Jun 3, 2010

Are We Lamarkians?

All the fuss about how information access on the Internet alters the structure of our brains makes me think of the history of evolutionary theory.

I recently read a blog post from some random poster who claimed we're getting stupider because more and more people read online. While this may sound true, it seems like more people are plagued with a bad case of how traits are acquired that smacks of bad evolutionary science.

Darwin did not claim giraffes have long necks because they strained their bodies to reach vegetation high up in the tree. No. Giraffes have long necks because all the "shorter" necked creatures died and the "longer" neck variety survived. The longer neck variety reproduced and made it more probable that another longer neck creature was born. This is basically his theory of natural selection (or survival of the fittest).

The location of the giraffe's food source (whether high or low) necissitated biological change over time. The short necked giraffes died of starvation and hence did not live long enough to produce.

In the same way, human being do not change the structure of their brains because information is processed differently on the web then it's processed via print sources.

For some reason I don't think a kid who grows up learning by books is going to have a different brain structure from the kid who is raised on wikipedia.

That's so Lamarkian. Jean-Baptiste Lamarck is to blame for this faulty logic prevalent in talk about how biological change manifests. He was basically a 19th century French scientist who conjured up the first theory of evolution. He had some amazing insights that helped shape the future of evolutionary science, but he also had the idea that certain traits can be willed and acquired. The giraffe-has-long-neck-because-it-willed-it theory is tantalizing but does not hold much water. It's like the father who thinks his 5'5 scrawny son can just will himself to be a great football player.

With the super fast advent of web technology, and amazing ways to collect information we seem to fall on Lamarck's faulty, but tempting, logic. Out brains must acquire whatever traits the technology dictates. It may be true there's some physical change related to perusing the web ( strain on the eyes, etc.) but one's genetic make up is not being altered.

Our brains are hardwired to collect data and store it in memory. It's the result of thousands of years's of evolutionary development. Humans had to remember because we were first hunters and gatheters. The humans who remembered where the good food sources were located survived because they could feed their families. The others with bad memories died. They didn't make babies. So the prefontal cortex grew because of nature's preference for a large capacity for long term memory.

Human ability to do the memory thing well lies on a continuum of 1-10.

Folks who mine the web well do so because they have a genetic aptitude for it. They get a 10. And then there are the mix of others. But no one is dying off. The evolution thing does not work anymore. Humans survive the cold not because their body temperature gets warmer but because we can devise a way to create a heater. The Eskimo does not produce kids who are durable to the cold but rather he produces kids who learn how to fish and build an igloo.

If our survival depended on our ability to learn through the web, then over time those who suck at information literacy would die and those who fared well would survive. While this could happen - it would be something like the "Final Solution" in Germany. We don't live in a genetic dystopia. Yet. It would be like a world wide web version of who can make it to the oasis first in the desert. Kinda of like a survival of the fittest. The brains with information literacy would produce offspring with other information literate people (because remember, those who can't google are dead).

But, of course this is not how it works. We don't grant life or take it away based on your ability to surf the web.

You can't say the structure of our brain changes in a Lamarkian way. It's bad science. You have to say something like this: the way the world wide web is notdesigned for deep thinkers. It's not, "Deep thinkers are becoming stupider because they're reading tweets instead of novels."

Sounds semantic? Well, it is. It's wrong at a semantic level and a biological level.

Semantics is how language functions. Technology forces our language to change, not our brains. By language, I mean the broadest sense of what language means: language and culture.

If the world lost it's electric plug and all information systems go kaplooey it may be up for grabs what makes who fitter.

It's like that old maxim: "The one eyed man is king in the kingdom of the blind."

The boy who will get ahead in the information age is the boy who can grasp and keep up with how language and culture fluctuate. It's not a quantum change of his brain but rather ONE brain can keep up. It all falls on what must be kept up. Really survival is relative.

None of us are getting stupider because we read books versus Twitter feeds. No. These systems are designed for shallow knowledge so that's what we get.

Our brains won't show much change except in a few more generations when we can see who's alive and who ain't. Will the web 2.0 be holding a torch?

It just might be the book lover is the fittest. Of it may be the twitter lover.
The only thing that's changing is information. That's true.

Our brains are as prehistoric as they'll ever be. Any real change won't be available for another few years. But that's a question for another blogger. I'm going to go strain my neck to get that coconut. I'll let you know when it's grown.


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