What Can Darwin Teach Us About Machines?

How can evolution through natural selection be applied to machines? In the beginning, there were organisms who were only gene machines, that is, they only lived according to their instincts – to survive long enough to competitively reproduce. This was the case for billions of years, until one sort of organism came along.

With the advent of humans, there slowly developed a second replicator other than genes. This second replicator was culture. As psychologist and memeticist Susan Blackmore described in her TED talk, there was a fierce competition between the natural tendency toward an economical brain (brains are expensive organs to maintain) and humans creating, varying, selecting, and passing on their ideas to other humans, thus making their brains bigger and more expensive. As one can easily see, the big brains won out. Humans pulled through to obtain the intelligence they have today. The ideas that comprise human culture are referred to as memes, a term coined by evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins in his masterful work, The Selfish Gene.

A meme is a “self-replicating unit of cultural meaning. Transmitted socially among individuals of different generations, memes evolve through processes of mutation and natural selection” (Kemerling, 1997). For example, styles of dress, songs, games, and ideas about the “common sense” view of reality, are gradually modified without any deliberate guidance. Cultural change is a mindless process, just like evolution, which follows the algorithm that Darwin described: if there is variation, if there is selection, and there is heredity, then there must be evolution – must! In other words, “design out of chaos without the aid of mind” (Dennett, 1995). What happens with culture is that there are more memes than brains, and they are all trying to find homes in brains, thus propelling the brain to expand capacity against what nature would favor – a biologically less-expensive brain. However, there is no protection from memes – no “self” versus memes – because the brain is a itself originator and replicator of memes, and a product of nature’s earlier version of memes, genes. The human brain is a meme machine.

With the rapid technological advancements of modern science, machines seem destined to become the third replicator. Susan Blackmore proposes a short-hand form to refer to these technological memes, “temes.” The evolution of temes will take one of two courses: forming a mutualistic relationship with humans, or a competitive one. A mutualistic relationship would probably involve machines being implanted into human bodies to modify these to become more like machines, and they could export the process of reproducing to humans. A competitive relationship would be one in which machines become more adaptable than humans, become able to reproduce themselves, evolve themselves, and despoil the biosphere (because they have no need for a warm planet, ozone, oxygen, or water). Both of these two courses will be carried out mindlessly – because they must be: wherever there is variation, selection, and heredity, there must be evolution.

This is a powerful explanatory application of the evolutionary algorithm to all technology. There are myriads of ethical, environmental, political, and social concerns that come with developing machines that make humans more technological than biological – with implants, cyberspace, prosthetics, and genetic engineering, for example – or machines that degrade environmental conditions necessary for the survival of human civilization. Humans have managed to survive the second replicator, culture. But, the coming centuries will determine whether humans pull through, and survive the third replicator, temes.

This a piece that I am planning to use in a lecture on Dec. 10 about Evolution and Technology. More editing to come…

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~ by jsacc001 on October 17, 2008.

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