Darwin Machines, Universal Darwinism11 Mar 1996 01:32
Changing my shapeThe 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.
I feel like an accident
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
- Organisms producing new organisms, which resemble them (reproduction)
- 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)
- Descendants of variant organisms retaining their varation (heredity)
- 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.")
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.
- William Calvin, The Cerebral Symphony: Seashore Reflections on the Structure of Consciousness [In despair of ever locating a copy, I appealled to Usenet, and was rewarded with a message from Dr. Calvin himself; he thought Cody's books in Berkeley might have some copies. And indeed they did: under music.]
- Charles Darwin, On the Origin of Species
- Daniel Dennett, Consciousness Explained and Darwin's Dangerous Idea
- Peter Godfrey-Smith, Darwinian Populations and Natural Selection
- David Hull, Science and Selection: Essays on Biological Evolution and Philosophy of Science
- David Hull, Rodney Langman, and Sigrid Glenn, "A General Account of Selection: Biology, Immunology and Behavior", Behavioral and Brain Sciences (2001) [Reprinted in Hull's essay collection, above]
- William James, "Great Men and Their Environment"
- Richard R. Nelson, "Evolutionary Theories of Cultural Change: An Empirical Perspective" ["the standard articulations of a Universal Darwinism put forth by biologists and philosophers tends to be too narrow, in particular too much linked to the details of evolution in biology, to fit with what is known about cultural evolution." PDF preprint.]
- Henry Plotkin, Darwin Machines and the Nature of Knowledge [An excellent book, except for his bizarre attempt to say that every adaptation is an instance of "knowledge." Rather than try to defend the idea that, say, the coloration of a Bengal tiger is a sort of justified true belief, he retreats to saying that all adaptations are instances of "biological knowledge," of which knowledge in the usual sense (i.e., knowledge) is a special case. By analogous methods, one can easily show that all instances of adaptation are also instances of perfectly cooked Peking duck, or that all language is really writing; if you put forward the latter conceit in an unreadable book titled Grammatology, your fortune is made. --- But, as I said, overlooking this unfortunate little expedition into Pickwickdom, it's a fine book.]
- To read:
- Gary Cziko, Without Miracles: Universal Selection Theory and the Second Darwinian Revolution
- Gerald Edelman, Bright Air, Brilliant Fire
- Chrisantha Fernando, Richard Goldstein, Eörs Szathmáry, "The Neuronal Replicator Hypothesis", Neural Computation 22 (2010): 2809--2857
- Richards, Darwin and the Emergence of Evolutionary Theories of Thought and Behavior