The Sociocultural Singularity

There is a theoretical concept in Computer Science called technological singularity. It refers the hypothetical point in time when Artificial Intelligence passes the cognitive capabilities of the human brain, implying radical changes in human nature and society as a whole.

Astro-physicist Neil deGrasse Tyson provides an interesting view for what can possibly happen, in a speech where he discuss the existence of intelligent life elsewhere in the universe. He argues that the difference in intelligence between chimpanzees and human beings is in just about 1% of DNA. “Imagine another life form that’s one percent different from us in the direction that we are different from the chimp,” he wonders. “Quantum mechanics would be intuitive to their toddlers.” That is, we would probably not even be able to grasp such intelligence.

The prospect of this fascinating — although scary — scenario has received considerable attention by theorists and science fiction authors, notwithstanding the fact that it lies in the future. But there is another type of singularity, much less discussed — at least in the sphere of popular science —, which has already happened, and that is causing rapid changes in human nature and society: the sociocultural singularity.

I use the term “sociocultural” in reference to the research area of sociocultural evolution, which is concerned with how cultures and societies change over time. Although this evolution can relate to Darwinian, genetic evolution, it differs mainly in the fact that it happens in a much faster pace.

Indeed, anatomically modern humans evolved from archaic Homo sapiens about 200,000 years ago, in the Middle Paleolithic, and that species evolved at least 250,000 years ago. Cultural evolutions, on the other hand, happen at a speed that is levels of magnitude faster: the way of life — including alimentation, social structure, values, and means of communication — can change drastically within generation. That is, sociocultural evolution outpace natural evolution.

This fact makes it very remarkable how stable to change our physical and mental systems are. The ability to rapidly adapt to the environment is, after all, what made us the dominant species in this planet. But as cultural revolutions happen at consistently shorter periods of time, one can’t help wondering for how long such stability will persist.

The sociocultural evolution triggered by internet technology is an example of drastic change in the way we interact with each other, and how they can be very harmful. A recent report by researchers at Oxford University, for instance, revealed a number of threats related to internet use, including bullying, self-harm, and how internet forums can increase the risk of suicide.

The human brain and psychology evolved in an environment that hardly matches the modern life, specially in large urban centers. Competition with one or two tribe members is now with hundreds, at global scale. The obvious threat of a rival group, or wild animals, is now the subtle threat of economic instability, of a media that consistently makes us aware of the worst that is happening, and of a culture that forces us to be happy anyway no matter the circumstances. Thus, it’s no surprise that anxiety and depression became such a mainstream problem. In fact, by 2008, for instance, the third most common prescription drug taken in the U.S. was a type of antidepressant.

We should be aware and vigilant with respect to the these changes. That is not to say that we shouldn’t embrace cultural evolution. In fact, modern societies tend to be more inclusive, and ethic. But unfortunately progress is being payed in part with increased burden to the human psychology. There should be more scientific studies, and public discussion about this problem, rather than taboos. Natural evolution assures the survival of the fittest, but since it is too slow in comparison with cultural evolution, we should be careful not to produce a psychologically stressful environment in which none of our decedents will be able to fit.

(A version of this article appeared in Washington Square News.)

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