People should be eccentric June 17, 2011Posted by Ezra Resnick in Evolution, Freedom.
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John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty was published in 1859, the same year as Darwin’s Origin of Species, and there are parallels to be found between Mill’s vision of human individuality (and its role in society) and the theory of evolution by natural selection. Darwin taught us that there is no inherent purpose in nature, no predetermined goal that life is aimed towards; and Mill rebels against the notion that all people ought to be pursuing a single, predetermined ideal:
Human nature is not a machine to be built after a model, and set to do exactly the work prescribed for it, but a tree, which requires to grow and develop itself on all sides, according to the tendency of the inward forces which make it a living thing.
Mill considers conformity the chief danger which threatens human nature:
In our times… the individual, or the family, do not ask themselves—what do I prefer? or, what would suit my character and disposition? or, what would allow the best and highest in me to have fair play, and enable it to grow and thrive? They ask themselves, what is suitable to my position? what is usually done by persons of my station and pecuniary circumstances? or (worse still) what is usually done by persons of a station and circumstances superior to mine? I do not mean that they choose what is customary, in preference to what suits their own inclination. It does not occur to them to have any inclination, except for what is customary. Thus the mind itself is bowed to the yoke: even in what people do for pleasure, conformity is the first thing thought of; they like in crowds; they exercise choice only among things commonly done: peculiarity of taste, eccentricity of conduct, are shunned equally with crimes: until by dint of not following their own nature, they have no nature to follow…
According to some religious worldviews, Mill notes, this is actually the desirable condition: “man needs no capacity, but that of surrendering himself to the will of God: and if he uses any of his faculties for any other purpose but to do that supposed will more effectually, he is better without them.” But Mill argues that the betterment of humanity is achieved when every individual pursues his own goals in his own way:
It is not by wearing down into uniformity all that is individual in themselves, but by cultivating it and calling it forth, within the limits imposed by the rights and interests of others, that human beings become a noble and beautiful object of contemplation; and as the works partake the character of those who do them, by the same process human life also becomes rich, diversified, and animating, furnishing more abundant aliment to high thoughts and elevating feelings, and strengthening the tie which binds every individual to the race, by making the race infinitely better worth belonging to. In proportion to the development of his individuality, each person becomes more valuable to himself, and is therefore capable of being more valuable to others. There is a greater fulness of life about his own existence, and when there is more life in the units there is more in the mass which is composed of them.
Natural selection produces designs of amazing skill and beauty by the accumulation of many small improvements; but every mutation first appears in a single organism. If the mutation is beneficial, it will survive and proliferate. The same is true of human innovation: it always starts with some individual, who does something different from those who came before. Most new ideas may be failures, but unless we encourage people to try new things, the good ideas will never be found. Just like natural selection, healthy societies require diversity and heterogeneity — the lack of which leads to stagnation:
There is always need of persons not only to discover new truths, and point out when what were once truths are true no longer, but also to commence new practices, and set the example of more enlightened conduct, and better taste and sense in human life… without them, human life would become a stagnant pool.
Pluralism is a necessary condition for the emergence of positive change, and that’s why it’s so important to preserve the freedom of individual thought and action, and even to encourage idiosyncrasy — despite the fact that most people’s idiosyncrasies might seem to have no value:
In this age the mere example of non-conformity, the mere refusal to bend the knee to custom, is itself a service. Precisely because the tyranny of opinion is such as to make eccentricity a reproach, it is desirable, in order to break through that tyranny, that people should be eccentric… the amount of eccentricity in a society has generally been proportional to the amount of genius, mental vigor, and moral courage which it contained. That so few now dare to be eccentric, marks the chief danger of the time.
Zombies April 13, 2011Posted by Ezra Resnick in Evolution.
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The jungle can be a dangerous place.
Four new species of brain-manipulating fungi that turn ants into “zombies” have been discovered in the Brazilian rain forest.
These fungi control ant behavior with mind-altering chemicals, then kill them…
Once infected by spores, the worker ants, normally dedicated to serving the colony, leave the nest, find a small shrub and start climbing. The fungi directs all ants to the same kind of leaf: about 25 centimeters above the ground and at a precise angle to the sun (though the favored angle varies between fungi)…
Before dying, ants anchor themselves to the leaf, clamping their jaws on the edge or a vein on the underside. The fungi then takes over, turning the ant’s body into a spore-producing factory. It lives off the ant carcass, using it as a platform to launch spores, for up to a year.
