Monday, July 06, 2009

Intelligent Design: Part Deux

Although I’ve been frequently told that the sage does nothing and everything is accomplished, I have reason to believe that the non-sages sometimes do get results by doing something and that they haven’t just been following their noses all this time. Paleontology certainly suggests that the pace of cultural evolution—the development of new tools, the succession of artistic styles—picked up sharply someplace between homo erectus and yours truly with the implication that a greatly increased capacity for insight and planning was involved in that giddy acceleration. In the history and prehistory of our species, intelligent design has resulted in rapid change, in drastic contrast to biological evolution, whose incredibly slow pace reflects the absence of even a moronic mind.

Various people have pointed out the irony that the same people who insist that a divine intellect has to be postulated to explain the emergence of the machinery of life are big fans of the master role of non-intelligent processes in the working of human societies. Automatic market mechanisms are trusted to turn blind selfishness into effective cooperation. Simple instincts allow termites to build arches from their own shit; why look for a fundamentally different kind of explanation for the rise of Microsoft? Even scholarly non-ideologues sometimes show a predilection for this sort of thing. Hence attempts to reconstruct the early history of agriculture usually assume that these developments just naturally happened because hunter-gathers dropped seeds near their huts and one thing led to another. Or consider accounts of the invention of writing that finesse the transition from pictographs to a system that can actually reproduce a specific language as if this process didn’t require figuring out something that wasn’t obvious at all.

Historians of technology sometimes distinguish inventions that want to be invented from those that don’t, airplanes as opposed to helicopters, buttons as opposed to zippers; and there may be something worthwhile about this idea. Nevertheless, it is obvious that not only all innovation, but also the ordinary operations of civilization require thoughtfulness. Heraclitus asserted that every cow is driven to pasture by a blow. That may work for cattle, but no human economic system would even succeed in getting its floors swept if the janitors didn’t have an idea of what it meant to clean things up. Rewards and punishments—the cattle prods and the cookies—motivate systems of action patterned by language. They are useless in the absence of higher mental functions. For better or worse, we just don’t act like ants in an anthill, a fact that can be verified by comparing San Francisco to the actual anthills described in Bert Hölldobler and E. O. Wilson’s most recent book, Superorganism. All that said, arriving at a new pattern of behavior does require a more conscious intrusion of mind into habit than routine work; and developing and implementing a cooperative plan is still more problematic, which is probably part of the reason we’d like to think that it’s all automatic.

The definitive tome on the history of premeditation in human history remains to be written. It’s certainly the right time to address the topic because, short of relying on the mercy of God, current circumstances demand that we get together and figure out how to fly the plane. We need to look at the precedents. Autopilot is simply not an option in the face of resource depletion and environmental degradation, not to mention the California constitution. Instinct and custom are far more comfortable, far more loveable, than thoughtful action; and in eras when the consequences of bad innovations are likely to be worse than the results of going with the flow, automatism may even be adaptive. Under contemporary conditions, however, the principled rejection of reason and responsibility we call conservatism is simply suicidal, though, to be fair, you have to admit it doesn’t require as much committee work as doing the right thing.