The Evolution-Is-Over Fallacy

David Brin and Jerome Barkow both responded to my last Cato Unbound comment by assuming that the evolution of aliens would end at somewhere around our human level of development. While aliens would acquire new tech, there would be little further change in their preferences or basic psychology over the following millions or billions of years. In my latest comment, I mainly just repeat what I’d said before:

Even when each creature has [powerful tech and] far broader control [over its local environment], this won’t prevent selection from favoring creatures who better use their controls to survive and reproduce. No, what is required to stop selection is very broad and strong coordination. As I wrote:

Yes it is possible that a particular group of aliens will somehow take collective and complete control over all local evolution early in their history, and thereby forever retain their early styles. … Such collective control requires quite advanced coordination abilities. … Anything less than complete control of evolution would not end evolution; it would instead create a new environment for adaptation.

My guess is that even when this happens, it will only be after a great degree of adaptation to post-biological possibilities. So even then adaptation to advanced technology should be useful in predicting their behaviors.

I’ll call this mistake the “evolution is over” fallacy, and I nominate it as the most important fallacy about aliens, and our future. Evolutionary selection of preferences and psychology is not tied to DNA-based replication, or to making beings out of squishy proteins, or to a lack of intelligence. Selection is instead a robust long-run feature of decentralized competition. The universe is influenced more by whatever wins competitions for influence; where competition continues, selection also continues.

GD Star Rating
Tagged as: , ,
Trackback URL:
  • spandrell

    This is either completely pointless, or a masterpiece of Straussian inference.
    I’d give you the benefit of the doubt if not for your endorsement of open borders.

    • Cahokia

      If you believe that the development of ems is a realistic prospect over the next couple centuries, then contemporary demographic issues like border policy shrink in importance.

      • spandrell

        If something is unimportant, you ignore it. If you take a position publicly, it’s because you think it matters.

    • UWIR

      What does “Straussian inference” mean?

  • Cambias

    I think you are all agreeing, just not in terminology. Evolution by natural selection won’t have much effect on a species once they reach an industrial/urban level of technology. All offspring live so there is no competitive advantage for survival and reproduction.

    However, that doesn’t mean a species will be static in its form. The same tech which ends natural selection enables artificial selection and modification — either by individual choice or social mandate, or both.

    So they’re right that old-school Darwininan evolution will not affect technological civilizations, and you’re right that species will adapt themselves to whatever environment they choose to live in. And I’m right that species are likely to spread out into lots of different environments so there won’t be one single form.

    • RobinHanson

      No, the main selection in the long run isn’t individual choice nor social mandate. It is the universe, selecting who survives and reproduces.

      • Cambias

        I disagree. Once you’re capable of going out into the Universe in any significant way, the Universe isn’t going to exert much selective pressure on your species. Any influence it does have would be swamped by individual choices and social pressures.

        Consider contemporary America: we live in the Universe now, but decisions about having children are minimally influenced by our physical/ecological surroundings.

    • Lalartu

      No, that is a huge misinterpretation of natural selection. If all offspring live no matter what, that just removes “surviving” from “number of surviving offspring”, so only thing that matters is fertility.

  • Mirco Romanato

    The problem for Brin and others like him is they are statists.
    The basic of statism is the fallacy you can control everything and everything can be kept in a steady state without changes.
    If it changes, it defeat statism and centralized control.

  • Matt Beaven

    Looking at our human species, it seems we’ve hit a point where wealthier have fewer children. If wealth is easier to obtain if you are more intelligent and more educated it seems that our “evolution” would have peaked and, having reached our climax, we will either plateau or descend this evolutionary mountain.

    • Mirco Romanato

      the fall in fertility happen when the government start to pillage their citizens (high taxes – absurd, complex, onerous regulations). As Israel demographic show, if you liberalize and let your citizen keep an increasing part of the fruits of their labor, they start reproducing again.

      • Peter David Jones

        Some of the high cost of childbearing is driven by market forces: couples compete for homes in good neighbourhoods which drives up prices for all of them,. And governments, far from being pantomime villains, often differ tax breaks to parents.

      • Mirco Romanato


      • Peter David Jones

        Neighbourhoods-with-good-schools is quite a prevalent thing in the UK.

      • Curt Adams

        Yeah, as shown by the astronomical fertility rates of Singapore and Hong Kong /sarcasm.

        Israel’s fertility rate is being driven by an increasingly large ultraOrthodox minority which has large families due mostly to various features of their religion, notably strong restrictions on women doing anything *besides* having children. This is actually part of a potential source for rapid evolution – any genetic feature that inclines its carries to belong to such communities is being selected for quite rapidly right now.

        Actually, statist places like Sweden and France are the ones managing to keep their reproduction rate up, mostly by aggressive support for families, although there is an immigrant component in France. The near-replacement US fertility is being held up mostly by immigrants – non-immigrants are well below fertility rate.

        In any case, the world doesn’t need even more people. Lowered fertility is a very good thing in the long run. If the population drops below the current developed world population of somewhat over a billion, maybe we’ll have trouble, but that hypothetical problem is a long, long way off.

      • Mirco Romanato

        Singapore and Hong Kong are little islands with a lot of people amassed in a small patch of land. One of the higher density of population of the world.
        It is not strange it is costly to have children there and raise them for normal people with a normal income. If you want talk about the poorest or the wealthiest part of the population is a different question.

        Israel is comparatively a lot larger than Hong Kong and Singapore and with the same population. Israel have 377 inhabitants/km2 against Hong Kong 6544 inhabitants/km2 (1:17). A lot of food must be imported in Hong Kong where it is exported from Israel.

        In HK, the influx of high skill immigrants, due to the economic policies of the government have increased the costs of living there even if it have increased the income of the people. As the marginal inhabitable space is used, the cost of buying or renting a house, apartment or room , increase for all. In fact, it is not unusual for people to immigrate there, make a lot of money and then go back where the cost of living are more humane.

    • IMASBA

      Being more educated is not hereditary, being more intelligent is, but only for about 50% and it doesn’t correlate very strongly with educational level (except at the extremes). There’s also the fact that on the lower end of the IQ-scale modern societies still select against less intelligent men: they do worse with the ladies and are often in jail. If there will be an evolutionary pressure against intelligence it will be very, very slow (too slow to cause drastic results before we’ve perfected genetic engineering or bionic enhancement) and people keep forgetting that we actually need other traits besides intelligence to remain widespread. Less intelligent people can carry vital immunities or physical strength in their genes.

    • andagain

      That just means we are breeding people for the desire to have a lot of children. Once that is common enough, the limit will once again be set by the ability to get the resources to have a lot of surviving children.

  • Philon

    In the presence of advanced biotechnology evolution would, and will, look rather different from what has prevailed on earth until recently. The biotechnical ability to design novel organisms may well replace the *reproduction* of organisms with their *origination*, at least, to a considerable extent. Natural Selection has hitherto operated mostly without competition from *Intelligent Design*. But in the latest several millennia human beings have introduced a novel element of Design through the breeding of animals and plants, and the ability to manipulate genes more directly promises much more
    radically to substitute Intelligent Design for Natural Selection (*blind* evolution): the way in which later organisms arise from earlier ones will be completely changed. In speculating about the future of the
    terrestrial biosphere, or about advanced alien civilizations, one should not rely much on Natural Selection.