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Ideas Having Sex: Lamarckian Evolution Triumphant

Scholars have referred to Homo sapiens’ game-changing capacity to transform the biological evolutionary process into an intellectual exercise—or what I refer to as super-adaptability (McGettigan, 2011, 2013)—in a variety of ways. Karl Popper (1999) distinguishes between biological and cognitive problem solving. In so doing, Popper emphasizes that for most organisms the one and only means of resolving survival problems is via Darwinian evolution: nature’s creations either evolve random genetic solutions to survival problems, or they go extinct. However, Popper adds that humans have developed a unique capacity to resolve survival problems intellectually. As a result, humans have succeeded in concocting and deploying efficacious solutions to survival problems at the speed of thought. Indeed, Richard Dawkins (1989) developed the concept of “memes” to identify the intellectual equivalent of genes in order to describe Homo sapiens’ unique ability to adapt culturally.

For his part, Stephen Jay Gould (1987) argues that human cognitive ingenuity has succeeded in transforming human evolution from a Darwinian to a Lamarckian process:

Biologists believe that genetic change is primarily Darwinian—that is, it occurs via natural selection operating upon undirected variation. Human cultural evolution is Lamarckian—the useful discoveries of one generation are passed directly to offspring by writing, teaching and so forth (Gould, 1987, p. 70).

 Similarly, Mark Pagel (2012) argues that, as social learners, humans have literally rewritten the rules of evolution:

…there are no real shape-shifters in nature…Being limited to what their collections of genes evolved to do, no one species can do everything. That was, of course, until humans came along and rewrote all the rules that had held for billions of years of biological evolution…Where all those species that had gone before us were confined to the particular genetic corner their genes adapted them to, humans had acquired the ability to transform the environment to suit them, by making shelters, or clothing, and working out how to exploit its resources (Pagel, 2012, p. 46).

In turn, Matt Ridley (2010) describes the extraordinary capacity that humans have developed to innovate via social and intellectual collaboration as “ideas…having sex” (Ridley, 2010, p. 352).
In sum, humans are the first “super-adaptable” organism to evolve on earth; rather than being deterministically restricted by the constraints of Darwinian biology, humans are the only terrestrial species that is graced with the capacity to “redefine reality.” Via a reality-modifying cognitive process (i.e., agency), humans modify otherwise deterministic environmental conditions in order to accommodate their goals and interests—even going so far as to transcend gravity and the limits of the life-giving biosphere in an effort to conquer the lifeless void of outer space.

 

References

Dawkins, Richard. The Selfish Gene. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989.

Gould, Stephen Jay. An Urchin in the Storm: Essays About Books and Ideas. New York: W. W. Norton, 1987.

McGettigan, Timothy. Good Science: The Pursuit of Truth and the Evolution of Reality. Lanham, MD.: Lexington Books, 2011.

McGettigan, Timothy. Evolution at the Speed of Thought: Agency, Determinism and a New Chapter in the History of Evolution. Los Angeles, CA: WheelMan Press, 2013.Pagel, Mark. Wired for Culture: Origins of the Human Social Mind. New York: W. W. Norton, 2012.
Popper, Karl. All Life is Problem Solving. Translated by Patrick Camiller. New York: Routledge, 1999.Ridley, Matt. The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves. New York: Harper, 2010.

About Timothy McGettigan

Tim McGettigan is a professor of sociology at Colorado State University – Pueblo. The Socjournal is an outstanding resource for all things sociological. Too often, the media examines social issues from a singularly economic perspective. If you really want to understand how the social world works, it's better to use a broader, clearer lens. In this column, I will discuss a variety of forces (technological, scientific, political, cultural, and, yeah okay, economic) that are currently reshaping the globe. Whether or not the world is changing for the better is an open question — and, thus, it's a question that I look forward to debating at length in this column.
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