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The Co-Evolution of Biology and Technology

dshanin's picture

DNA, or deoxyribonucleic acid if you are masochistic, is recognized as the fundamental biological molecule in all living organisms on Earth.  While you never see DNA directly when meeting a person, everything you see and touch is coded for in that person’s DNA.  Their skin is made up of proteins synthesized from amino acids whose order is determined by strands of messenger-RNA whose own makeup is determined by DNA.  Biochemistry aside, DNA is the library of biological information necessary to create, maintain and propagate a living entity.  For almost all of Earth’s history biological information was the only kind available; then came human society and from human society came technology.  Humankind created an entirely new way to store, transfer and synthesize information.  It is based on system of binary bits, zeros and ones, rather than in organic molecules.  The information is massive in scale and scope.  Our internet, our appliances, our world is run by technology.  Just as the incredible variety of life on Earth is based on the same four-nucleotide genetic code the incredible variety of technology we have created is based on the same fundamental digital code.  Society does not view these forms of information as equivalent, and rightfully so.  Digital information does not possess the creativity, self-awareness and motivation unique to living things.  Yet this view is inherently biased against technology as we are biological and thus have a stake in the game.  In the search for objectivity I propose a question.  What if biological information held the same societal value as the digital kind?  In order to attempt answer this I will engage in a thought experiment; how would Charles Darwin view our modern technological society if he was an independent observer?  This is not to suggest that we put Darwin in a time machine and ask him about the future1 but rather attempt to view our own world with the same disconnected objectivity by which Darwin viewed the finches of the Galapagos.  “Life” will be defined as an ability to maintain and transfer information rather than by its traditional biological boundaries.  By viewing our world without an assumption of human (and biological) superiority I hope to explore technology’s true impact on our species and our future.
The planet Earth is a temperate planet that is mostly covered by large oceans of water.  The life in these oceans is almost exclusively biological in nature with the exception digital information conduits on the floor and some biological-technology hybrids that exploit the physics of buoyancy as means by which to convey a heavy load with minimal energy.  The terrestrial regions of Earth can be divided into two categories; those with extremes of temperature and rainfall and those who fall in the middle.  The former category includes large polar ice planes and massive areas of dry desert that tends to be located equatorially.  These regions tend to be devoid of technological life and feature only scant biological habitation.  There are some notable exceptions to this rule however.  In the general these exceptions feature bio-techno symbiosis in which the technological systems create an environment where the less environmentally tolerant biological systems can thrive.  In return, the biological life appears to maintain and propagate the technological life.  The large mass of population density known as “Las Vegas” is a prime example of this symbiosis and features a dry, hot desert transformed into a veritable biological oasis through heavy technological involvement.  This example underlines some of the key differences between biological and technological life but before exploring the planet further we must characterize these two distinct, yet indelibly linked forms of life.
Biological life’s defining feature is the presence of generations.  Biological information is propagated in the form of DNA.  DNA constructs itself a highly complex “organism” through the utilization of external resources such as carbon, water and various trace elements.  These organisms serve to allow the acquisition of raw materials as well as the manipulation of the surrounding world.  However, the primary role of DNA’s complex creation is the exchange of DNA with another organism.  This exchange features each participating organism creating a special form of DNA where half the information is removed.  The half from each contributor is then reconstituted into a new, unique sequence of DNA which contains the exact same amount of information as the two contributors.  Thus this mechanism for halving DNA allows for successive “generations” of DNA.  Each generation contains the same amount of information as the previous one however the actual information is different.  This variation appears to convey certain benefits on the organisms, particularly in their ability to fight off other parasitic species.  The avoidance of highly similar DNA in an exchange partner appears to be fairly universal among most of the more complex forms of biological life2.  Once a new generation of DNA has been created it must develop its own organism and repeat the process.  The parental organisms (most often just one of them) provide a means of protection and material support while the DNA develops its earliest protein organism and is unable to provide for its own means.  Often this support is in the form of an egg or seed that contains the new DNA along with enough raw materials to facilitate the early stages of organismal development.  Some highly complex biological organisms take this a step further and continue to provide the developing organisms with support long after they leave their protected egg.  The evolutionary cost of this material investment is offset by the offspring’s increased chances of survival in comparison to those without as much parental investment.  The number of offspring produced by a parent also tends to vary inversely with complexity.  Whatever the case; the DNA of the parental generation eventually breaks down and the organism slowly returns to its constituent parts, often with help of a number of biological species who specialize in the decomposition of biological material.  In this way information is transmitted into the future with each successive generation of DNA utilizing the materials left over from its precursors.  Thus the passage of time is incredibly important in biological life as the information at any given time is wholly dependent on the generational state of the DNA.  
