evolutionary inevitability and technological taxonomy

So I guess I’m taking requests now.

I was directed to this short edition of Radiolab by a friend of mine. She told me to write a blog post about it. I’d refer you to her Livejournal, but it’s, you know, friends only. Anyway, it’s a good discussion and is absolutely worth listening to.

The podcast is bringing up the fact that given a certain set of “prereqs,” most technological inventions are essentially inevitable. The part of the discussion that is the most interesting to me (and perhaps to you, if you’re reading this) is the analogies they make with biological evolution. They mention the fact that complex eyes have independently evolved multiple times in the history of life on earth and that this is just a byproduct of physics – light waves travel fast and this is probably the best way to gather pertinent information about the world. It should be noted that on our particular world the presence of eyes probably didn’t happen on a large scale until substantial predator/prey relationships began to evolve. So the prereqs for eyes are: a universe with physics similar to ours, and specific ecological relationships. Weirdly, this kind of teleologic evolution doesn’t bother me that much. Other kinds do. For instance, the speakers in this podcast sort of offhandedly mention a tendency towards increasing sentience. That might be where I draw the line, even though it is sort of hard to argue that mammals aren’t the smartest creatures to have yet evolved on earth.

This all reminds me of a semi-drunken argument I had a few years ago at a bar in rural Catalonia. I was working on a paleoarcheological dig and there were some pretty cool people there. Specifically, I was having an conversation with a British version of John Locke (from Lost, not from political philosophy 101) and a Deadhead from Massachusetts. Despite the stereotypes that I have assigned them, both of these guys are smart, educated guys who have read widely in evolutionary biology and paleontology. But they kept insisting that given a hypothetical that the Chicxulub impact didn’t happen and the dinosaurs did not go extinct, then some of the smarter dinosaurs like Troodon (the umlaut was dropped, right?) would have eventually evolved into some sort of Sauro sapiens.


Just think. If Russell had thought of this 5 years ago instead of 25, it would be covered in feathers.

I think this is total bullshit. I mean wasn’t it obvious that the whole dinosauoid thing was thought up by Dale Russell when he was super high? Human-like sentience seems like something that required a very particular set of conditions and sequence of events to happen. I’d even bet money that if we re-wound the video of evolution back to the chimp/human last common ancestor in the Miocene and hit play, we’d almost certainly NOT end up with modern humans some 5-6 million years later (objections made by arch-determinists notwithstanding).

The speakers in the podcast also mention Niles Eldredge (if you have a passing familiarity with evolutionary biology, you’ll remember him as the co-formulator of punctuated equilibrium, along with Stephen Jay Gould) and his work on trilobite systematics (that would be the study of the evolutionary relationships between trilobites). And how Eldredge apparently also collects cornets (like, brass instruments) and does cornet “systematics.”

ANYWAY. all of these biological analogies are in the service of making the argument that technology is not only a product of evolution, but possibly worthy of it’s own taxonomic kingdom. I don’t have a problem with this. I say lets do it. But if it’s going to get it’s own kingdom, let’s go all the way. Let’s devise a hierarchical classification system and make cladograms ‘n’ shit. And since we can start from scratch, lets NOT do the whole Linnaean thing. I’m actually sort of serious about this.


NOTE: here is a link to a paper Eldredge co-wrote about cultural evolution. Reading it now.


About alexclaxton

Paleoanthropology grad student, pop culture obsessive
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2 Responses to evolutionary inevitability and technological taxonomy

  1. Schenck says:

    On cladistics of technology…

    If we’re talking about classifications, then that’s one thing, but you can’t have /true/ cladistic relationships between /manufactured/ objects no? The distributions of characters don’t tell us anything about relationships there, (besides the fact that there aren’t any actual relation-ships there in the first place).

  2. alexclaxton says:

    Well… I don’t think the relationships are necessarily between the mechanical objects themselves – they’d be between the forms, the eidoses (yeah, I should know the plural. sue me) of the objects, right? And why couldn’t we trace the descent of ideas in a systematic manner? We have a pretty good idea of which characters in any given invention are “primitive” and “derived.” I think we could make a cladogram of any given technological family – and I’m pretty sure Eldredge already has. I need to look that up.

    And lets not have any delusions about cladistics. We are imparting our own meaning on the characters involved HOPING that said meaning reflects the evolutionary reality of the character and organism. The systematic relationship between any two organisms is a hypothesis.

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