Table of Contents

 

The Evolutionary Information Boom

In this section, I’m suggesting a different possibility on why we’re here on Earth.

Life as a Library of Successful Ideas

The DNA of the various organisms alive today can be viewed as a library of currently successful ideas for the art of living. The fossil record shows ideas that were successful in the past.

Evolution tries lots and lots of experiments each generation, but those experiments are not optimized, so the process of updating is neither quick nor efficient. Nevertheless, billions and trillions of tries have covered a lot of ground.

When an organism gets complex enough to develop a brain, that brain also contains information that helps in the art of living. Both DNA and brains are parts of the Living Library of Life, the collection of available information about how to live on Earth.

Taking Action: The Learned Way and the Instinctive Way

There are two basic ways that an organism can take action: Acting according to some preprogrammed formula, which fits in the Instinct category discussed above, or learning a new way to deal with the situation. There may be elements of Instinct in the latter case, but from here on I will simply call it learned action.

Both learned and Instinct responses tend to be straightforward reactions to a change in the environment around or within an organism. Stressed by growing hunger, an organism seeks food. Stressed by a hungry predator’s presence, it runs away or hides.

In primitive organisms, the response is mostly Instinct, programmed into the DNA. Learned responses start showing up as a sort of thinking insurance policy—the learning process solves novel problems that don’t show up often enough to have developed an Instinctive solution. As organisms grow in complexity, the learned solutions become more valuable. As organisms develop brains, the variety and sophistication of problems that can be solved by learned solutions skyrocket.

But brain-learned solutions have one big drawback—the solution discovered dies with the organism that discovers it. In computer terms, brain solutions are volatile. So while brain learning is really neat and versatile, its volatility limits what it can contribute to the Living Library.

DNA Memory and Brain Memory

The ability to act in a learned fashion is programmed into DNA, but the specific actions taken, and what is learned from tackling the stress many times, is not. Instincts, however, express themselves as consistent specific directions to the organism.

Over enough time (many, many generations), consistently successful solutions become hardwired into the organism as Instincts. Brain memory (conventional learning) is superseded by DNA memory (Instinct learning), freeing the organism’s brain memory to tackle new problems.

Note again that this transferring is not direct. The brain does not in any way teach DNA. DNA learns only by mutation and selection, aided only very recently by human genetic engineering. It is a slow, slow process, and Earth—with its billions of years of relatively stable environment with billions of tons of organic chemicals basking under monotonous sunshine—seems to be uniquely well suited to conducting the quadrillions of experiments it takes to build a sophisticated DNA library.

Adding Language—The High Tech Solution

Human-level language skill is a high technology solution to the problem of making brain learning more useful to the Living Library of Life.

It is an astounding breakthrough in life’s biggest billion-year old problem: How to move successful brain-learned solutions for everyday living problems to new generations, so they aren’t merely transient and die with the organism. Creatures with lower language skill, or even none, can teach a handful of techniques to their offspring until DNA figures out how to make the solution an Instinct. But human-level language skill increases the efficiency by a million-fold.

In the words of Mother Nature, “This is incredible! This is astounding! What normally takes me millions or billions of years to permanentize by developing an Instinct can now be done in one generation with teaching! This is a mind bogglingly good solution! Why didn’t I think of this a billion years ago!”

The huge increase in size and quality of information in the Living Library of Life since humans developed our current distinctive language skill is the basis for much of what we consider today to be the human condition.

The Surprise Result of Language Skill

Good Instincts can save an organism from a lot of trial and error failures. For billions of years, Mother Nature has been looking for faster and more efficient ways of converting brain memory into DNA memory. She’s still looking for them, but the surprise result of good language skill is our ability to bypass that need, faster and more subtly than Instinct building can.

Let’s eavesdrop on Mother Nature talking with her engineer/salesman from Universal Evolutionary Parts and Techniques. “What have you got for me today? I’m tired of having it take a thousand generations to get a good brain idea into Instinctual hardwiring.”

The parts man replies, “Nothing for that yet. But I’ve got this new communication technique called language. With it, one member of the species can tell another member things like where a good waterhole is. Works even better than those honeybee dances you bought last time.”