Watch this video if you dare:
Such parasitic phenomena are not at all rare in nature. One interesting thing to notice is that the behavior of an infected host appears utterly baffling, until we understand that it is serving the parasite’s interests and not its own. Daniel Dennett opens his book Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon using zombie ants as an analogy:
You watch an ant in a meadow, laboriously climbing up a blade of grass, higher and higher until it falls, then climbs again, and again, like Sisyphus rolling his rock, always striving to reach the top. Why is the ant doing this? What benefit is it seeking for itself in this strenuous and unlikely activity? Wrong question, as it turns out. No biological benefit accrues to the ant. It is not trying to get a better view of the territory or seeking food or showing off to a potential mate, for instance. Its brain has been commandeered by a tiny parasite, a lancet fluke (Dicrocelium dendriticum), that needs to get itself into the stomach of a sheep or a cow in order to complete its reproductive cycle. This little brain worm is driving the ant into position to benefit its progeny, not the ant’s. This is not an isolated phenomenon. Similarly manipulative parasites infect fish, and mice, among other species. These hitchhikers cause their hosts to behave in unlikely—even suicidal—ways, all for the benefit of the guest, not the host.
Does anything like this ever happen with human beings? Yes indeed. We often find human beings setting aside their personal interests, their health, their chances to have children, and devoting their entire lives to furthering the interests of an idea that has lodged in their brains.
It is so easy to hide our ignorance April 5, 2011Posted by Ezra Resnick in Belief, Evolution, Science.
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In the last chapter of The Origin of Species, Darwin attempts to explain why “all the most eminent living naturalists and geologists” reject his theory, and how he expects that situation to change:
the chief cause of our natural unwillingness to admit that one species has given birth to other and distinct species, is that we are always slow in admitting any great change of which we do not see the intermediate steps. The difficulty is the same as that felt by so many geologists, when Lyell first insisted that long lines of inland cliffs had been formed, and great valleys excavated, by the slow action of the coast-waves. The mind cannot possibly grasp the full meaning of the term of a hundred million years; it cannot add up and perceive the full effects of many slight variations, accumulated during an almost infinite number of generations.
Although I am fully convinced of the truth of the views given in this volume under the form of an abstract, I by no means expect to convince experienced naturalists whose minds are stocked with a multitude of facts all viewed, during a long course of years, from a point of view directly opposite to mine. It is so easy to hide our ignorance under such expressions as the “plan of creation,” “unity of design,” &c., and to think that we give an explanation when we only restate a fact. Any one whose disposition leads him to attach more weight to unexplained difficulties than to the explanation of a certain number of facts will certainly reject my theory. A few naturalists, endowed with much flexibility of mind, and who have already begun to doubt on the immutability of species, may be influenced by this volume; but I look with confidence to the future, to young and rising naturalists, who will be able to view both sides of the question with impartiality. Whoever is led to believe that species are mutable will do good service by conscientiously expressing his conviction; for only thus can the load of prejudice by which this subject is overwhelmed be removed.
A rabbi’s odd relationship with morality March 26, 2011Posted by Ezra Resnick in Ethics, Evolution, Religion.
In The Huffington Post, Rabbi Adam Jacobs proclaims that atheists have no basis for condemning immorality, and he doesn’t understand why they would even care:
In fact, the most sensible and logically consistent outgrowth of the atheist worldview should be permission to get for one’s self whatever one’s heart desires at any moment (assuming that you can get away with it). Why not have that affair? Why not take a few bucks from the Alzheimer victim’s purse — as it can not possibly have any meaning either way. Did not Richard Dawkins teach us that selfishness was built into our very genes? To live a “moral” life, the atheist must choose to live a willful illusion as the true nature of the world contains, as Dawkins suggests, “no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but pitiless indifference.” It boggles the mind how anyone with this worldview even bothers to get up in the morning only to suffer through another bleak and meaningless day.
