The J Curve

Friday, September 17, 2004

Recapitulation in Nested Evolutionary Dynamics

I noticed the following table of interval time compression midway down the home page of singularitywatch.com:

“3–4 million years ago: collective rock throwing…
500,000 years ago: control of fire
50,000 years ago: bow and arrow; fine tools
5,000 years ago: wheel and axle; sail
500 years ago: printing press with movable type; rifle
50 years ago: the transistor; digital computers”

Then I burst out laughing with a maturationist epiphany: this is exactly the same sequence of development I went though as a young boy! It started with collective rock throwing (I still have a scar inside my lip)..... then FIRE IS COOL!.... then slingshots…. and the wheels of my bike…. then writing and my pellet gun.... and by 7th grade, programming the Apple ][. Spooky.

It reminded me of the catchy aphorism: “ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny” (the overgeneralization that fetal embryonic development replays ancestral evolutionary stages) and recapitulation theories in general.

I’m thinking of Dawkin’s description of memes (elements of ideas and culture) as fundamental mindless replicators, like genes, for which animals are merely vectors for replication (like a host to the virus). In Meme Machine, Susan Blackmore explores the meme-gene parallels and derives an interesting framework for explaining the unusual size of the human brain and the origins of consciousness, language, altruism, religion, and orkut.

Discussions of the cultural and technological extensions of our biological evolution evoke notions of recapitulation – to reestablish the foundation for compounding progress across generations. But perhaps it is something more fundamental, a “basic conserved and resonant developmental homology” as John Smart would describe it. A theme of evolutionary dynamics operating across different substrates and time scales leads to inevitable parallels in developmental sequences.

For example, Gardner’s Selfish Biocosm hypothesis extends evolution across successive universes. His premise is that the anthropic qualities (life and intelligence-friendly) of our universe derive from “an enormously lengthy cosmic replication cycle in which… our cosmos duplicates itself and propagates one or more "baby universes." The hypothesis suggests that the cosmos is "selfish" in the same metaphorical sense that evolutionary theorist and ultra-Darwinist Richard Dawkins proposed that genes are "selfish." …The cosmos is "selfishly" focused upon the overarching objective of achieving its own replication.”

Gardner concludes with another nested spiral of recapitulation:
“An implication of the Selfish Biocosm hypothesis is that the emergence of life and ever more accomplished forms of intelligence is inextricably linked to the physical birth, evolution, and reproduction of the cosmos.”

5 Comments:

  • ...
    5000 years ago: wheel and axle; sail
    500 years ago: printing press with movable type; rifle
    50 years ago: the transistor; digital computers
    5 years ago: the cryogenically preserved COBOL programmers are thawed and brought back to life to solve Y2K problem, or are they? ;-)

    Excellent observation re: Recapitulation though, but if one takes the whole Singularity thing at the face value, we have to agree that _human technology_ developing exponentially is the same as _humans_ developing exponentially, do not we? Gets back to your previous post.

    Paul B.

    By Blogger Paul B., at 10:13 PM  

  • What is somehow disturbing is that the men-year "used" for each of the steps seems to be equivalent (fussy estimation I made, but that fit for the last 50000 years), the increase of population accounting for sorter time lapses between "novelties".
    How the plateau, du to Terran resources limits, will affect innovation?

    By Blogger OldCola, at 11:44 AM  

  • Old Cola: your observation could have profound implications, if it’s true.

    I had heard of an argument correlating the history of innovation to population size alone, but I can’t find the reference. The simple observation was that larger populations of people are more likely to come up with a breakthrough idea. It’s like a populist expansion of Edison’s brute force approach (he had over 1000 patents in the search for greatness). Creativity comes from volume. There are parallels in IDEO’s approach to new toy design and entrepreneurship in general.

    But I am not sure how much weight to put on this dynamic in the long term, global perspective, especially in a modern era of global communications. Perhaps it applies to creative breakthroughs at the edge that are relatively untethered to the past. For many sustaining innovations, the innovator relies heavily on the innovations and tools of the past, some public, some private. Moore’s Law and the compounding of technological competence seems to have both local and global components.

    There have been
    numerous arguments
    that economic growth tracks population dynamics (size of population, growth, demographic profile). Here is one modern era refutation from a group that is unhappy with that conclusion – Australia.

    By Blogger Steve Jurvetson, at 10:09 AM  

  • To Paul B.:

    Regarding taking the Singularity at face value. I think it is incorrect to limit the term to humans - in fact the term was originally coined by Vinge to refer to the moment when greater-than-human intelligence is created.

    Whether this intelligence comes from significantly augmented humans, or from pure software intelligence(s), it will be _trans_human technologies advancing at a _trans_human pace that will create the Singularity/post-Singularity environment.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 4:22 PM  

  • Very Interesting Blog! I find this idea by Gardner-
    >Gardner’s Selfish Biocosm hypothesis extends evolution across successive universes. His premise is that the anthropic qualities (life and intelligence-friendly) of our universe derive from “an enormously lengthy cosmic replication cycle in which… our cosmos duplicates itself and propagates one or more "baby universes."< To be parallel to my "crackpot" hypothesis, "The Nested Cosmos". http://www.landryart.com/

    Ken Landry

    By Anonymous Ken Landry, at 9:21 AM  

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