Edge is running a fascinating interview with the evolutionary biologist Mark Pagel, who puts the development of human culture into a cosmic perspective. He draws a parallel between the replication of successful innovations in a society and the replication of successful genes in an environment: “Natural selection is a way of sorting among a range of genetic alternatives, and finding the best one. Social learning is a way of sifting among a range of alternative options or ideas, and choosing the best one of those.”
Pagel argues that our evolution as “social learners” has likely had the effect, as it’s played out through hundreds of millennia, of encouraging the development of copying skills, perhaps over the development of originality. “We like to think we’re a highly inventive, innovative species,” he explains. “But social learning means that most of us can make use of what other people do, and not have to invest the time and energy in innovation ourselves … And so, we may have had strong selection in our past to be followers, to be copiers, rather than innovators.”
What that also means is that as the scope of our potential copying broadens, through advances in communication and networking, we have ever less incentive to be creative. We become ever more adept at cutting and pasting. The internet and social networking, observes Pagel, may mark the culmination of this long evolutionary trend:
As our societies get bigger, and rely more and more on the Internet, fewer and fewer of us have to be very good at these creative and imaginative processes. And so, humanity might be moving towards becoming more docile, more oriented towards following, copying others, prone to fads, prone to going down blind alleys, because part of our evolutionary history that we could have never anticipated was leading us towards making use of the small number of other innovations that people come up with, rather than having to produce them ourselves.
The interesting thing with Facebook is that, with 500 to 800 million of us connected around the world, it sort of devalues information and devalues knowledge. And this isn’t the comment of some reactionary who doesn’t like Facebook, but it’s rather the comment of someone who realizes that knowledge and new ideas are extraordinarily hard to come by. And as we’re more and more connected to each other, there’s more and more to copy. We realize the value in copying, and so that’s what we do.
And we seek out that information in cheaper and cheaper ways. We go up on Google, we go up on Facebook, see who’s doing what to whom. We go up on Google and find out the answers to things. And what that’s telling us is that knowledge and new ideas are cheap. And it’s playing into a set of predispositions that we have been selected to have anyway, to be copiers and to be followers. But at no time in history has it been easier to do that than now. …
What’s happening is that we might, in fact, be at a time in our history where we’re being domesticated by these great big societal things, such as Facebook and the Internet. We’re being domesticated by them, because fewer and fewer and fewer of us have to be innovators to get by. And so, in the cold calculus of evolution by natural selection, at no greater time in history than ever before, copiers are probably doing better than innovators. Because innovation is extraordinarily hard. My worry is that we could be moving in that direction, towards becoming more and more sort of docile copiers.
This gives a whole new twist to Mark Zuckerberg’s promotion of “frictionless sharing.”
UPDATE: David Brin is dubious.