28 January 02004

Brains, culture, then what?

I'm interested in long-term thinking, seriously long term (see this posting and this one). So one passage in Stephen Oppenheimer's October 2003 article in Prospect captured my attention and triggered a further question.

Oppenheimer suggests that cultural evolution has outstripped genetic evolution for last 300,000 years. Our species develops by accumulating and transmitting knowledge down the generations rather than growing bigger brains. Brain growth stopped 300,000 years ago, and went into minor decline. Oppenheimer makes a speculative analogy with the growth in car engines: beyond a certain point the economics of further engine growth meant that costs outweighed benefits; and perhaps it was the same with brain growth?

My question is: what happens when the costs of further knowledge accumulation outweigh the benefits? Where do we look for the next form of evolution?

I know this is one of those unanswerable Flatland type questions about dimensions that humans cannot conceive.

But I read today that the amount of data in the world doubled between 1999 and 2002 (from this Berkeley University report, via Infobits). (And I am so sick and tired of learning tech fad jargon stuff that isn't worth passing on from one year to the next, let alone to the next generation.)

The bit of Oppenheimer's article that particularly caught my eye was his conjecture: "if cultural evolution really took over from genetic evolution 300,000 years ago, then the major differences between us and them are merely cultural-that implies that if archaic Homo sapiens individuals from 300,000 years ago were transplanted to modern society they could well have the intellectual potential to put a man on the moon."

I like thought experiments like this. I'd like one that imagines today's Home sapiens transplanted 300,000 years in the future. Fill in the blanks: 'If you and I were transplanted this distance into future society, we could well have the ______ potential to ______ a ______ in the ______'

Note to any fans of genetics who might stumble onto this: I appreciate there's a big 'if' that runs through this. Perhaps cultural evolution didn't really take over from genetic evolution, or whatever. I don't care about that. I care about the habit of projective thinking required to engage with the long term questions.

Posted by David Jennings in section(s) Long Now on 28 January 02004 | TrackBack
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