18 July 2005

McLuhan Lectures 2005 - May 4 – Paul Thompson – Evolution

Last evening's McLuhan Lecture with Paul Thompson was an outstanding success, raising some fascinating issues when Evolutionary Biology is crossed with The Medium is the Message.

Paul Thompson who, in his work, combines evolutionary biology and philosophy, tackles the challenge of introducing McLuhan's vocabulary to his field. He does so by considering McLuhan’s equation, the medium is the message, as suggesting a dialectic process. Thus, he accomplishes his task for the evening by considering evolution not necessarily as a fact of nature, but rather as the human construction of a (McLuhan-style) medium.

His argument is that language creates what one can consider evolutionary changes in a culture that, over time - and relatively short time in the large scheme of things - interacts with the action of genetic inheritance. He makes the observation that language is the key to transmitting learned survival behaviours that eventually emerge, initially as genetic mutations within a population. Since the culture favours these learned behaviours, the genetic effects have a greater probability of permeating the culture, and thus the gene pool itself.

The analogy that he gives - apparently a standard example in evolutionary biology - is that of the development of lactose tolerance in adults. Simply put, mammalian adults in most species lack the enzyme necessary for metabolizing lactose. But cultures that originally migrated to northern climates developed animal husbandry as a source of food. The milk that their domesticated animals produced was allowed to sour and was made into cheese, that reduced the lactose content, thereby making it digestible. As dairy products became an increasingly important part of the diet, people who naturally had more of the requisite enzyme were able to do better in those societies, and their genes tended to spread. The "learned behaviour" of animal husbandry and cheese-making created cultural conditions in which the genetic mutation of lactose-digestion was preferred. Thus, the behavioural change induced by a technology ultimately enabled the emergence of a concomitant genetic change.

This is quite literally an example of the McLuhan aphorism, "we shape our tools, and thereafter our tools shape us," especially given the calorie content of cheese!

The general model tends to work like this: Within a population, there are a group of people who learn certain successful behaviours for the culture. As the culture itself evolves to give preference to those behaviours, there are those who are left behind because, for a variety of reasons, they are unable to learn or adopt those now-preferenced behaviours. However, it may happen that in the left-behind subculture, a genetic mutation arises that has the same effect of the learned behaviour as an innate characteristic. Since the culture cares only about effect and not cause (this is, of course, McLuhan straight-up), this person from the left-behind subculture has an advantage, and the opportunity to share her/his genes with others. Thus the genetic change permeates not only the left-behind subculture, but the dominant, learned-behaviour culture as well.

I'll bet you never thought President W's "no child left behind" policy had such a profound foundation.

Taking this idea a little further down a McLuhanesque path, Thompson examined the learned behaviour of social cooperation, that emerged, according to evolutionary biologists, between 50,000 and 100,000 years ago. The genetic propensity to social cooperation depends on complex set of characteristics. In a pre-social population, an individual displaying traits of social cooperation (e.g. being empathetic, following rules, believing in good-will of others, etc.) amongst a sea of non-cooperating individuals, would be taken advantage of.

Culture introduces the ability to cognitively discover the benefits of cooperation that can be taught, culturally passed, and that would result in eventually ostracizing the non-cooperators. At some point, a threshold of cooperators in the population is reached, and those who are genetically predisposed to the behaviours indicative of cooperation will have an advantage, and will thrive. In this case, the medium is the development of social cooperation; the message is the discovery of enabling and shaping the ensuing cultural change, and effecting a change in the human gene pool.

In early humans, social cooperation was primitive and local. Today, social cooperation is sophisticated and global, enabled by the technologies of instantaneous communication. If the ideas that emerge from opening the evolutionary biological discourse and introducing some aspects of McLuhan vocabulary do, in fact, offer a useful explanation of the medium of evolution, future humans will be a most interesting species.

Telepathy, anyone?

Update: This article reports the findings of German ornithologists, that "Birds have learnt to imitate the ring tones of the omnipresent mobile phones... "The birds have an uncanny ability to mimic these ring tones. This has picked up in tandem with the boom in mobile phone ownership," Richard Schneider of the NABU bird conservation centre near the university city of Tuebingen here said."

And this article reporting a new finding from China: "A recent study has predicted that more male Asian elephants in China will be born without tusks because poaching of tusked elephants is reducing the gene pool, the China Daily reported Sunday... The tusk-free gene, which is found in between two and five percent of male Asian elephants, has increased to between five percent and 10 percent in elephants in China, according to Zhang Li, an associate professor of zoology at Beijing Normal University."

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