On the evolution of digital natives by natural selection

Mar 23

I was tasked by our School Association late last year to compile a ‘best practice’ document for the use of iPads in the school. Some of the reading I did in the process was quite eye-opening, and got me thinking about where we’re heading as a species (assuming self-annihilisation isn’t the only possible destination). Because up until now it’s seemed to me that we’ve pretty much put the brakes on evolution.

Darwin’s evolution of species by natural selection is a beautiful, inspired piece of theory, the simplicity of which (like most great ideas) beggars belief, when one considers the amount of time it took someone (or some two) to come up with it.

In high school biology it was drummed into us that species don’t “adapt to their surroundings”, and that if we were to write such a thing in our exam, we’d fail – something a large percentage of nature documentary presenters don’t seem to have been told. The problem with that turn of phrase – to suggest that the species adapts – is that it’s too active on the part of the evolving species. My teacher was at pains to emphasise that species have no real part in their evolution, but rather were passive participants in the process of evolution, essentially oblivious to the fact that the process was even occurring. In a nutshell, the process is: genetic mutations occur in individuals, which may or may not confer an advantage to those individuals in their specific environment with its particular ‘selection pressures’ (those things that are likely to eliminate the less-suited individuals, such as a food shortage); if the mutations are advantageous to the individual, the chances of that individual surviving and passing on that particular trait increase, which in turn suggests that over time, the proportion of individuals in a given population, who carry that trait, increases.

The unstated (to us as students at least) but inherent result of this framework is that the more evolved toward intelligence a species becomes, the less inevitable evolution becomes, because intelligent species are able to manipulate their environments to reduce or eliminate selection pressures; rather than the species being the putty in the hands of environmental selection pressures, the species shapes its environment to suit.

That’s certainly happened, to some degree, in the case of humans. Agriculture is a perfect example – we’ve developed complex systems to regulate food supply to create a buffer between us and the harsh realities of a hunter-gatherer ‘lifestyle’. That’s not to say agriculture couldn’t fail on a grand scale, and even less that there are not people scrabbling over enormous piles of refuse right now, seeking to eek out an existence, on whom selection pressures are very present. But on the whole, it seems fair to suggest that humans have probably slowed the process of evolution by becoming, to a large extent, masters of their environment (socially – via welfare – as well as physically).

Such a situation isn’t necessarily unusual in respect to its effects on evolution; for example, proponents of the “punctuated equilibrium” model of evolution argue that evolutionary activity is typically low or non-existent, and that this historical timeline of equilibrium is punctuated with bursts of (comparatively) rapidly occurring evolution.

If we go back to that exam-failing answer – that “species adapt to their surroundings” – we get a view of the earlier theories of Lamarck. In biology classes we were taught (somewhat simplistically, I suspect) that Lamarck would’ve suggested that in a drought, hungry giraffes would’ve stretched their necks to reach the higher branches, thus creating a long-necked species, whereas Darwin noted that those giraffes that weren’t born with long necks would’ve died, leaving only the long-necked ones to pass on their long-necked genes (no stretching on the part of the individual required). Putting it even more simplistically, Lamarck’s views tended toward the idea that if you dunked your head into a bucket of water, you’d grow gills.

As with most simplistic dichotomies, it turns out that things aren’t quite so simple. The relatively new field of epigenetics is concerned with heritable genetic changes that are not caused by changes in DNA sequencing itself; it turns out that environmental factors can change the expression of genes so that, for example, your diet (rather than just your genes) may affect the genetic makeup of your grandchildren, your response to stressful events may affect your unborn child’s response to stressful events, and your life experiences may result in a different expression of genetic information to that expressed by your identical twin.

When I think about that, together with the kind of information that’s come to light in our brave new digital world, it gets pretty interesting. A couple of the points I came across when preparing the guide for iPad usage were: that Internet Gaming Disorder is included in DSM-V as a condition warranting more research before it may be included as a formal disorder – that is, enough people ‘in the know’ are concerned about the addictive qualities of internet gaming that it’s been flagged as one to watch in the manual used by psychiatrists to assess mental disorders, and; all digital content is not created equal (e.g. the content of one television show can have very different effects on the brain’s executive function than the content of another). But I think what I find most interesting is teachers’ insistence that ‘kids today learn differently’ – that we need to engage with them differently in order to teach them effectively. If it’s true that they learn differently, that suggests that they have indeed become “wired” differently. While that isn’t necessarily a bad thing, if we really must teach them differently in order for them to learn, that suggests the loss of a skillset we as a species previously held.

Of course, that may not be a bad thing in itself either. And if the brains of future generations – for whom techniques such as spritzing may be the norm – are indeed wired differently, any more than different brains are already wired differently, it may just create a difference upon which a selection pressure can act, for better or for worse. As someone who doesn’t hold a great deal of hope for our continued existence as a technologically advanced species, I think hands-on skills will become far more important than mental multi-tasking, but perhaps that’s short-sighted. After all, in whatever calamities face us in the future, there could be a remnant of the technologically astute, equipped and connected digital natives, while those outside of those limited spheres of power and affluence fall back on hands-on skills. Perhaps that could even be the beginning of speciation (the separation of one species into two) in action. There’s probably a sci-fi novel in that. With a post-colonial slant wherein the two candidate species could just be referred to as the digital natives, and the natives.