Unnatural Selection starts by telling a 21st century story of David vs Goliath, however in this version its the tail of a nerdy Mark Zuckerberg vs the muscly athletic jocks, the Winklevoss twins. Of course we all know how this story ends, the brain defeat’s the brawn and Zuckerberg takes the company in dispute (Facebook) to a $48 billion IPO over the next few years.
In todays world physical attributes are becoming less of a advantage to survive and flourish, which is the premiss Mark Roeder puts forward throughout out the book. Rather, physical dominance is now redundant and raw intellect will be what conquers todays and the futures information driven and technological landscape.
Our civilisation has entered a new age, the Anthropocence or Age of Man where the manmade world is key to our destiny, rather than being dependent on Mother Nature. One example of many used by Roeder is that in 2012 the average American consumed 3x more information than they did in 1980, showing that the ability to process large sets of information is now a big part of our modern lives.
The book is heavily based on the concept of Epigentics, Social genomics as well theories on the evolution of the brain which are all still largely area’s of research. Roeder quickly warns the reader that some of the ideas put forth in the book are controversial both from his point of view as well as the scientific community.
Chapeter 2 starts by giving the reader a historic version of Darwin’s theory of evolution as explained in The Origin of Species. Basics like survival of the fittest and gene mutations are quickly covered to bring the unfamiliar readers up to speed . Roeder states that we should now however study beyond the classical Darwinism view of evolution (hard inheritance) and we should at least begin to open to the possibility of evolution at other levels beyond the genome. Such as those mentioned in the previous paragraph (soft inheritance).
From here Roeder explains how in the theory of Social genomics, depending on the environment a organism is placed in different gene’s may be switched on or off. We are given these potentially dormant genes as a hedging strategy (incase we have to deal with a vastly unexpected new environment). When found in a intellectually challenging environment dormant cognitive traits may be turned on.
Roeder gives the analogy of Orchid children and Dandelion children (dandelions being much more robust than Orchid’s), someone with autism (a Orchid) needs much more care and a specific environment to flourish. Where as a Dandelion (people with a “normal” cognitive functioning brain) can survive in most environments. As a example a child with mild to moderate autism can end up being a genius or a complete drug addicted failure, depending on environmental factors such as situations in home and school.
I have personally seen this, pneumonia where at the start of high school my peers in the highest’s classes have gone astray somewhere and now 10+ years out of high school they are far from reaching the potential they seemed to be. I’ve observed this to be related to things like parent divorce and other distressing factors at home.
In the age old argument of Nature vs Nurture. Roeder argues that nature is nurture both working together and that this concept is gradually being supported by a increasingly large number of geneticists, neuroscientists and psychologists. Roeder points to research which suggests that as high as between 40 and 50 % of intelligence may be inherited (genetic). Other studies Roeder uses to support his premiss in this chapter is a study examining high IQ from a child and then measuring again as young adults. As well as using the history of the Jews, how historically being forced into cognitively stimulating jobs such as Wealth management has given them great intellectual ability which carries on to today (Jews are 0.2% of the worlds population yet they hold 27% of the Noble physics prizes as well as other accomplishments).
Finally in the chapter Roeder covers Raven matrix (pattern recognition) tests vs the classical intelligence test, how techies and maths elites have higher levels of autism within the spectrum compared to other professions, Lemark’s theory (epigenetic’s, chemicals interacting with DNA through methylation) and finally how the brain could be rewiring neural pathways related to todays environments. Forcing our brains to think more abstractly, conceptually all while multi tasking (the techno Anthropocene is pushing us to become smarter to cope with modern pressures).
Chapter 3 covers “The rise of the geek” giving the reader a bit of history of intellectuals of the past and explaining the different types of “geeks” we see in the present. Roeder briefly explains societies dependence on them and how geek is now cool (geek chique) as a example, modern portrail’s of Q in James Bond. He covers some individual geeks such as Steve jobs and Jeff Bonos and explains how geeks are playing key roles in all aspects of modern society such as warfare, politics and of course finance. Then of course theres the billionaire app makers.
The cognitive revolution is the name of the 4th chapter. Roeder suggests society will be more and more in the pursuit of “geekdom”, and those who are genetically disadvantaged will have a variety of cognitive enhancements and brain augmentations to help (plastic surgery for the brain could become the new thing). In the pursuit of plastic brains and smart pills there will be a divide, the techno haves and the techno have nots (perpetuation of the cognitive elites).
The chapter finishes with the roles of Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Augmented Reality (AR) which leads to the final 2 chapters “Trancendence” and “Backlash”. The blurring line of human biology and technology. Wrapping the book up, Roeder warns of the risk of a dystopian future. Will we be enslaved by technology (The Matrix)? Will we have scenarios like HAL from 2001: A Space Odyssey or The Terminator with advanced AI intent on destroying us? Will we be able to ‘download’ our consciousness and live forever? Will the cognitive elite be corrupt with a new intellectual power? These are all questions Roeder theorises as possible scenarios to finish Unnatural Selection, but he leaves us with hope that we need to stick together and choose the best paths for humanity as a whole.
Unnatural Selection: Why the Geeks will Inherit the Earth is a fascinating read and a great entry point into what intelligence is (and how it works in relation to evolution) and overviews of the emerging areas of science around it. I found myself highlighting paragraphs and making notes throughout the book with Roeder using plenty of references to scientific studies and research for me to delve in further. By the end of the book you will be convinced that “knowledge is power” and you may even be scared that you will be left behind if you don’t join the cognitive evolutionary arms race ASAP.
I would love to see a follow up book with more science (more on Lemark’s theory / epigenetic’s for example) and less antidotal stories. Having said this Unnatural Selection is a great gateway read for anyone who is vaguely interested in theories of intelligence and brain evolution. At the very least you will feel smugly superior that you are a geek and you will be proud to wear your pocket protector in your shirt on Monday.