CS Column 2: Evolution

Mobb Deep’s Vision on Evolution Theory

“Yo, yo
We livin’ this till the day that we die
Survival of the fit, only the strong survive”

Mobb Deep, Survival of the Fittest (1995)

While I seriously doubt Mobb Deep’s ‘Survival of the Fittest’ song was intended to enlighten their audience with the ideas of evolution theory, I’d like to refer to this song to discuss the famous “survival of the fittest”-slogan. Because next to the Mobb Deep song (from the album ‘The Infamous’), it’s also a famous, popular and punchy ‘summary’ of Darwin’s evolution theory. It was introduced by Herbert Spencer in 1851 – seven years before Darwin re-used it in his revolutionary “The Origin of Species”.

In their song, Mobb Deep rap about living and surviving the harsh street life in Queens, New York City. Listening to this fine piece of East Coast rap made me wonder how scientifically valid this ‘street knowledge’ they provide us could be…

In the chorus Mobb Deep further elaborate on their title: ‘Survival of the fit, only the strong survive’. Shouldn’t that be ‘Survival of the fit, only the well adapted survive’? It might not sound as nice, but it would be more correct, at least from a evolution theory point of view. Darwin’s evolution theory does not imply the strongest or most physically fit will survive. It implies that individuals that fit best in their environment will! This misinterpretation of the word ‘fit’ in ‘survival of the fittest’ is (unfortunately) a very common one.

Darwin’s evolution theory is not about being strong, it is about adapting to the environment, surviving, and ultimately about reproducing to pass on genes. So, while Prodigy (one of two rappers in Mobb Deep) raps “I’m goin’ out blastin’, takin’ my enemies with me / And if not, they scarred, so they will never forget me” one could argue he’d be better off staying at home and reproducing (which, to be fair, is another recurring theme in Mobb Deep’s work).

But before we accuse Mobb Deep of misunderstanding the the word ‘fit’, let’s consider a possible alternative explanation: the artists of Mobb Deep might completely disagree to the evolution theory as Darwin formulated it. Rather, they might be strong advocates of Herbert Spencer’s ideas – the man who invented the slogan.

Spencer was a firm believer of Social Darwinism (before it was called Social Darwinism): the integration of Darwin’s evolution theory on ideas on human society. It dictates that in society, the strong will survive at cost of the weak, and that man should not offer a helping hand to the weak in society, as that would go against the natural order of things.

A controversial philosophy, especially today, but could it make sense if we put it in the context of Mobb Deep? The rappers came from poor life in the ghetto, worked their way up, sold millions of albums and eventually became wealthy through it. One could argue that Prodigy and Havoc are in fact the fittest to survive in contemporary human society!

Whatever the case, misinterpretation of a word or strong Social Darwinism, the fact remains that ‘survival of the fittest’ is a pretty strong and powerful slogan – one of which I personally do not mind if it’s applied in scientifically correct ways or not!

CS Column 1: Emergence

Emerging chaos: The rules of Vietnamese traffic

When I took this picture in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, I was awe-struck by the chaotic traffic. Dozens of “motobikes” buzz down the streets, seemingly not paying any attention to traffic lanes and rules, oncoming traffic or anything in their vicinity. Cars move through the thick clouds of bikes, and some brave souls even pedal their bicycles straight through it.

For an outsider such as myself, it initially looked like a totally random and chaotic event. Did these people just hope for the best when they were driving through their city? It was obvious all of this chaos would have to work out one way or another. Eventually – I assumed – everyone got where they were going. But how?

Soon I learned there is in fact a systematic at play, and there are plenty of unwritten rules involved in the apparent chaos. You learn this with the one confrontation you cannot avoid: crossing a road on foot (a very intimidating undertaking at first). The basic rule is simple: keep on moving – as long as you do, people manage to anticipate your path and will make sure not crash into you. The next step is that of total immersion: hop on a bike and jump right into traffic.

Once you participate, you realize how simple it actually works. It felt like I was part of a flock – all neighboring motomen adjusted and maintained their speed based on mine and that of the other drivers directly around us. This was not at all obvious when I was observing the traffic from the sidewalk. Eventually I didn’t even worry about horrible fatal accidents anymore, a theme predominantly on my mind when I was only watching the traffic…

Even if it looks simple when you’re in traffic, there is still speeding and overtaking, not everyone is heading to the same destination, so people are constantly moving in and out of the flock. The same principle however applies: when you take a turn, all is fine as long as your movement is fluid. It’s not the turn signals that will save you here: clear and predictable movement will.

What at first seemed totally unnatural to me started feeling more natural, and eventually made sense to me. But it only started to make real sense once I was back home and started reading about swarm intelligence and flocking behavior. The same three rules flocking behavior dictates seem to apply in Vietnamese traffic: separation (avoiding neighbors), alignment (keeping roughly the same direction) and cohesion (sticking together). These simple rules are all you need to create a realistic computer model of a flock of birds, and indeed it’s also all you need to create what seems to be ordered chaos on the roads of a Vietnamese city – I followed the same rules when driving through Ho Chi Minh City on my rental motobike.

As a matter of fact, when I came back home I had to re-adjust to the way traffic works in Holland. Traffic lights, zebra crossings, and the rules of the road were deciding for me where I was going. The Vietnamese traffic which at first seemed unnatural, chaotic and most of all very scary, eventually felt natural, ordered and elegant in its simplicity.

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Tech the Future is het laatste project waar ik me op heb gestort samen met partner in crime Augustus. Een blog over technologie, duurzaamheid, eco, wetenschap, etc. Sinds 3 maart is TTF nu online en het lijkt nu allemaal prima te lopen, met flink wat content in die korte tijd (voor 2 drukbezette bloggers) en veelbelovende stats. In het kader van web 2.0-erigheid hebben we een Facebook groep van 200 man, en we twitteren ook een hoop! Want zo werkt dat tegenwoordig nu eenmaal.

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