Darwin Machines, Universal Darwinism

11 Mar 1996 01:32

Changing my shape
I feel like an accident
The idea that Darwianian principles are at work in lots of places; most especially that the brain is a (in Wm. Calvin's phrase) "Darwin Machine," where ideas are generated and selected by natural selection and descent-with-variation.

Now that Dr. Calvin has a link to this page (in which I see the none-too-subtle hand of Altavista), this notebook needs a bit more content than that.

It's not hard to guess that a "Darwin Machine" is something which has to do with evolution (though one could make a case for the tides instead). In fact a Darwin Machine is anything which evolves Darwinianly. In organisms, Darwinian evolution involves

  1. Organisms producing new organisms, which resemble them (reproduction)
  2. Not all of the new organisms being the same as their parents, and at least some of these changes affecting the reproductive fitness of the altered organisms (variation or mutation)
  3. Descendants of variant organisms retaining their varation (heredity)
  4. A lack of correlation between variations and the reproductive fitness of the variants. (This last point is what separates Darwin from Lamarck, to say nothing of Teilhard de Chardin. William James put it in a nutshell in 1880: "If we look at an animal or a human being, distinguished from the rest of his kind by the possession of some extraordinary peculiarity, good or bad, we shall be able to discriminate between the causes which originally produced the peculiarity in him and the causes that maintained it after it is produced; and we shall see, if the peculiarity be one that he was born with, that these two sets of causes belong to two ... irrelevant cycles [of causes]. It was the triumphant originality of Darwin to see this, and to act accordingly.")
Now if we abstract from "organisms" to "replicators," we have the skeleton or relational structure of Darwinism; and anything with that structure is a Darwin Machine. Doubtless one could formalize Lamarck Machines, Teilhard de Chardin Machines, etc. (Let us hope for the sake of his wraith's tranquility that it is not possible to formalize Goethe Machines.) (Presumably homeostatic devices are Bernard Machines, but if I follow that thread this will get too otsogish.) The question is, what, besides populations of terrestrial organisms, are also Darwin Machines?

What we know to be Darwin Machines are the immune systems of vertebrates, and some computer programs made by certain vertebrates. (Whether all immune systems are Darwin Machines, I don't know.) Many of us think that science, or routines of economic behavior, or human cultures generally, the thoughts of individual human beings, and neural wiring in individual brains are also Darwinian, though these are all separate hypotheses. Richard Dawkins has advanced strong arguments that organisms anywhere in the universe must evolve Darwinianly, that Lamarckian mechanisms are simply inadequate for explaining the origins of adaptations, and this was what he meant by "universal Darwinism." (His arguments neglect the possibility of supernatural intervention; this is not a flaw.)

Having gone and said all this I must confess that when Calvin introduced the phrase "Darwin Machine" (apparently in 1987, in imitation of the computer scientists' speaking of "Turing Machines" and "von Neumann Machines"), his thrust was rather more narrow, and his primary meaning was a conjectured sequence-generating function of the cerebral cortex (part of his "throwing theory of thought," which q.v.). The phrase has, however, been pretty well exapted, and the new meaning is quite entrenched. As for the original sense --- my hatred of puns is well known, but I think we have no choice but to speak of Neural Calvinism.