When Evolution (And Democracy) Get It Wrong

Editor's note: This week, we're rerunning a more-relevant-than-ever post from Gord that appeared in an earlier edition of Online Spin:

“I’ve made a huge mistake.” — G.O.B.., “Arrested Development”

The world is eliminating friction. Generally, that’s a good thing. But there may be unintended consequences.

Let’s take evolution, for instance. Friction in evolution comes in the form of survival rates. Barring other mitigating factors over the length of a natural evolutionary timeline, successful mutations will result in higher survival rates and, therefore, higher propagation rates. Those mutations that best fit the adaptive landscape will survive. Unsuccessful ones will die out.

But that assumes a landscape in which survival has a fairly high threshold.  The lower the threshold, the more likely it is that a greater number of mutations will “get over the bar.”  

Two factors can vary that threshold. One is the adaptive environment itself. It may prove to be “kinder and gentler” for an extended period of time, allowing for the flourishing of less-fit candidates.



The other is a factor unique to one species that allows them to alter the environment at their will — like technology, for instance. In the hands of humans, we have used technology to eliminate friction and drag the bar lower and lower — until the idea of survival of the fittest has little meaning any more.

The more friction there is, the more demanding that propagation threshold is. This same phenomenon is true of most emergent systems. What emerges depends on the environment the system is operating in.

Demanding environments are called rugged landscapes. There is some contrary logic that operates here. The removal of friction can actually increase the number of mutations (or, in societal terms: innovation). More mutations — or ideas — can survive because the definition of “fittest” is less-demanding. But we also build up a tipping point of mediocrity in the gene or meme pool and if something does cause the adaptive landscape to suddenly become more rugged, the extinction rate soars. The reckoning can be brutal.

Let’s look at memes. For ideas to spread, there used to be a fairly high threshold of  “shareability.” There was a publishing and editorial supply chain that introduced a huge amount of friction into our culture. This friction has largely been removed, allowing any of us to instantly share ideas. This has lead to a recalibration of the shareability threshold — an explosion of viral content that happens to ding our fickle consciousness just long enough for us to hit the share button. Bob Garfield called this “The Survival of the Funnest” in a MediaPost column

But was the previous friction a good thing? We definitely have more content being produced now. Some of it is very good. This couldn’t have happened under the previous cultural supply chain.  But a lot of the content is,  at best, frivolous — and, at worst, dangerous.

The previous publishing and editorial supply chain did force thoughtfulness into the filter of content. Someone, somewhere, had to think about what was fit to publish.

Now, one could argue that ultimately the market will get it right. We could also argue that evolution never makes mistakes. But that’s not always true. If the threshold of fitness gets lowered, evolution will make mistakes. Tons of them. I suspect the same is true of markets. If we grow complacent and entitled, we can flood the market with mediocrity. We humans have an unlimited capacity to make bad choices if we don’t have to make good ones.

This brings me to the current state of democracy. Democracy is cultural evolution in action. It means — literally — the “people” (demos)  “rule” (kratia). It assumes that the majority will get it right. But the adaptive landscape of democracy has also changed.  The threshold has been lowered. We are making electoral decisions based on the same viral content that has flooded the rest of our culture. Thoughtfulness is in woefully short supply. There is no shortage of knee-jerk soundbites that latch on to the belief system of a disgruntled electorate. This is an ideological death spiral that could have big consequences.

Correction: Make that, “huuuggge” consequences.

7 comments about "When Evolution (And Democracy) Get It Wrong".
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  1. John Donohue` from White Tree Software, November 1, 2016 at 2:02 p.m.

    Very fine essay, Mr. Hotchkiss.No one likes to talk about this subject, kudos to you for doing it.

    Ok, here's a touchy example: polar bears.

    This bear evolved around 800,000 years ago. That's about 6-7 cycles of glaciation/interglacial. So, the bear has "survived" a lot of hardship and extremes of climate. Yes, the cycle is "slow" from the point of view of given generations of bears, but the ice cycle is blisteringly fast according to 'deep time' of billions of years.

    During extremes, the bear population might have been reduced by, hypothetically, 80%. The rugged bears lived on and laid in powerful traits of survival to the species.

