Metaphors for the human brain have evolved over time. There were the clockworks for perhaps a hundred years. Then it was more sophisticated machinery, such as a mill or a calculator. With the advent of cybernetics, the default description of the brain became a computer. More and more, I’ve been hearing the web used as a metaphor for how a single human processes information and forms conclusions.

A qualification for a good metaphor is that it be familiar. As the web becomes ubiquitous, it offers benefits as an explanatory principle for highly complex horizontal systems producing positive, unexpected outcomes.

Malthus was a 19th century philosopher/mathematician who posited that in an environment with limited resources, increases of populations within that environment will reveal patterns as the populations grow and then decline. Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations ran with a related theme as he hypothesized that an “invisible hand” would compel human populations to behave in predictable patterns that would manifest in an increase in productivity in a competitive environment, resulting in better goods at cheaper costs. Darwin translated these principles into his theory of natural selection. It is often thought that Spencer’s interpretation of this first of Darwin’s three theories of evolution, his theory of natural selection, was what inspired Spencer to coin the term “survival of the fittest”. Not exactly. Darwin was inspired by Smith’s theoretical treatise on early British capitalism and how the fittest survive.

Social Darwinism has been used as an excuse for laissez-faire capitalism. Our model for the origin of species is our capitalist economy. Not the other way around.

A theory is a useful metaphor or a story. The metaphors we use evolve with time, as our understanding of our experience deepens. We are so enamored of a good story–or theory–that we become convinced the story is the thing it was designed to represent. The Internet is not the brain. Natural selection is not how species evolve. Not even Darwin thought that to be the case. He went on to devise two more theories of evolution to explain what natural selection did not satisfactorily make clear.

I’ve talked to Leftists deeply confused about the metaphor and what the metaphor represents. Presupposing natural selection to be true, they unconsciously subscribe to the origin myth of capitalist society. Capitalists claim an “uncontrolled” economy reflects the way the natural world behaves. The Left argues humans are different and should break with the natural world. I would suggest it’s time to start looking for an alternative origin myth. The story we’ve been working with is a theory encouraged by those that profit from its propagation.

Noting the evolution of the metaphors we’ve created to explain ourselves, it’s clear we’re forced to rely upon what seems familiar. Consider that as our metaphors become more complex, reflecting our broadening and deepening experience, our stories or theories will more efficiently inform.

Perhaps the best metaphor for explaining how our brain works, or for that matter what we as human beings might actually be, might be the world we come from, not a machine. This would take some attention to detail, exploring the many useful theories of evolution that already exist. Perhaps our planet is too large to be familiar. Maybe we have to hold our stories in a single phrase. Still, I would suggest retiring “survival of the fittest.” “All connected” feels right to me.


This entry was posted on Wednesday, May 28th, 2008 at 6:11 am and is filed under 10-Activism, Activism, Biology, Myth/Story, Society, Web. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.
2 Comments so far

  1. on November 10, 2011 7:09 pm

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