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The Great Leap Forward

At the end of last year, Steve Jones, head of the department of genetics and evolution at London’s University College announced that the forces driving evolution — including natural selection and genetic mutation — no longer play an important role in our lives. He further stated that should man survive a million years from now, they would resemble us: modern-day humans. “We now know so much about the process of evolution that we can make some predictions about what might happen in the future,” Jones said in his lecture, and explained how “Evolution is driven by natural selection and mutation. Genetic mutations create traits which, if helpful, give individuals a competitive edge over rivals.”

Jones’ contends, “that in our modern world of central heating and plenty of food, mutations are far less likely to give children any advantage. A baby born today can expect to live a long and healthy life, which in turn works against the evolutionary tool of natural selection.” Mutations occur when cells divide. But every time a cell divides, there is actually a chance of an error — a mutation. Ironically, it is those errors — or mutation mistakes — that are the foundation of all of evolution.

Mutations appear to be spontaneous in most instances. Sometimes they are beneficial, like inheriting an ability to run or fly faster, and many times they are harmful, like the pre-disposition for hemophilia or some types of cancer. But everything around us is impacted by this strange and persistent transformative power.

Including behavior. There are two popular theories about the evolution of behavior; one is rather logical, and is favored by continuity theorists. The theory suggests that the behavior of modern man is simply the result of the aggregation of knowledge, skills and culture over hundreds of thousands of years of human evolution. The other, far more mysterious theory contends that the seeds of our modern behavior occurred as a single, sudden event some 50,000 years ago and came about as a result of a major genetic mutation or as a result of a biological reorganization of the brain. Some scientists refer to this phenomenon as “the big brain bang” but the more politically correct term is also far more magical: it is considered the Great Leap Forward.

This Great Leap Forward is responsible for most of our modern abilities: language, art, music, cooking, self-decoration, and even telling jokes. This era also ushered in religious practices, honoring and burying the dead, and playing games. They are fundamentally considered cultural universals.

Given the state of our society today, I find it unthinkable to conceive of mankind permanently stuck in this groove of ghastly behavior filled with violence and cruelty, torture and evil. Whenever I have fantasized about the faraway future, I always assumed that we would become a smarter species, less petty and narrow-minded. We would attain greater spiritual awareness and a much higher consciousness.

But I am hopeful that the third ingredient important to evolution will intervene. This third factor is randomness. Chance, in the form of mutations, provides genetic variation. So there is always the possibility that despite central heating and plenty of food, a random variation will insure that one million years from now we are, if nothing more, a kinder and more considerate species.

When thinking about evolution and behavioral modernity and all of their inherent implications, I can’t help but wonder how these scientific theories relate to art and design. Sure, it is easy to view both as narratives of random possibilities, with each new innovation a search for new standards. But how do advances in art and design occur? Is each era in art and design, or music and literature, built on top of one another? Is it a matter of linear influence? I can logically see the links from Impressionism to Expressionism and Fauvism to Cubism and Dadaism to Pop. But is it necessary to be aware of these styles in order to discover another? Malcolm Gladwell, in his provocative new book, Outliers, suggests that the innovation uncovered by artists like the Beatles or innovators like Bill Gates also came about through hours and hours of practice and often 10 years of hard work. But luck, or being at the right place at the right time, were factors as well. But if natural selection and progress are based on random mutations, then is it possible that massive breakthroughs in the way we think and perceive and create are also accidental? Are they merely evidence of another Great Leap Forward?

Whether great art of any kind is built on the shoulders of those who came before by influence or evolution is unclear to me. Somehow it feels more sacred and magical. And yet, when in the presence of greatness, there almost seems to be inevitability or a sense of destiny about it. I recently had a discussion with a childhood friend about a mutual acquaintance who became particularly successful. We realized that we always expected that level of success from our old friend; that somehow, she always seemed destined for greatness.

Where does great innovation come from? Could the answer be as simple as a random act of intellectual mutation? Is it from a deep knowledge of what has come before with the acumen to see exactly what should come next? Or is it something innate that is destined to happen? Maybe it is a combination of all three. In some ways, I hope so. I have discovered that my destiny is often found on the road I take to avoid it. Perhaps next time I travel there, I will be lucky enough to stumble upon something I have never seen before.

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PUBLISHED ON Jan.21.2009 BY debbie millman
Jason Tselentis’s comment is:

Perhaps when we use greater than 10% of our brains (if you believe that myth), we as humans, will really make progress and advance; I'm sure that myth can be applied to designers' skills somehow.

On Jan.21.2009 at 08:01 AM
Rocco Piscatello’s comment is:

I love one of your last lines here, "I have found that my destiny is usually found on the road I take to avoid it". Very nice piece.

On Jan.21.2009 at 08:17 AM
Felix Cohen’s comment is:

"So there is always the possibility that despite central heating and plenty of food, a random variation will insure that one million years from now we are, if nothing more, a kinder and more considerate species"

This demonstrates a core misunderstanding in this article; mutations occur at the level of the individual, not species. So even if there is a random mutation that makes an individual kinder and more considerate, that mutation would also have to incur an increase in fitness; the individual would have to be more likely than their peers to breed, as would their progeny. And the mutation would have to be 'sticky'; not likely to be lost as soon as sexual reproduction takes place, jumpling the genes with another persons.

This is the great problem with 'great leap forward' theories; they ignore the necessarily gradual nature of physical evolution in order to make sweeping statements about human nature. It's more than possible that a number of small changes working together laid the foundations for the flowering of human civilisation, but this would go hand in hand with the *external evolution* of the species; the need to document, teach and communicate. Once that external intelligence of the race reaches a certain point, it becomes self sustaining and informs the structure of the brain. This is where I see the hope; more access to better information informs, creates and changes society

Gosh, sorry, that was a bit longer than I'd meant; this is a very complicated issue...

On Jan.21.2009 at 10:06 AM
Felix Cohen’s comment is:

And in reply to Jason Tselentis's comment; the 10% figure is a misnomer. In fact, we mainly use the surface layer of our brain, the cortex, for what we would consider 'thinking' in this context; hence it appears as though the vast proportion of the brain is unused, whereas in fact it controls many of the autonomous functions of the body, among many many other things.

And of course, like a computer processor, not all transistors are constantly active, as this would necessarily be a much simpler machine. The billions of possible combinations of transistor/neuron states are what makes complex computation and thought possible.

On Jan.21.2009 at 10:10 AM
Jason Tselentis’s comment is:

Felix, I have an iPhone app that can help with that. And... I hear you on the 10% myth. It is after all a myth.

To Debbie's post: this is a wonderful forum for her insights, as designers need to look inward as much (or maybe more than) they look outward, at clients and the problems they face. For a great read, I recommend Mastery, which goes deeper into the time + work + dedication + failure = excellence equation.

On Jan.21.2009 at 10:19 AM
Paul Costen’s comment is:

Thanks to natural selection, we've got the privilege to be one of the only sentient species on the planet, but we've got that evolutionary instinct to still value our personal immediate self-interest over our enlightened self-interest. If we can succeed in being more self aware and aware of humanity, we've got the potential to substantively affect our civilizations' evolution. Our biggest challenge as a species is getting to the point where we all have that shared goal and shared awareness.

On Jan.21.2009 at 11:04 AM
Andrew’s comment is:

Yeah I was going to come in and comment on the random variation in an individual issue as well.

I, as a science aficionado and nothing more, an very inclined to believe the great leap forward hypothesis. You can train animals for their entire life, and the most complex abstract thought they will be able to do is count (like Alex the parrot). This is essentially even true of other primates as far as we know. ...none of them will ever be able to do calculus, or build a website, even if trained from birth.

This tells me that there's something more at work than accumulated knowledge, something structural in the brain. and since we see a rather sudden set of indicators that -something- has changed it seems to point to a new biological development. And then the smarter, more creative humans went around and simply outperformed their peers.

But I do agree that we won't see any new -evolutionary- changes. But don't lose hope for the future, we still may see radically different cultures, structures of government or genetic modification though.

On Jan.21.2009 at 11:40 AM
Andrew’s comment is:

I should clarify something: the sudden set of indicators I am talking about are 50 thousandish years ago. Cave paintings, art, stone tools and evidence for ceremony surrounding death.

On Jan.21.2009 at 11:43 AM
debbie millman’s comment is:

One of the things I find most interesting about the cultural universals is the notion of "self-decoration." To mark or brand ourselves would help us identify like-minded tribe members, which would in turn help us feel more safe or secure.

Sound familiar?

On Jan.21.2009 at 11:52 AM
Young Mr. Arvizu’s comment is:

I wonder if Steve Jone's comments were concerning biological evolution and not cultural evolution.

If we extend evolutionary principles to explain the spread of ideas and cultural phenomena, then air-conditioning and Mega-Lo Marts and might be completely irrelevant when considering the evolution of how we think, what we believe and yes, approach design.

So, even if our modern environment does decrease the speed of our biological evolution--that doesn't necessarily mean it slows down our intellectual evolution.

On Jan.21.2009 at 12:45 PM
Gunnar Swanson’s comment is:

It's easy to get comfortable with an analogy and lose track of the fact that it is just that: an analogy. If you are going to try to learn something about cultural development or stylistic preferences in art from looking at the biological evolution of species, you have to make a careful case for more than passing similarities between that metaphor (evolution) and the thing being compared.

> One of the things I find most interesting about
> the cultural universals is the notion of "self-
> decoration." To mark or brand ourselves would
> help us identify like-minded tribe members,
> which would in turn help us feel more safe or
> secure.
> Sound familiar?

Yes. Another evolutionary metaphor (based on Ernst Haeckel's theory of recapitulation) is embedded in Adolph Loos' "Ornament and Crime." Loos saw self decoration as a cultural infantilism, expressed in individual infants' love of ornament.

On Jan.21.2009 at 06:06 PM
Michael Deal’s comment is:

There are some nice thoughts in this article, but everything that Felix said is absolutely correct and I'm glad that somebody spoke up to state it.

On Jan.23.2009 at 04:21 PM
Pesky Illustrator’s comment is:

Everyone thinks they can predict the future or make academic pronouncements. Just to add some original predictions to the discussion here is Vanga. I quite believe her, but that's just my opinion.

It's all guessing until the Future becomes the Past. See you in 3797 and we'll add it all up.

Vanga (Vangelia) Pandeva was born on January 31st, 1911 and spent her life living in Bulgaria until she died on August 11th, 1996. She lost her sight when she was 12 years old when she was swept away by a tornado. She was found alive with sand in her eyes, which was the reason for her blindness. Vanga began making predictions when she was 16 years old. She became very famous for having this gift rather quickly. Many of the statesman including Hitler had visited her and it is reported that Hitler left her house looking upset.

Vanga’s most shocking prediction include:
“At the turn of the century, in August of 1999 or 2000, Kursk will be covered with water, and the whole world will be weeping over it.” (1980)
- The prediction did not make any sense back then. Sadly, twenty years on, it did make a lot of sense, when a Russian nuclear submarine sunk in an accident in August of 2000. The submarine was named Kursk. Kursk - the city (after which the submarine was named), could by no means have been covered with water (probably that’s why her prediction seemed so unrealistic at first).

“Horror, horror! The American brethren will fall after being attacked by the steel birds. The wolves will be howling in a bush, and innocent blood will be gushing.” (1989)
- Happened as predicted. The World Trade Center Towers in New York collapsed following terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001. The WTC Towers were dubbed “Twins” or “Brothers.” The terrorists drove passenger planes –“the steel birds”- into the towers. “The bush” obviously relates to the surname of the current U.S. president.

Below is a big article about the predictions that she made about the future for visitors who don’t speak Russian.


2008 - Assassination attempts on four heads of states. Conflict in Indonesia. That becomes one of the causes for the start of WWIII.

2010 - The start of WWIII. The war will begin in November of 2010 and will end in October of 2014. Will start as a normal war, then will include usage of nuclear and chemical weapons.

2011 - Due to the radioactive showers in Northern Hemisphere - no animals or plants will be left. Muslims will begin chemical war against Europeans who are still alive.

2014 - Most of the people in this world will have skin cancer and skin related diseases. (as a result of chemical wars).

2016 - Europe is almost empty

2018 - China becomes the new world power.

2023 - Earth’s orbit will change slightly

2025 - Europe is still barely populated

2028 - Development of a new energy source. (Probably controller thermonuclear reaction) Hunger slowly stops being a problem. Piloted spaceship to Venus deploys.

2033 - Polar ice caps melt. World ocean levels rise.

2043 - World economy is prosperous. Muslims are running Europe.

2046 - Any organs can be mass produced. Exchange of body organs becomes the favorite method of treatment.

2066 - During it’s attack on Rome (which is under control of the Muslims) U.S.A. uses a new method of weapons - has to do with climate change. Sharp freezing.

2076 - No class society (communism)

2084 - The rebirth of the nature.

2088 - New disease. - People are getting old in few seconds.

2097 - This disease is cured.

2100 - Man made Sun is lighting up the dark side of the planet Earth.

2111 - People become robots.

2123 - Wars between small countries. Big countries don’t get evolved.