    Well, the bear has survived many deep freezes, and warming. Earlier in this interglacial, it was much warmer in the North than today. Arctic ice may have disappeared altogether about 12,000 years ago. Moreover, the previous interglacial was warmer than this one. Possibly no Arctic ice for thousands of years. The bear 'survived' but it might have suffered tremendously, with great reduction of numbers.

    This is evolution, natural selection, the survival of the fittest in the rugged landscape.

    Today, humans are hypersensitive to the plight of even one bear. If we see a video of a polar bear that "looks like it is in trouble," we take drastic action, such as forbidding the native Inuit and other peoples from hunting the bear as they've done for thousands of years for sustenance. Not to mention putting the bear on Threatened or worse categories and declaring it in imminent danger of extinction from warming of the North. 

    Warning: this removal of friction might deprive the polar bear species of its rugged traits, leading to extinction.


  2. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited, November 1, 2016 at 5:37 p.m.

    What I learned in Galapagos: It is not survival of the fitness. It never was. It morphed into that because of the macho message spread via especially the US mentality (rugged cowboy,etc.). Darwin discovered that it was the survival of the most adaptable. There were always preditors and preditees and the weaker animal was food necessary for other animals to survive. As for polar bears, they do not have the ability to adapt to the human very quick (less than a century vs. thousands of years) destruction of their environment.

    As you are such a great writer, how would you change your article with the correct Darwinian premise ?

  3. John Donohue` from White Tree Software replied, November 1, 2016 at 6:33 p.m.

    Paula, isn't that just a matter of semantics? Using the phrase "survival of the fittest" subsumes the idea "of the most adaptive."

    Yes the bears do have the ability to adapt to fast change. Changes at the start of the Holocene were abrupt.

    Unless by "to the human" our tendency to shoot them.

    Polar bears can deal with climate change, with or without man's contribution.

  4. Douglas Ferguson from College of Charleston, November 2, 2016 at 10:41 a.m.

    I enjoy the new media landscape where I am no longer straight-jacketed by what the NYT thinks that I should think about (or how the news is framed and trickled-down to the other mainstream media). More is better. Voters are smart enough to figure out the difference between thoughtful sources of counter-information and the obvious drivel from Alex Jones.

  5. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited, November 2, 2016 at 11:52 a.m.

    No, John, it is not just a matter of semantics. That was discussed as well. 2 different meanings and it is not about strength as it has been well pointed out. And it is over millenia, not in a whiff. Polar bears are not adaptable to climate change in a century. Their food has disappeared due to ocean changes, man made by pollution and there is nothing left for them for adaptability. Animals and plants can live and adapt without (probably better) than humans; humans cannot adapt and live without animals and plants. Humans do not give the animals and plants a choice to live without humans. Remember the greatest threat to the church in the 15th and 16th centuries was the printing press because if people could read they could think for themselves and not need the church (church idealogies for the masses,not themselves) to tell them what to do for every inch of their lives. 

  6. Gordon Hotchkiss from Out of My Gord Consulting, November 2, 2016 at 12:56 p.m.

    Paula and John - very interesting thread you've started. I think I'll follow up on this in next week's column.

  7. John Donohue` from White Tree Software replied, November 2, 2016 at 2:36 p.m.

    I repeat “survival of the fittest includes the sub-notion of survival of the most adaptable.” I get that you don’t like the term “fittest”, but it is excellent, incorporating everything necessary to brutally drive forward the species, especially when tested.

    Polar bears can adapt within a century. How did they contend with the several mini-cycles during this interglacial, the Holocene? No floating arctic ice in the North around 12,000 ya, and it happened abruptly, over decades. Same during the Medieval Warm Period. Same during previous interglacials.

    People don’t think clearly on the term “survive.” If a species suffers 88% reduction of population during a crisis, but comes back, it survived. However, humans today want the perfection of “survived with no reduction or threat, count the same even if there is a natural crisis.”

    As for your argument, you lose me when you say “their food has disappeared…etc.” That is not remotely true. After that follows three sentences of yours of which that I have no idea of the relevance, about the bible and humans giving plants the opportunity to thrive without humans.

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