Technology and evolution

The internet is slow in my new house. I say slow, I mean  s  l  o  w  . (I don’t know if that visual joke really works, but it seemed worth a go). It seems strange that until my second year at university I didn’t have a computer and I wrote all of my first year essays and lab reports by hand. Now I expect to be able to stream TV programmes on my computer and check my emails on my phone.

Humans are characterised by our ability to ratchet up the complexity of our technologies and social traditions. As I have described in a previous post, our species has been able over many generations to come up with inventions and institutions that no single individual could ever invent by themselves. Things build on what has gone before, elaborating on them and tweaking them.

So it’s of no real surprise that what we did a few years ago has been superseded by superior and more complicated solutions. We’re just being human; we have new solutions coming along all the time.

This is one of the reasons why hastily-expressed concerns about the effect of social media and computers on development seem a little strange to me. It is well documented that a few people, such as Susan Greenfield, have strong concerns about children and modern technologies. But which technologies are they worrying about? Which technologies should we be worried about? If we were to adopt an Evolutionary Psychology approach (which I am not really advocating, but it’s useful for making a point), should we be worried about any technology that has emerged since the Pleistocene (since that has been labelled our environment of evolutionary adaptedness)? As most of our technologies have emerged since then, we could quickly end up with nothing at all and being rather scared of modern life. (And we should probably take arguments about the EEA with a hefty pinch of salt anyway).

Therefore, maybe we should be a little more rational about the technologies that we are always inventing and much more cautious when using an evolutionary explanation. There may be some detrimental effects of heavy computer usage, but let’s research it. In the meantime, we should enjoy the technologies that our remarkable cognition has allowed us to invent. And I should phone my internet provider.

Swain, F (2011) Susan Greenfield: Living online is changing our brains. New Scientist.
Zuk, M (2013) Paleofantasy: What Evolution Really Tells Us about Sex, Diet, and How We Live. WW Norton

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