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Monday, September 3, 2007

Rates of Evolution

A fascinating paper by Philip D. Gingerich shows how the observed rate of evolutionary change (measured in darwins), varies hugely according to the measurement context. (See table at foot of this post). In other words, the observed rate of biological evolution appears to be proportional to the proximity of scientists. Does a similar phenomenon apply to technological evolution?

(Note: I am not assuming that technological evolution is the same as biological evolution - merely that looking at one domain may prompt some interesting and important questions for the other domain.)

I have always been wary of the common belief that technological change is accelerating. I think this belief derives from a combination of proximity, selectivity and distorted perception. I think we can sometimes be disproportionately impressed by the glamour of recent technology, and misled by the commercially-driven measures of intellectual property (such as volumes of patent activity and product releases). We should also note that some commentators (such as industry analysts) have a vested interest in talking up the pace of technology change (Red Queen Hypothesis, Technology Hype Curve).

But consider these questions:

Did the lightbulb or bicycle change more
  • between the years 1880-1900?
  • or between the years 1980-2000?
Did the computer change more
  • from 1950 to 1970?
  • from 1980 to 2000?

It is certainly true that there have been huge numbers of small modifications to devices such as lightbulbs, bicycles and computers since 1980. There has also been a proliferation of variations and mutations. But will any of this innovation be remembered in fifty years time? From a historical perspective, this kind of detailed technological refinement (or even hyperactivity) may seem rather less significant than the initial burst of technical creativity when the device was taking shape in the first place.


Notes

Context

Timescale
of Observations

Observed
Rate of Change

Laboratory

1.5 - 10 years

60,000 darwins

Colonization studies

70 - 300 years

400 darwins

Post-pleistocene mammels

1,000 - 10,000 years

4 darwins

Fossil record

Millions of years

0.1 darwins

Philip D. Gingerich, Rates of Evolution: Effects of Time and Temporal Scaling. Science 14 October 1983: Vol. 222. no. 4620, pp. 159 - 161

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