Tuesday, 11 November 2014

Annoying words: devolution

3D model reconstruction by Cicero Moraes
I don't like the word "devolution" for any of its definitions. Recently, its main usage has been for the transference of political and economic powers to regions, but let's start with the idea of a retrograde evolution. I don't think such a thing exists at all. An example given in the linked definitions is: "the gradual devolution of the neighbourhood from a thriving community of close-knit families to a drug-ridden slum."

If this was truly devolution than the neighbourhood will have reverted back to the drug-ridden slum which it had been prior to its becoming a "thriving community of close-knit families". In every case I can think of, the community evolved to a drug-ridden slum. Evolution has nothing at all to do with us changing, over time, to some imagined ideal state. It only means that we have adapted to changing conditions. So what happened with the drug-ridden slum? A series of economic situations and mismanagement allowed the houses to fall into disrepair; property prices fell; local opportunities in education and work diminished; most of the community became poor and with little hope for improvement. A few individuals then sought to improve their lot and about the only route for them to take was toward criminal activities. Drugs came to the forefront because a certain segment of the community felt the need to escape from their misery through chemical means. As this was illegal, survival-oriented individuals saw a way that they could lessen their misery by supplying such drugs. They learned to adapt. They evolved.

When I look at Cicero Moraes reconstruction of Homo erectus pekinensis, I can easily believe that this early man was quite capable of adapting to changing conditions. Decades ago, various sorts of hominids were portrayed as unintelligent louts. Slack-jawed and hunched over, they appeared more like legendary monsters than survival-oriented individuals. We had a habit of building ourselves up by denigrating our ancestors. Now we are even starting to wonder if we are actually becoming less intelligent as a species.

For the political usage of the word it is advisable to look at primitive governments (and to take "primitive" as "primal" rather than "less developed along evolutionary lines". When I started looking into ancient Irish Law, I was impressed by how it had evolved to take care of any difficulties on a local level. There seemed no need for police and for prisons: if someone stole your cattle you would be more than compensated, if not by the culprit, then by his family or even by anyone who allowed the stolen cattle to graze on their land. These laws were tailored to local conditions and sought to regain equilibrium in their execution. They were not intended to punish as much as to dissuade people from any wrong-doing. Just because we are now thinking that local and small government works better for everyone  than distant and big government, does not mean that we are devolving, it is just that we allowed ourselves to stray from some survival behaviours of earlier times and now, finally, we have decided to adapt, yet again. It's still evolution, even if it strayed for a long time.

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