The evolution of technology


Jason Collins


December 9, 2010

In Kevin Kelly’s recent appearance on Econtalk, he talked about his new book What Technology Wants. I have not read the book but some of Kelly’s statements about human evolution are worth comment.

Kelly notes that, to a degree, humans created our own humanity. Kelly talked about how humans are the first domesticated animal, in that we used our minds to domesticate ourselves. While we are a continuation of the primate line, we have added with our minds things other primates don’t have. For example, by inventing cooking, humans effectively developed an external stomach to digest food that we were not normally able to digest. This additional nutrition changed the size of our teeth, the shape of our jaw and the enzymes in our stomachs. When humans domesticated livestock, we developed lactose tolerance. As a result, we are self-created - both the creator and the created.

My first thought on Kelly’s observations is around the idea of us evolving a trait such as lactose tolerance. The way it happens is that those with the lactose tolerance gene have higher fitness than those without and so, their descendants come to form a larger part of the population. So, when “we” domesticated milk producing animals, it was the end of the genetic line for many humans.

My second thought is a more substantive criticism. Through sexual selection, many animals are both the creator and created. Choice by peahens created the peacock’s tail. Choice by female bower birds has led male bower birds to evolve a preference for constructing elaborate bowers. Taking a human example, Geoffrey Miller argues that female choice shaped the human brain in the first place. To isolate humans as special in being both the creator and created is to ignore an important evolutionary force.

On a speculative note, Kelly is drawing a long bow when using evolution as part of the argument that technology is progressive. Evolution is not uni-directional and while there is a general tendency towards complexity (when compared to the earliest life forms), there is no law pushing it in one direction. I will need to read the book before unequivocally accusing Kelly of misusing the evolution analogy but if he were to do so, he certainly would not be alone - just read Matt Ridley’s The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves.