Nicholas Wade's piece in this weeks Science Times is titled "Humans Have Spread Globally, and Evolved Locally." (NYTimes.com, 6/26/07).
Historians often assume that they need pay no attention to human evolution because the process ground to a halt in the distant past. That assumption is looking less and less secure in light of new findings based on decoding human DNA.Before looking at that, we need to pause to reflect. There seem to be few topics that set off so many trip-wires and third-rail emotions as the question of evolution.
People have continued to evolve since leaving the ancestral homeland in northeastern Africa some 50,000 years ago, both through the random process known as genetic drift and through natural selection. The genome bears many fingerprints in places where natural selection has recently remolded the human clay, researchers have found, as people in the various continents adapted to new diseases, climates, diets and, perhaps, behavioral demands.
This is not surprising to me, and fits my model. I had described before what I saw as four levels of disagreement that any self-aware, self-protective, self-healing feedback loop, or "s-loop", has to deal with. These are disagreements about
- Mental model or frame used to make sense of data
- Goal of all activity (often externally provided)
- Identity (which of this stuff is "me" and which is "other"?)
That much (two levels) is generally recognized. (cite - paper from MIT). Even the US Army Leadership Doctrine allows and encourages raising facts that challenge the mental model being used at headquarters, as startling as that seems, because they have realized that too many losses were occurring due to wrong mental models of the situation on the ground. But that concept has not gone gently into the night, and is widely misunderstood and resisted.
Similarly, The Toyota Way or "lean manufacturing" is designed to mercilessly force errors to be surfaced, despite human reluctance and resistance at all levels to discuss "dirty laundry" or "defects" or "errors" or "waste", from employees on the front lines to top management. Face-saving cover-up is the norm in many if not most industries, and is what Toyota has realized is the single thing that damages long-term corporate survival and prosperity the most.
Challenges to what I call the third level, or goals, are even less well tolerated by the existing order and administrative hierarchy or power elite or whatever you call it when people do it, versus machines. The system or s-loops "goal" is pretty tightly protected and defended and not changed lightly. Employees in theory Y enlightened companies can challenge the mental model, but not question the goal of the corporate entity. Military personnel can challenge the mental model, but not the goal of the military. This is becoming "sacred" turf, or, with people, tightly held turf. Again, we have an order of magnitude, or factor of ten times as much emotion raised about challenges on this level as on the second level of frameworks.
Finally, what I call the fourth level of any s-loop is "identity". Goals spring from identity, which is the hierarchical glue that plugs this s-loop into the next larger or higher s-loop that it is part of and belongs to, in several different meanings of the word "belongs to." Any s-loop will be part, at any time, of some larger s-loop. This membership defines who "we" are and what "we" stand for and defend as sacred, and defines our goals locally. It defines what is "us" and what is "not us" so we know what to defend and what to resist or, in some cases, attack.
Challenging identity is another factor of ten more emotional, and harder to do. People tend to fix and lock-down their identity, their goals, and their world-views and defend them to the death, regardless how arbitrarily and unconsciously they were inherited or selected in the first place.
And the question of "evolution" hits at that fourth level, for many people, whether religious or scientific, in equally emotional ways and triggers responses with "religious zeal" among people who define themselves as part of the "science" body and among those who define themselves as part of some "religious" body. Now we're talking "sacred", and "heresy" -- at the "burn the witch!" or "kill the heretic!" level.
Well, I find myself loving both camps, as if I had a parent who was Science and another who was Religion, who are currently "separated" and not living together, and who fight a lot lately, calling each other ugly names and throwing things. It's not pretty.
Still, it seems to me that human life on Earth is at a risky place, where we have the technology to kill ourselves off many different ways, but not the wisdom to manage that technology wisely. And, of all the issues that affect the health of the public, that seems to be central to me, and almost a core issue of what "Public Health" needs to address.
Most of those battles between groups fit into my model of "s-loops" just trying to survive, in a massively-parallel, multi-level soup. Some battles are over boring material resources, such as water, but more and more battles are being fought over the four levels of being - over differences in data, mental frameworks or paradigms, goals, and, most of all, identity.
Who are we, and what are we doing here and why? Those turn out to be questions that are ripping us apart and holding us together, and generating much of the fighting. So we cannot avoid looking at them if we're going to bring this baby through the white water and into peaceful waters beyond.
That said, I can get back to Nicholas Wade's article that triggered this reflection, namely, findings from geneticists that our DNA is continuing to evolve even today. So what? Why is this newsworthy? Is there something we can learn from this that we didn't realize before?
I think so.
First, we can see evidence that evolution represents a closed feedback process these days, perhaps more rapidly than ever before so far as human beings are concerned. Our DNA, at least our children's DNA, appears to be somewhat plastic and responsive, in very short order, to changes in the local environment. That's what Nicholas Wade says. But, we also know that much of the local environment these days is the "built environment", the context that we humans, based on our existing DNA, have constructed for each other to live in or with.
In fact, for most people, the built environment now dominates everything else. We spend far more time being "pressured" by school, jobs, corporations, laws, taxes, pollution, careers, social norms, terrorist threats, and loud stereo's than we do coping with "nature" per se. And these are all things we have built for ourselves.
We are living in our own wake, with good aspects and bad aspects. We inherit culture and high-speed Internet, but we also live in our own sewage. We live in our planet's climate, but we are now large enough to affect that climate.
The point is, it's a closed loop. Most people would agree with that. There is feedback. Again, most people would agree, leaving out those who deny that evolution has or is occurring because that violates their mental model and identity. On this point I'm going with the science, because it's overwhelming and I need conclusions that yield action plans, and because I don't believe at all that evolution in any way discounts God. If anything, it's a more impressive universe and more awe-inspiring if it's not just static, but dynamic.