“Sounds like it’s worth trying. I’ll add some of this hopped-up language to humans and see what happens.”

At the following visit, we’d be listening to Mother Nature rave over her successes with language and hoping for some equally revolutionary technique.

Unfortunately for UEPT, they’ve never since engineered anything half as effective.

Adding Writing and the Information Age

Language transfers ideas efficiently, but the human brain is imperfect as a Memory medium—it loses some material and inadvertently transforms other material.

Mankind early recognized the problem of mutable Memories. Oral tradition, the fixing of important material into particularly memorable forms, was a partial solution. The structure of verse makes it easier to spot when something is misremembered.

Here’s an example of practical verse describing a volume/weight relation that’s handy to know:

A pint’s a pound / the world around.

If you fumble it and say, “A quart’s a pound, the world around,” or “A pint’s a stone, the world around,” you know something isn’t right because what you’re saying isn’t alliterating or rhyming as much as you expect.

Verse wasn’t the only solution. When I visited Ayer’s Rock in central Australia, I was told about another pre-writing Memory aid: Mixing songs and landmarks. The guide who showed us around the Rock explained that many Australian aboriginal people used songs to preserve their important tribal Memories, cross-checked against geographical landmarks, among which Ayer’s Rock featured prominently. They would sing and walk the landscape. When Europeans first came to Australia, they thought these aborigine walkabouts were aimless wanderings.

A similar technique, often using a building rather than a landscape and without song or verse, was used by the classical Greeks and Romans, on through the Middle Ages and Renaissance up to the present day.

What truly completed the language revolution was writing, which proved far superior to these earlier pre-literate solutions in the task of remembering correctly. The first popular use for writing was as an accounting system to keep track of taxes and marriage contracts. Eventually writing evolved into a new channel of communication, the printed word, and other Memory aid systems either faded away or became art forms instead of archive forms.

Painting, photos, movies, and computers (whose full impact remains to be seen) have all added significantly to human ability to create, move, and store ideas.

What this means is that the Living Library of Life has been enormously extended, not just in the quantity of information that it contains, but also in the kinds of information. And I haven’t even mentioned the knowledge stored in human works like buildings, roads, cultivated fields, and mines.

All the changes that humanity has made to our Earth have the surprise result of also being information storage systems. They make the Earth more orderly in interesting ways.

What the Future Will Bring

Earth’s Living Library of Life is now growing furiously fast in a totally new direction. While the DNA-knowledge wing of the Library is changing at about the same pace it always has, human knowledge is growing a million-fold faster.

Many interesting things are going to happen to the Library in the future. For instance, it’s going to set up branch offices elsewhere in the Solar System, and conceivably in other star systems. Because those environments will be different, the right answers to survival will be different, but they will all be recognizably Earthly.

While science fiction writers and movie makers love to grapple with the twin issues of “Can robots have emotions?” and “Should a robot with emotions be defined as human?”, those will be non-issues in our real-world future. Computers and robots will add more and more to the Library, but their emotions and humanness are likely to mimic ours as much as an airplane mimics a duck—both fly, but that’s about all they have in common.

The surprise result will in fact be that as human understanding of genetic engineering improves, human science’s feedback will start adding new information directly to the Library’s DNA wing. This will always be just a tiny fraction of what is added by standard evolution, which is always doing billions of experiments a day. However, it will be a very interesting part.

For one thing, human experiments will be intelligently directed. Keep in mind that genetic engineering is actually an ancient human skill, probably as old as dentistry. Selecting which plant seeds to sow for the next generation of their crops and which livestock to breed together is low-tech genetic engineering. Only the potency of our tools and the depth of our understanding has increased in recent years.

Moreover, humans will eventually perform kinds of experiments that evolution can’t. For instance, at this stage Earthly evolution is no longer experimenting with using four codons instead of three, and has pretty much abandoned experimenting with any amino acids beyond the twenty or so that are now the basic building blocks of life. Someday humans will run experiments in those areas.

The more humans do their own experimenting, the more they will become impressed with how skillful Mother Nature has been in her work. She has made some marvelous innovations, and as humans try to improve on them or replace them, just how marvelous will become clearer.