In contrast with biological life, technological life features a focus on connectivity rather than division.  There is no unique “essence” of technological life such as DNA; instead the free passage of information is critical for the success of life.  At an even more fundamental level technological life does not require division into organisms or independently unique packages of information.  The most successful information is that which can be transmitted and copied freely.  A great deal of the world’s technological information is interconnected into a vast internet of data.  Information connected to the internet is alive; it can be fluidly edited, compared and modified by other information regardless of geographic or temporal location.  When information is segregated geographically or temporally, for instance in a computer or appliance isolated from a network, it becomes stagnant and “dead”.  The mixing and exchange of digital information is not carefully parceled as it is in the biological case but instead adapts to serve the system.  Digital information has no beginning or end, making generational division and thus temporal evaluation impossible.  To put it another way, the difference between digital information one minute apart and one year apart is completely unpredictable.  This contrasts strongly with biological life where passage of time ensures increasing numbers of generations and thus greater variability.      
The most striking difference between technological and biological life concerns propagation.  Biological life is inherently able to replicate itself; digital information, however, features no such means.  This is not a weakness as digital information has an unlimited lifespan which results in no evolutionary pressure for the creation of a mechanism for reproduction.  Digital information does reproduce however but it cannot do so alone.  Instead it requires a biological organism to catalyze the process.  In many ways the reproductive interplay of biological and digital life follows the opposite pathway as that of a virus and biological life.  A virus contains the information for reproduction but none of the required machinery to turn the DNA into the proteins required for an organism.  It must rely on a biological life form to provide that machinery.  Digital information possesses all of the machinery necessary for replication but none of the “spark”.  Digital reproduction only occurs when biological information interacts with it.  Though digital data remains the same regardless of the hardware carrying it, ultimately it is carried by hardware and is thus at risk for failure, corruption and deletion.  Reproduction insures the data against these risks.  The question raised by all of this is what determines the evolutionary fitness of digital information besides connectivity.  The answer is anything that increases the information’s chances of being replicated by a biological organism; in short, its usefulness.  Particularly useful information, such as cell-phone programming, is so well replicated that it has become ubiquitous.  It is installed in hundreds of millions of pieces of hardware, interconnected in a massive continually updating network and as close to immortal as any information can get.   
Clearly, technological information is inherently bound to biological information however the opposite is not always true.  Every biological organism with the exception of humans exists completely without technology (aquarium fish aside).  Even humans show great variation in their level of interaction with technological life.  At one end of the spectrum, the American teenager shows an extremely high level of interaction with technological life.  The biological teenager enjoys a symbiotic relationship with technological life.  In return for ample replication the technology provides the teenager with a means to find, communicate with and arrange mating with other humans.  The technological life actually facilitates the successful reproduction of biological life.  The life forms have become so interdependent that a teenager without access to their usual technology is as evolutionarily isolated as an obsolete kitchen appliance.
The counter example to this is found in human cultures bereft of technological interaction such as those in developing nations.  In these cases, the lack of technological symbiosis is not noticed in terms of human relationship formation as it would be by American teenagers but rather in terms of the lack of ancillary services.  The lack of the services provided by technological life to humans including clean water, modern healthcare and basic sanitation exact a serious toll on the inhabitants’ evolutionary fitness.  The human mating process is not disrupted however, as these individuals never integrated technological life into their reproductive rituals and continues to successfully find mates through older traditions of family and interpersonal relationships.  It is interesting to note however that some of the services provided to who interact with technological life actually decrease the fitness of those who do not utilize technology as effectively.  For instance, the critical lack of clean water serves as a major reducer of evolutionary fitness to many humans in developing nations.  This shortage is directly linked to the technology driven manufacturing processes needed to provide other humans with desired services and digital items.
The negative effects of technological illiteracy underline the interconnected nature of biological and technological life on earth.  Technology has allowed humans to manipulate the planet in ways that biological life could never do alone.  Through this manipulation, the technologically symbiotic humans successfully changed their evolutionary pressure and eliminated most traditional barriers to their evolutionary fitness.  This select group gave birth to technological life and continues to evolve together with it.  This co-evolution can be seen in every aspect of the symbiotic human’s lives.  Everything from reproduction to education to death has become inseparably linked with technological processes.  This interaction is very new in terms of the biological evolutionary time-scale but the impact is enormous.  Less than five human biological generations ago digital technology did not exist.  Mechanical devices had been created but no reproducible information was needed to run them.  Since then, both human-technological interdependence and technological information itself have increased in an exponential J-curve.  Ecology tells us that this sort of growth is only possible with an excess of raw material.  This excess has been artificially increased through the use of technology.   The additional raw materials then serve increase technology’s fitness; further perpetuating the meteoric acceleration of technological evolution and biological resource depletion.  
