Digital Evolution?

by Paul F. Taylor on July 25, 2006

On July 9, the internationally respected Sunday Times (of London) published an article by Richard Woods on the digital revolution.1 Interestingly, the article divided consumers of technology into two “planets”-the “digital natives” and the “digital immigrants”-and offered a surprise connection to evolution. As examples of the division, a 20-year-old university student and her mother were used.

While the article was interesting and much of the argument made was probably true, the research was merely anecdotal. What was more interesting to me was the gratuitous and unnecessary use of the word “evolution” in the article. The introduction of the term “evolution” added nothing to the author's thesis, and its omission would not have undermined what the writer had to say.

The thrust of the argument was that the 20-year-old's response to the digital technology of today was different to that of someone in her 50s. The 20-year-old was a user of blogs, iTunes and digital mobile phones, for example. Indeed, when she left her mobile phone at home one day, she felt the need to return five miles to get it rather than exist without it.

The older lady was described as being equally proficient with the technology, but not “native” to it. She was more likely to use the internet the same way now as she had when first going online seven years ago. She was differently connected to the digital age.

Some of this would appear to be undeniable. There is no doubt that my children do not use modern technology in the same way as I do. Yet I consider myself technologically proficient. I carry my handheld pc with me, access my emails by GPRS link, and synchronise regularly with both workplace and home networks. I program my own web apps in PHP. Yet I cannot understand the strange language my children use in their text messaging-a language and syntax, incidentally, which better transcend the Atlantic divide than my language, but which raises a far greater generational communications barrier.

But where does evolution fit into this comparison? The question is pertinent, because the Sunday Times article was entitled “The Next Step in Brain Evolution.” Woods says that the behaviour of the younger, digital generation “may even be the next step in evolution, transforming brains and the way we think”.

The transformation in the way we think is undeniable. One of Woods's interviewees rightly generalises thus: “Children today are multitasking left, right and centre-downloading tracks, uploading photos, sending emails. It's non-stop. They find sitting down and reading, even watching TV, too slow and boring. I can't imagine many kids indulging in one particular hobby, such as bird-watching, like they used to.”

Yet, I cannot accept this interviewee's opinion. Anecdotally, I know that my daughter can spend hours surfing (on waves, though, not the Internet!) and fishing for crabs. Both my sons can spend hours writing long stories. And on multitasking, single-parents like me are used to juggling laundry, cooking, children's homework, and work-related phone calls, without (much) complaint! Woods even has his own interviewees who disagree with the thrust of his argument: “I bet you during the England-Sweden World Cup game people's attention span wasn't any shorter than it might have been before,” says one.

Even the experimental data, suggesting an increase in IQs in the digital age, is suspect. Another of Woods's commentators shows that this is not proof of increasing intelligence, otherwise we would conclude “that people 100 years ago were all morons.”

Woods is left arguing that our brains are being transformed because our thinking processes are no longer restricted just to our heads-part of our thinking is now done on our computers, mobile phones, PDAs, etc.

Yet, while this behavioural change may be true, and I see no reason to doubt it, it does not constitute evolution in the molecules-to-man sense. It does not even involve natural selection or generate new species. Was a new species of humans created when people started riding horses? Surely our behaviour changed remarkably with the mass production and easy availability of automobiles. How revolutionary or evolutionary was the invention of the printing press, with the resultant revolution in information technology that the rapid publication of books brought about?

Articles examining society's reactions to the new technologies are of benefit. Woods's article has certainly hit on something that I think we need to address. Moreover, this discussion has not even addressed the issue of whether the changes reported are a step upwards or a step downwards. There are some suggestions that increased use of digital technologies may be causing memory loss, or reduction of attention span. But this is not an example of evolution, and there seems no reason for including the concept, except for the purpose of somehow giving dubious “scientific” respectability to it. The reader can recognise many truths behind the ways of thinking described in the article and is therefore coerced into imagining that this constitutes evidence for evolution. Yet if the article had been written by a creationist, it would have been little different, save for title and the false evolutionary connection.

Jesus Christ talked of recognising the “signs of the times” (Matthew 16:3), and thus an analysis of societal changes is worthwhile. But it is disingenuous to see such changes as evidence of evolution.


  1. Woods, Richard, Report: The Next Step in Brain Evolution, Sunday Times, July 9, 2006;,,2101-2256968,00.html.


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