Having now offended half the religious readers, let me give equal time to offending the scientists.
First, I agree with Stephen Jay Gould that evolution is multi-level, with each having an independent contribution. There are vertical feedback loops, so the "either/or" question becomes a meaningless distinction. Yes, we have genes evolving. Yes we have species evolving. Yes each has pressures at its own level that are mostly independent in the short run.
But, here I'll turn a corner and say that the evolution is of s-loops, not of DNA. And that suddenly means that "corporations" and "nations" and "religions" and "cultures" are just one more kind of life of this planet, that needs to be in the complete ecological picture.
In fact, lately, the evolution of humans seems to have taken quite a turn and is dominated by the evolution of corporations, with their typical nested-hierarchy shapes, being both DNA and more than DNA, being both many people, and more than many people.
Corporations are a new species on the evolutionary stage, and they are becoming the dominant world-reshaping species. This is a rather important observation if we're trying to make sense of what's going on and where it's headed and, if it's broken, where to fix it.
So, we don't just have species co-evolving in a tight feedback loop with DNA and genes -- that's an incomplete model. We have species co-evolving with genes co-evolving with corporations co-evolving with cultures co-evolving with religions, with each one of those providing part of the context for the next step in evolution of each other part. Each part of that equation provides part of the "evolutionary pressure" on each other part. And the parts are all connected if we stand back far enough, so that each part is providing evolutionary pressure ultimately on itself.
In parallel. Simultaneously. Irrevocably interlocked bidirectionally.
This is not a situation that can be understood without using "feedback loops", to put it mildly.
But, the big question is still to come. Are these just "feedback paths", yawn, or are some of these actually s-loops -- self-aware, self-repairing, self-defending, self-extending goal-seeking control feedback loops?
Because, the behavior is extremely different - as different as a hot, muggy, sultry summer afternoon, and one with a tornado. Same air, same moisture, same laws of physics and condensation, but one is a closed feedback loop that feeds and holds itself together, and one is not. I'm not saying that a tornado is "alive", but I am saying that a tornado is "MAWBA",
or "Might As Well Be Alive" in terms of some predictions about future behaviors that are otherwise startling and catch us off-guard.
So, I've made a model of the world that includes what we see in the microscope and what we see in the newspaper at the same time. It's a model of nested s-loops, fighting more or less blindly to survive and sustain their four-levels of being. It's a model where s-loops can merge and join forces, instead of just "winning or losing", and where a handful or a trillion s-loops can pool their identity and form a larger, multi-cellular "being" with an independent, higher-level s-loop, consciousness, awareness, self-protectiveness, etc. (for example, us.)
Again, none of this says one word either way about the existence of God or the "true nature" of what a human being is. It focuses on vertically symmetric, scale-invariant primitive building blocks of s-loops, regardless what material or non-material substrate those operate within or across. That's something that supercomputers can model relatively easily -- the kind of thing that artificial life researchers do on a daily basis, except with a different "payload" or "generating kernel" or "seed" to the process of evolution.
The one really critical new thing here is the idea that dumb feedback pathways can undergo a phase-transition and become self-sustaining, self-defending, self-aware, terra-forming active agents on their own accord, existing semi-independently of the smaller agents that make them up.This is the observed phenomenon where, effectively, after the pixels have formed a coherent image (whatever that means), the image realizes it exists and "takes on a life of its own" and pulls up the scaffolding used to create it and now starts telling the pixels what to do in order to keep itself alive. ( or if you prefer, to keep itself sustained, or s-loopy, or soliton-izing, or some persisting verb.)
Assuming this is a scale-independent control-loop process, we don't need our microscopes to understand it. We can look out the window. We can watch people form a company, a corporation, that takes on a meta-independent life of its own, and the company can then become self-sustaining, self-repairing, have an identity and a goal and a vision, and can in fact turn on and fire the founding partners because it doesn't need them anymore. It has been born, or radiated or emitted or generated or somehow launched.
This phase-transition should be something that can be mathematically simulated, but I don't know anyone who has done that yet. (Nobel prize waiting for someone!)
If we're looking for how to stabilize or improve relationships between people, or management and labor, or government and citizens, or corporations and "competitors", or between "nation states" or between "religions", it all can be illuminated by understanding what these relatively s-loops can do in the way of "merger" that preserves core values while generating an even higher substrate or vessel in which "life of its own" can be placed by God, or emerge, or whatever it is that happens there.
Something happens there. Something important that we don't fully click to yet.
I think its the key to resolving world chaos and should be looked at more fully. IF we can solve that one, we can catalyze the process and complete the birth process for a planet-sized life-form that's trying to emerge here, held back by our own concepts of life and our role in it.
Let me be clear about one thing. This is not a "reductionist" effort to say that all life on earth is "just" a bunch of atoms or s-loops. I'm at the opposite end. But I'm the first to say that if our bodies have a substrate of atoms, then we should know something about what laws and rules constrain what you can do with atoms, because "we" have to live with gravity and physical injury due to momentum and energy and other physical stuff. Similarly, if we, human spirits, live in or on or above or attached somehow to a substrate that is, above atoms, composed of s-loops, then we would we wise to understand what physical laws constrain those as well, and understand how they can be injured, and how to repair them when they break.
That's not saying that humans are "just" atoms or humans are "just" s-loops. My whole premise is that something miraculous happens in the upward emergent phase transitions that we haven't even begun to grasp yet. Stay tuned.
As T.S. Eliot, in the Four Quartets , said
We shall not cease from explorationWade Sphere: Related Content
And the end of our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.