Thanks to Stumble Upon, I finally found my way into reading one of Ray Kurzweils essays a couple of weeks ago, and I can honestly say it is by far the most compelling essay I have ever read in my entire life. I have never been so compelled to just keep reading ever before. So, needless to say, I highly highly highly recommend reading this paper:
The Law of Accelerating Returns by Ray Kurzweil
There are so many interesting insights in it, and far more incredibly interesting exponential graphs (better than that, the exponential logarithmic graphs) all demosntrating the accelerating rate of improvements that we are undergoing.
One of the points made in this essay, which isn't in anyway particularly new, but which struck me at the time as a lesson worth repeating, is the idea of how technological advance is constantly building on its predecessor technology. That is, no new peice of technology ever comes out of a vacuum, it is usually made possible because of other pieces of technology which were created before it. Penicillin probably wouldn't have ever been invented if it wasn't for microscopes. Microscopes probably would never have been invented if it wasn't for teh technology to smelt metal ores and create fine glass. Smelting and glass making wouldn't be possible without the invention of fire... etc. Each step up doesn't just happen, it builds ON TOP OF all of the technologies which preceeeded it.
I think that this is quite self evident.
The paper makes another connection as part of its flow (it doesn't make a big deal out of this, it is just assumed to be a natural progression), and that is of the progress from biological evolution, through single celled organisms, to multicellular organisms, to tool using organisms, to intelligent conscious organisms, to extensive tool innovation and upwards throughout the numerous technological innovations that we have seen leading to today.
Whether you agree with biological evolution being another phase of the same progress which we now see in technological innovation or not is irrelevent to what i want to say: i think the 'building on top of' idea of technology, the concept which seems incredibly self apparent to most of us, is indeed identical to the same sort of thing we see in evolution.
Let me explain...
When a cell 2 billion years ago, one in trillion trillion trillion cells perhaps...just one is all that is needed, when that one cell randomly finds itself mutated so as to produce a particular protein which say, provides a better digestive method of nutrition, then that protein is done. It is MADE. Unless killed by accident, that protein will last forever and serve as the scaffolding upon which every single following biological innovation after it will be built upon.
We can see the results of this early period of development in life all around us. There are some genes which are ubiquitous - that is they are in every life form on earth. Heat shock proteins, Polymerase, histones(?)...I don't know all of the proteins/genes which are completely ubiquitous in biology, but there is no doubt a huge collection of genes which are present in every single life form on earth in one form or another, and they all show a common descendency in their code (as opposed to convergent evolution where the same thing (EG the eye) has independently evovled many times over with no common descendency).
I'm having a great deal of trouble explaining this easily. It all works so clearly in my head but I think I need to dedicate a number of days studying some topics in order to find good practical examples of what I am saying so that i can tell the 'story' of this idea.
So i'll just leave it with these closing comments: Just as technology has reached the sophistication that we now have because every step of the way builds upon foundations which have been developed for several thousand years, so too does evolution acheive the incredible sophistication that we see in biology simply because it has built upon foundations which were developed several billion years ago.
polymerase is like fire. Without that gene/protein forming, life would never have got anywhere.
The first heat shock protein is like developing an understanding of engineering. Without it cells wouldn't have had half as good a chance at surviving in diverse environments, jsut as humans wouldn't have been nearly so good at expanding into cold/hot climates through building climate controlled dwellings...
Each step of the way makes 'life' easier, and as life gets easier, more innovation is made possible.
And eventually you end up with monstrously complex entities like humans and the internet.