City City Bang Bang, Columns

The limits of culture and technology?

Three hundred million years ago, when the air was noxious, temperatures ranged between 600 to 1200 degrees, and poisons of many varieties oozed out from the belly of the earth, life survived on this planet. The ability that life has shown to adapt and evolve according to circumstances is quite extraordinary. What is even more astonishing that the apparent movement towards a better form of adaptation is entirely the result of a series of accidents multiplied by heredity and filtered through the process of natural selection. Evolution is a way of aligning the inside with the outside, of accidentally finding ways of fashioning our own selves so that we can survive better in the context that prevails all around us.

The trouble with evolution is that it moves in geological time, whereas our lifespan is modestly biological. For it, a few million years is a canter, and a hundred thousand years a tearing dash. Thus in the fullness of time, our bodies and brains will possibly mutate into something more useful; the ineptness of our bodies will perhaps give way to something more refined, but by then our needs would have changed. The world is moving too fast for evolution to be able to catch up and be useful in any real sense.

Culture could be considered as an instrument in that it increases our chances of survival by adopting customs that are beneficial at the level of the collective. It seeks to overcome the limitations of the physical by pooling together capabilities and resources and creating a framework that allows us to overcome our individual evolutionary instincts for collective good. Marriage made it possible for everyone no matter how unworthy in evolutionary terms to aspire to procreation. Agriculture made us less dependent on hunting and gathering, and gave rise to settlements. Laws made it possible for people to live without the fear of being attacked, killed or robbed.

Culture also moved beyond the overriding concern shown by evolution in ensuring the continuation of the species. The intent of culture was to utilize life in ways beyond procreation. Detaching human beings from their context for long enough so as to use their powerful minds in other ways is one of the vital roles played by culture.

At the level of the individual, culture resists evolutionary impulses; indeed, in some ways culture exists to defy evolution. The regulation of the age of marriage, for instance, drives a wedge between fertility and procreation. The idea of caste, class and other community markers create a new source of belonging, hierarchy and discrimination that are not linked to evolutionary impulses. Democracy seeks to give everyone an equal opportunity to become leaders.

Culture works at adapting our outside world to our inner capabilities. We organize the world around in a manner that our capabilities are enhanced and limitations rendered less relevant. We sacrifice the interests of the individual at the altar of the collective.

Technology is our sharpest and fastest evolutionary idea. As the overflow of the mind into the body, technology reverses the direction of evolution. Its aim increasingly is not to align our body with the world outside, but to create conditions in the physical world that are aligned with the desires that arise in our minds. Technology makes up for the gap between the state of readiness that evolution has brought us to and the context that we live in.

Technology has already reshaped not just the physical world outside but also our bodies and the functions that it serves. Reproduction is now a managed affair, subject to how we use contraception. We now live well beyond the age where we are useful in an evolutionary sense. Our body is, for so many of us, no longer the primary machine we have at our disposal.

As technology moves to take its place inside the body, thanks to advances in medicine, nanotechnology, and wearables, we have taken control of our own evolution. The outside world, the biosphere that was once our point of reference is now increasingly determined by human beings.

Indeed, today there is a new imperative. We need to evolve to align with the changes in our living circumstances that we ourselves have created. If earlier the context to which we needed to adapt was largely located in nature, today, we are responding to conditions that have been created by human progress.

As individuals, however, the evolutionary impulse rages inside us, and we find ourselves led into emotions and actions that defy our attempts to tame them. Power, sex, hunger, fear- these are primal forces that constantly find new clothes to wear, but they drive us in ways that we cannot fully control. The battle between our evolutionary selves and our cultural selves plays out every day. Paradoxically as technology increasingly becomes more personal, it serves to enable us to act out our impulses more easily. We now use evolutionary instincts not for survival, but for pleasure. Hunting, fighting and sexual adventure are carried out not for functional reasons but as a diversion.

From a time when the individual was nothing, and the circumstances surrounding her were everything, what we seem to be moving towards, is the opposite. The individual complete, carrying the universe within herself is the place we might well be going to. 

Culture and technology evolved to help us cope with the enormous asymmetry between human life and nature. We struggled to overcome the constraints we faced by developing instruments that accelerated our ability to adapt and thrive. Today, it is nature that has to cope with the constraints we are creating and the burden we are placing on it. The impending threat posed by climate change as evidenced by the freak weather phenomena we are seeing around the world reminds us that the task of adapting to problems created by human action might turn out to be too challenging for the forces of culture and evolution.