Oh, is that what Richard Dawkins taught us? If Jacobs had actually read The Selfish Gene, he would have come across this:
I am not advocating a morality based on evolution. I am saying how things have evolved… I stress this, because I know I am in danger of being misunderstood by those people, all too numerous, who cannot distinguish a statement of belief in what is the case from an advocacy of what ought to be the case… If you would extract a moral from [this book], read it as a warning. Be warned that if you wish, as I do, to build a society in which individuals cooperate generously and unselfishly towards a common good, you can expect little help from biological nature… Let us understand what our own selfish genes are up to, because we may then at least have the chance to upset their designs, something that no other species has ever aspired to.
Some of us, who prefer not to “live a willful illusion,” begin by trying to understand what is true about our world, and then we deal with reality as it is. The rabbi’s feeling that life would be “bleak and meaningless” if we aren’t part of some grand cosmic plan says absolutely nothing about whether such a plan really exists. But why would anyone think that the lack of an ultimate purpose in nature makes our lives meaningless? We are conscious beings, capable of appreciating our amazing good fortune in having the opportunity to live in this awe-inspiring universe. We can cooperate with each other in order to achieve far more than we could on our own, leaving the fruits of our efforts for future generations to enjoy and improve upon. We have the ability to understand the consequences of our actions on the happiness and suffering of ourselves and of others. So what truly boggles the mind is Jacobs’ implying that the only reason to refrain from cheating and stealing is because God said so.
But wait, the rabbi has more conclusions to draw from his deep understanding of biology:
Survival of the fittest does not suggest social harmony. Furthermore, doesn’t Darwinism suggest that certain groups within a given population will develop beneficial mutations, essentially making them “better” than other groups? It would seem that racism would again be a natural conclusion of this worldview — quite unlike the theistic approach which would suggest that people have intrinsic value do [sic] to their creation in the “image of God.”
Again, Jacobs is confusing what natural selection cares about (reproductive fitness) with what we ought to care about. But the irony here is simply breathtaking: it’s the secular worldview that is racist, while the theistic is not!? The Bible repeatedly and unequivocally supports slavery, tribalism and discrimination, and commands the destruction of entire nations including women and children. The idea that all people have intrinsic value and ought to be treated equally — regardless of race, gender, or religion — is a modern, secular value, resisted mightily (to this day) by traditional religion.
Of course, the rabbi realizes that nonreligious people are not in fact more likely to behave immorally than the religious. How does he explain the observation that most of the atheists he has met are actually “very good people”?
At the end of the day, the reason that I can agree with many of the moral assertions that these atheists make is because they are not truly outgrowths of their purported philosophies, but rather of mine. I would suspect that the great majority of the atheistic understanding of morality comes directly or indirectly from what is commonly referred to as the Judeo-Christian ethic.
Seriously!? What about all the Hindus, Buddhists, Jains, etc. — how did they ever figure out not to steal and murder without Yahweh telling them so? And what about all those Judeo-Christian pearls of ethical wisdom that the rabbi simply ignores, like executing homosexuals, women who are not virgins on their wedding night, and disobedient children? If Jacobs were not so arrogant and ignorant, he would realize that whatever parts of his own ethics are defensible are products of human rationality and secular thinking. And if he cares more about obeying the purported will of God than about the actual well-being of people in this world, then his morality is a disgrace, and he might stand to learn a few things from some atheists.
(via Butterflies and Wheels)
Competence without comprehension March 4, 2011Posted by Ezra Resnick in Computer science, Evolution.
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On the left, we have Gaudi’s cathedral in Barcelona; on the right, a termite mound. Both structures serve a purpose (or several purposes); and both exist, with their particular characteristics, for a reason. They are not the result of materials being thrown together randomly; it makes sense for us to ask why their features were built one way and not another. And yet, there is a crucial difference between the two.
In a recent lecture at UCLA, Daniel Dennett describes the difference this way: There is a reason why termites build mounds — but it’s not true that termites have a reason for building mounds. Human beings have reasons for the things they do, and they can represent those reasons explicitly. But no termite needs to understand the reasons behind its actions — no one needs to understand them. Complex reasons can emerge from the mindless, purposeless, automatic process of natural selection.
