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Natural Selection and the Newspaper Industry March 30, 2009

Posted by shaunphilly in religion, atheism, polyamory, culture.
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Evolution is a fact. We have seen it happen, so it is certain insofar as we can be certain of anything. Evolution is the basis for modern biology, and is as solidly supported by scientific evidence as gravity. The evidence is so overwhelming in support of the fact that over millions of years processes have caused species to come into being through natural means.

The central process that is responsible for this evolution, natural selection, is rather simple. And yet it is commonly misunderstood, even by intelligent people, in a number of different ways. Thus, I have decided to write about an example, analogous to natural selection in another place than biology; journalism.

In this case, the environment of this process is the media. And in this case I will talk about the newspaper industry, and use its demise as an example of how the change in an environment can cause a species to die out, leaving behind a mutation of itself behind. Thus, in the future, there could be some journalist that might say that there career was not the descendant of a newspaper, because if that were true why are there still newspapers? (as a few newspapers might still exist even then)…and we might recognize this as familiar to us.

The recording of information is a rather old convention of human culture. The very definition of history is intimately tied to this convention, in fact. At some point we became technologically advanced enough to produce pieces of paper in large enough quantities, and quickly enough, in order to have hundreds, thousands, and eventually millions of copies sold a day. Thus the newspaper industry was born.

As technology advanced, information was able to be disseminated by other means. Television was one effective change on this industry, but the internet, especially paired with mobile devices, is the most effective of these technologies. This is a change in the environment. It’s the analogy of a climatic change for information. As more people started to read news on the internet, newspapers started to sell less copies. Now we have come to the point where major segments of the newspaper industry are closing down.

Now the analogy is not precise. It is, in fact, largely very different. Nonetheless I think its an interesting analogy to compare the information that is transmitted through news media and the genetic information passed down through sexual reproduction in looking at the ways that the environment will select certain carriers of the news. In a similar way that the genetic information carried in a smarter, stronger, or better hidden biological life form will tend to pass down more offspring, the technology we have will select the vehicles of information that will reach human readers in better ways.

Newspapers are a species that are having less and less offspring. At some time in the last few decades a mutation of this form of media came about and, at first, was odd looking and not well adapted to the culture. But over time,, as the environment changed as the internet spread in usage by more people, this mutation began to transform and be shaped into a wonderful tool that we use today.

Now, there is one major difference between my analogy and the processes involved in evolution. While the transmission of information through various media (like blogs) is the result of intelligent choice (although some choices may not be particularly intelligent), the process of natural selection is not based on any intelligence at all. For the vast majority of evolutionary history, there was no such thing as intelligence, as intelligence is one by-product of this process. That is, while we choose where we read our news with self-awareness, the universe (or the Earth, in this case) does not choose which species survive with any self-awareness. The process is blind, in biology, but it is not blind in terms of where we read our news.

It is this that creates the fundamental misunderstanding about natural selection. It is not a selection in the sense of a choice. It is not a process that has life choose its path and certain choices work better in nature. It is a random mutation that has either no effect or a change in the offspring, having a detrimental effect, positive effect, or no noticeable effect on that offspring’s ability to reproduce itself.

And as these mutated offspring either have no offspring (mutation is not passed on), more offspring (Spreading the mutation at a increased rate) or has little to no effect (mutation becomes moderately spread in the species), then we will see a change in the species as a whole.

This is a natural process, not one driven by intelligence or intentional design. It does not need a god to explain it, and it has nothing to do with the ultimate origin of life. This only deals with what happens when life already exists, and so retreating behind the question of “ok, well how does life get there in the first place” is not a challenge to evolution at all.

The reason, by the way, that there are still monkeys is because we didn’t evolve from them. Other primates and ourselves evolved from a common ancestor. Thus, the monkeys, apes, etc are as evolved as we are. Evolution is not a ladder, nor does it have a goal. We are not more evolved than an ape, a cat, or bacteria. We just have the perhaps unique quality of self-awareness that allows us to actually try to make sense of a senseless process, and thus to add gods to it unnecessarily.

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