Friday, July 9, 2010

Evolutionary Thrashing and Social Chaos

Society may be on the cusp of social chaos triggered by ‘Evolutionary Thrashing’, which could result in major social breakdown for many decades.

The ‘evolutionary thrashing’ phenomenon occurs when the rate of change in a system’s environment exceeds its capacity to effectively adapt or evolve, before again being overwhelmed by the next wave of change.

At the biological level this can result in an organism’s inability to reach its optimal potential, making it less fit and more susceptible to extinction. This is currently occurring on the planet at an unprecedented rate. Many species are finding it increasingly difficult to adapt to the continuous changes in their habitat resulting from global warming and human destruction, with a quarter of vertebrate species predicted to become endangered or extinct by 2050.

However the phenomenon of ‘evolutionary thrashing’ is not restricted to biological systems. According to David Tow’s recently published generic evolutionary theory, outlined in his book– The Future of Life: A Unified Theory of Evolution, it can apply equally to social systems, including human society.

In this generic scenario, the same laws and principles of evolution apply to all systems at the quantum information level. Support for this thesis has recently been provided by physicist Wojciech Zurek’s ground-breaking work on Quantum Evolution and Decoherence, analogous to Charles Darwin’s theory of natural selection.

Such ‘thrashing’ at the human level can therefore lead to ineffective decision-making, social breakdown and eventually chaos, before long-term optimal evolution reasserts itself.

Global warming is a significant primary driver of this process because it has the potential to adversely impact all the planet’s ecosystems, which in turn will affect most aspects of human civilization including its social and democratic institutions.

A high level of ongoing adaptation is therefore required, but if critical social needs cannot be met in response to rapidly changing constraints, dysfunctional outcomes on a global level such as increased conflict, work and lifestyle stress, loss of community cohesion etc, will inevitably result.

But global warming is not the only contributor to social evolutionary thrashing. The second major driver is globalization, which is also occurring at hyper-speed, resulting in the blurring and mixing of cultures, religions and social norms as populations spread across the planet.

This is most apparent for example in the emergence of the major geopolitical blocs such as the EU linking nations in Europe, Asia, America and Africa, together with an increasing number of regional groupings and cross-over trading and political alliances such as APEC. In addition, each of these networks is increasingly coordinating its influence through global decision-making bodies such as the United Nations and more recently the G20.

In order to manage global issues such as climate change, crime and terrorism, disease, natural and man-made disasters, refugee flows and the allocation of key resources such as food, water and energy, global cooperation will be essential. But at the same time, traditional cultural and commercial practices that have evolved sometimes over thousands of years are being swamped in less than a generation- the blink of an eye in evolutionary terms; resulting in racial blowback, which can trigger reactions such as paranoia and conflict.

The third major driver of hyper-change is the information and communication revolution, facilitated by the Internet and Web Mark 2.0 incorporating the new cyber-world of virtual reality, mobile communication, social media and instant information access.

This is beginning to accelerate exponentially, threatening to outpace the capacity of populations of both developed and developing countries to adapt their social and cultural practices relating to democratic, educational, legal, financial and governance processes. With a third of the world’s population, including developing nations, now connected via inexpensive mobile phones and laptops to this infinite resource, the rate of change will become hyper-exponential within the next few decades.

No-one disputes the benefits of this massive egalitarian knowledge gain, providing the potential to deliver quality of life improvements to both poor and rich nations- combating the adverse effects of poverty and climate change. But there is the real risk that such hyper-change will outstrip the capacity of humanity to absorb and utilize it to the best advantage, succumbing to the centrifugal forces that threaten rip the fragile fabric of society apart.

In the space of a generation, the rate of social evolution driven by these three mega-forces- global warming, globalization and knowledge acceleration, each catalyzing the others in a frenzy of complex feedback systems, now threatens to destabilize the foundations of human civilization.
Non-adaptive evolutionary thrashing is likely to reach a critical threshold within the next decade, mirroring the likely point of no return for global warming.
This effectively means that coordination and synchronization of the major practices and protocols for managing the planet will be essential. It will involve the intermeshing of not just trade, but decision-making on all critical social issues.

It will require the rapid creation and strengthening of common frameworks for managing commerce, finance, economics, education, science and technology- including the management of energy, food, water and air quality on a world-wide scale. This has already begun on a regional basis with the strengthening of the European Union and on a global basis since the recent financial melt-down with the creation of the G20.

In other words, it will demand achieving an excruciatingly fine balance between continuing to encourage the creativity, innovation and development that drives our civilization and the risk of social overreach, with the potential to implode it. Only global commitment and good will by all populations on the planet can achieve this resolution.