This idea, of course, is extremely counter-intuitive. Dennett quotes one early attack on Darwin, published anonymously in 1868:
In the theory with which we have to deal, Absolute Ignorance is the artificer; so that we may enunciate as the fundamental principle of the whole system, that, in order to make a perfect and beautiful machine, it is not requisite to know how to make it. This proposition will be found, on careful examination, to express, in condensed form, the essential purport of the Theory, and to express in a few words all Mr. Darwin’s meaning; who, by a strange inversion of reasoning, seems to think Absolute Ignorance fully qualified to take the place of Absolute Wisdom in all the achievements of creative skill.
Exactly! This “strange inversion of reasoning” was Darwin’s great insight: a new way of thinking, with profound consequences and explanatory power.
Dennett attributes a comparable “inversion of reasoning” to Alan Turing. Before modern computers, “computers” were humans who performed mathematical calculations manually. To do this, they had to understand arithmetic. But Turing realized that it’s not necessary for a computing machine to know what arithmetic is. And so we now have CPUs, spreadsheets, search engines, all performing complex tasks without understanding what they are doing: competence without comprehension.
This is the opposite of our own personal experience: our competences flow from our comprehension. But evolution shows us that comprehension can emerge as the result, not the cause, of competence. Just as life is ultimately constructed out of non-living parts, understanding can be constructed out of non-understanding parts. The individual neurons in our brain don’t understand anything — but we do.
There must be a continuum, therefore, ranging from a complete lack of understanding to the kind of understanding humans have. Do apes have reasons? Apes fall somewhere in the middle between termites and Gaudi. They have proto-reasons. The same might be said of our more complex computing machines. One day, we will reach the point when computers have full-fledged reasons of their own.
For billions of years on this planet, there was competence but no comprehension. There were reasons, but no one understood them. We have now evolved the ability to look back and see the reasons everywhere in the tree of life — reasons discovered by the same mindless process that produced us.
Resistance to science (and what we can do about it) February 17, 2011Posted by Ezra Resnick in Belief, Evolution, Science, Superstition.
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In their article “Childhood Origins of Adult Resistance to Science“, Paul Bloom and Deena Weisberg try to understand why 40 percent of Americans reject the well-established theory of evolution, why so many people believe in the efficacy of unproven medical interventions, and other such embarrassments. Resistance to science has important implications for our society: “a scientifically ignorant public is unprepared to evaluate policies about global warming, vaccination, genetically modified organisms, stem cell research, and cloning.”
One problem is that scientific truths are often counter-intuitive. For example, which of the lines depicted to the right predicts the movement of a ball coming out of a curved tube? Many college students answer incorrectly, choosing B instead of A. Another common intuition that conflicts with modern science is dualism, the belief that the mind is fundamentally different from the brain. It’s hard for people to accept that mental life emerges from physical processes, but this misconception interferes with our debates about the moral status of embryos, fetuses, stem cells, and nonhuman animals. As for evolution, studies show that children tend to exhibit “promiscuous teleology,” thinking that everything in the world has a purpose — e.g., clouds exist in order for us to have rain. This helps explain why evolution is more difficult to accept than creationism.
But what accounts for the significant differences in resistance to science between cultures, and for the different levels of resistance shown to different scientific theories within the same culture? Why, for example, are Americans more resistant to evolutionary theory than are citizens of most other countries, and why do they not resist other counter-intuitive theories, such as the germ theory of disease or heliocentrism? Bloom and Weisberg distinguish between a society’s “common knowledge” — information that is implicitly assumed and treated as certain, like electricity and germs — and knowledge that is explicitly asserted, and sometimes marked as tentative, like evolution. When faced with a claim of the latter kind, people often decide whether to accept it based on the deemed trustworthiness of its source; so resistance to science is especially strong when “there is a nonscientific alternative that is rooted in common sense and championed by people who are thought of as reliable and trustworthy.” In the U.S., for instance, nonscientific intuitions about the immaterial nature of the soul and the purposeful design of humans and animals “are particularly likely to be endorsed and transmitted by trusted religious and political authorities.”
