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Evolution… of Language, Culture, Technology, and Religion

June 21st, 2008 · Posted by Hugo · 6 Comments

There are various uses of the word “evolution”. Some talk about “Stellar Evolution” when referring to the development of stars. (Carl Sagan does this.) Others complain the word is too widely used, and is losing its meaning, suggesting we should only use it to refer to biological evolution. (I’m under the impression that Stephen Jay Gould took this opinion.) I typically take a middle path, defining evolution according to the mechanism: I reserve the word for situations involving mutation and selection. Below is an explanation of the implications of this mechanism of evolution in diverse fields, from computer algorithms to language and cultural developments, explaining how it works, how it connects to the various fields, and what it this warns us about developments in religion.

Evolution occurs when you have some complex kind of replicator of which replications (copies) are created by a slightly imperfect copying mechanism. The replication process needs to have sufficient fidelity (accuracy) that descendants significantly share characteristics with their immediate ancestors, but the process must not have perfect fidelity.

Imperfections in the copying procedure cause mutations, which result in new traits or characteristics in descendants. Perfect copies would be clones in the case of single-parent replication, or mere permutations in the case of recombinations of traits of parents in multiple-parent descendants. Without imperfection in the copying process, there will be no mutations, and hence no evolution of interesting new traits or characteristics.

In any instance where such a replicator exists in an environment with limited available resources, some replicators will necessarily be more successful at replicating than others. Such environmental pressure brings about selection. Due to this selection, the traits or characteristics that prove “beneficial” are selected for, and the replicators evolve better “fitness” through the interaction between imperfect replication (and therefore mutation) and selection (survival of the fittest).

Defining “Fitness”

In an evolutionary scenario, “fitness” is defined solely in terms of a replicator’s success at replication. As the evolutionary environment changes, some traits that used to be beneficial can become detrimental, and vice versa. As such, any qualitative comparison between two entities that attempts to determine which is “better”, is meaningless in terms of evolution, except when discussed with reference to its survival potential in the context of a particular evolutionary environment. (There are of course other ways of measuring “good” and “bad”, but such qualitative measures would be unrelated to the evolutionary process.)

If there is some way to quantify fitness, we could, in principle, find or define a “fitness function”. This function would conceptually return the quantified fitness of a particular replicator. The evolutionary process is effectively one that attempts to maximise this function in the process of developing the descendent replicators. The result would be replicators that appeared “designed” for that particular function. As such, this “fitness function” serves as a representation of the evolutionary environment and its implications for the replicator.

To recap, for evolution to occur, we need some kind of replicator with traits that can mutate, and some form of selection that occurs. This selection occurs as a result of the evolutionary environment, or conceptually according to some fitness function.

Evolution Within Computer Science

The simplest environments are the mathematical and artificial ones. One technique sometimes used in computer science for finding a decent solution to a particular problem (typically a number of parameters that need to be tuned) is the “genetic algorithm”. In short, a structure is programmed that has a significant number of parameters (“genes”) that need to be tuned. A particular instance of this structure, with a particular set of parameters/genes, could be considered the “organism” (the replicator) that must evolve. An initial population might only have one organism, or it may have a number of organisms with random parameters.

Also defined by the programmer, is an explicit fitness function that provides a measure of how good any particular solution is — where any particular “organism” is a potential solution, i.e. a particular set of parameters. Using the fitness function, “organisms” can be compared and the better organisms can be selected. Based on a set or population of the best organisms, a new generation of “offspring” organisms are evolved by making a number of copies of a parent, and randomly twiddling a couple of parameters to provide for mutation. Optionally, multiple parents can be selected and parameters chosen randomly between them, in order to implement “genetic recombination” (effectively sex), before adding a couple of mutations to produce new offspring.

By letting an algorithm like this run for thousands of generations, you “evolve” a decent solution to a particular problem, as defined and measured by your fitness function. (The disadvantages of genetic algorithms is not relevant to this post, but they would be computational complexity and local optimums.)

Purpose in Evolution

The above example (genetic algorithms) involved a designed fitness function in order for the result of the evolution of the “organisms” to be useful to its designer. Despite that fact, the fitness of the “organisms” is still purely their reproductive success within the context of their evolutionary environment. The connection of this reproductive success to the will of the designer occurs due to the fact that their evolutionary environment (represented by the fitness function) was designed to coax it out of them. Personified, the abstract “genes” of these organisms still only “care” about their own reproductive fitness, irrespective of the reasons behind a particular fitness function or evolutionary environment.