All population growth must eventually reach a carrying capacity, in layman’s terms an environmental maximum occupancy number.  The carrying capacity for technological life appears unlimited; unfortunately the same cannot be said for human life.  The increasing evolutionary pressure on the technologically isolated has already begun to split humans into divergent sub-species.  This is not to say that eventually two distinct species will exist in place of Homo sapiens but rather the less favored members will simply see their genetic information die out while those who operate symbiotically with technology will pass more of their genes along to the next generation.  This rapidly approaching ecological limit is recognized by humans and serves as a stimulus to utilize technology in ways that serves to increase the evolutionary fitness of all biological life.  This “environmentalist” ideology is seemingly altruistic though it can be argued that increasing the fitness of all biological life improves fitness through the services and redundancy provided by a functioning ecosystem.  This rationale provides an example of the crucial difference between biological and technological life.  Only biological life has evolved the ability to consider itself in the abstract.  A computer system can evaluate and optimize itself but it lacks the meta-cognitive capacity to evaluate its own evaluation.  This ability has allowed humans to steer technology towards their perceived needs yet it does not ensure a beneficial relationship.  The massive environmental fallout of technological growth demonstrates that in spite of their retrospective abilities, humans have been unable to use their knowledge to improve Earth’s condition.  Humans behave like even the most basic bacteria; expanding until all resources are consumed.  Clearly insight and application are two very different processes when it comes to evolution.
The addition of human cognition into the analysis of biological and technological life creates some thorny issues of classification.  It is important to note that DNA is not the warehouse for all the information in a biological system.  Thoughts, learning and memories are all forms information contained in a biological system but not stored in DNA.  These forms can be localized to the brain but even the term localization seems like a poor choice of words considering that the brain contains hundreds of billions of interconnected neurons.  Neuroscience research has of yet been unable to identify the exact physical mechanisms by which the information is stored.  The brain is an incredibly complex web of neurons, axons and synapses transferring information through electrical and chemical signals.  The closest approximation (and it’s a very simplistic approximation) of nervous system function is found, not in the biological world, but the technological one.  A computer creates, transfers and processes billions of bits of information.  Like the brain, it must synthesize this data into a cohesive program (or consciousness).  There are fundamental problems with this parallel, especially in cases of higher neural functions like self-awareness and meta-cognition that computers cannot begin to approximate.  Clearly human cognition cannot fit cleanly within either living realm.  It is an inarguable product of biological evolution however it violates all the laws we associate with genetically-based life.  Neural information is truly a third category of information, distinct yet indelibly linked to the biological and technological realms.  
The addition of neurological information to our previously bipolar model helps to bridge the gap between biology and technology.  Neurological information is the “spark” that drives technological replication and the mechanism by which biological systems gave birth to technological ones.  It connects these distinct life forms into a fully functioning system capable of exchanging information through all three modalities.  The advent of genetic manipulation completed the loop, allowing technologic information to influence neurological information which can in turn utilize technology to alter biological information.  Information flow has become a true two-way street, which is an absolutely necessary development for the occurrence of co-evolution.  The human mind connects the realms of biology and technology, allowing changes in one to affect the other.  Now that these systems can alter each others fitness through the exchange of information, it becomes impossible to differentiate them.      Information is the ultimate currency of life, whether carried in a bio-molecule, neuronal network or silicon chip.  Information is the template upon which modern evolution acts and the modality in which its effects can be evaluated.  When viewed in this manner, biological evolution has not been stymied by technological ability but has instead become merely one way in which changes in information can manifest.  Evolution has not been slowed by technology, rather it has been freed form its traditional temporal restraints.  We can no longer view evolution as occurring over an “evolutionary time frame” as is required in the exclusively biological manifestation but must instead recognize how evolution operates at all speeds.  Biologically it is slower than we can imagine, technologically it races faster than we can comprehend and neurologically it is at the exact speed of our thoughts and dreams.

Banich, Maria T.. 2006. Cognitive Neuroscience and Neuropsychology.  Boston (MA).


Paul Grobstein's picture

evolution as information

"evolution operates at all speeds.  Biologically it is slower than we can imagine, technologically it races faster than we can comprehend and neurologically it is at the exact speed of our thoughts and dreams."

What links these together intriguingly is indeed the notion of "information," which itself needs a clearer account.  Cf Information?  An Inquiry.