It seems to me, then, that we should be asking ourselves why people promoting these anti-scientific ideas are nevertheless considered reliable and trustworthy in our society. For comparison, notice that we no longer see many religious and political authorities proclaiming that the sun revolves around the earth, or that disease is caused by demons. Why not? Because nobody likes to be laughed at. The problem is that some ideas which should have been laughed off the face of the earth decades (if not centuries) ago are continuously treated with a respect they do not deserve. We live in a culture which, due to misplaced concerns about political correctness and fear of giving offense, often fails to put pressure on bad thinking and bad ideas, instead endorsing the absurd notion that all opinions on a subject are equally valid and must be treated with equal respect.
The U.K. government’s Chief Scientific Adviser, John Beddington, is mad as hell about this, and he’s not going to take it any more:
In closing remarks to an annual conference of around 300 scientific civil servants on 3 February, in London, Beddington said that selective use of science ought to be treated in the same way as racism and homophobia. “We are grossly intolerant, and properly so, of racism. We are grossly intolerant, and properly so, of people who [are] anti-homosexuality…We are not—and I genuinely think we should think about how we do this—grossly intolerant of pseudo-science, the building up of what purports to be science by the cherry-picking of the facts and the failure to use scientific evidence and the failure to use scientific method,” he said.
[...] “I really would urge you to be grossly intolerant…We should not tolerate what is potentially something that can seriously undermine our ability to address important problems.
“There are enough difficult and important problems out there without having to… deal with what is politically or morally or religiously motivated nonsense.”
Beddington also had harsh words for journalists who treat the opinions of non-scientist commentators as being equivalent to the opinions of what he called “properly trained, properly assessed” scientists. “The media see the discussions about really important scientific events as if it’s a bloody football match. It is ridiculous.”
Indeed it is: we do not show respect to Holocaust deniers, nor do we give equal air time to geocentrists, and we must behave likewise towards other discredited ideas like creationism, dualism, homeopathy, etc. If we are to successfully meet the challenges that face us, we must demand a higher level of intellectual honesty in our discourse, where people are expected to support their views rationally, and are ridiculed and marginalized if they cannot. We need more intolerance — of bad ideas.
An open letter to the American Museum of Natural History September 30, 2010Posted by Ezra Resnick in Ethics, Evolution, Religion, Science.
I recently had the opportunity to revisit the wonderful AMNH. Besides returning to many of my favorite exhibits, I enjoyed touring the Hall of Human Origins for the first time, which impressively utilizes the fossil record and DNA evidence to illustrate the gradual evolution of our species (alongside other hominids) over millions of years. I was unpleasantly surprised, however, by a video display in the last part of the exhibit, featuring various scientists speaking under the heading “What Makes Us Human — The Science of Evolution.”
One of the scientists on display (I have forgotten his name) asserts that “science cannot tell us what is right or wrong, what is good or evil, what is the meaning or purpose of existence. That’s what philosophy is for; that’s what religion is for; that’s what moral and ethical frameworks are for.” I found this statement to be incoherent and misleading (at best). First of all, note that nearby displays in the exhibit deal with the evolution of human art, tools, music and language — and their analogs in other species — and we can likewise recognize precursors of what we would call moral behavior, like cooperation and compassion, in other social animals. Science certainly does have much to say on the subject of morality — for instance, the theory of evolution itself has had profound implications for how we treat nonhuman animals (our cousins in the tree of life) and humans of different races. In general, science can potentially tell us whether and how much a given creature might suffer in a given situation — surely the primary concern of morality. As for meaning and purpose, the theory of evolution reinforces the understanding that there is no “cosmic purpose” behind our existence; that the universe doesn’t care about us and wasn’t created with humans in mind. The meaning to be found in our lives is the meaning we provide ourselves, having recognized our part in the unique and fragile tapestry of life — as revealed by science. In any case, there is no reason to think that religion has privileged access to some transcendent source of morality and meaning, and there is no justification for uncritically accepting its extravagant claims “on faith.”
