When Evolution (and Democracy) Get It Wrong

“I’ve made a huge mistake”

G.O.B. – Arrested Development

The world is eliminating friction. Generally, that’s a good thing. But there may be unintended consequences.

Let’s take evolution, for instance. Friction in evolution comes in the form of survival rates. Barring other mitigating factors over the length of a natural evolutionary timeline, successful mutations will result in higher survival rates and, therefore, higher propagation rates. Those mutations that best fit the adaptive landscape will survive. Unsuccessful ones will die out.

But that assumes a landscape in which survival has a fairly high threshold. The lower the threshold, the more likely it is that a greater number of mutations will “get over the bar”.

Two factors can vary that threshold. One is the adaptive environment itself. It may proved to be “kinder and gentler” for an extended period of time, allowing for the flourishing of “less fit” candidates.

The other is a factor unique to one species that allows them to alter the environment at their will. Like technology, for instance. In the hands of humans, we have used technology to eliminate friction and drag the bar lower and lower – until the idea of survival of the fittest has little meaning any more.

The more friction there is, the more demanding that propagation threshold is. This same phenomenon is true of most emergent systems. What emerges depends on the environment the system is operating in. Demanding environments are called rugged landscapes. There is some contrary logic that operates here. The removal of friction can actually increase the number of mutations (or, in societal terms – innovation). More mutations – or ideas – can survive because the definition of “fittest” is less demanding. But we also build up a tipping point of mediocrity in the gene or meme pool and if something does cause the adaptive landscape to suddenly become more rugged, the extinction rate soars. The reckoning can be brutal.

Lets look at memes. For ideas to spread, there used to be a fairly high threshold of “shareability.” There was a publishing and editorial supply chain that introduced a huge amount of friction into our culture. This friction has largely been removed, allowing any of us to instantly share ideas. This has lead to a recalibration of the shareability threshold – an explosion of viral content that happens to ding our fickle consciousness just long enough for us to hit the share button. Bob Garfield called this “The Survival of the Funnest” in a recent column.

But was the previous friction a good thing? We definitely have more content being produced now. Some of it is very good. This couldn’t have happened under the previous cultural supply chain. But a lot of the content is – at best – frivolous and – at worst – dangerous. That same chain did force thoughtfulness into the filter of content. Someone – somewhere – had to think about what was fit to publish.

Now, one could argue that ultimately the market will get it right. We could also argue that evolution never makes mistakes. But that’s not always true. If the threshold of fitness gets lowered, evolution will make mistakes. Tons of them. I suspect the same is true of markets. If we grow complacent and entitled, we can flood the market with mediocrity. We humans have an unlimited capacity to make bad choices if we don’t have to make good ones

This brings me to the current state of democracy. Democracy is cultural evolution in action. It means – literally – the “people” (demos) “rule” (kratia). It assumes that the majority will get it right. But the adaptive landscape of democracy has also changed. The threshold has been lowered. We are making electoral decisions based on the same viral content that has flooded the rest of our culture. Thoughtfulness is in woefully short supply. There is no shortage of knee-jerk soundbites that latch on to the belief system of a disgruntled electorate. This is an ideological death spiral that could have big consequences.


Make that “Huuugggeee” consequences.




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