Twitter and Human Evolution

As my regular readers know, I have a wide variety of interests… so I hope you indulge me here… but worry not!  I’ll be sure to include a few of my daily photos, as usual.

Twitter and Human Evolution

by, appropriately,


I have my own perspective on what Twitter is enabling. I think there is a parallel to cells in the human body and what the human decides to do with all those cells. Take a single cell in my right forearm. It’s subcutaneous, about 800 cells from the surface, neighbors a blood vessel cell, and is about 30 cells away from one that provides nutrients to the hair follicle. The little cell is in its own world. It’s only concerned about its neighbors and what it needs to survive. It doesn’t really care whether or not the human carrying it is going to eat sushi or Italian for dinner. It’s more concerned that it gets all the little nutrients it needs.

The cell sends little signals all around. “Hey, I need more salt.” “Anyone have any hemoglobin?” “I have some extra iron.” “Are you guys hot?”. Every individual cell does this sort of thing. This symphony of a million voices, when seen from the human level at another order of magnitude, helps the human to figure out the utterance, “I should really go inside and have some warm tea.”

Microbiology and genetics are only a hobby of mine, and it does not take too long before I get a bit far afield, so I asked my friend, Dr. David Sands, professor of Plant Pathology at MSU, a bit more about it before I got myself in trouble. He added, “Cell to cell communication is a very important component of overall efficiency.” He went on to say that a cell may need a particular amino acid. It will take quite a while to build all the component parts for the biosynthesis machinery. Once it is done, it can make all the amino acids it needs, and then go ahead and make a bunch extra for dozens of its neighbors. This exchange then triggers the evolution of more complex organisms where cells have all sorts of areas of specialization. Simple bacteria also communicate with one another by using consensus signals (homoserine lactone), and once that consensus is reached, the super-organism can choose to act with volition, such as producing toxins.

The cell sends short, simple, non binary messages both ASKING for stuff and OFFERING stuff. Of course, these are not explicit “messages”, but they have the same effect. In essence, it’s a short and sweet message, much like a Tweet that has room for 140 characters, each of which can be any ASCII character. It’s the same sort and complexity of message encoded in a bee’s waggle dance as a precursor to swarm behavior.

The Veins of Bangkok

Human-built networks inevitably resemble biological systems.
(pic from Bangkok)

Now I don’t have to spell out the parallels between cell communication and the Twitter world. Twitter users typically have a few hundred followers and follow about a hundred more. Occasionally, there are people that have thousands (or hundreds of thousands) of followers but follow considerably less. These Twitterers tend to offer some of the most interesting Tweets or are followed as a guilty pleasure. If a tipping point of interesting messages make it up to their level, they will often spread them among the diaspora of Twitter. The number of Twitter followers the population has adheres to the power law, as with all naturally evolving networks. This node-link relationship is consistent with all naturally evolved systems within the human body (or any complex organism, for that matter).

The most successful Twitters offer up free “data” to others and request data from others. When spread across millions of people, the collective action of the “human race” can do some fairly interesting and unexpected things. It’s better than email and phone calls. Email is too long. Phone calls require synchronous dedicated attention. I could go on and on comparing other human communication methods, but you get the point.

Twitter, conversely, forces the meat of the message into a tight space and it is automatically and immediately dispersed to people who are predisposed to react to its content. It seems as though this is finally the communication mechanism that could allow humans to act as a super-organism, enabling large groups of humans, when viewed from another order of magnitude, to have a purposeful volition.

No one entity can see the bigger picture, but together, they reflect a larger reality.
(pic from Amsterdam)

If you accept the premise that Twitter enables bottom-up decision making, then it seems to go against the grain of a top-down dirigisme. That is, we may not need brick & mortar & gun “governments” to tell large populations of people what to do with themselves. People can figure this out on their own, especially since they are more in touch with the “situation on the ground.” For example, the government has recently decided to use valuable “stimulus” resources to spend $886,000 to build a 36-hole frisbee park in Austin. This is the sort of decision that top-down design generates. Would a group of Twitterers ever get together and choose such a thing? Maybe, but I doubt it.

I consulted my science-writer friend Matt Ridley in the UK with an early draft of this, and he responded, “My government did two top-down things today that make the word ‘foolish’ look polite.” He proceeded to tell me that the British government announced all ISPs must preserve and make available to the authorities ALL private emails, texts, and other messages. The second dictate involved building a $150,000 road underpass for badgers on a farm. It’s hard to imagine a groundswell movement for these sorts of things, unless there happened to be a disproportionate number of badgers on Twitter.

Similarly, I shared these thoughts with the economist Bart Wilson. As alarming new events have started to quickly spread in Twitter, he notes, “It reminded me of animal herding to avoid predators.” Certainly people in Twitter can bottom-up organize to quickly react to threats, the way one krill might dart inward when a dolphin approaches, causing his neighbor to dart the same way. We’ve already seen countless examples of this now that Twitter has become, effectively, the antennae system for humankind.

In sum, this is all early in the process and only a small percentage of the world population is on Twitter. As more people join and the network effect grows, we will see groups of humans working together to do all sorts of amazing things that previously required governments. Furthermore, the bottom-up decision-making will produce more efficient solutions, more timely results, and ultimately remind people the power an individual can wield in a self-organizing system.

This is Nathaniel

Are the Amish the ones to be “Left Behind”? Many will opt out of the slippery tech slope of self-evolution.
(pic from Pennsylvania)

Special Thanks

I’d like to thank the wonderful email chain and feedback I received from Matt Ridley, Dave Sands, and Bart Wilson, who helped me further refine some of these thoughts. I invite readers to go buy some of Ridley’s books on Amazon! I suggest you get started with “Origins of Virtue” or “Genome”.

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