about here is the likely effects of changing communication patterns on social evolution.  Altruism.  Tolerance.  Village size.  Robert Wright's assertion that there is a moral arrow to social evolution and that things have in the past and will in the future continue to improve.

Wright started with the Ancient Greeks and talked about how they eventually classified people from other Greek city states as being 'human' but still thought it didn't matter what you did to Persians, and then mapped this trend of increasing tolerance through to someone in the business class section of an aeroplane not being highly racist, because they probably did business with people from most continents.  He tied this trend to the fact that trade is not a ZeroSumGame? and that it is more often in people's interest to trade with a foreigner than try to kill them, and that once successful trading builds up trust, there is a connection and you no longer think of them as sub-human.  The same could be applied to categories other than race: religion, culture, sexuality, religion, gender, profession.  Once you know someone and interact with them enough to build up trust, you are less likely to pre-judge them based on particular irrelevant attributes.

However I am less optimistic than Wright.  When you tie in the Monkey Sphere idea that we've only evolved the biological capacity in our brains to individually relate to (remember the reputation history of) a certain (fairly small) number of people - about the size of a clan or small village, then this globalisation trend of Wrights, this spreading out of our people network to other countries and groupings, implies a thinning out of the network in our geographical locality.  Which means we might become less tolerant of the poor, the violent, the emotionally disabled, the diseased, the stupid, the less educated, other generations, people in other professions, or indeed any grouping which a more mobile more cheap-global-communication-enabled lifestyle means we are less likely to come into contact with and trade with and relate to, whether by our choice or their choice or circumstance.

Technological Evolution

So can technology fix what it has broken?  I'd like to think so.  There are three stages to reacting to someone based on their past actions.  Firstly there is finding out about those past actions and evaluating them.  Secondly there is remembering this information.  Thirdly there is relating it back to the person when you meet them in a timely manner.

Politicans do this a lot.  They have researchers to find out about other important people (eg "Who's Who" listings).  They have paper filing systems to keep records of past contact and interactions with people they meet officially (eg constituents).  They have personal assistants to act as gateways, find out who people are and get the correct briefing to the politician five minutes before a meeting so they are fully up to date and can enquire about the wife and kids by name.  They've evolved a 'paper and person' exo-memory that helps them expand their monkey sphere beyond the biological limitations.

It would be nice if something like an /AmiCog could act as a technological exo-memory, enabling humans not just to have wider or more specific individual relationships but MORE or HIGHER QUALITY individual relationships.  If this led to a more humane, more tolerant society, perhaps a more sane one (not driven crazy by losing local roots), then that would indeed be a GoodThing.


  1. [Robert Wright's TedTalk]
  2. [Martin Rees' TedTalk]
  3. [Douglas Reay's AmiCog essay]
  4. [Douglas Reay - 'on intelligence']
  5. Wisdom and WisdomClub
  6. [Bootstrapping]
  7. TheSingularity
  8. [Alvin Toffler on the ThirdWave]
  9. MonkeySphere


Hi, feedback VERY welcome.  Anyone reading this essay, please add comments in this section.

CategoryPhilosophy SocialMatters

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