Monday, May 18, 2009

Evolutionary change driven by sufficiency, not survival

Polymath Adam Gopnik writes a nice piece in the May 11 issue of The New Yorker titled "The Fifth Blade." The title refers to the appearance (evolution) of razors with increasingly (functionally irrelevant) numbers of blades since the Wilkinson Sword company started mass-producing stainless-steel blades in 1961. This is consonant with a new suggested principle of biological evolution, quite at variance with the classical view that innovation is borne out of a struggle for survival amidst limited resources - that in dull periods of plenty, stasis was supposed to rule.
The new idea is almost the opposite. Terrence Deacon, for instance, a professor of biological anthropology and linguistics at Berkeley, has argued that animals' appearance alters and their behavior changes - birds brighten and their songs grow elaborate - not in conditions of scarcity, where bird fights bird for every seed, but in landscapes of plentitude...once "selection pressure" lifts - once it doesn't matter so much if every claw kills, if every molar crunches - then the animal can do its own thing and find its own pleasures. This pattern makes for what Deacon calls "relaxed selection, like relaxed-fit jeans.

Relaxed evolution favors the Ronald Firbanks over the Cotton Mathers, the playful dandy over the sober saver. Relaxed selection explains creativity in language and literature: once we no longer have to pressure our bodies to chew and hunt, the big heads behind them, having nothing to do, start doing what they please. It isn't the struggle for existence but the serenity of entertainment that explains our lives. The brain starts thinking as the jaw relaxes. We human beings are all three-blade razors, Gillete Mach3 Turbos and Shick Xtreme3s, with needless cutting surfaces and useless batteries, buzzing away, wasting energy and look sexy, forged in plenty and thriving in abundance.

1 comment:

  1. I was impressed by this article, too. Creativity needs time to germinate. I remember learning about medieval history in school and how they left the third field fallow.

    Relaxed evolution fits right into the slow ethic of the International Institute of Not Doing Much (IINDM). It's a humorous treatment of a serious subject.