2125 - In Hungry the signals from Space are received. (People will be reminded of Vanga again)

2130 - Colonies under water (advices from aliens)

2154 - Animals become half-humans.

2167 - New religion

2170 - Big drought.

2183 - Collony on Mars becomes nuclear nation and is asking for independence from the Earth. (same way as U.S. did from England)

2187 - Successfully two volcano eruptions are stopped.

2195 - Sea colonies are fully supplied with energy and food.

2196 - Full mixture between Asians and Europeans.

2201 - Thermonuclear reactions on the Sun slow down. Temperatures Drop.

2221 - In the search of Alien life, human beings engage with something very freighting.

2256 - Spaceship brings a freighting new disease into Earth.

2262 - Orbits of planets start to change progressively. Mars is undera threat of being hit by a comet.

2271 - Physic properties are calculated over, since they changed.

2273 - Mix of yellow, white, and black race. New race.

2279 - Energy out of nothing (probably from vacuum or black holes)

2288 - Travel through time. New contacts with the aliens.

2291 - Sun cools. Attempts to fire it up again are taken.

2296 - Bright flashes on the Sun. Force of gravity changes. Old space stations and satellites begin to fall

2299 - In France, there is a partisan uprising against Islam.

2302 - New important new laws and mysteries about the universe are uncovered.

2304 - The mystery of the Moon is uncovered.

2341 - Something frightening is closing in with Earth from the space.

2354 - Accident on one of the man made suns, will result in drought.

2371 - Mighty hunger.

2378 - New and fast growing race.

2480 - Two man made suns will collide. Earth is in the dark.

3005 - War on Mars. Trajectory of planets changes.

3010 - Comet will ram into the Moon. Around Earth there is a belt of rocks and dust.

3797 - By this time, everything living on Earth dies. But humans are able to put in the essentials for the beginning of a new life in a new star system.

via pravda.ru, wikipedia.org

On Jan.23.2009 at 06:49 PM
Young Mr. Arvizu’s comment is:

Usually these dire predictions of future doom get to me. I noticed though as her predictions began to move on into the distant future, the less I became concerned. I don't know if this is because of an emotional detachment from things far removed--or because she loses credibility as she continues...

Either way, fortune telling and prophesying are right up there with religion and gods--strong faith or pungent ignorance is required to become a zealot. Give me something I can verify and I'll believe.

On Jan.26.2009 at 11:57 AM
Pesky Illustrator’s comment is:


Sunrise tomorrow....in the morning.


On Jan.26.2009 at 07:17 PM
millie rossman kidd’s comment is:

I agree with YMA re: the ignorance or just plain blind faith surrounding some of this prophesy material and organized religion in general.

That said, I'm no zealot, but I do admit when I read some of this stuff, the hair stands upon the back of my neck, or I get the chills. I do believe there are things we can't explain.

But with regard to your comment about caring less the further into future the predictions run, I have to ask if you have kids? (And I don't ask in a judgey sort of way; I'm just curious.)

That's what sort of gets to me. Not that I would have made the decision to have them or not to have them based on material like this, but it does bother me--the thought of my kids having to live through even a percentage of what's above.

I echo Debbie's more positive hopes, and perhaps Vanga just somehow missed out on reporting the kinder, gentler, more conscious developments to come!

On Jan.27.2009 at 01:12 PM
Young Mr. Arvizu’s comment is:

Millie: That's a good question, and I see your point. I do have two little girls. And like you--the most troublesome thoughts are of them having to live in such fear. I don't like these doomsday prophecies at all, I wonder who's accountable for the effect they have on the public psyche. (I couldn't wait for Armageddon Week to end on the History Channel.)

Back to the kids question. To be honest, I have to ask myself: how many generations need to be removed before I stop feeling so emotionally attached to my offspring. I think about the living, breathing, eating, working, sleeping, life-experiencing, human being my great grandfather's great-grandfather was--but honestly, there is no emotional connection to this distant relic of my DNA.

I guess my thought is that after so many generations, I'm not as invested for some reason. I don't like the way that sounds coming out of my head--but, it might explain my comment above.

I want my kids and their kids and their kids, to be happy. Beyond that generation--it's probably all the same genetic stew anyway, right? So I guess I'm routing for your kid's kids too!

On Jan.27.2009 at 09:44 PM
Mike’s comment is:

I'd be concerned for any kids being raised by parents who DO have worries based on those kinds of prophecies.

On Jan.28.2009 at 12:04 PM