(Please read Part I and Part II before this part.)
5. Why Punctuated Equilibrium Matters
So far, this discussion dealt mainly with an issue that, at first glance, might not seem important to anyone outside a narrow circle of systematic and theoretical biologists. Hardly anyone outside this narrow circle has even heard of "phyletic gradualism" or of "punctuated equilibrium." Yet this first glance is deceiving. Up to about 1990, even knowledgeable biologists often conflated what we now call "phyletic gradualism" with evolution as such (much as the "Copenhagen Interpretation" of quantum physics is often conflated, even in the minds of the less knowledgeable physicists, with just quantum physics.) Even today, there are many professors of biology, not to mention biology teachers in middle schools and high schools, who are out of their intellectual comfort zone in measure theory and genetic algorithms - and therefore, who still think of phyletic gradualism as simply "Evolution." And therefore, so do almost all non-biologists. Most people today, if they have any ideas having to do with evolution at all, have ideas based on a false picture of how evolution works.
And thus we come to the most important reason why punctuated equilibrium matters. An important aspect of rationality is the use of principles as a guide to everyday life. One of the most useful principles is that the human body is a product of evolution. A false idea of how evolution works can sabotage the application of this principle to one's life. At worst, a false idea of how evolution works can trap the user into activities and habits that worsen, rather than improve, one's health and one's performance at life.
Unfortunately, there are many diet, exercise, and other self-help regimens that claim to be principled applications of the principle of evolution - and are actually applications of the (disconfirmed) phyletic gradualism model. Most of these regimens are based on a specific embodiment of the phyletic gradualism model: Stewart Brand's once popular doctrine of "CoEvolution."
6. "Co-Evolution" and Stewart Brand
Stewart Brand's work has affected more people who don't know his name than the work of any other near-anonymous intellectual on the planet. An early associate of Ken Kesey and his "performance art" collective the "Merry Pranksters," he had unblemished Hippie credentials, combined with (unusual for a Hippie) a genuine love of science and technology. The mainspring of the hippies' movement was opposition to anything that might be a part of "the system:" not merely against the political system, but against everything from systematic thought to industrial production to intelligible art. This took many of the early hippies into lives of applied nihilism that often led to the mental hospital or to the grave. Brand, with his love of history and technology, was a rebel among rebels.
By 1968, many of Brand's hippie friends were dead from rejection of science and, especially, from rejection of technology. In 1969, Brand began publishing The Whole Earth Catalog, a compendium of technologies (books, maps, garden tools, specialized clothing, carpenters' and masons' tools, forestry gear, tents, welding equipment, professional journals, electrical gear and so on) that might be useful for survival in various degrees of isolation from "the System." It became an instant best-seller, reaching a million and a half copies in 1972. The Whole Earth Catalog was not only a survival manual for hippies, but also for a wide range of "survivalists" preparing for eventualities that ranged from nuclear war and a Communist invasion, to an immediate collapse of civilization (as in "Atlas Shrugged" read by a literalist.) The Whole Earth Catalog was also used by millions who were neither hippies nor survivalists, but who found many of the technologies in the book simply useful for living better lives.
In the meantime, Brand developed something that the early hippies had disdained: an ideology that grounded their anti-industrial attitude and lifestyle in the evolutionary science of his time; that is, in what today is called the phyletic gradualism model. Brand's "ideology of the Hippies" came to be known as the doctrine of CoEvolution, after one of its key ideas. Brand propagated his ideas in a periodical, founded in 1974, that he called "Co-Evolution Quarterly."
According to Stewart Brand's doctrine of CoEvolution, for the first several millions of years of hominid evolution our ancestors, and the life-forms in their environment, had co-evolved into a state of optimal human health in an environment optimally suited for human life. This optimal co-existence came to an end at the breakpoint between the Paleolithic and the Neolithic periods of human prehistory. It ended when humans stopped waiting for the life in their environment to co-evolve with them, slowly, into a harmonious state optimal for the well-being of all life. Instead, humans started to change their environment by means of agriculture, engineering, and eventually the building of cities and industries. These changes resulted in an environment that was no longer suited to optimal human health and life.
The other prong of the doctrine was that, given how slow evolution appeared to be under the phyletic gradualism model, human biology today was essentially unchanged since paleolithic times. Therefore the existential counsel of Brand's doctrine of CoEvolution was that, to achieve optimal well-being, one should try to live today as closely as possible to how our paleolithic ancestors lived ten thousand years ago; while trying to live in an environment approximating, as closely as possible, their environment - and working to bring the global physical environment back to what it was then. It was not a coincidence that the result also resembled how many of the Hippies already lived, as a result of trying to live apart from "the System."
The specific recommendations were, first, to avoid eating foods created or processed by industrial or artificial methods such as milling, canning, or chemical reactions or adding artificial preservatives or flavors. Then, to avoid the products of industrial agriculture, and to grow one's own, or to barter or trade with small-scale, home-based farmers, and then only those who did not use any artificial chemicals or other artificial methods. Eating, if possible, only those breeds of animals and plants that were closest to what existed before the beginning of agriculture. Avoiding foods that could not have been hunted or gathered by pre-agricultural humans.
The CoEvolution lifestyle went beyond diet. Footwear was to be avoided in favor of going barefoot; at most, it was to be limited to protecting the bottom of the sole. Lift, lateral support and arch support footwear was out. Exercise was to be limited to the natural motions of running, climbing, and hefting - no artificial positions or exercise machines. No shaving; no artificial cosmetics, shampoo, soap, or deodorant. No furniture for sleeping or sitting off the floor (but mats and pillows, in place of paleolithic animal pelts on the floor, were OK.) Any work that could not be done on the floor was to be done standing.
Elements of the CoEvolution lifestyle caught on with many people who would never have thought of themselves as hippies, often for good reasons. Many men stopped shaving, both to save time and to avoid the inevitable nicks and cuts. Some found it easier to work standing than sitting; many slept better on futons than on beds. Most of all, Americans began to re-learn how much better authentic, unprocessed food tasted than the processed, industrial kind. Stewart Brand changed how we lived, and how we thought about living.
Yet within a few years, the phyletic gradualism model at the foundation of the CoEvolution doctrine began to be disconfirmed by increasing evidence for punctuated equilibrium. Brand, who had been a biology major at Stanford, was among the first to abandon the doctrine to which he had given life. In 1985, "CoEvolution Quarterly" became "Whole Earth Review," and CoEvolution was not heard from again. Brand re-invented himself as a corporate futurist, in 1988 co-founding the Global Business Network and working for, among others, Royal Dutch/Shell, Volvo, and AT&T. But Brand's doctrine of CoEvolution would not die with its founder's change of mind. Few non-specialists understood the evidence that had disconfirmed phyletic gradualism and put punctuated equilibrium in its place. And two decades later, CoEvolution re-entered the marketplace of self-help ideas under other names.
(Continued in Part IV.)