Computer Worms and Viruses, and Artificial Life

Computer worms and viruses are replicators. They produce offspring. However, typically the copies are perfect, and the worms or viruses do not mutate. As such, they cannot evolve. If taking a bigger picture view, and including mutations by external agents (evil computer programmers), a virus or worm could be incrementally “improved”. In a sense, this could represent an “evolution” of the harmful computer code, but the selection criteria (“fitness function”) is rather a human choice. As such, this is rather a part of human cultural and technological evolution than it is a good example of evolution in its own right.

The “reality” in which computer code lives is determined by the instructions available on the machine that is running the code. The nature of those instructions is such that a randomly mutating program (worm or virus) isn’t a very practical technique. Artificial life simulations (implementing evolution of artificial organisms in computer code) typically define a new environment, programming language or virtual machine, specifically designed for such simulations.

Biological Evolution

The study of biological evolution deals with the science behind how living organisms changed (and change) over time, within their evolutionary environment. The fundamental replicator in the case of biology as we know it is the gene, found in the DNA. (Note that there is no reason why the earliest life, the earliest replicators, necessarily had to have DNA as we know it. DNA could have been a later development.) Mutation occurs due to copying mistakes or environmental effects (e.g. radiation), recombination occurs through a variety of ways (not just sex). (For example, “E. coli swaps lots of genes with other species”, to take a particularly minor piece of information from a very interesting post.) The selection that occurs is known as “natural selection”.

In terms of the genetic algorithm mentioned above, the scientific study of biological evolution would study the functioning of the interaction of the organisms with their artificial evolutionary environment (the fitness function), and how that impacts the evolution of the “organisms”. Such science does not deal with any purpose behind the evolutionary environment or the fitness function: it would not deal with what the programmer is trying to achieve with the algorithm. (If you’re looking for discussions on meaning or purpose, that would be the realm of philosophy, or maybe religion or theology.) Limited to the realm of that artificial world, that world’s empirical science would probably be unable to produce any empirically testable claims about the computer programmer that created that artificial environment.

Domesticated Animals and Plants

Domesticated animals share our biology and environment, but there is an interesting twist to the selection process: as domesticated animals, their survival and selection are influenced by us humans. Through our interference with artificial selection, their evolutionary landscape is modified such that their fitness function is determined according to their usefulness to humans. Through generations of breeding, their replicators (genes) have evolved qualities beneficial to us. (This goes for the modern banana as well.)

If we were to turn our domesticated animals loose, they might not survive in the wild. Or they might, and their genes would then gradually evolve to a state of fitness relative to natural selection. I.e. they would evolve an improved ability to survive, simply for survival’s sake, rather than the characteristics that help them survive by being beneficial to the people that take care of them. They would thus become less useful to humans.

Again, the genes only care about survival. Any “purpose” with regards to what humans need from their domesticated animals impact the evolutionary environment, the “fitness function” if you will, but does not change the “pure survival and propagation instinct” (“instinct” due to personification) of the genes. Survival and propagation is all the genes care about.

Evolution of Language

Language is also a replicator. It might be more abstract, but it propagates from one person to another. These days humans need it in order to function in society, so it becomes a symbiotic relationship, a little bit like domesticated animals. The “evolutionary landscape” of language is human minds and human interactions. Language evolves because language also develops and mutates, as new generations pronounces things differently from another or create new words. Recombination takes place when different “tribes” with different languages meet, and exchange words and concepts.

Through the development and evolution of language, we can determine a lot about the evolutionary landscape that shaped it. For example, based on how words were incorporated from one language into another, we can determine who traded with whom. The fitness of the language is determined by who else can understand what you are trying to communicate. So Afrikaans is not very “fit” in the context of China, but has some fitness in The Netherlands. Of course, Dutch is still more fit than Afrikaans, and if you are living in The Netherlands amongst Dutch people, Dutch language skills, or “Dutch memes”, would find a new mind to colonise: yours. (I’m taking the “language’s-eye view”.) The language’s survival or opportunity to colonise your mind is determined by what you find useful or attach value to.

It remains a very symbiotic relationship though: language continues to exist for the purpose of human communication. There isn’t much danger of language finding a way to propagate independently of its usefulness to humans. However, language also isn’t completely limited to direct communications usefulness: some language developments propagate through exploitation of other unique traits of human psychology, like humour or tribal identity. Take for example l33tspeak, or even the “lolcat language”, or the development and spread of the Klingon language. Any memes (ideas, cultural units) that can find a mechanism by which they can be propagated, by which they can “procreate” by colonising more minds, can develop and evolve to some extent.

Evolution of Technology and Culture

Culture and technology also evolves. Technological progress is made in small steps, small mutations from one idea or invention to another. Giant leaps in scientific and technological developments and progress are in fact not very common: people make small contributions (small mutations), and some bright spark pulls together a large number of these contributions recombining them into what looks like a huge leap forward.