I was further disappointed to see a video of Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health, proclaiming that while science is the way to explore the natural world, he also believes in a personal God, and finds science and faith to be complementary. To realize how nonsensical and unscientific this statement is, replace the word “God” with the name of a specific deity — Allah, Shiva, Zeus, etc. After all, it’s not as if Collins is a deist or a generic theist (whatever that might be) — he is an evangelical Christian, and claims to believe many specific truth-claims of his doctrine: the resurrection of Jesus, the divinity of the Bible, and so on. A Muslim or Hindu scientist would hold different (often contradictory) beliefs. And yet none of these religious dogmas are supported by any good evidence, as is true for the belief that a personal God exists at all — indeed, 93% of the members of the National Academy of Sciences reject the belief in such a God (according to a 1998 survey).
It seems as if the curators were worried that people would emerge from the exhibit thinking, “Well, if we evolved naturally from nonhuman animals, then our lives are meaningless and there’s no reason to behave morally.” This is nonsense, but instead of highlighting how a scientific understanding of the world (and the theory of evolution in particular) can and should strengthen our appreciation of life’s value and our commitment to treating each other ethically, the exhibit chooses to reinforce the tiresome tripe about how science can’t address the big questions of life (while presumably religion can), and how we need to rely on a supernatural deity to give our lives meaning and tell us how we ought to behave.
Even if this particular part of the exhibit was intended to present merely personal opinions of individual scientists, it is not marked as such, and no alternative opinions are presented (though I’m sure there are many scientists who would support the position I have outlined). In any case, why is a museum of natural history invoking the supernatural at all? Religious faith represents the antithesis of scientific thinking, and the mindset portrayed in the aforementioned videos is at odds with the spirit of rigorous rational inquiry and critical thinking which is the foundation of institutions like the AMNH. There is no reason why children who come to the museum to learn about the theory of evolution should hear scientists proclaiming their belief in God. I hope the AMNH will reassess this video display, and either revise or remove it.
I’m not a bigot, it’s nature! August 20, 2010Posted by Ezra Resnick in Equality, Ethics, Evolution.
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In Haaretz, Yair Sheleg rejects the approach that seeks to confer on same-sex couples the same “moral and social status” that straight couples have,
first and foremost because nature itself has done just that. That only heterosexual love is capable of bringing progeny into the world reflects the fact that creation, whether in its divine or its evolutionary form, has determined this to be the normative type of sexuality. Even in an era that seeks to divorce sexuality from procreation, the ability to produce children does retain its value, just as the concept of a “normative family” remains valid.
This reasoning is so bad it’s embarrassing. First of all, the fact that something is natural doesn’t automatically make it morally good. As far as evolution is concerned, all means justify the end of maximizing progeny, but evolution is a mindless process with no foresight or intention. We, as conscious, thinking beings, are in no way obligated to value something just because it’s a product of natural selection. Rape, for example, may be a good evolutionary strategy for getting more of your genes into the next generation, and coercive sex is a well-documented phenomenon in many species (dolphins, for instance). Does that mean we should treat rape as normative behavior? Conversely, there is nothing more unnatural than birth control — does Sheleg consider contraceptive use to be immoral?
In any case, the “moral and social status” of couples in our society has nothing to do with their ability to produce offspring. We do not label as “non-normative” straight couples who cannot have children, or those who choose not to. In the current state of our over-populated planet, not having kids is certainly a respectable decision, especially since there’s no shortage of children in need of adoption (which gay couples can do just as well as straight couples).
Since there aren’t actually any good reasons for treating same-sex couples differently from heterosexual couples, where did Sheleg’s prejudice come from? Notice the not-so-subtle (and nonsensical) reference to “creation, whether in its divine or its evolutionary form.” You see, it’s not only nature that’s against homosexuality — it’s God himself! If Sheleg is taking his moral instruction directly from the collected ramblings of superstitious Iron Age men, he should at least come out and be explicit about it.
We are all computers May 27, 2010Posted by Ezra Resnick in Computer science, Evolution.
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A computer can be defined as a machine that receives input, manipulates data based on a set of instructions (the computer program), and produces useful output. The defining feature of modern computers – which distinguishes them from all other machines – is their programmable nature. A calculator is a machine for doing arithmetic; an alarm clock is a machine for keeping time; a television is a machine for displaying moving images. A computer can do all of these things (depending on the program it is running), and yet it is not a machine for any of those things specifically. What, then, is a computer for? A computer is a machine for following instructions. It does whatever it is asked to do, provided the request is presented in an appropriate language. This provides enormous flexibility and versatility: a computer can be used to solve problems that had not even been thought of at the time the computer was built. All computers, from cell phones to supercomputers, are equivalent in the sense that in principle they are all capable of computing anything that can be computed.
