Sunday, August 26, 2012

Evolution Now?

So, not too long ago I got into an exchange over on Peter Montgomery's McLuhan discussion list about Walter Ong, technology, and evolution, and I thought I'd use that as the basis for a post.

Walter Ong is best known, in media ecology circles, for his scholarship on orality and literacy, on memory and mnemonics vs. the written record, on the differences between the oral-aural world and the visualism that has its origins in the alphabetic culture of ancient Greece and comes to dominate western culture in the typographic era, and on how the electronic media have granted us a new form of orality, one built on top of literacy and mediated by electronic technologies, different and distinct from the original form of primary orality, and hence designated as secondary orality.

Whew, that was a mouthful, wasn't it? Or at least it would have been, had I said it out loud. Which I didn't of course.  As Ong would put it, do you see what I say?

Ong was a Jesuit priest, as well as a professor of English literature, but he was also something of a biologist, and an early proponent and pioneer of incorporating the idea of evolution into a theological framework.  Another Jesuit, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, is better known for his philosophical work on evolution, and while Ong's ideas were arrived at somewhat independently, he lived together with Teilhard in France during the 1950s, when Ong was doing his doctoral research on Peter Ramus, and according to Thomas J. Farrell, Ong was favorably disposed toward Teilhard's notion of the noosphere, which is a move towards a collective consciousness of humanity, bringing us in closer communion with the divine, and in unity with all of creation.  In his view, evolution is moving inexorably towards an omega point.

Ong was much more down to earth, as he maintained that human consciousness evolves, and that it does so in response to technological innovation.  The shifts from orality to literacy to typography to electricity opened the door to new stages in the evolution of consciousness.  

My understanding is that Ong was working dialectically, noting that the same technologies that distance us from one another create new forms of human presence, and that using technology is natural for human beings. He used the metaphor of having die to our old selves to be born into a new self as an analogy to the fact that we lose something of value as we make technological progress. Ong acknowledged the agonistic nature of evolution, the struggle for survival, competition based on the fittest individuals within a species.  Ong had no romantic illusions about nature, but he did hold the ecological view that there is a natural tendency to seek balance and homeostasis.

Like other media ecologists, Ong recognized that technology has its costs as well as its benefits, negative as well as positive effects, or as McLuhan put it, disservices as well as services But his faith in God led him to believe that on sum, it was all for the best. In Ong's view, evolution is part of God's plan, technological progress is part of God's plan, the result being the evolution of human consciousness.

Ong's scholarship also extended to psychology and psychiatry, and both he and McLuhan made passing reference to a growing awareness of the unconscious in the electronic age, which perhaps relates to Carl Jung's notion of the evolution of consciousness through the integration of the conscious and the unconscious mind into a holistic self.

I think it's important to note that the religious, spiritual, and popular discourse on evolution has given it a teleological spin that Darwin never intended.  Gregory Bateson put it well, that the environment provides negative feedback that limits which individuals survive to reproduce, and how many offspring they produce.  It's also a bit of a tautology, in that the basic point is whatever survives survives, and whatever doesn't doesn't.  But mainly it's about the ability to survive and thrive within a given environment.  And environmental change, in requiring adaptation to an altered environment, speeds up the evolutionary process, hence Stephen Jay Gould's tweaking of Darwin in favor of punctuated equilibrium.  And then there's Richard Dawkins, who argues that it is neither the species nor the individual that is the natural unit of evolution, but the gene.  But we'll leave that genie in the bottle for now.

Adaptability does not necessarily imply evolution to some kind of higher state. Kurt Vonnegut expressed this quite well in his novel, Galapagos, where evolution amounts to devolution, with humans evolving downward, in a sense, towards a less intelligent, more peaceful state, something akin to a walrus.  This was also wonderfully conveyed in the brilliant opening to the movie Idiocracy:

From this point, the natural result over centuries is a dumbing down of the human race to the point of absurdity, making for great comedy.  This process, sometimes referred to as de-evolution, or devolution, was the theme of the new wave rock group popular during the 80s called Devo. Remember them? Their signature refrain was, Are we not men? We are Devo! 

The song "Jocko Homo" is by Mark Mothersbaugh, better known to younger generations for the theme music of the clever children's cartoon program and film series, Rugrats. The lyrics are a bit insensitive by contemporary standards, but here they are anyway:

They tell us that  
We lost our tails  
Evolving up 
From little snails  
I say it's all  
Just wind in sails  
Are we not men?  
We are DEVO!  
We're pinheads now  
We are not whole  
We're pinheads all  
Jocko homo  
Are we not men?  
Monkey men all  
In business suit  
Teachers and critics  
All dance the poot  
Are we not men?  
We are DEVO!  
Are we not men?  
god made man  
but he used the monkey to do it  
apes in the plan  
we're all here to prove it  
i can walk like an ape  
talk like an ape 
do what a monkey do  
god made man  
but a monkey supplied the glue  
We must repeat  
O.k. let's go! 

And this relates to and is derived from the idea of mutants, popularized by horror movies during the 50s, and more recently by Marvel Comics X-Men franchise:

Of course, these ideas are more fantasy than science fiction, as genetic mutation works in much more subtle and gradual ways, so no one is going to suddenly be born with wings, or skin made of metal, let alone the ability to defy the laws of physics.  Anyway, popular culture themes about mutant monsters and heroes reflects postwar fears and concerns about radiation, the bomb, nuclear energy, and technology in general as well as recent attitudes regarding stereotyping, prejudice, and scapegoating.

But getting back to the point that adaptation has no direction, no automatic movement towards a higher state, this fundamental point regarding Darwinian evolution was overlooked in popular discourse about evolution, where the assumption was that evolution moved from lower to higher states, from single-cell to multicellular organism, from invertebrates to vertebrates, from fish to reptiles to mammals, leading up to the ascent of man, as it once was called.

In this sense, the popular view of evolution has been associated with the concept of progress, which made for a good fit with social darwinism in the late 19th and early 20th century.  And in the postwar period, as our faith in progress was shaken to the core, evolution became something of an euphemism for progress, a point I make in On the Binding Biases of Time (see the link over on the side there and order a copy if you please).

More recently, however, complexity theory suggests that there is in fact a tendency under certain conditions to evolve towards greater complexity.  This is not exactly the same as evolving towards an omega point or final state of being that Teilhard imagined, nor is it exactly progress in the early 20th century sense.  But complexity theory does suggest that the universe evolves, that there is a natural tendency towards negative entropy and increased complexity that includes the evolution of amino acids into self-replicating genetic material, that is, the evolution of life from non-life, and possibly as well the evolution towards higher states of consciousness that humanity seems to be a product of.  In other words, this would make life and consciousness a natural function of the universe.

It seems that it's hard to escape the sense that evolution has a direction, its own arrow of time, pointing towards something higher, or as we sometimes put it, towards something more evolved. What that means is hard to say, but we can at least hope that the potential exists for evolution towards a higher state of consciousness, and that our technological evolution can provide the impetus for such an evolution of consciousness.  If nothing else, it's quite clear that the current state of the world requires us to evolve our consciousness now, if we are to continue to survive as a species, and preserve our ecosystem (or what's left of it).

In this, I certainly find comfort in Ong's optimistic outlook, that on the whole, there is a spiritual dimension to the world that helps to move things in the right direction, and will help us to evolve as we need to, if only we can be open to it.  So maybe this needs to be our battle cry:

Evolution Now!

What do you think?

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