The Technium

Technology, or the Evolution of Evolution

[Translations: Japanese]

When we look at technology we see pipes and blinking lights. But in the cosmic view, technology is the acceleration of evolution.

In the abstract, natural evolution is an exploration of a possibility space. It is a way for an adaptive system – in this case life – to search for new survival forms in the universe of all-possible forms. It tries this or that form, round or long, slow or fast, with legs or with wings. It whips up any design that will keep the game of searching going. Most forms it encounters live only a short time. But over eons the system of life settles on very stable forms – on the planet earth, those stable forms might be tubular guts, plant leaves, bi-lateral symmetry — which permit life to keep searching for more forms. Each natural innovation which life “discovers” becomes a platform to discover more innovations. In this process, life expands the variety of living forms and its power to keep evolving.

The reason life can keep evolving is that several times along the way it has discovered ways to increase its own evolvability. At the beginning (as in “In the beginning”) the space of possible life was very small.  The methods life had to adapt, to change, to try stuff, and to find new forms were few.  This narrow range of adaptability was similar to crude technology that can’t be customized or adapted very far.  At the start life had low adaptability or evolvability. But over time, as evolution worked to discover new forms, it also enlarged the suite of techniques it had for searching and changing. One way to think of this is to imagine life on a quest to find all the possible forms. But one or two of those forms are magic meta-forms that give life new powers to expand into a whole new realm to explore for more shapes.  Much like a game where you find a door on one level that opens up another whole level that is much more complex, faster, and full of possibilities not present before. In evolution these special meta-portals are techniques, like sexual reproduction, that increase the evolvability of life. In addition to sexual recombination, evolution uncovered several other tricks to increase its evolvability. Horizontal gene swapping between organisms, and a whole suite of control genes (genes that control other genes) are just two ways that the process of learning and adaptation and exploration have been expanded by increasing evolvability.

So as evolution searches the space of possible forms, every once in a while it discovers a form which expands its own possibility space. In this way the process of evolution creates the very space it searches. In other words, if a new species is an answer to the question of how can an organism live, evolution is not only coming up with new answers, it also generates new kinds of questions, and new ways to ask questions.

Of all the tricks that evolution came up for increasing its evolvability none compare to minds. Minds – and not just human minds – bestow on life a greatly accelerated way to learn and adapt. This should not be surprising because minds are built to find answers, and one of the key things to answer might be how to learn better, quicker. If what minds are good for is learning and adaptation, then learning how to learn will accelerate your learning. Even though most of the learning a mind does is not transferred directly into biological evolution, there are several ways in which minds accelerate evolution (see the Baldwin Effect), even in the lower animal kingdom. So the presence of minds in life has increased its evolvability; the discovery of mindness has driven evolution in many new directions while also creating a new territory to explore – the territory of possible minds.

The most recent extension of this expansion is technology. Technology is how human minds explore the space of possibilities. We power our minds via science and technology to make possible things real. More so technology is how our society learns and introduces change. It is almost a cliché to point out that technology has brought as much change on this planet in the last 100 years as life has in the last billion years.

Ray Kurzweil can provide you with dozens of graphs charting the accelerating change brought about by technology in the last 100 years or so. From the speed of computers, the bandwidth of communications, the power of engines, the yield of crops – all are accelerating in performance. Change is this century’s middle name.

But meta-change is not about acceleration itself; it is not about faster change. Rather, the acceleration of evolution or increased evolvability is about the change in the nature of change. The basic mechanism by which our collective minds – as expressed by technology – adapt and produce change is undergoing a shift. In fact the most important change at work in our world right now is “the change in how change happens.”

This meta-change is at the heart of the evolution of evolvability and is the natural extension of evolution’s long-term trajectory. Meta-change propels our technology towards an increase in the speed of change, an increase in the ways changes can happen, and the second order (next level) possibility of yet more evolvability.


The evolution of the Evolution entry in Wikipedia, an evolutionary agent itself. The color stripes indicate different editors working on the entry between Dec 2001 and Oct 2005.

  • 1) Acceleration in speed of change. Although some skeptics doubt this is happening throughout our culture (our cities have not changed much), acceleration does not need to be happening everywhere to make it powerful. Even if acceleration in the speed of change occurs only in certain informational fields, this can be sufficient for  increased evolvability.  Most of the previous meta-change transitions in biological evolution were changes in informational and communications systems.
  •   2) New ways of change. The scientific method is a major new way to change. Science provides a more systematic exploration of the possible. Rather than hit or miss, we can learn is a more directed way. Any changes to the scientific method therefore yield a new way of changing, a new way of learning. One of the greatest new ways of learning is the massive collective learning style enabled by internet technologies. A prime example of this new way of learning would be the Wikipedia. At the moment the Wikipedia does not seem to be producing novel information (by design) but because it is a mechanism for collective learning (spreading what society “knows” to all its constituents) it is a new way of societal learning. In general any method that increases learning and adaptation at the level of the technium is a new way of change. Libraries, the press, electronic media, the methods of science, and now internet technologies all operate on the level of society’s mind, and have shifted how we come to know things. They have shifted the level at which adaptation occurs. Changes in these functions behave as meta-change in evolution.
  •   3) A platform for more evolvability. From the current changes and meta-change will come yet more ability to evolve. For instance we have not yet begun to explore the varieties of mind that are possible at the scale of societies. Not metaphoric minds, but actual working minds, with boundaries and a sense of self, that do what minds do – learn, know, and anticipate. And clearly, if such things were possible to build or grow, then these very-large scale learning machines would continue to shift how we learn and change the world. They would become the latest in the evolution of evolution.

