In the TED presentation below Tim Harford ties toegether economics, evolution and The God Complex (people’s desire to believe that their know-how can solve any problem). Harford calls for us to question the certitude that our preconceptions and even systems of understanding are necessarily sufficient to solve all problems, and calls intead for an evolution-inspired approach.
He gives a strikingly simple example: the design of a spray nozzle used in the production of detergents, whose efficient design was only made possible by successive iterations based on trial-and-error (just like evolution: you take the most successful nozzle so far, make several random mutations, test those, take the best one, mutate it again… test it again…). The final result proved infinitely superior to anything previous understanding could afford.
Harford argues that the superiority of this approach should be embraced elsewhere, including politics, that we should abandon the idea that pre-conceived policies will succeed merely because they strike us as appealing at the outset. Instead, Harford advises us to reward politicians who are honest enough to admit that it will take patience and a lot of trial-and-error to come up with adequate solutions to our problems. In short, those politicians who stand against The God Complex.
From a policial skeptic’s viewpoint, this is laudible advice. It opposes ideological dogma and certainty, and therefore the basis on which many of histories tyrannies were built.
The evolutionary approach to design Harford describes is already used in my field of chemistry, and is somewhat of a “hot topic”. The concept is called “directed evolution”. It relies on taking a selection of candidate molecules (proteins for example) and selecting the one that is the most proficient at a particular task (e.g. catalyzing a desired reaction). This is then taken and ‘mutated’ to introduce variation. These new variants, or mutants, are tested again for how well they can catalyze the reaction. After a number of generations the end result is an extremely active and selective catalyst for that reaction. All of this can occur often without having to understand why the best catalyst (or protein) is the best. Nonetheless, it can be a very potent method of developing effective catalysts for particular applications.
The principle behind this is the same as is observed in nature, and is the way that nature blindly develops efficiency, or streamlined design. Mutations occur all the time in organisms’ DNA, and this introduces diversity. Those individuals who are lucky enough to inherit beneficial mutations will fare the best in their environment, whereas those that have detrimental mutations will be more likely to perish, and therefore less likely to have offspring to pass on their faulty ‘designs’.
In nature all this happens unguided. All that is required is for the diversity to be introduced randomly and then tested against the environment, and for there to be future generations. But the principle can be adapted to artificial situations, as per the “directed evolution” example and the various examples Tim Harford gives in his lecture. If we replace genetic variation with variations in the shape of the nozzle, and instead of an environment the selection pressure becomes performance of the nozzle in spraying, then this process can continue indefinitely or until the nozzle is good enough for our purposes.
To stretch the analogy between humans and nozzles further still, consider that the evolution of the nozzle stopped when researchers working on it were satisfied. The version of the nozzle they then had went into production and was no longer subjected to the ‘pressure’ of having to prove it was good enough. In nature this happens rarely, but there are animals who are well enough adapted to their environment and whose environment changes so little that speciation all but ceases. (That is to say, no new species emerges, even if “change in allele frequency” – a stricter definition of “evolution” – still occurs).
Presently, the human race is in possession of a number of technical skills that allow us to treat the ill and frail to the extent that individuals who would ordinarily have perished are able to survive and have children. The net effect is that we are protecting our genes from the selection pressures that applied in our evolutionary past. We are also global travellers, spreading our genes across the world. This gives them the chance to escape localized evolutionary pressures, and therefore a greater likelihood that they’ll persist.
Our technolological mastery over nature may not be so total that we should conclude human evolution has stopped altogether but in terms of having to prove our ability against nature’s pressures, we are close to becoming – at least those who can afford it – the equivalent of a nozzle that’s “good enough”. Professor Michio Kaku explains the idea behind this vision of our evolutionary path:
Unlike for the nozzle, however, there are no designers overseeing our development, nobody to limit our struggle to being against one criterion only or who can stop the process altogether. We may yet face unexpected changes in our environment that will drive selection in new directions. A global pandemic, for example, may yet wipe out those of us – perhaps even the vast majority – who have no immunity to whatever disease it is that emerges. Thiw would mean that just a few decades later, we could reasonably expect humans to be descended largely from survivors – a considerable case of selection. But we are aware of the risk of this happening, and we are, of course, in the process of adapting our technology, our survival strategy, even to this possibile eventuality. We are constantly seeking to protect our genes. In this sense, we are adapting very quickly, even in anticipation of future pressures.
Elsewhere, aspects of culture, such as how we interact with technology, may bring to bear selection for or against particular cognitive faculties. But it is still true that with respect to the many pressures our ancestors had to endure (avoiding predators, starvation and extremes of weather, to name just three) genes of the richer part of the world’s population are extremely well protected. Some of us are fortunate to be good enough nozzles. So far.
Below is a link to the Part 1 of the BBC’s recent Horizon series documentary Are We Still Evolving?, a good introduction to the topic of whether, and in what sense, modern humans could be considered to have stopped evolving.