Chapter 11. Evo Devo Foresight: Unpredictable and Predictable Futures

Dangers of the Model

What are the dangers of believing too strongly in the evo devo universe hypothesis, at this still early stage of human understanding of universal change? Let’s consider just a few to start.

First, the idea of an inevitable “ladder of complexity” of leading-edge life forms, a ladder which has led to biological humanity in our little corner of the universe, and may soon lead beyond our biology, is a concept with plenty of moral dangers attached to it.

Ideologically, more primitive versions of an inevitable ladder of complexity (Scala Natura) were used to justify the view that humans, as long as they believed in a particular God, were creatures separate from nature, with a right of “dominion” over it, allowing us to brutally exploit our environment. The vision of the inevitable ladder of progress has also been used to justify various indefensible social theories and actions over the last three hundred years, including social Darwinism, racism, sexism, animal and environmental abuse, eugenics, and sterilization.

As evo-devo biologist Wallace Arthur explains in Creatures of Accident (2006), these are just some of the ideological, political, and practical reasons why evolutionary biologists have preferred to say so little about the causes and predictability of the directional increase in complexity among our “higher” species over megaevolutionary timescales. The ideas of directionality, of a ladder of complexity, and of cosmic purpose were too easy to overinterpret and misuse in earlier, less evidence-based and scientific times. We continue to overinterpret and misuse them today.

For example, some of today’s transhumanists, a group that I consider myself a member of, seeing the inevitable rise of superior machines on the horizon, can use this developmental foresight to ignore, dismiss, devalue, or disregard the variety of STEEPS problems that biological humans face today, and the need to prioritize addressing those problems with our present imperfect tools and strategies. The 95/5 rule tells us that 95% of our work is evolutionary, incremental, and experimental. We should engage in our best efforts humbly, and not be so sure that they are aligned with where the world is in fact going. It’s important to make guesses about our destination, but just as important to realize that these are only guesses. Only the universe can validate, post facto, whether we have guessed well. We reach a more adaptive future, or not, by attention to our many problems today, not by focusing on futures that may or may not come.

We need much better science as well. Evolutionary biology and sociology still have little that is definitive to say about environmental development. Even organismic development has remained a deep mystery until recently, and still remains far more complex and hard to model than biological evolution. We easily get into philosophy and intuition when discussing these topics, and both can easily lead us into realms that can’t be verified by evidence, simulation, or experiment.

Given this history, it is understandable that evolutionary science would go to the polar opposite, and assume that complexification has been a series of random accidents. This strategy allowed reductionism and random models to make great strides, explaining the majority of the change we see today. But today, thousands of evo-devo biologists realize that evolutionary biology to date has focused far too much on diversification and not nearly enough on the nature and constraints of development. We’ve missed understanding environmental convergence, and accelerating complexification, both in special forms of living systems, and in the universe itself.

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