Negative side-effects of Progressive Evolution
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Negative side-effects of Progressive Evolution

It is necessary to analyse the undesirable side-effects of evolution and progress in more detail. It is important in that respect to distinguish between "blind" evolution, and "controlled" progress driven by knowledge. Evolution's trial-and-error mode implies a great amount of errors, and therefore a lot of avoidable waste and suffering. However, the inefficiency of variation is compensated by the relative efficiency of selection, which eliminates inadequate trials at an early stage. The controlled mode, guided by knowledge, produces far fewer errors. However, because its results are largely shielded from natural selection, its errors will persist much longer, with potentially more devastating effects. Ironically, the more fit a design, the more flaws it can afford to accumulate before it is eliminated by selection.


One common side-effect of all evolutionary processes is the appearance of parasitism. A design (e.g. an organism) that thrives provides plenty of resources for another design to profit from. If that second design uses up resources needed by the first one, without providing anything in return, the relation is one of parasitism. Parasitism in the present sense not only encompasses living organisms, such as viruses, bacteria or worms, that live inside another organism, but any type of self-sustaining and self-reproducing phenomena that thrive at the expense of other self-sustaining phenomena. Examples of parasitic phenomena in society are drug addiction, computer viruses, clothes fashions and religious cults (Cullen, 1999), which maintain and spread at the expense of the addicts, computer users, slaves to fashion, or cult members.

Like all self-reproducing phenomena, "parasites" develop through a positive feedback process: the more numerous they are, the faster they spread. This vicious cycle must stop, however, when the process runs out of resources: if a parasite has exhausted the hosts' reserves, it can no longer grow. In the worst case, when the parasite is extremely virulent, this means that the parasite is eliminated together with its host. In the more common case, parasite and host population reach a relative equilibrium, characterized by an on-going "arms race", where the host tries to evolve better defenses to counter the negative effects of the parasite, while the parasite tries to evolve more efficient strategies to make use of the host's resources. In the longer term, parasitism tends to evolve to symbiosis: a state of "peaceful coexistence" or even "mutual support", where both parties live together without any one being harmed by the other's activities (Dawkins, 1976).

As the examples of addiction and computer viruses illustrate, contemporary progress provides plenty of opportunities for the appearance of new types of parasitic phenomena. The abundance of resources produced by a highly industrialized society--from agricultural produce to computer processing power to leisure time--are guaranteed to invite the evolution of new types of organisms, systems, or patterns of behavior that make use of those resources, usually at the expense of the people for whom those resources were intended. Moreover, the ever increasing speed and efficiency of communications in our society makes it ever easier for the parasites to spread, as illustrated by computer viruses and the AIDS epidemic.

Although parasitism explains many of the unexpectedly vicious side-effects of progress, our evolutionary understanding of this phenomenon again leads us to an optimistic view for the long term: because of natural selection, parasites are much more likely to evolve to a benign form than to cripple their hosts (and thus reduce their own opportunities). In the meantime, parasites can create a lot of suffering, though, and therefore society would do well to monitor and control their development in the earliest possible stages. In our present, information-based society, the most dangerous parasites may well be the ones that infect our mind: misleading ideas (memes) and patterns of behavior that are easily transmitted from one individual to another one.


Another common side-effect of progress is simpler in origin but perhaps more subtle in its effects: overshooting. Controlled progress, unlike blind trial-and-error, is goal-directed. Most goals are not specific end-points but general values: phenomena or states-of-affairs that are considered intrinsically good, and for which it is preferable to have more than to have less. In practice, however, there are limits beyond which having more of something provides no benefits, or can even be harmful. For example, there may be a trade-off where an increase in one desirable feature will lead to a decrease in another desirable feature. The precise trade-off point is difficult to foresee, and therefore goal-directed progress will have a tendency to overshoot: to produce more of a particular desirable good or value than is optimal.

Of course, overshooting can be easily corrected through feedback: once you notice that you have gone too far, you move back a little until you are on target. However, such a massive and complex process as societal progress has a large momentum: it is difficult to slow it down and make it turn back. This is due in part to the inertia of desire: it is difficult to convince people that they should stop longing for something that they have always considered desirable in the past. For example, in a situation where most children die young, it is desirable to have more children rather than less, but in an era of vaccination and antibiotics, this desire will quickly lead to overpopulation.

We can distinguish three major types of negative effects produced by overshooting:

  • overabundance is simply the observation that there can be too much of a good thing. For example, too much food leads to obesity and the concomitant health problems; too much communication leads to information overload and the resulting stress (see further); too much fertilizer leads to pollution of rivers. Overabundance of a particular resource can also invite parasitic phenomena, as we noted earlier. For example, too much free time may spur behaviors that "kill time" or "create a purpose", such as drug addiction, hooliganism, or joining a cult.

  • exhaustion follows from the fact that to produce a valuable good, you generally need to consume another valuable good or resource. If the speed of production and therefore consumption is excessive, the resource may be exhausted, endangering the maintenance of the original good and perhaps many other products that depend on it. Resource exhaustion is in general corrected rather quickly by a negative feedback mechanism: as the resource becomes more scarce, it automatically becomes more valuable, and therefore more effort is invested in its conservation and renewal.

  • "pollution" is the general phenomenon that the production of a desirable good may, as a side-effect, lead to the production of some undesirable "waste products". If the production overshoots its optimal value, the drawbacks of the waste product may offset the benefits of the produced good. Here, negative feedback correction is unfortunately not so automatic, since the one who produces the waste generally does not pay for its clean-up, and therefore has little incentive to minimize waste.

All these examples of overshooting can be corrected by negative feedback. If the control system does not react adequately, natural selection will eventually eliminate overshooting. Therefore, overshooting will create problems in the short term, but these are likely to be solved in the long term. However, powerful control systems are likely to have more inertia, and therefore may sustain unfit states far longer than natural selection alone would allow. A well-known illustration is the "Peter Principle", the observation that in a bureaucracy people tend to be promoted up to their level of incompetence. This is a clear example of overshooting, where people progress through the ranks on the basis of proven success until they reach a level that is too high for their capacities. Natural selection would correct this mistake and "demote" the person back to the level where he or she is most fit, but the inertia inherent in large bureaucracies makes it likely that the person will remain stuck in that position for the rest of his or her career. We should make sure that society as a whole does not fall into the same trap, and push us into situations that demand more than we can comfortably handle.

Copyright© 2000 Principia Cybernetica - Referencing this page

F. Heylighen,

Sep 15, 2000


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