The evolutionary environment is again determined by human minds, selection occurs according to what is supposedly “useful”. However, lately the “usefulness” of developments are in fact not the real fitness measure. Through contemporary marketing techniques, the developments that survive are in fact not necessary beneficial to their hosts (us humans), but rather just an example of an evolved, co-adapted meme complex, or set of ideas, exploiting our psychology to get us to buy whatever is the latest craze.

Manipulation of our subconscious desires is rife in the marketing industry, with the most successful ideas being propagated through economic mechanisms in free market capitalism. It becomes a question of what best attaches to human desires, what can make the most money, rather than what is truly useful. It results in materialism, which does not bring happiness, does not bring “benefit” to the hosts.

For one extreme example, one could argue that the native Americans “had it good”. I’m speaking under correction due to lack of knowledge of the topic, but conceptually they may have had a really good life: a sustainable economy, in symbiosis with nature, a tribal culture that avoids a huge disparity between the have’s and the have-nots, a way of life that was good. However, Western civilisation, technology and culture was the more successful replicator. The desire for more land, the desire for greater knowledge: such ideas necessarily propagate better. The colonialist, with memes that makes him think he and his culture is better than those of the people whose land they are colonising (“stealing”?), as well as memes that provided him with the technology to overpower the “savages” that lived there, ends up spreading his ideas, irrespective of whether they are “good” or not. (Don’t get me wrong, I like our technology. I like space exploration, I like mountain biking and skiing, I like computers. But I am, among other things, the product of my genes and memes. How can I objectively claim I am “better off”?)

Nuclear weapons might not be a good idea, but the idea continues spreading, because once some people have them, they possess the competitive advantage: the other people also need to have them to maintain balance, to defend their genes and memes. Without possession of that particular idea or meme or piece of technology, a culture comes under threat. So the culture must absorb the “bad ideas” for survival purposes. The cultures that don’t, may die out in competition with those that do.

And so ideas and technology is ever so slightly out of our control, with regards to a healthy symbiotic relationship.

Evolution in Religion

Unsurprisingly, I end up at religion. Religion is yet another replicator, by nature of it being passed on from one generation to another. Some religions include instructions to spread laterally as well, by bringing in new converts. Religions also evolve as a result of the mutations of new understandings, irrespective of whether these mutations come from divine inspiration when a prophet believes he hears God’s voice, or whether these mutations come from philosophical thought or from scholarly study and the development of systematic theology, or from adapting religious understandings based on the progress of scientific understanding.

The Bible shows a particularly interesting evolution of the understanding of God. The understanding develops during the Old Testament, but the Christian Bible sees a large and significant mutation occurring due to Jesus. The New Testament understanding is particularly different from the Old Testament understanding.

Religions also develop from one another. Judaism likely finalised their scripture, their Canon, in response to the threat of the heretical Jesus movement/sect. Jesus was a Jew, and yet Christianity split from Judaism. Such is effectively a speciation event. Later, under the teachings of Mohammed, middle eastern monotheism saw another significant speciation event, leaving us with the “three great monotheistic religions”. (Note that none of this is saying anything about which is right and which is wrong, this is more of a higher-level overview.)

Getting back to Christianity, there is much that can be studied with regards to the development of various denominations. Wikipedia has some interesting diagrams of the “speciation events” within Christianity that can be seen in the Christian denomination article. The fact that the same text is used and does not change, does not mean that the way these texts are interpreted cannot evolve. Some cultural insight into the way certain words, concepts or ideas were understood, can result in a rather different understanding of certain texts than is typical of contemporary Christianity. Some of the fads in contemporary Christianity are really very recent developments.

Now the selection process of religion is rather interesting. I will not get into details, because I only want to focus on one particular thought. Religion is supposedly looking for “Truth” (let’s say, the “right” way to live, or the best way to live). In the case of Christianity, this Truth was found in Jesus, two thousand years ago. What he taught, what he demonstrated, his way of life and teachings, these are to be considered “the way, the truth, and the life” by a Christian. This was where it started.

Much of Jesus’ teachings were about helping the poor and about redressing social imbalance. He radically and unrelentingly challenged purity codes and institutionalised oppression, what he considered to be immorality within the “religious” structures and organisations of his time. He taught a value-based existence, moving beyond a law-based one. He taught compassion. The way I see it, it could be considered a call to humanist values. (There are many forms of humanism, including Christian Humanism.)

Whatever it was, is also not quite the point I want to make. It was a radical tradition-breaking “earth-shattering” change in the culture of the times. Some argue he did not teach anything new, but uncovered the truth that was there all along, bringing together pre-existing ideas in new, better ways. Memetic recombination. It might have been a mutation event, or it might not, but what was most significant, was the selection event that took place. It was a selection event designed by Jesus, demonstrated by Jesus, and followed by the early church. Assume this is the “Truth” we are talking about.

