TD09 – Darwin Machines

Charles Darwin was a naughty boy, the bishop said, because his ideas proved that God did not exist! This sort of story was very ‘headline news’ 150 years ago. Now, for most educated people, it’s passé.

Fitness survives!

The purpose of this training is to help raise your darwinian intelligence, your ability to survive and grow in rapidly changing environments. Today, nearly everyone knows about the darwinian insights of ‘natural selection’ and the ‘survival of fittness’. Surprisingly, nearly everyone is a bit vague when it comes to the details. Because Darwin’s troublesome notion is so central to the premise of this book I think we might examine it a little closer.

Even more importantly, because the idea is so useful to our understanding of the universe and how it works, I will devote this chapter to helping you get a better grip on what the philosopher Daniel C. Dennett calls, ‘Darwin’s dangerous idea‘.

bk8I recently heard on the grapevine that Dennett once told someone that he thought William Calvin was “one of the cleverest minds in Seattle”.

Whether or not this complimentary meme started with Dennett it has already infected my mind enough for me to follow up on it and what I found wouldn’t surprise me if it were true.

William H. Calvin is a distinguished neuroscientist at the University of Washington in Seattle who writes in a clear and witty way about how the brain/mind system works according to darwinian doctrine. In his book How Brains Think he does give a very clear description of the darwinian principle in Chapter 6, Evolution On-The-Fly.

I will see if I can explain Dr Calvin’s 6 essentials of what must be present to enable what he calls a ‘Darwin Machine’ to get up and going.

In the beginning, for a Darwin Machine to get going and keep going, there needs to arise a ‘copy-me pattern’. This is a pattern which somehow gets good copies made of it and way more copies, in fact, than are ever needed. These are all good copies but never perfect as there’s always some flaws or changes in each copy. Now pay attention to the limited and shifting environment in which all this copying is going on. First, there is just not enough room for ALL the copies so they have to compete for space. Second, the environment is unstable, it’s always changing.

So, the Big Question is: which of these copies will survive long enough, in these conditions, to go on and get its own copies made?

If you like, put down the book and take a few minutes now to think about this before going on because this is a very interesting question, indeed. Whatever thinking you find yourself doing here may be similar to the thoughts Charles Darwin spent so much time on.

Calvin’s description of a Darwin Machine has six essential principles. For the Darwin Machine to function and keep the process going it needs all of the following six properties: pattern, copies, change, competition, multi-faceted environment and survival. Let’s take them one by one:

1. Pattern
First, there must be a ‘copy-me pattern’. This is a replicator, a pattern of some kind which somehow gets itself copied. The two replicators with which we are currently familiar are DNA patterns called genes, and neuronal patterns called memes.

2. Copies
When a cell divides a copy is made. The new copy contains a good (but not perfect) copy of the gene’s DNA sequence. Or, when on this page, I describe Calvin’s Darwin Machine, a copy is made in your brain. This is a good copy (I hope) of Calvin’s meme but certainly not perfect.

3. Change
Most people can carry a tune, more or less. But after a few lubricating beers and even with the words up on a screen the resulting copy of the original song will be a less than perfect meme, as anyone who has ever endured a karaoke experience will argue. There are noticeable changes.

After sex, the race is on. In a kind of Fallopian Marathon one lucky little spermatozoan, in a million to one chance, gets in and fertilises the one and only egg. The reward? He gets to shuffle his genes with the egg’s genes and when the cell divides he’s a full partner in the new genetic mix. Because it is a shuffle, the DNA copies are good but not perfect copies of the pre-sex originals. There are variations in the offspring. I suppose that’s why I’ve got my dad’s freckles but not his auburn hair.

4. Competition
Western movies, of both the Hollywood or spaghetti variety, would signal the impending gun duel with a line like, “This town ain’t big enough for both of us”. Any environment, by definition, is a limited space. These limits create a competition amongst copies since the space ‘ain’t big enough’ for all of them. On web portals, like, there is limited space for advertising. Advertisers compete to put their memes in this space.

5. Environment
Like a diamond there are many facets to an environment and each of these facets offers advantages and disadvantages to the variant copies. In a changing environment some variations will be more successful than others for each facet. For example, some facets of a website’s environment are design, popularity, advertising rates and space. On a very popular search engine, like Google, memes with bigger advertising budgets have a bias, or variation, which can get them ‘selected’ ahead of other competing memes. In multi-faceted environments Charles Darwin called this biasing advantage ‘natural selection’.

