Wednesday, May 21, 2008

A "Just So" Story About Cultural Evolution

Lately a lot of people have been questioning why humans didn't get together sooner and start a civilization. I have countered this by asking why African tribes haven't independently invented a microwave. I think both of these questions, when seriously pondered, reveal their own answer.

My hypothesis is this:

Imagine thousands of human tribes scattered all over the earth. Each speaks a different language and keeps to itself. Now imagine one "tribe" which can communicate easily within itself, with all people intermingling and exchanging information. Which one is better?

The latter. Think about someone like Thomas Edison, Galileo, or Stephen Hawking. The entire Universal "tribe" benefits from those very, very rare geniuses who come along and share their insight with the rest of us. Instead of a single, small tribe gaining their insight (and possibly losing it or not recognizing its worth!), everyone can benefit. We benefit from countless intellectuals who would belong to another "tribe" if we were more divided.This brings me to the origins of civilization: What happened to us, when we were living in small tribes that made us settle down and begin agriculture? I suggest that primitive tribes had to "wait" - for lack of a better word- for someone who thought indepently enough, could organize others well enough, and was viewed as powerful enough within the tribe to persuade others to settle down for a life of agriculture. Even then there were no guarantees: Several of these proto-farming tribes may have started up and gone extinct before one managed to stay around.

Once the right one managed to survive and handle itself, the intellectual abilities of the tribe grew by leaps and bounds. The population grew, and every generation or two someone would be born who could teach the tribe something; a slightly more complex form of language or a new farming technique, for instance.

This affect is what is responsible for the dramatic boom in technology and science we have seen over the past few hundred years. Two British scientists discovered the key to life, DNA, and shared it with Americans, Russians, Germans, and etc. Thomas Edison invented the lightbulb, among other ingenius inventions, and shared this information with the rest of the world.

That's my hypothesis.


JTankers said...

You mention Dr. Stephen Hawking in your list, perhaps for his extremely creative speculative theories even if they often are proven wrong, but you do not list Sir Isaac Newton or Dr. Albert Einstein who have contributed to science in such incredibly meaningful ways.

Just my opinion. I like to distinguish between creativity and science, and I greatly respect the incredible genius of Sir Isaac Newton and Dr. Albert Einstein.

AIGBusted said...

What Stephen Hawking does is science. One of the first steps of the scientific method is formulating a hypothesis. As far as the universe goes, we are still in the process of testing different hypotheses about its ultimate origin.

bobbledavidson said...

I think your hypothesis seems plausible. Something to be remembered is that while a larger group can develop technologically, if there is no real selection pressure for that type of advancement then it will not happen very quickly.

As you say, it is likely that some proto-farmers or the like came and went before the memetic drift resulted in a stable bunch of mini-civilisations.

For the most part, small groups of humans could survive and reproduce quite well as nomadic gathers. There would be no evolutionary need for a settled bunch of farmers in most situations.

just a thought..

Samwise said...

You should read Guns, Germs and Steel. It's a fascinating book, and provides plausible answers to the questions you raise here.

adambu said...

Yes, Guns, Germs, and Steel is exactly what you want to read, its all about this topic.

Anebo said...

Strange, in view of the nature of your argument, you should hypothesize in isolation from the considerable scholarly work on this subject. To briefly summarize that, the first permanant villages appeared in south Turkey /Syria ?Lebabnon / Israel-Palestine becuase the natural enviroment of the area was rich enough year round to supply food to settled populations without either migration or agriculture. Agriculture then developed quite by accident--harvested grain heads were brought back to the village from wild fields. Some individuals grains fell onto the ground by accident. The ones best fitted to germinate and grow under those conditions did so and grew near the village and so were preferentially harvested by the villagers. Its offspring went through the same process until a grain that was easy to sow developed and the villagers figured out to plant it on purpsoe rather than by accident. The process does not seem to have depended on a small number of protoi euergetai (culture heros) as you suggest