Evolution depends upon the unnecessary.
Evolution is a process in which those organisms best suited to their environments – either because they persist longer than others or produce more progeny – become more abundant. For a lineage to become better suited to an environment over time, the organisms have to change in a heritable way.
DNA polymerases aren’t perfect. Whenever enzymes copy our genetic material, they make mistakes. To be honest, these mistakes are rarely beneficial. Sometimes they cause other enzymes to stop working. Sometimes they turn a cell into cancer. But that same imperfection – which changes genetic information from one generation to the next – gives rise to evolution.
The evolution of a particular species of bacteria has been carefully documented in biologist Richard Lenski’s laboratory. These were allowed to compete inside a precisely-controlled environment over hundreds of thousands of generations, and some of the bacteria were frozen after every few hundred generations to keep track of all the genetic changes.
In this experiment, a single subpopulation gained the ability to metabolize a new nutrient, which gave it a huge competitive advantage and allowed it to conquer its tiny world. But how? After all, most of a bacteria’s genes are already important for something, and, when mutations occur, the most common outcome is for functions to be lost. If you give a radio and a screwdriver to a toddler, you probably shouldn’t expect crisper reception come evening. Chances are that your radio won’t work at all.
As it happens, a very rare event happened before this bacterial subpopulation “learned” to use the new energy source. When the experiment was re-started with various frozen samples, most lineages never acquired this ability. But in one set, there had been a “gene duplication event.” During cell division, the enzyme that copies DNA had stuttered and accidentally included two copies of a gene that bacteria only need one copy of. And these bacteria, recipients of that unnecessary second copy, would almost always gain the new metabolic function and swamp out the others.
Once there were two copies of the gene, the second copy was free to change. A mutation in that copy wouldn’t cause the bacteria to grow weak or die, because they still had a fully-functional copy of the enzyme. And eventually, through the rare happenstance of random error, bacteria would accumulate enough mutations in that second copy that it gained a new function.
In the beginning, this new function was pretty weak. But once there was a faint glimmer, natural selection could refine it. Without an unnecessary second copy of that gene, though, the bacteria never would’ve gained the new metabolic pathway.
You can look at human culture in a similar way. Which isn’t to say that one culture is intrinsically better than another, and certainly doesn’t imply that we’re progressing toward some teleological goal. Evolution is just a matter of statistics, after all. The things that are, now, were probably descended from things that were good at being and producing.
For instance, cars make human life easier. And so the traits that allow a culture to have cars, like a basic understanding of mathematics and a willingness to follow rules on roadways, seem to spread pretty easily. Car cultures have swamped out non-car cultures all over the planet. Walking is pretty great, and so are bikes, but any culture that has access to mechanical engineering textbooks seems to have a pretty huge advantage over those that don’t.
But if you’d dropped a mechanical engineering textbook into the lap of a Paleolithic hunter-gatherer, it’d seem pretty useless.
It took a lot of waste to reach a state when the textbook could matter. Over many generations, there was excess and dead weight. Many centuries of an oppressor class stealing from the mouths of the poor, really.
Somebody who is struggling every day to procure food doesn’t have the luxury to fiddle with mathematics. That’s why so many of the early European scientists were members of the aristocracy. They didn’t need to work to eat because they had serfs to steal food from, levying taxes for the use of land that was “theirs” because their ancestors had done a bang-up job of murdering other people’s ancestors.
In the generations after humans developed agriculture, the average quality of life plummeted. If you were told to pick any year and your soul would be suddenly re-incarnated (pre-incarnated?) into a randomly-chosen Homo sapiens alive at that time, you’d probably be happier 20,000 years ago than at most times during the last few millennia. 20,000 years ago, nobody lived terribly well – there was scant medicine and a constant risk of famine – but the suffering and servitude experienced by the majority of humans later on was worse.
After farming, people worked harder, for more hours a day, to produce a less varied, less healthful diet than the hunter-gatherers had eaten. They had even less access to medicine, and still endured the constant risk of famine. Oh, and envy. Because farmers, who had to live in place, could be conquered.
Those conquered farmers could be taxed, charged rent, etc., with the proceeds used to feed an idle class. Most of the idlers produced nothing of value. They ate others’ food and lived in un-earned luxury (although their “luxury” would seem pretty shabby to us). But a few of them – a very few – produced the cultural innovations (like mathematics, medicine, poetry, astronomy) that gave us the modern world.
It feels more than a little disconcerting that a gruesome history of violence and oppression allows me to type this essay on a laptop computer.
In the past, though, oppression was the only way for our world to have “excess” people, those who could be free to devote their time and energy toward changing things. Now, however, food production (and many other things) has been heavily automated. We could have a much larger excess population, which could increase the rate of cultural evolution. A luxurious lifestyle could be had by all using the essential (food- and shelter-producing) efforts of a smaller number of people than ever before.
With a guaranteed basic income – which could be funded by taxing wealth at a very low rate, maybe a percent or two – nearly all people could effectively become aristocracy. People could follow their passions and curiosities. Most, as ever, wouldn’t change the world. That’s how evolution works. Chaotic tinkering with things that are pretty good rarely improves things. But with billions of tinkerers, the odds that something works out are better.
It’s easily within reach. Instead we’ve stuck with the same system of celebrating historical violence that was used to oppress people before. Maybe it was necessary, all that cruelty, to get from our past to here. But it certainly isn’t needed now.
Featured image: DNA duplication diagram by Madeline Price Ball on Wikipedia.