January 31st, 2002

The Human Future: A Problem in Design

Daniel Quinn

Everyone nowadays is more or less aware that what we see around us in the world of nature is the result of a design process called evolution. This was not always the case of course. For thousands of years in our culture, it was imagined that what we see around us was the work of a divine designer who delivered the finished product in its eternally final form in a single stroke. God not only got everything right the first time, he got it so right that it couldn’t possibly be improved on by any means.

Since the nineteenth century, this antiquated perception of the world has largely disappeared. Most people now realize that the marvelous designs we see around us in the living community came about through an exacting process called natural selection. Human design–and by this I mean design BY humans, not design OF humans–is similar to evolutionary design in some ways and different in other ways.

Human design is always directed toward IMPROVEMENT. Evolutionary design, on the other hand, only APPEARS to be directed toward improvement, and this confuses a lot of people. It leads them to imagine that evolution is HEADING somewhere, presumably toward the eternally final forms that God created in a single stroke. Evolutionary design in fact merely tends to eliminate the less workable and perpetuate the more workable. When we look at a seagull or a giraffe or a cheetah or a spider, we see a version of the product that’s working beautifully–because all the dysfunctional versions have been eliminated from the gene pool of that species through natural selection. If conditions change, however–and we had the leisure to watch– we’d see these apparently perfect forms begin to change in subtle ways or dramatic ways as natural selection eliminates the less workable adaptations to the new conditions and perpetuates the more workable.

Design change is a reaction to pressure–and this is true of both evolutionary design and human design.

In a completely stable system, there is no pressure to make design changes. Evolutionary design has nothing to do. But of course in reality there is no such thing as a completely stable system.

The same is true of human design. If I were to show you a paleolithic handaxe and a mesolithic handaxe, you’d be hard put to know one from the other. In a million years, there was virtually no pressure on people to improve their stone tools–and they didn’t, at least not intentionally. During the period between the paleolithic and the mesolithic, minute, unnoticed improvements were being made, imitated, and unconsciously handed down in every generation, accumulating over the millennia to produce tools that an expert would immediately recognize as mesolithic. …

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Two stages in the evolution of the clothespin. The wooden clothespin at the bottom has been around for a long time, and is not extinct even today–because, in fact, it’s cheap, it’s simple, and it works as well as it ever did. Where, then, did the clothespin at the top come from? It isn’t notably cheaper, and it’s notably more complex. It does possibly WORK a bit better, at least for certain jobs. If you’re hanging something out to dry that’s very thick, the pin at the bottom is likely to pop off–or break, if you try to push it down too far. But of course the pin at the top didn’t come into being because the public was screaming for a better clothespin. It came into being because it enabled some business to increase its market share.

The pressure to increase market share is the driving force of human design at this time. The question for anyone who wants to enter a new market or to increase share of market is going to be, “What can I come up with that is more attractive, cheaper, more interesting, or more efficient than what’s currently available?”

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