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July 23, 2013

Ideas Having Sex: Lamarckian Evolution Triumphant

By Timothy McGettigan

Matt Ridley describes the extraordinary, Lamarckian capacity that humans have developed to innovate via social and intellectual collaboration as "ideas...having sex"


From http://www.flickr.com/photos/28405099@N05/9336007294/: Lamarckian evolution ascendant.
Lamarckian evolution ascendant. by christopher frier brown

Scholars have referred to Homo sapiens' game-changing capacity to transform the biological evolutionary process into an intellectual exercise--or what I refer to as super-adaptability (McGettigan, 2011, 2013)--in a variety of ways. Karl Popper (1999) distinguishes between biological and cognitive problem solving. In so doing, Popper emphasizes that for most organisms  the one and only means of resolving   survival problems is via Darwinian evolution: nature's creations either evolve random genetic solutions to survival problems, or they go extinct. However, Popper adds that humans have developed a unique capacity to resolve survival problems intellectually. As a result, humans have succeeded in concocting and deploying efficacious solutions to survival problems at the speed of thought. Indeed, Richard Dawkins (1989) developed the concept of "memes" to identify the intellectual equivalent of genes in order to describe Homo sapiens' unique ability to adapt culturally.

For his part, Stephen Jay Gould (1987) argues that human cognitive ingenuity has succeeded in transforming human evolution from a Darwinian to a Lamarckian process:

Biologists believe that genetic change is primarily Darwinian--that is, it occurs via natural selection operating upon undirected variation. Human cultural evolution is Lamarckian--the useful discoveries of one generation are passed directly to offspring by writing, teaching and so forth (Gould, 1987, p. 70).

Similarly, Mark Pagel (2012) argues that, as social learners, humans have literally rewritten the rules of evolution:

...there are no real shape-shifters in nature...Being limited to what their collections of genes evolved to do, no one species can do everything. That was, of course, until humans came along and rewrote all the rules that had held for billions of years of biological evolution...Where all those species that had gone before us were confined to the particular genetic corner their genes adapted them to, humans had acquired the ability to transform the environment to suit them, by making shelters, or clothing, and working out how to exploit its resources (Pagel, 2012, p. 46).         

In turn, Matt Ridley (2010) describes the extraordinary capacity that humans have developed to innovate via social and intellectual collaboration as "ideas...having sex" (Ridley, 2010, p. 352).

In sum, humans are the first "super-adaptable" organism to evolve on earth; rather than being deterministically restricted by the constraints of Darwinian biology, humans are the only terrestrial species that is graced with the capacity to "redefine reality." Via a reality-modifying cognitive process (i.e., agency), humans modify otherwise deterministic environmental conditions in order to accommodate their goals and interests--even going so far as to transcend gravity and the limits of the life-giving biosphere in an effort to conquer the lifeless void of outer space.  


Dawkins, Richard. The Selfish Gene. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989.

Gould, Stephen Jay. An Urchin in the Storm: Essays About Books and Ideas. New York: W. W. Norton, 1987.

McGettigan, Timothy. Good Science: The Pursuit of Truth and the Evolution of Reality. Lanham, MD.: Lexington Books, 2011. 

McGettigan, Timothy. Evolution at the Speed of Thought: Agency, Determinism and a New Chapter in the History of Evolution. Los Angeles, CA: WheelMan Press, 2013.

Pagel, Mark. Wired for Culture: Origins of the Human Social Mind. New York: W. W. Norton, 2012. 
Popper, Karl. All Life is Problem Solving. Translated by Patrick Camiller. New York: Routledge, 1999.

Ridley, Matt. The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves. New York: Harper, 2010. 

Submitters Website: http://goodscience.sociology.org/

Submitters Bio:

Tim McGettigan is a professor of sociology at Colorado State University -- Pueblo. Tim's primary research interests are in the areas of science, technology, society (STS) and the future and Tim blogs about those topics at the following sites: The Socjournal, www.sociology.org OpEdNews, www.opednews.com Socera, socera.blogspot.com Fulbright Association, www.fulbright.org Social Science Space, www.socialsciencespace.com In addition, to being a professor at CSU-Pueblo, Tim has also taught at a number of other institutions including: In 2008, Tim taught for a semester at sea on The Scholar Ship In 2006-2007, Tim served as the Director of the Center for Teaching Excellence at the University of the Pacific in Stockton, California In 2002-2003, Tim received a Fulbright Scholarship to teach at the Centre for Social Studies in Warsaw, Poland. Tim's most recent books include: 2013 (Forthcoming), God's Loaded Dice: Random Musings on a Universe Gone Mad 2013 (Forthcoming), Evolution at the Speed of Thought: A New Chapter in the History of Evolution 2012, Where Nobody Has Gone Before: A Collection of Commentaries about Science, Technology, Society and the Future. Kindle Direct Publishing. 2011, Good Science: The Search for Truth and the Evolution of Reality. Lexington Books, a subsidiary of Rowman Littlefield Publishers. Lanham, MD. 2011, Rough Seas: Ethnography and Academic Freedom on The Scholar Ship. University Press of America, a subsidiary of Rowman Littlefield Publishers. Lanham, MD. 2011, The Time Cheaters, Part 1, Kindle Direct Publishing, (Published under the pseudonym, "Rocky Ford") Tim's next book is tentatively titled Star Warriors: Friends and Foes on the Frontiers of Cosmology and it will examine controversies in the field of scientific cosmology.