CHAPTER 1: PROLOGUE - PRE-HISTORYOur story opens in a quiet country home in an English village. The first character in our cast is seen puttering about in his greenhouse and muttering about in his library. It was in this place and in this manner - apart from a famous voyage around the world aboard the H. M. S. Beagle - that Charles Darwin (1809 - 1882)1 spent most of his life. Yet this uneventful life of this unassuming man in this unspectacular setting has had a greater impact on our world than the lives of the more flamboyant figures - the Caesars, the Napoleons, the Hitlers - who have stomped around our globe.
I think, therefore I am
Sometimes I think, and sometimes I am
I never think, but I always am
Darwin created a revolution. Not that shoddy shift in political personnel that typically passes for a revolution, but a real revolution - a change in our view of ourselves. After carefully collecting and collating evidence for 17 years, Darwin gently but firmly told us that we are not a special creation of God with an exclusive soul but an animal on the same scale as our dogs and our cows [DARWIN]2 . After the inevitable violent reaction - Scopes v. State of Tennessee, Professor Huxley v. Bishop Wilberforce - we swallowed this bitter pill. Indeed, we now find it not only palatable but sweet. Most of us feel better as raised apes than as fallen angels.
We are all familiar with the basic principles of the theory of evolution.3 Here, however, is a Rip Van Winkle special by way of reminder. There are differences among individuals within any species. Because of certain environmental conditions, the individuals at one end of a particular scale have some advantage over the others; because of this advantage, they are more likely to survive; because they are more likely to survive, they are more likely to reproduce; because traits are inherited, the next generation of this species will be, on the average, further along toward the desirable end of this scale. This generation, in turn, breeds another generation even further along, and so on and so on.
Let's take a concrete example. Giraffes differ in the length of their necks. The longer-necked giraffes are better able to feed off the leaves in high trees and are thus more likely to survive and reproduce. Since long-necked giraffes tend to have long-necked babies, the next generation will have, on the average, longer necks, and the next generation even longer necks, and so on. Note that no giraffe grows a longer neck during its lifetime by stretching it to reach leaves and then passes its longer neck on to its progeny. This is Jean Baptiste Lamarck's erroneous concept of the inheritance of acquired characteristics.
Whereas most of us are familiar with the initial reaction to the theory of evolution, we may not be as familiar with its subsequent history. It suffered a decline, because many malicious or simply silly people mis-used the theory as a rationalization for an extreme interpretation of capitalism as a survival-of-the-fittest principle applied to the social sphere and as an argument for eugenics - the "improvement" of the species by pruning out the unfit [DEGLER]. The debunking of those false arguments has resulted in a revival of the principle of natural selection as a basic principle for the psychological and social sciences.
A spate of recent books by evolutionary psychologists have questioned the Standard Social Science Model (SSSM) underlying the social sciences, including media studies [for example, BARKOW ET AL, WILSON]. The SSSM assumes that the mind is a "tabula rasa", a blank slate on which culture writes. Evolutionary psychologists argue that the human mind, which has evolved over millions of years to enable us to survive in the harsh arena of our environment, is a medium which determines how the message of culture is received and interpreted. This "tabula" is far from "rasa". Much has been written on this slate over evolutionary times. They argue therefore that we need to ground our sociology in psychology and our psychology in turn in biology. This inevitably leads to natural selection and the "natural selection" of Charles Darwin, superficially an unlikely candidate, as the first member of our cast in a history of media.
We tend to think of the theory of evolution as a biological rather than a psychological theory - as concerned with the development of structure rather than of function. Perhaps the emphasis has been on structure because , with the death of an organism, structure survives but function fades. Much evidence for evolution is therefore based on structure (skeletons) or the imprint of structure (fossils). However, modern evolutionary theory is beginning to swing to an emphasis on function. The giraffe survives not only because it has a long neck but also because it can use it. The structure-function relationship is a chicken-and-egg problem. Is the egg the chicken's way of producing another chicken or is the chicken, as Samuel Butler suggested, an egg's way of producing another egg? Do birds have wings because they fly or do birds fly because they have wings?
Modern evolutionary psychology is exploring the evolution of the mind as well as of the body. Steven Pinker recently published a book with the title How The Mind Works [PINKER 1997]. Such a title may be premature and presumptuous but it is no longer preposterous. Evolutionary psychologists, like Pinker, are transforming many mysteries of mind into mere problems. As a child, I was addicted to jig-saw puzzles. I would start with the outer edge and work inward frame by frame. According to Pinker, the outer border of the jig-saw puzzle of mind is the principle of natural selection and the next border is the concept of the nervous system as a tool for processing information to enable us to survive. This book could be considered as my attempt to fill in the third border (Figure 1-2).
Edmund Hillary, the first European to climb Mount Everest, (or was it George Mallory, who earlier got lost near its summit?) explained his motivation by saying "because it was there". Evolutionary psychologists if pressed for a motive may answer "because we are here". Our species is here and we would like to know how we got here. Natural selection helps explain. Nervous system as information-processing tool helps explain. However, those two principles, expounded by Steven Pinker, explain only how we got to a hunter-gatherer society.
The recent shifts from a hunter-gatherer society to an agricultural society to an industrial society to an information society have taken place in too short a time to be explained by the theory of evolution. Historical time is too short for the mechanisms of evolution to have much effect. Barbara Parker points out that it takes 500-1,000 generations for a survival-enhancing adaptation to become genetically encoded and we have had only about 100 generations since the birth of Jesus Christ [PARKER]. It is unlikely then that there is much genetic difference between our hunter-gatherer ancestors and you and I.
Alfred Russel Wallace (1823-1913) had discovered the principle of natural selection at the same time as Darwin. Indeed, he published the same theory in the same issue of the same journal [DESMOND & MOORE, Pages 466-471]. Most people assumed, as did I, that he does not get as much credit as Darwin, because he did not spend 17 years accumulating empirical evidence for the theory. However, modern evolutionary theorists argue that he had done his homework. The main reason he does not get as much credit is because he subsequently abandoned the theory. He could see no way in which adaptation to a hunter-gatherer society could explain the sophisticated modern mind. How could a species, which evolved by adapting to a hunter-gatherer society, deal with the dramatic shifts to an agricultural society, then to an industrial society, and now to an information society?
This book suggests that at least part of the answer to this Wallace Paradox is that, during historical time, we have extended our nervous systems by developing tools for storing and transmitting information outside our bodies.4 The story of how we acquired those extrasomatic tools is the history of media. This history of media could thus be considered as an attempt to solve the Wallace Paradox, or, returning to the jigsaw metaphor above, to fill in the third border in the emerging picture of the human mind (Figure 1-2).
1 Names with dates in the text indicate that this is one of the major characters in our story. This person is included in Cast of Characters (see Figure 1-1) so that you can see him/her in temporal perspective.
2 References in the text appear in upper case within square brackets. The full reference can be found under References at the end of the book.
3 Technical terms appear in bold. Definitions can be found in the Glossary at the end of the book.
4 Ever since I discovered that one of my ancestors was Alexander Selkirk, the shipwrecked sailor who was the original for Robinson Crusoe, I have often imagined myself on a deserted island. (Many people have shared this experience since seeing Tom Hanks in Cast Away.) Without all my extrasomatic tools (books, videos, and CD-ROMs) I imagine that my mind would soon become considerably less "sophisticated" . Man Friday's arrival would have some civilizing effect (though without a common language, our conversations would have been very elementary). Our time and conversations would, no doubt, be devoted largely to hunting and gathering.