6. Survival
Now, the answer to the Big Question: which of these copies will survive long enough, in these conditions, to go on and get its own copies made?

The Big Answer is: the next generation!

This sounds circular but that’s what the definition of ‘the next generation’ really is. The next generation consists of those copies which were selected from the cast of all copies. The ‘selected’ copies survived, due to their variations which gave them an ‘unfair advantage’, over the non-surviving copies whose variations gave them no special environmental advantage (so they weren’t ‘selected’).

Whenever all these six essentials are operating we get a Darwin Machine. The drift of this random, self-organising process is always towards those patterns which appear to have been ‘designed’ for their environment. This is how the Darwin Machine can produce the convincing illusion of a ‘designer’ even where none exists.

Many Christian authorities have showed great antagonism towards darwinian thinking over the past hundred years or so and even today Creationism is still a lingering force in some parochial education districts, especially in parts of America.

Ironically, the ‘Christian meme’, like all other memes, is itself an excellent example of darwinian evolution. Professor Ninian Smart describes in The World’s Religions how the ‘Christian meme’ has evolved quite a long way from its ancestor meme since its genesis two thousand years ago:

Though we use the singular label “Christianity,” in fact there is a great number of varieties of Christianity, and there are some movements about which we may have doubts as to whether they count as Christian. The same is true of all traditions: they manifest themselves as a loosely held-together family of subtraditions.

Ninian Smart tells us to consider:

a Baptist chapel in Georgia is a very different structure from an Eastern orthodox church in Romania, with its blazing candles and rich ikons; and the two house very diverse services–the one plain, with hymns and Bible-reading, prayers and impassioned preaching; the other much more ritually anchored, with processions and chanting, and mysterious ceremonies in the light behind the screen where the ikons hang, concealing most of the priestly activities. Ask either of the religious specialists, the Baptist preacher or the Orthodox priest, and he will tell you that his own form of faith corresponds to original Christianity. To list some of the denominations of Christianity is to show something of its diverse practice–Orthodox, Catholic, Coptic, Nestorian, Armenian, Mar Thoma, Lutheran, Calvinist, Methodist, Baptist, Unitarian, Mennonite, Congregationalist, Disciples of Christ–and we have not reached some of the newer, more problematic forms: Latter-Day Saints, Christian Scientists, Unificationists, Zulu Zionists, and so forth.

So, the ‘Christianity’ memeplex is a Darwin Machine and we can expect it to continue to evolve along darwinian lines into its third millennium.

DFQ TD09 (Feedback Question):

Give another example of a meme or memeplex. What kind of meme is it?

184 thoughts on “TD09 – Darwin Machines

  1. The Selfie – Fad meme/Missionary meme.

    Susan Sontag referred to “aesthetic consumerism” sparked by photography’s social aspect in her collection of essays titled On Photography (1977) – “Needing to have reality confirmed and experience enhanced by photographs is an aesthetic consumerism to which everyone is now addicted.”

  2. I am from the I.T field and the Software Development Lifecycle/ IT Operations are hit by the Agile meme. It is a common sense meme as the earlier processes of doing work in I.T department had become more and more time consuming. All of these memes are catching on Scrum , Kanban , Be Agile ; Being Agile..

  3. One of the memes I see people struggling with, myself included, is the meme of self-sacrifice vs. self-actualisation.

    Depending on the society you’re born in, the individual is faced with elite/religion-based concepts of self-sacrifice for the greater good or the whole importance of the individual.

    As we move around and are exposed to other forms of thinking, we move from either to a new meme: the mix of both where self-sacrifice is as important as self-actualisation. This balance, a meme in itself, spreads at the same speed as the internet penetrates a society.

  4. The meme that failure is dangerous and should be avoided at all costs. People end up being overcautious and never move toward their goals because of the fear of failure. Think about it this way. Once you’ve had a magnificent failure event, you can strike it off your list. You feared it. The incident happened. You faced it. You lived through it. Now it’s done. Embrace it. Fail forward. Fail often. Make more deals faster!

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