Universal Darwinism: The Evolution of Everything?


After reading Richard Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene,  John Cribben’s In Search of the Multiverse and Philip Balls’ Critical Mass, my interest in evolution as a generic or more universal concept has been revived. Is evolution a concept much broader than Darwin ever envisaged? Can it apply to human behaviours? Natural structures? How about our entire universe?

With the current socio-political climate in the US being driven more and more toward the extreme right, where so-called “respected” politicians harp on about intelligent design and other such bullshit, I found it interesting to see that evolution may extend from explaining how our genes have changed over the millena, to actually understanding everything from our place in the universe to the inherent behaviours that we exhibit. Darwin’s work may have uncovered a greater universal truth. As Daniel Dennett once said:

“If I were to give an award for the single best idea anyone has ever had, I’d give it to Darwin, ahead of Newton and Einstein and everyone else. In a single stroke, the idea of evolution by natural selection unifies the realm of life, meaning, and purpose with the realm of space and time, cause and effect, mechanism and physical law.”

My first proper exposure to the theory of evolution beyond basic biology class was when I was about 17 and learnt about genetic algorithms (GA) when writing the Generation5 website I put together for the ThinkQuest competition along with Samuel Hsuing and Edward Kao.

AH-64D Apache Longbow
The AH-64D Longbow’s radar has genetically evolved algorithms powering it.

Sam had written an article (which I later expanded upon) about using a GA to solve a diophantine equation. I found it amazing that computer scientists had taken Darwin’s idea of “survival of the fittest” and applied it to something as abstract as solving mathematically equations. Not only that, it was bloody efficient at doing it!

Two years later, I interviewed Steve Smith, one of the engineers behind that massive radar that sits atop the AH-64D Apache Longbow (right). The Apache’s radar can automatically detect the target from the radar signature, and the software that powers this intelligence was evolved via genetic programming.

At the time though, the deeper meaning behind all this “cool technology” never really dawned on me. Fast forward many years and my fascination with genetic algorithms remained. I was stunned by the ability of evolution to seemingly solve huge problems if you could simply assign a fitness to any given solution. Now with that said, this post isn’t meant as a lesson on genetic algorithms as I’ve written plenty in the past (including this bad boy if you’re feeling adventurous). Continue reading “Universal Darwinism: The Evolution of Everything?”

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The Hivemind, Groupthink, Social Media and Individuality

I recently finished the fantastic book by Jaron Lanier, You Are Not a Gadget and one fairly central theme was how humans interact en masse. Much of the Internet often centres on this idea of the “hivemind” and harnessing little quanta of intelligence from a vast number of Internet-connected people to some end. Wikipedia is a prime example of this — lots of (often) anonymous people creating, editing and tweaking articles about…well, pretty much everything.

The hivemind was always an idea that both intrigued and perplexed me. I love the idea that we can harness intelligence in a similar way to harness spare compute cycles (i.e., SETI) and emergent or self-organizational behaviour continues to fascinate me. However, I’ve never been completely comfortable with how viable this is taken at an human-intellectual level. A compute cycle is a known entity ? if it changes, it scales in size which affords you more work. Human intelligence is very much an unknown, in both scale and quality.

Wikipedia seems like a great example of how this might work. However, the anonymity behind Wikipedia makes it hard to ascertain how much of it is truly the hivemind at work, versus several experts or fans creating information that is subsequently updated as time moves forward (aside: he makes an interesting parallel between Wikipedia and the Bible). Much of Lanier’s arguments against Wikipedia seem aimed more at the cultural ? search engines increasingly point to Wikipedia as the first listing, taking relevance away from other peripheral sites. As Wikipedia aims to be encyclopedic in nature, human opinions, insights and extremism is (often) missing from entries. Rightly or wrongly, it is these thoughts and opinions that gives us our rich and diverse global cultures.

The concern is that “hivemind” projects combined with the cloud-computing Overlords’ search algorithms is leading the human race down a path that inherently limits rather than frees the information we have readily accessible to us. While I have a small issue with his choice of words, the sentiment is beautifully summarized as:

“We should not seek to make the pack mentality efficient. We should seek to inspire the phenomena of individual intelligence.” – Jaron Lanier

Continue reading “The Hivemind, Groupthink, Social Media and Individuality”

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