Paper Explores Fusion of Biological and Digital Worlds

With digital technologies proliferating, and our dependence on them growing ever more acute, a new paper co-authored by Assistant Professor of Communication Martin Hilbert suggests that understanding previous evolutionary transitions can help us get to grips with those that may be currently underway.

Published in Trends in Ecology and Evolution, the paper details the ways in which evolution has “transformed life through key innovations in information storage and replication,” including RNA, DNA, multicellularity, and culture and language. Hilbert and his co-authors (Darrell Kemp and Michael Gillings, biological scientists from Macquarie University) note that, while biological information stays constant, digital information can increase exponentially (20-30% per year, in fact), as well as evolve and replicate itself. This, they argue, means that a comparable evolutionary transition is likely.

Benign symbiosis?

The paper suggests that biologists’ research on previous evolutionary transitions can enhance our understanding of the impact that digital technology may have on biological systems such as humanity. Such research can also reassure us that, unlike the apocalyptic scenes found in so much science fiction, such transitions need not necessarily be something to fear.

Although there are numerous examples of so-called “exploitative” or competitive natural selection in evolutionary history, there have also been several instances of benign symbiosis—the relationship between DNA and mitochondria, for example. To chart the repercussions of humanity’s current transition to increased dependence on digital information—to gauge whether that relationship is symbiotic, parasitic or competitive—collaboration between social scientists and biologists is vital.

To read the paper in full, visit the Trends in Ecology and Evolution website.