How Can Our Old Brains Run 21st Century Complex Culture?

o-NEANDERTHAL-DNA-facebookDuring a recent interview for Nautilus, David Krakauer, the incoming Santa Fe Institute President, talked about intelligence, culture and complexity science. He proposes a provocative thought experiment to reflect about our limits to run a sophisticated evolving culture (emphasis added):

One way to think about culture is as dominoes arrayed in a line with one tipping over another, tipping over another, a sort of cascade of influence. And culture builds on culture. When Newton and Leibniz were formulating the infinitesimal calculus, they were borrowing from previous ideas in mathematics, which in turn borrowed from early ideas of geometry in Ancient Greece. That cumulative process is what allows for the civilization that we now live in, but it raises a very interesting paradox and it’s interesting that it’s very rarely commented upon.

Here’s the thought experiment: (…) Now imagine I showed you an Apple II running World of Warcraft. If you knew anything about computers you’d say, “Impossible. Impossible!” (…) World of Warcraft takes gigabytes of data and incredible computational power to render a scene, so it would be impossible essentially to run modern software on hardware that’s just about 20 years old.

Now, let’s think about human beings. Human beings are hardware that’s about 100,000 years old, but we run string theory, Lie algebra. We’re running 21st-century software! How is it possible that old, antiquated hardware can continue to run ever newer and more complex cultural software? Now, the metaphor might be the problem, right? But it’s an interesting one and that raises a very interesting question about the limits to the cascade, because I happen to be one who believes that the cultural becomes so complicated at a certain point that it won’t run on our brains. And in fact, you could argue that the reason why we’ve generated computational devices is consciously or unconsciously, we’ve come to recognize that our endogenous, organic computing power is not up to the task and we have to recruit machines to represent culture, because we cannot. I think there’s good evidence for that.


And I think that that ultimately (…) we’ll reach a point where our memory capacity and inferential power simply cannot accommodate the latest cultural artifact. At that point what happens? Does it become independent of us, or does it just stop? It’s like evolution coming to an end. (Nautilus, “Ingenious: David Krakauer”)


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