The Origin of a Species

It’s easy for some to think that we’ve stopped evolving as a species, at least for the time being. As far as we can tell, Homo sapiens has looked, and mostly behaved, fairly similar since it developed speech and communal living, albeit with small changes in language, customs, clothing, transport and house structures. But evolution of any system never really stops, and sometimes can even work in reverse (e.g. Darwin’s finches and Seattle’s sticklebacks).

After all, as Darwin wrote in On the Origin of Species, “Under domestication we see much variability… [which] is governed by many complex laws, – by correlation of growth, by use and disuse, and by the direct action of the physical conditions of life.” A species can only keep reproducing carbon copies of itself for multiple generations “as long as the conditions of life remain the same”.

And the conditions of human life have changed.

But when I was young, we ate meat!

The concept of change is relatively self-oriented. People are mostly unaware of how they effect change upon others, or even themselves…but when external change affects their own life, especially without their consent, they notice.

Most people would agree that some changes are beneficial, and often necessary, to improve certain aspects of society…medical advancements, security at airports, public transport, the debit MasterCard etc. Other changes have some good features, but make things more complicated than the previous system (and take away our right to choice). The demise of the VHS, the cassette tape and the analogue television signal are prime examples. And don’t forget the indirect effects of ‘technological advancement’…the corruption of the English language or the loss of common courtesy and good manners.

Take mobile phones. They began as a means for people on the move to contact or be contacted, mainly for safety and efficiency. It’s a great idea. I would be wasting my breath to remind anyone who’s broken down on a lonely road or had a loved one taken to hospital without warning of the benefits of a mobile phone.

Now, society (and Homo sapiens) is changing to cater to mobile communication, not the other way around. Many people who rely on a home phone as their sole form of contact may as well be invisible to the technological society. Important emergency information from disaster management organisations or airline companies is often disseminated via text message or social media, so if you’re not ‘online’ or ‘mobile’ you may miss out on information that could save your life. Social network sites and mobile communication systems, created to ‘connect’ people, are the biggest social segregators in today’s society.

The run-on effects of this simple change in technology are far-reaching. The younger generation is creating their own version of the English language, because they grew up with emails, text-speak and instant messaging. Many young people can’t even spell anymore, because they learn a new ‘English’ through colloquialisms, acronyms, swearwords, informal shorthand and Spellcheck. Informality reigns supreme in today’s society (all in the name of ‘breaking down barriers’), as ‘Dear M___’ and ‘Yours Sincerely’ are deemed too pompous, and school students interact on a first name basis with their teachers.

Yet the people that defend these changes are often the same ones who express disappointment over poor school literacy levels, ubiquitous impoliteness in the younger generation, and ‘inappropriate’ relationships between teachers and students.

Where do we, like, totally draw the super-thin line?

Two news items caught my attention last week. In Australia, the End of the Bookstore – too many people are buying books online, or in cheap department stores, instead of going to bookshops. In the United States, it was the End of the Postal Stamp – because too many people have succumbed to the digital age and no one sends real letters with stamps on them anymore.

Again, the line is blurred. We can argue the environmental and economic benefits of fewer books, online shopping and emails rather than letters. But we can’t forget the losses that society will suffer from the changes. The sense of fulfilment gained from walking the aisles of a bookstore or holding a hard copy of your favourite novel in your hands. That little quiver of connection you feel when you see a handwritten, stamped envelope in your letterbox, instead of the usual pile of window envelopes. The personal benefits you gain from walking into a shop and interacting with a real person, instead of shielding behind the situation-control of your computer screen. The economic and social benefits of employing all the people who work in the soon-to-be extinct bookstores or post shops.

Homo sapiens digitalis could be the fastest species evolution we have seen to this day. Do we embrace this new subspecies, and dump our literacy, languages, social skills, and people-reading skills (all of which took thousands of years for us to develop and hone) for the newer model? Or do we fight the change, and prevent our reverse evolution into insular individuals, interacting mostly within the family/tribal unit, and communicating with others through ‘signs and pictures’ instead of spoken words?

© Manu Saunders 2011

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