ezekiel's chariot - 張敦楷 (pjammer) wrote,
ezekiel's chariot - 張敦楷
pjammer

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Invent This and Die, by Disenchanted

Among my all-time favorite writers is disenchanted, whose punchy, engaging essays offer intriguing thoughts on topics near and dear to my heart like evolutionary biology, behavorial psychology and feedback dynamics.

I particularly enjoyed Invent This and Die, which put to words many things that I've speculated about privately for years. Evolution's best gift to humankind is that weird and unique power to proactively construct adaptations to our environment, rather than reactively wait for natural selection to cull survival characteristics (which are inevitably lag generations behind whatever circumstances a species finds itself currently in). What I find most impressive about disenchanted is his ability to imagine and anticipate the direction of evolution (both biological and technological) and their potential impact on its human players.

Imagine a animal that evolves enough intelligence to invent and build an airplane, takes its first flight across a continent, and dies of jet-lag because its evolution never accounted for any variety in its metabolism. You'd say to yourself, what a shame, he invents something so useful, but it has the effect of whisking him out of his ecological niche. After thinking about that myself, I started to wonder: what could man invent that could be irresistibly useful, but have the side effect of smacking him out of his ecological ballpark with fatal results?

Unlike an animal with an over-optimized metabolism, man can take a time-zone change in stride (probably because primates had to worry about nocturnal predators). Unlike some species with fragile diets, he's an omnivore. Unlike birds, man can swallow food and water in zero gravity. Unlike fish, he doesn't have a swim bladder to get messed up by changes in pressure and gravity. And unlike nearly everything else we've studied, and was pointed out in our last essay, he can invent brand new instincts within his own lifetime, instead of waiting for generations of evolution to do it for him. Ecologically speaking this is a remarkably portable creature, and it'll be hard to invent a vehicle that'll take him where he can't go.

Man does occupy a kind of niche though, which Stephen Pinker in the book How the Mind Works calls the cognitive niche, meaning that there was room in earth's ecology for an animal that thinks. Since we're the only species that does, it appears that we've shut the door behind us, and emerged to become the planet's first all-round ideal species. We can survive anywhere because our niche is abstract and not tailored for a specific environment.

- Invent This and Die, by Disenchanted
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