Digital advances outpace cultural evolution

There is a theoretical concept in computer science called technological singularity. It refers to the hypothetical point in time when artificial intelligence passes the cognitive capabilities of the human brain, implying radical changes in human nature and society as a whole.

Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson discussed in a speech the existence of intelligent life elsewhere in the universe. He argues that the difference in intelligence between chimpanzees and human beings is in just about 1 percent of DNA. “Imagine another life form that’s one percent different from us in the direction that we are different from the chimp,” he said. “Quantum mechanics would be intuitive to their toddlers.” That is, we would probably not even be able to grasp such intelligence.

The prospect of this scenario has received considerable attention from theorists and science fiction authors, notwithstanding that it lies in the future. But there is another type of singularity, much less discussed, which has already happened and that is causing rapid changes in human nature and society — the sociocultural singularity.

I use the term “sociocultural” in reference to the research area of sociocultural evolution, which is concerned with how cultures and societies change over time. Although this evolution can relate to Darwinian, genetic evolution, it differs mainly in the fact that it happens at a much faster pace.

Anatomically, modern humans evolved from archaic homosapiens about 250,000 years ago in the Middle Paleolithic era. Cultural evolutions, on the other hand, happen at a speed that is orders of magnitude faster: the way of life — including alimentation, social structure, values and means of communication — can change drastically within a generation. That is, sociocultural evolution outpaces natural evolution.

This fact makes it remarkable how stable in the face of change our physical and mental systems are. But as cultural revolutions happen in increasingly shorter intervals of time, the question arises of how long such stability will persist.

The sociocultural evolution triggered by Internet technology is an example of how these changes can be harmful. A recent report by researchers at Oxford University, for instance, revealed a number of threats related to Internet use, including bullying, self-harm and an increased risk of suicide.

The human brain and psychology evolved in an environment that hardly matches modern life, especially in large urban centers. Competition with one or two tribe members is now competition with hundreds, at a global scale. The obvious threat of a rival group, or wild animals, is now the subtle threat of economic instability, of a media that consistently makes us aware of the worst that is happening and of a culture that forces us to be happy anyway no matter the circumstances. Thus, it’s no surprise that anxiety and depression became such a mainstream problem. In fact, in 2008 the third most common prescription drug taken in the United States was a type of antidepressant.

We should be aware of and vigilant to these changes. That is not to say we shouldn’t embrace cultural evolution. Modern societies tend to be more inclusive and ethically minded. But unfortunately, progress is being paid for in part by increased burden to the human psychology. Scientific studies and public discussions are needed to further explore the issues. Natural evolution assures the survival of the fittest, but since it is slow in comparison to cultural evolution, we should be careful not to produce a psychologically stressful environment in which none of our descendants will be able to fit.

A version of this article appeared in the Tuesday, Nov. 5 print edition. Marcelo Cicconet is a staff columnist. Email him at [email protected]
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