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The Story of Evolution, Spring 2005 Second Web Papers On Serendip


Brittany Pladek


Back in the days when typewriters were first being invented, the arrangement of the keys was determined by the need to prevent them from jamming. Keys that often followed one another---s and h, q and u, e and everything---were spaced widely apart to keep them from getting stuck. Today's keyboards, despite advances in technology that eliminate the need for such precautions, continue to use this arrangement. This has become known as the QWERTY phenomenon, and it can be found in many places besides keyboards.

One of the most interesting of these places is evolutionary theory. Writes Daniel Dennett in his book Darwin's Dangerous Idea, "The imperious restrictions we encounter inside [evolutionary theory] ... appear to count as merely local conditions, with historical explanations" (Dennett 123). He gives the example of horned birds, which don't exist not because there is something inherently "un-birdlike" about horns, but just because birds missed the genetic off-ramp which would have once allowed horned birds to evolve. The first half of Dennett's book continues to chronicle more such nuances of biological evolution. The second half describes what Dennett calls cultural evolution (Dennett 140), in which he compares ideas to genes. Dubbing them "memes," he argues that these usually-discrete cultural units reproduce, develop, and undergo natural selection in almost the same way as do their biological cousins. Survival of the fittest, adaptation to specific niches, and change over time: all transfer over (Dennett believes) from the genetic to the cultural sphere.

QWERTY, apparently, does not. Or at least, in Dennett's book, its cultural parallel goes extinct through non-selection: once he moves from biology to sociology, he ceases to mention it. Why might this be? Dennett gives no explanation for the omission. Perhaps he never considered it. Or (more likely, considering the thoroughness of his book), he didn't consider it important enough. Or he didn't have space. Whatever the reason, it's an unexplored idea whose cultural ramifications are fascinating. Does cultural evolution obey the laws of QWERTY? If so, where? If not, what would it be like if it did?

The answer to the first question seems, at first, to be a no-brainer: yes. QWERTY itself is, after all, a cultural phenomenon. But a closer look at QWERTY's history proves that (at least when applied to genetics) it doesn't even follow its own tenants. When applied evolutionarily, QWERTY states that any sort of biological "backtracking" is so improbable as to be impossible. Back in the Mesozoic when lizards first started growing feathers, a random turn of genetics forever prohibited their feathered descendents from developing horns. Can the same be said of our current keyboard alignment? No: creating a new keyboard is easy, and in some places it's already been done. The perpetuation of QWERTY itself is rather a product of human laziness. It takes time, effort, and money to reorganize a layout that is now mass-produced for millions of machines and taught in typing classes across the country. So turning QWERTY to TEWQRY isn't impossible. Just labor-intensive.

The same goes for most other cultural memes. Ideas, unlike genes, aren't hardwired. Biological QWERTY works like a maze full of one-sided doors: once you've chosen, you can't go back. Cultural QWERTY is a maze, too, but all the doors are always open. For example, let's compare two very different types of "fashion": a giraffe's spots (to steal an example from Dennett) and the new Abercrombie and Fitch Summer collection. Mrs. Giraffe has been wearing spots for millennia. A very long time ago, one of her ancestors flipped a genetic switch which read "spots not stripes." This ancestor continued evolving, piling up more genetic mutations on top of that first switch, so many that today it would be nearly impossible for Mrs. Giraffe to flip the switch back to "stripes" and have a zebra-esque daughter. "There simply is no starting point in DNA that has such a giraffe as its destination" (Dennett 117), explains Dennett. Now let's look at Abercrombie's Summer 2005 Catalogue. It's featuring a crumpled collection of tea-stained peasant blouses, faded flare jeans, and ratted hemp jewelry. One suspects the designers found their inspiration dumpster-diving at Woodstock. Human fashion, unlike giraffe fashion, takes its cue from any era it pleases. If it wanted, it could lift a "Victorian meme" from the 1800s and attire next year's spendthrift youth in ruffles and petticoats. Like rearranging our keyboard, this move isn't likely. But it's not, as are striped giraffes, technically impossible.

This isn't to say that there aren't some cultural memes which adhere to QWERTY. There are always exceptions to the rule. For example, humanity's regrettable environmental policy. The meme: "use fossil fuels!" The evolutionary consequences: we continue to consume an ever-dwindling supply of a finite resource. In doing so, we simultaneously limit our own future options. Someday the fossil fuel meme will be forced to adapt into something more conservationist ("use solar power!") or else, due to lack of fossil fuels, it will become extinct. (Hopefully humanity won't be going with it). On the whole, however, QWERTY is much less applicable when it comes to cultural evolution.

