Tuesday, May 4, 2010

The Role of Chaos in Human Evolution

Two terms need immediate clarification. The chaos I am referring to is the deterministic yet unpredictable kind. And I take human evolution to include that change accruing from cultural, social, political and technological processes as well at the slower progression through genetic natural selection.

The conception of natural selection as a form of progression flies in the face of the current politically correct tendency to question the notion that life is evolving toward anything. But the constantly increasing complexity resulting from chaotic processes applied to existing complexity has clearly driven an ever increasing individuation of life since its start a few billion years ago. Natural selection feeds on the random and unpredictable variation characteristic of all life - indeed of all material existence - and results in this progression from lessor to greater complexity.

Down to quantum level, all material processes occur according to deterministic laws even when the outcomes so generated are statistical probabilities. And as interactions between matter and energy become more complex according to these laws of nature – we live in the kind of universe that they do – the processes also become more chaotic. The result is that as complexity increases, it begets greater complexity. And whereas one stone is pretty much like any other stone, every single live organism is a unique individual. And the process of each individual organism interacting with its environment – also always changing – results in achieving various degrees of fitness. The important points here seem to me to be two: that it is individual differences that determine fitness and fuel evolution and that the more individualized the organism, the greater the possible points for chaos to operate.

A human being is a marvelously unique and individualized organism. We vary at almost every interesting point from all other humans. Our cultural and social variability adds extra dimensions to our individuation. Our accelerating technology allows ways of interacting beyond calculation and is a true chaos multiplier. The human race is by this point of time a realm of complexity that the earth has never seen before. Evolution from this basis promises to take us places that we cannot now imagine, if we survive at all.

Thus, everything that we do – to test our boundaries, to right the world’s wrongs, to struggle for our daily bread – and the way that we do it provides the raw material for evolution, for greater complexity. We drive change when we seek to effect our environment in our own way, even though we do not always succeed. In the chaotic processes of life, some win and more lose. (As Crash Davis put it: some days you win, some days you lose and some days it rains.) And in the end, it is not about us but about the fact that our species will survive only if there are enough folks pressing forward even when most of our individual efforts seem to fall short.