We are used to thinking of computers as electronic devices, made of transistors, cables, batteries, etc., but they don’t have to be. There are other ways of storing and manipulating information. Optical computing, for instance, seeks to perform digital calculations using light rather than electric currents. Computers could be built from organic components as well. Can we recognize any computers in nature?
An obvious example is the brain. Brains are equivalent to the on-board computers in guided missiles or airplanes. An organism’s brain processes input from the world (sights, sounds, smells, etc.) and triggers appropriate action to facilitate finding food, mating, evading predators, and so on. Simpler brains may be limited to following explicit, hard-wired instructions, such as “if it’s smaller than you, eat it; if it’s bigger than you, run away.” More complex brains can benefit from the flexibility of being able to think ahead and consider the consequences of various courses of action, like a chess-playing program.
If the purpose of a brain is to serve as the on-board computer guiding an organism’s behavior, what is the purpose of the organism itself? What is an elephant for? What is a flower for? Some people might intuitively answer that the purpose of flowers is to make the world pretty to our eyes, or that wild animals are here for us to hunt, but we know now that this human-centered view of the world is wrong. By the way, we should note that the question “what is X for” is not always appropriate, since some things are not for anything. What are rocks for? What is Mount Everest for? Some things simply arise automatically as a consequence of natural forces and don’t have a specific purpose. Living organisms, however, seem to be different from rocks and mountains in that they are complex assemblies of many intricate parts which appear to be designed to be good at specific tasks, just like machines. There is indeed a sense in which it is true to say that birds were designed to be good at flying and fish were designed to be good at swimming, but not in the sense that there was ever a conscious entity who did the designing. Amazingly, all the design work behind living creatures was done by the mindless, automatic process of evolution by natural selection. We’ll get back to that.
Both birds and airplanes are good at flying, but there is a crucial difference. Flying is the whole point of an airplane: an airplane is a machine for flying. But for a bird, flying is just the means to an end. What is the ultimate purpose that all living things were “designed” to fulfill? The answer is: making copies of themselves. A flower is a machine for making more flowers. An elephant is a machine for making more elephants. To be more precise, an elephant is a machine for making copies of elephant genes, that is, copies of the instructions for making more elephants. The elephant (redwood, human) itself is simply the means to this end.
So how does a machine-for-making-more-elephants actually function? Who is carrying out the instructions and doing the physical work? We are now in a position to recognize another biological computer. The instructions for building an elephant (spider, eagle) are encoded in the digital language of DNA, and each of our cells is a machine which knows how to read and execute those instructions.
Richard Dawkins, whose book Climbing Mount Improbable inspired this post, often points out the illuminating analogy between biological viruses and computer viruses. A computer virus is a program that does nothing useful – it merely instructs the computer to duplicate it. Likewise, a biological virus is a strand of DNA encoding the instruction: “Duplicate me.” A computer processor cannot tell whether it is executing a useful program or a virus, and cells cannot tell whether they are copying their own DNA or virus DNA. Viruses take advantage of existing instruction-following and copying machinery, whether in electronic computers or biological cells. They spread because they can.
So our cells follow DNA instructions just like computers executing programs, but wait a minute: modern computers and the software they run were designed and produced by humans. How do our cells know how to perform such complex tasks? And where did the detailed instructions for building elephants and wasps and humans come from? There is another level of computation here, a massively parallel computation distributed in space and time, with information stored in the DNA of generations of living organisms. A spider’s web, an eagle’s wing, a human eye – these impressive feats of engineering are the result of innumerable cost/benefit calculations performed unconsciously over millennia by the computer of natural selection.
All this time we thought that we invented computers, when actually computers invented us. We are all made of trillions of computers, each dutifully following the instructions that keep us going. We are also part of the grand computational process that shaped those very instructions, one tiny step at a time, to be better and better at doing what they do. We are lucky to be able to appreciate what is going on inside us and around us, and to recognize our place in the unbroken chain of information and computation that links us with all life on Earth.