Is Google Making Us Stoopid?

Thursday, July 31, 2008

Nicholas Carr’s article in the Atlantic Monthly has got a lot of people talking about the changes Google, or, more accurately, the Internet (they’re practically synonymous), is making to the way we think. There is the usual hand-wringing that accompanies any new technology or medium, and worries that some part of our basic makeup will be lost forever. Others dismiss these concerns and cite the existence of this kind of worrying whenever society changes.

In truth, they’re both right. The Internet has and will continue to change the way we live, work, and think. And as a result, some part of the way we’ve done things in the past has changed. Biologically speaking, it is certain that routine use of the Internet will shape our neural circuitry and continually reinforce those pathways. Short attention spans, browsing, and what-have-you might be a natural result, if, in fact, the Internet is the prevailing medium through which you extend your brain.

But wherever you fall in this debate, there is an important point that should not be overlooked. Humans (and life, in general) are amazingly adaptable. It has only been a dozen years or so since the Internet really became deeply entrenched in our lives. In that time, many people have gone from the old way of doing things to so pervasive a new way of doing things that articles can appear that question the new way. 12 years!

This ability to adapt ensures that nothing is really lost forever. These abilities are just dormant. The human brain is constantly pruning old and reinforcing new neural pathways. If all the electricity disappeared tomorrow, I exaggerate only slightly by writing that within a few years we’d see a renaissance of long-form journalism and the return of the 19th century novel.

In the meantime, the use of Google and the brain functioning that it encourages are simply a new form of intelligence. Is it an advance? Sure. Like the first monkey to pick up a rock and smash a nut, it will likely be built upon and new modes of thinking and communication will come into existence. Is it ultimately good?

My guess is yes. But one thing is for sure, Google (and the Internet) is not making us stoopid. It is simply making us different than before. And that’s what evolution is all about.

Here’s a number of thinkers on this topic from

Evolution: A Scientific American Reader

Friday, May 30, 2008

I bought this book while browsing the book section of the gift shop at the Museum of Natural History in New York. My interest in biology, genetics, and evolution is paramount in my intellectual life right now, and has been for a while. I was hoping that the book would give me new information and inspire my thinking on the subject. I wasn’t disappointed.

The book is a compilation of articles from Scientific American magazine related to evolution. It starts with a section on the evolution of the universe, continues with cellular evolution, dinosaurs and pre-hominid life, and then finishes with human evolution. Each section contains several articles worth reading, with the standouts being:

  • The entire section on the evolution of the universe.
  • The articles about primitive cellular evolution and immunology (this is a fascinating subject).
  • Stephen Jay Gould on Punctuated Equilibrium.
  • The articles about early hominid evolution and population dispersal.
  • There are a few misses in there as well, but because the book is loosely organized by discrete topics, without much continuity between them, you can simply skip the articles that don’t interest you. For a primer on evolution, and in particular to learn about the evolution of the universe, the formation of stars, and utterly amazing biology of cells, Evolution: A Scientific American Reader is a great book. I recommend it.

    Mankind Down to the Last 2,000

    Tuesday, April 29, 2008

    A genetic analysis produced by researchers at the National Geographic Genographic Project and Stanford reports that mankind may have been down to about 2,000 people roughly 70,000 years ago.

    They can figure this out by analyzing the genomes of mitochondrial DNA. Mitochondria produce energy for cells, among other things. They have their own DNA, separate from a cell’s nucleus, and they are thought to have once been distinct organisms that were engulfed by our cellular ancestors.

    This research lends some support to Stephen Jay Gould’s theory of punctuated equilibrium, which sees evolution not as a flowing natural progression towards complexity (and human inevitability) but as a series of start and stop accidents that put us here purely by luck.

    One more major drought and we’d have gone the way of the Neanderthals.