Now fast forward a couple of thousand years. Religion is still a replicator, remember. It is still passed from generation to generation. It still evolves. And two thousand years is a significant time for cultural and religious evolution. Christianity evolved and still evolves in various Christian traditions. Among other places, it evolves in America, which is arguably far removed from the socio-political and economic situations at the time of Jesus. There are poor people, yes, but the difference between the beggars and the “impure”, the socially downtrodden, the oppressed, much of it is missing in America, at least in easily recognisable forms. What is also missing is the socially outcast prophets, that tore their clothes, married prostitutes, and protested the status quo. What is missing is the selection process that selects for the real truth and value of and in religion.

What remains, when the guided selection process goes missing? Pure unadulterated natural selection.

What emerges is a religion that is particularly successful at propagating, but starts serving no real purpose other than that. Yes, it needs to appear beneficial to the individual in order to successfully propagate into his mind, and to encourage further propagation. The results we would expect from this kind of natural selection in religion, would be a religion that is obsessed solely with how many people are reached, how many people are “saved” (how many minds the replicator can find into which to replicate, producing the maximum number of offspring). We would expect it would evolve a tendency to target the rich, and convince them to give significant amounts of money, to find the funds necessary to further increase the offspring of this meme complex.

What goes missing is the call to help the poor, the call to go out there and actually make a difference. People don’t like to be pushed beyond the borders of their comfort zones. Instead of going out to help the poor, the natural-selection evolved religion encourages people to sit at home and pray that God will take care of the poor, helping them believe they are making a difference to help them feel good. Go read Jesus’ prayer, Matthew 6. Notice that the prayer is a personal one. Jesus commanded his followers to take care of the poor, not to sit back and ask for divine intervention that all the world’s problems may be solved.

I don’t know how prevalent such degenerate religion has become, but I know that examples of such degenerate “American Fundamentalism” is being imported into South Africa. The evidence is all over the place. They count the number of people that get “saved”, rather than getting their hands dirty and making a real and lasting difference. They care about their fellow man only while they are “on a path to getting saved”. Once a person is saved, they no longer care. Cha-ching, another deposit in the heavenly bank-account. On to the next potential convert, the next recruitment commission supposedly paid out in the afterlife. A remarkably effective replicator…

The best and clearest example I have of this kind of behaviour so far, is Jarrod Davidoff’s sermon at Shofar in December. I wrote about it in Jarrod Davidoff, an “Evangelist”, at Shofar. No, I don’t know whether he really makes a difference in people’s lives or not. No, I don’t know whether this represents what Shofar is standing for or not. All I know is that I really didn’t like what I saw, because it really looks like a degenerate faith that serves only one purpose: getting itself propagated to as many people as possible. And serving the people that adopt it only enough to convince them and help them to continue propagating it. Cha-ching. And challenging them only so far as to keep them coming back. Cha-ching.

Categories: Religion and Science
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6 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Al Lovejoy // Jun 23, 2008 at 9:12 am

    Two words:

    Book material.

  • 2 Pieter // Jun 26, 2008 at 9:59 am

    Save the Banana!

  • 3 Hugo // Jun 26, 2008 at 10:55 am

    Brilliant article Pieter! Marthelize, read it… um, if you have time. An interesting realisation: the banana might turn out to be the fruit that helps break consumer resistance to biotech food. (OK, that won’t help the wine industry, I’m sure.) There’s just too much hanging on the banana plant.

    World food shortages… who will be hit the hardest? The poor… this kinda stuff is ugly. And the developed world doesn’t really care. Read that article, some mention of the disaster that could hit east Africa is labelled “destabilisation”. The article concludes with a note on developed nations “switching to apples”. Oh, whoot. The people in developing nations are starving. Well, let them eat cake!

  • 4 Linda // Jun 27, 2008 at 9:05 pm

    Your post somewhat reminds me of a book by Richard Brodie, “Virus of the Mind.”

    It’s a very interesting perspective from the other side of the world. Degenerate American Fundamentalism being imported into South Africa… hmmm….

    I shared your views with my pastor, and he does not disagree.

  • 5 Hugo // Jun 28, 2008 at 4:06 am

    He doesn’t disagree? Thanks Linda, that helps… ’cause I usually disagree with my own posts. 😉 On that particular point, I think fundamentalism develops or developed independently in many places. Apparently there are examples of fundamentalism in most religious traditions.

    OK, the religion critics believe that is what religion is, what it is all about, but I’m rather taking the angle suggested by “liberal theology”.

  • 6 Hugo // Jun 28, 2008 at 4:25 am

    And I think I also misrepresent the socio-economic situation in America… but the main thought of this post is what I’m trying to communicate, irrespective of these somewhat dubious details.

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