03 February 2008

The Robot's Rebellion

In a new book, Keith Stanovich of U. Toronto invokes a "Robot's Rebellion" as way of "finding meaning in the age of Darwin". I learned of the book through a Point of Inquiry podcast distributed by the Center for Inquiry, which can be accessed with the link attached to the title of this post.

I still haven't read this book, but have at least scanned the table of contents carefully and listened to the POI podcast a couple of times with attention to detail. It's a fascinating book and I am going to buy it if I can't find it otherwise, but my current feeling is that the thesis is fundamentally flawed. That's unfortunate, but perhaps the book leads us in the right direction in any case.

The basic idea is an extension of Richard Dawkins' concept of "the selfish gene" using the concept of memes, also credited to Dawkins, who set up an adversary relationship with our genetic code, by attributing "selfishness" to a macromolecule. Stanovich sets out to help us find meaning in world where evolution is held to be a fact of life. He suggests this can be achieved if humans will seize control of their lives from their genes and memes, and insist on guiding themselves instead. Much as I love Dawkins prose and his delightful explorations of evolutionary science, his supposed deep insight into sociobiology now seems misguided to me. As engaging as Stanovich's writing also may be, I'm suspicious than any meaning that is found in this way may well be misguided.

Not everyone is enamored with the idea of memes. A chapter subheading from "Robots' Rebellion" is "The ultimate meme trick: Why your memes want you to hate the idea of memes." So Stanovich would hold that many have fallen into this "trick" that memes play on us. They don't "want" us to understand that a host can be taken over by an idea that treats its carrier solely for the immediate advantage of the parasite. The joining of religious cults, and suicide bombings, are cases in point.

So what is the fundamental flaw? Well, let me quote Peter Fields: "Those who are not proud of their heritage will never amount to anything, because they are in contempt of themselves from the start." This may be a bit sentimental, but I think it is a profoundly huge mistake to adopt an adversarial relationship with our genetic heritage, regarding one's own genes as an alien replicator that has "taken over the body" for its own purposes. Shades of "Men in Black"! Here we must hold Richard Dawkins responsible as the source of the "selfish gene" meme, which is at the root of this mistake.

It's a natural enough error, until we recognize that a human body could never have been assembled in the first place without the presence of the genetic information. It's not as if a pre-existing and self-sufficient body has been invaded by an alien parasite. Rather the genes have guided the development of the material body with which they are able to preserve and propagate themselves. The body and the genes cannot be separated into distinct entities with different interests; they are the same. It could just as well (and erroneously) be argued that the dumb matter of the world has exploited the information contained in foundling scraps of DNA to assemble itself into living bodies.

Stanovich argues for a robot's rebellion, in which humans would extrapolate the evolution meme to take over from the genes who are exploiting us against our better interests. He imagines that this will release us from the constraints of "subpersonal" optimization, by which I think he means the interests of genes in expanding and developing the gene pool and the species. This will, in his view, free us to be more rational beings who figure out what we want for ourselves and pursue it. This concept has a lot of appeal as it echoes the spirit of the 60's counterculture within which many of us matured (or failed to do so). It rejects the wisdom of "anyone over 30" and challenges us to figure things out for ourselves and find new solutions.

But this looks all wrong to me from my present perspective. Genes and memes are distinguished by their temporal orientation and scale. Instead of being "selfish" invaders, genes are encyclopedias of the accumulated wisdom of the ages, distilled into individually unique, yet thematically consistent, forms that have dealt effectively with reality to sustain and propagate life. One of the resultant life forms has now developed its own facility for the creation and storage of information in encyclopedias, known as memes or memeplexes. Some of the memes provide models of reality that support successful prediction of the future, and how it depends on our current actions. And that allows us to practice rationality on a new time basis that is forward looking rather than backward looking, that is, experience based.

Bottom line: thinking of ourselves as robots planning a revolt is both demeaning and dumb. It's wiser by far to heed the message of the genes, while looking ahead to predictable changes that could revise genetic wisdom and allow "anticipatory adaptation". Perhaps it can be said that a truly intelligent species goes beyond trial and error.

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