Evolution's Direction

Fri, 28 Jan 1994 14:50:52 CST

Biological and cultural evolution do reveal a clear directional
development. Biologically, early forms were all relatively simple, but
more complex forms evolved from, and then alongside, simpler ones.
Average complexity, then, has increased greatly due to the addition of
more complex forms. Socially, too, all early societies (autonomous
political units) were small, alongside which larger societies have
subsequently evolved (and now have swallowed up the small ones--a
process that has no close parallel biologically). The cultures of large
societies use more energy than do the cultures of small societies:
metabolically, because the societies contain more organisms, and non-
metabolically, because they consume larger quantities of fuel--true
especially since the Industrial Revolution. The trend toward greater
energy consumption probably underlies biological and cultural evolution.
Simple forms of life continue to exist because rapid reproduction is
one way a species can use large amounts of (metabolic) energy; complex
forms came to exist under competitive conditions in which large body
size and/or intelligence were selected (r and K selection,respectively).
The ability to use energy was the ultimate selective advantage, perhaps.
This speculation, at any rate, makes cultural evolution's trajectory
of increasing energy use entirely comprehensible--a continuation of
biological evolution in a new form, but in the same old direction:
increasing energy use. All our energy use, as humans, aims at meeting
our needs as organisms--for security, comfort, pleasure, and so forth.
These remarks are a synthesis of the ideas of biologist A.J. Lotka
and anthropologist Leslie A. White. They are easy enough to grasp,
and are overlooked or rejected largely because of an overreaction
to teleology and mysticism in biology's history, and to ethnocentrism
in anthropology's history. Reactions were needed; now we have got to
recover from the reactions, for they went too far when they turned
into dogmatic rejections of the directionality evident in evolution.
--Bob Graber