A recent conversion with my friend, Joe, got me pondering the links between human evolution and technology evolution* which led me down a few rabbit holes to an evolutionary cul-de-sac from which I see no path forward.
Earth came late to the cosmic party, roughly two-thirds into the 13.7 billion year history of the universe. Shortly after the earth was formed, life made a modest entrance evidenced in recently discovered microfossils. In time more advanced forms of life acquired and exploited the resources necessary to survive, reproduce, and adapt to the ever-changing environment (99.9% of all species we know once lived failed to persist largely due to five mass extinctions).
To put that timeline in perspective, imagine compressing the entire history of the earth into one year beginning on the first day of January.
Life first appears at the end of April. Plants didn't appear until the beginning of November. Dinosaurs arrive mid-December and are extinct days later. Humans begin to evolve three million years ago -- that’s a 15-second tail tagged to the end of the imaginary year. And that's where we enter the first rabbit hole.
Evolution Of Technology
Most people are familiar with the evolution of hominins transforming into upright primates employing their brains to overcome the threats and protect themselves from exposure to ever-changing environmental conditions.
Humans survived because their brains evolved to solve problems related to daily needs; technological evolution and hominin evolution joined to co-evolve.
But technology is not exclusively a human invention. Many animals employ technology. For example, New Caledonian crows in their natural environment manufacture tools to retrieve food in inaccessible places.
For most of history, the evolution of both animals and technology progressed in harmony. Hominids initially used tools to do what most surviving species do: create shelter, camouflage their location, find and prepare food, and manipulate objects.
Three million years ago the human brain
began growing bigger and smarter, eventually tripling in size. The first species of the Homo genus, Homo Habilis, began to create new technologies including flaked stones which expanded the ability to harvest more nutrients.
A million years later Homo Erectus evolved larger bodies proportioned similarly to modern humans but shorter. Their brains were 50% larger than Homo Habilis and were fueled by better nutrition. Primitive tools such as hand axes and other cutting implements helped them develop better technologies, efficiently scavenge and prepare meat, and perhaps use primitive weapons to hunt. They could walk and run longer distances than their predecessors exposing them to nutrients and become the first human species to migrate out of Africa. Most importantly, Homo Erectus may have mastered fire, a feat with enormous consequences.
The Beginning Of The End Of Lockstep Co-evolution
At this point in history, technology primarily had aided in tasks that provided daily needs to acquire food, shelter from the elements, and avoid predators. Evolution had remained lockstep with the capabilities and needs of hominins. Then things began to change.
Starting and controlling fire was one of the more profound early technological discoveries that influenced human evolution. Embers of natural fires were collected and nurtured to cook, stay warm, and stay active after dark. More importantly, it promoted the development of the human brain. All life on earth is constrained by an energy budget. Humans are powered by calories extracted from food. Before mastering fire, most of the calories humans could scrape together were used to chew and digest food. The remainder was largely used to perform the activities needed to survive -- until we discovered how to cook with fire.
Prior to cooking food the majority of raw starch and protein that moved through humans' small intestines remained undigested and passed into the large intestine which housed microbes that consumed most of the calories to dismantle food into accessible nutritional components.
Cooked food breaks down the connective tissue in meat and softens the cells in plants. As a result, cooked food is mostly digested in the small intestine making it readily available to the body's cells. Harvard biologists Richard Wrangham (author of Catching Fire) and Rachel Carmody theorize that fire freed up the calories necessary to allow human brains to develop and conceive the technological advancements we presently employ.
Technology Outpaces Human Evolution
In 1965 Gordon Moore, a co-founder of Intel, phrased what famously has become known as Moore’s Law: the number of microchips on a transistor doubles every two years, yet the cost of computers is halved. This exponential growth pattern applies to most advanced technologies in addition to microchips and computers. By comparison, human evolution is linear.
Technological evolution is accelerating because humans repurpose and recombine an exponentially growing number tools, materials and knowledge to extend existing capabilities.
Human evolution occurs through natural selection in response to changes in environmental stresses. But the very existence of advanced technology limits, and could even eliminate, environmental stress. In addition, human evolution depended on higher reproductive rates among individuals most capable of surviving environmental stress and lower reproductive rates of those less capable of surviving. Technology buffers these forces, in essence, removing "natural selection" from the evolutionary process. In addition humans, unlike fruit flies, have long life expectancies and low reproductive rates which slows evolution.
None of this argues that humans have stopped evolving. It does explain why technology is evolving exponentially while humans are evolving linearly, at best.
I began this discourse by describing a time when hominins were inconsequential animals struggling to survive in the jungles of what is now Africa. Technology affected our ancestors’ lives a day at a time and affected the future only as far as preparing for a weather event or a seasonal change. After all, hominins needed only to understand the effects of their actions on their ability to eat, stay hydrated, sleep safely, adapt to pending seasonal changes, and reproduce. Primitive technology helped them succeed sufficiently to evolve and conceive more complex technologies.
Today technology has made humans the most consequential thing that ever happened to our planet. Our actions now can affect the future of all life on earth, for better or for worse. We use our technologies to plan our finances, choose a vacation, or even consider a future career or retirement village. We also use technology to improve the environment and search for cures for the ailments that plague mankind, or mitigate risks to the next generation’s comfort and safety.
The potential consequences of our present technologies extend far beyond the time frames that motivate our political, educational, economic, and religious institutions to act. Evolution has not embedded in us an instinct akin to fight-or-flight that floods our bodies with adrenalin as we comprehend the long term consequences of the technologies that have evolved; adrenaline still flows in response to modern forms of threats that launched the co-evolution of hominins and technology.
The pressures on humans to evolve are rapidly disappearing. We use technology to create comforts that increasingly isolate ourselves from the very forces of nature that once required technological solutions.
The co-evolution of humans and technology has come to a cul-de-sac with no obvious way path forward. Perhaps co-evolution will create a descendent version of GPS or a human brain to allow us to exit alive.
*I use the term evolution in both the technical definition and the more recent general definition (see definitions 1 and 2).