Technology is a continuation of a 4-billion-year force that pursues more ways to evolve. The technium is the best way evolution evolves (that we know about). But what might come after that? What is the future of evolution? Evolution will likely continue in the direction it has been going –whether on this planet or off it – which is toward more agile, smarter, rapid, broader, and more surprising evolvability.

As the process which generates learning and change becomes faster, wider, and more surprising, it begins to resemble a mind. As even people who don’t believe in evolution will tell you, if you speed up the history of life and compress all its change into a few hours, it greatly resembles an intelligent mind at work. Since technology is the current major vehicle for the evolvability of evolution, the future of technology also begins to resemble a mind. Or to put it another way, the mindful aspects of technology begin to dominate.

  • stephanie gerson

    how to characterize change (and therefore, how change is changing), besides according to its speed? e.g. can different types of change be identified, and could the history of evolution be understood as a trajectory through these different types? one possibility: you seem to be arguing that change has become more self-aware. how else can change (and how change has changed) be characterized?

  • doug

    What your are talking about is Lamarckism.
    If you can find it, there is an essay by Steven Jay Gould about it that is excellent, and better written (sorry).
    “You must feel like Columbus, you discovered something millions of people already knew about.”
    -Lisa Simpson

    • @ Doug: Even better than Steven Jay Gould, I would point you to the two chapters in my book OUT OF CONTROL that deal with neo-Lamarckism: “Structure of Organized Change” and “Postdarwinism” both available online. I didn’t spend much space explaining Lamarckism in this post since I (and others) have done it in full elsewhere. Oh, and the Baldwin Effect I mentioned is not Lamarckism.

  • Mark Dow

    A good example of a form which expanded the possibility space of living systems was multicellular organization. Every large (larger than about 1 cm.) organism, and many mid-size organisms, inherited this form.

  • Andy Havens

    I, personally, agree with you that the mind and our tools-of-the-mind are equivalent to new stages in evolution, and new ways of evolving. I do, though, have to put on my skeptic’s hat and at least allow for the possibility that, like so many other evolutionary branches, the technological mind may end up being a relatively short-lived phenomenon. We’ve only been using tools, as a species, for, maybe, 2.5 million years. And we didn’t get to clothes or stone tools that weren’t just stones-as-tools until about 100,000 years ago. That’s not very long, compared to the 100 million years that modern sharks have remained relatively evolutionarily stable.

    My point being (in short) that we don’t know for sure if, long term, a mind for technology will be good for the survival of our species. I believe and hope that it will be. But I’ll wait until we review this subject in 10 million years to talk about how well homo metatechnoligus did on the evolutionary scale.

  • AjmoT

    I’d like to take this a step further. Your final suppositions are that (1) societal-scale structures _can_ have minds, and (2) that there must be something beyond this endless evolution, this ceaseless incorporation of the possible into reality.

    Consider a government. Locate your mind in it: look at the world from its point of view. It has laws, and punishments. It exists in a world full of other neighbor governments, and social institutions, and beneath the order of magnitude of its social institutions, it sees all these little things moving around. The buildings, and the humans that constantly ferry about among them, they’re like proteins or cells or bacteria — they do the basic work of building up the institutional beings, but no institution would consider them to be conscious — hell, some governments say they aren’t even living things! Boy wasn’t it a wild discovery when we realized that there were more than just old homogeneous male humans, but all these other different kinds as well! Yeesh, and do you remember when we realized there were humans to begin with! What a ride it’s been.

    We know some of these components, under the right conditions, get together and form new institutions, new nations, and new weird things which we governments are just now getting used to, like companies and prisons. Out of the soup of mindless humans, these emergent semi-conscious structures are born: golly, you say, we nations sure are complicated — the highest flower of creation no doubt! Look at all the special components and toils of history that have gone into building us up!

    The lesson is this: societal-scale structures already do have minds. What’s more, we already have conscious, living organisms inhabiting every order of magnitude throughout the world, including the planet, and the solar system, and by all indications: throughout the cosmos, at every scale — physically, mentally, spiritually. The problem is that we humans have amazing powers of discrimination: we can really convince ourselves of some distinction and stick to it despite heaps of contrary evidence: for instance, that slaves and women are sub-human. In general, when we cannot communicate with something, we assume it is unconscious, and probably not living, and expendable — just some more random dust in the void that we can take or leave. When we can’t see something, we’re liable to think it’s not there!

    When we think something does not exist — when we think we see a “void” — we should instead start looking for a new vocabulary — because that void is full of something which we simply cannot comprehend yet.

    There have throughout human history been ways of overcoming the void and communicating with all the stupendous instances of consciousness inhabiting the cosmos. Drugs, mediation, acts of empathy, music, dialectic, geometry. Science is a great new communication discipline: the more we look, the more we can’t help but see it’s all connected and there are no empty voids, and we begin to speak the language. Programming, games, the web, cybernetics: as we co-evolve with these activities, we will be able to break through more barriers to communication. The web, the forest, the fungus: they are not sub-human or unconscious: neither the microbe nor the nanobe, nor the planet.

    Of course, many of us can barely understand the people we love. Most of us just don’t speak the language yet. And language — patterns, archetypes — are what exist beyond evolution, and are the timeless generative rules (“Timeless Way of Building”) through which evolutionary reality arises out of the luminous ground of the cosmos, which our modern astronomers have so poetically proposed to be the unthinkably molten genesis of the universe which, no coincidence, we are now just beginning to see with our most powerful telescopes — and microscopes. But it’s always been here for our unadorned eyes to gaze upon, and still is.

    “And it’s getting better all the time.”

  • Michael R. Bernstein

    A good non-specialist’s book on the evolution of evolvability is ‘The Plausibility of Life‘.

  • Kenny Mann