The Vanguard of Cultural Evolution

A week or so ago, I wrote an interesting reply to a post at Nanodot about the persistence of the geek factor throughout human history and prehistory. I liked it so much I’ve decided to reproduce and amplify it here so as to produce some of my own content.

If I may speculate as a non-expert, I don’t think it’s a mystery at all why a certain percentage of the populations among large-brained, cultural mammals wind up being, for lack of better phrases, reclusive, obsessive intellectuals or obsessive type As. Once culture emerges and grows more complex, raising offspring also grows more complex until eventually, in some species, it takes more than just the parents of those offspring to raise and protect them properly. This creates inertia that forces a certain percentage of the population to remain childless on order to be free to raise and defend the group’s offspring, some of whose genes they share. There are other pressures too. For example, as culture grows more complex, the interaction of different groups of mammals in the same species grows more complex. Again this creates pressure to set aside a certain percentage of the population to be free to think of better ways to compete or cooperate with neighboring groups for the same resources.

In fact, and here I get on shakier ground, one could argue that the emergence of things like high-functioning autism, manic-depression, schizophrenia, risk-addiction, homosexuality, Asperger, etc. in these mammal species are biologically driven ways to force a certain percentage of individuals to remain less fecund and to be free to think about cultural matters and thus insure the survival of the group. It’s both freedom and duty, a curse and blessing but, it’s fundamentally necessary. One could argue that gays, lesbians, self-destructive artists, obsessive politicians, computer geeks, reclusive scientists and technicians, religious fanatics, hermits, stand up comics, etc. are the vanguard of cultural fitness and evolution. They may be bullied, shunned, misunderstood and engage in a lot of self-destructive behavior but, sadly and gloriously, that is necessary for the species to survive and prosper. I suppose that could be viewed as elitist but I think it’s an elite that nobody really wants because it comes with large costs as Vincent Van Gogh, Ghandi, Lise Mitner, Queen Elizabeth, Marie Curie or Alan Turning can attest to.

So can we really be so sure that they’d edit out these tendencies in the future? Social aptness is only one kind of advantage and it may not always be appropriate for all circumstances. Who knows what kind of circumstances the civilization might face in the future? I think it might be more likely future civilization might instead invent tools and infrastructure to help these genetically diverse individuals cope with their curses/gifts just in case something weird comes up. Diversity is strength, rule one in understanding fitness and evolution.

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