Which leaves us question number two: what would life be like if QWERTY restricted memes as strictly as it does genes? The possible scenarios are myriad, fascinating, and more than a little frightening. When boiled down to basics, the two most important differences between biological and cultural evolution (with regards to QWERTY, anyway) seem to be the ability of memes to "reach back in time" and change a long-standing idea/practice---Abercrombie's bohemian inspiration, for example---and their ability to combine two completely separate ideas into a new "species" of meme---for example, writing poems about chemistry. If QWERTY heavily affected cultural evolution, memes would be denied these two crucial abilities. With regards to ability number one, much more would suffer than Abercrombie's spring line. For example, women might have never gained the right to vote. If the cultural meme which read "voting should be male only" somehow managed to evolve past the point where it was possible to "reach back" and change it (and culturally, this meme is ancient---it would have had ample time to do so), not only the achievement, but the very idea of women voting could never have entered public consciousness. Such an evolutionary cusp may have been the writing of the Bill of Rights; the liberal Roaring Twenties; the influx of women in the workforce during the war years; it might even have occurred further back, during pre-Biblical times when memes about women's place in society were first being formed. Wherever it was, if at that time the meme passed up the opportunity to mutate to "votes for everyone!", women would be eternally consigned to second-class status: like the giraffe, forever denied their stripes. This argument can be extended to virtually any idea which was "enacted" at a specific time: the polio vaccine, Karl Marx's philosophy, the Ford Model T, and "a rose by any other name." It's even more applicable to ideas which were born through great imaginative leaps, seemingly years ahead of their time. If QWERTY harnessed culture into the same reins of "smooth progression of improving models" which guide biological evolution, we (despite cultural evolution's comparative speed) might still be piecing together Newton's Laws. Newton himself would never have existed. Under QWERTY, ideas must evolve from other similar ideas, not through inspired flights of imagination and overburdened apple trees.

As dire as these consequences seem, the implications for meme ability two are even more dismal. The capacity to combine two seemingly disparate ideas is such a foundation of cultural evolution that one is tempted to ask whether without it, culture would have evolved at all. One basic example is language. Almost all of today's languages are composite, reflecting influence from a wide variety of language families. English is perhaps the best example of a linguistic mutt: its ancestors include Anglo-Saxon, French, Latin, Gaelic, and many more. Just imagine what language might be like had QWERTY been calling the shots! Like the DNA of incompatible species, languages which evolved separately would never be able to mix. Every time any given tongue split off from its main branch, then changed sufficiently enough to prohibit communication, a whole set of speakers would be isolated from the rest of the world. We would all be imprisoned in a global, eternal Tower of Babel. And even if one linguistic group grew big and influential enough to develop a rudimentary culture, it would be barred from any significant innovation by QWERTY. For a simple example, let's consider agriculture. Some bright little cavewoman at some point in (regular) human history made the connection between "I like this tree's fruit" and "if I stick this seed in the ground, I can grow a tree." Voila---the first farm. Now let's look at the same cavewoman in a QWERTY universe. The two memes "yum, fruit!" and "seed=tree" might exist together in her mind, but it's questionable whether they would ever mate to produce "I will stick this seed in the ground and grow fruit I can eat." These meme-species may not have been compatible enough to produce such viable offspring. With QWERTY at the helm, human culture might never have developed at all.

Again, this concept can be applied to a nearly-infinite range of cultural memes. Let's even pretend for a second that QWERTY culture managed to achieve something of today's complexity. It's still an impossibly segregated, hopelessly static world: science, art, politics, religion, would all be separate memes, separate species, utterly incompatible. No field would ever be able to lean across the interspecies divide and learn anything from any other field. The Modern Synthesis wouldn't exist; nor would Primo Levi's The Periodic Table. On the plus side, McDonalds movie tie-ins, reality TV, and the Oscar Meyer Weinermobile would probably never have been invented. On the whole, though, the world would be a much more rigid, dismal place. It would take millennia to get anywhere---if we ever got there at all.

In conclusion, we should all be grateful that QWERTY happens in our cells. After all, it prevents us from popping out kids with three heads, horns, or stripes. But we should be equally grateful that, while operative in every gene, QWERTY kindly stays out of our heads. Isn't it a comfort to know that we don't live in a QWERTY world?


Works Cited

Dennett, Daniel C. Darwin's Dangerous Idea. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995.

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