We're better than evolution

Predictably, I am yet again not going to talk about education and information.  Because I was watching an episode of NOVA last night that focused on energy solutions for the future and the protect of our environment.  One of the innovations was a “branch” of CO2 removing material that was cut up such that it ended up looking much like a pine tree branch.  As the scientist pointed out, the CO2 branch did just about the same thing as the tree, except significantly more efficiently.

Which got me thinking about how we’re better than evolution.  I’ve posted before about Peter Diamandis thesis that we can technologize our way out of the environmental problems that currently plague us, and my belief that he is essentially right.  But to me, this is a new argument that I’m actually rather taken with: that we are just doing faster evolution.

Nature is very good at responding to changes in environments.  One species starts eating too many plants?  The plants adapt to defend themselves.  Or another species starts eating the surplus of the first species.  Or any of a million other tweaks (and more than one of them).

But nature is slow: it has only a single tool for adaptation and that is evolution.  Its entire language is the genome and it is the only language it speaks.  And rather like sending a message in a bottle, it takes an incredibly long time to communicate in this language, so change is slow.  We, on the other hand, have many methods for responding to environmental changes.  Technology, society, legislation, etc.  And all of them are comparatively fast, since we don’t have to wait for people to die off before we start to see the change.

And we have another advantage: our change is not the lottery.  That is, when evolution needs to communicate a change, it does so through random chance: it must rely on multiple mutations and then have them happen enough times to rise to the top, like some insane Monte Carlo simulation.  I have friends that do this kind of math and judging from the computers they use, this is an incredibly inefficient method of adaptation.

But we’re deliberate.  Instead of random chance, we can use the tremendous power of the human mind (and the tremendous number of human minds that we have) to solve problems by more than just chance.  And consequently, our designs adapt much faster than nature’s: we can make, in a single generation (in a single day, even), a tree branch that is massively more efficient than something it takes nature a million years to “design”.

That’s a tremendous faculty that I’m not sure I always appreciate.  And I swear I’ll talk more about that faculty when I get to education and information usage tomorrow.