America tips the evolutionary scale - will AI be next?

  •   8 min reads
America tips the evolutionary scale - will AI be next?

A new study finds that more than half of Americans believe in evolution; now we need to understand it and the evolution of AI.  

"Intelligent life on a planet comes of age when it first works out the reason for its own existence. If superior creatures from space ever visit our Earth, the first question they will ask, or order to assess the level of our civilisation, is: "Have they discovered evolution yet." So begins The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins.

Dawkins makes a good point; a study of evolution holds answers to many of the deepest questions, but it is also a massively misunderstood idea. An understanding of evolution also helps shed light on technology, AI, the economy and society, but not necessarily for the reasons you might think. The evolution of AI is when things get really interesting.

Darwin's dangerous idea  

Daniel Dennett, American philosopher, writer, and cognitive scientist described the book 'The Origin of Species' as 'Darwin's dangerous idea.'

Darwin's ideas are quite revolutionary and as Dennett says, the core of the message is that 'design does not need a designer'.

Now a study has found that US public acceptance of evolution has eased above the 50 per cent mark. This follows a period of two decades or so when evolution believers and cynics were divided pretty much 50/50.

The study suggests that "increasing enrolment in baccalaureate-level programs, exposure to college-level science courses, a declining level of religious fundamentalism, and a rising level of civic scientific literacy are responsible for the increased level of public acceptance."

Darwin's idea — we will come back to that in a moment — is especially dangerous because of how it is misunderstood. The field of eugenics came out of the theory of evolution,  and helped mould the Nazi Party, hardly a good reference.

And the list of the great and the good who supported eugenics is sad indeed: HG Wells, Teddy Roosevelt, George Bernard Shaw, Winston Churchill, Francis Crick (co-discoverer of DNA), Alexander Graham Bell, and Helen Keller. The economist Keynes was also a proponent of eugenics. So many 'heroes' it seems held views that would appal us today.

The rise in eugenics was based on a failure to understand the subtlety of evolution and what it really meant.

Yank and rank

In business, evolution is used to justify some of the uglier business practices, like the yank and rank system of business management — a system in which companies rank the performance of employees and terminate the employees who sit at the bottom of the rankings.

Darwin and the invisible hand

So, if design doesn't need a designer, can't an efficient economy run without government 'design', or interference? Doesn't this prove greed is good, that 'might is right,' after all, 'nature is red in tooth and claw.?' The US philosopher come author, who is fantastically famous in the US and relatively obscure everywhere else, Ayn Rand, introduced the idea that selfishness is good — unselfishness bad. Her ideas have moulded US thinking, but many non-Americans don't appreciate her heavy influence.

Unfortunately the Rand philosophy was based on a misunderstanding of evolution, a simplistic shoehorning of a multifaceted theory to fit a less complex theory.

Super-Chickens and why collaboration is better than competition

To get an understanding of the errors that underline eugenics, rank and yank, and the creed of selfishness, consider super chickens.

The scientist William Muir wondered what might happen if all the most successful egg-laying chickens in a chicken farm were separated from the other chickens, creating a kind of egg-laying 'A-Team'. These were the super-chickens, the premier league of chicken laying. So the idea then was to breed these super-chickens, creating an even more elite group, hard-coded by their DNA to be like Messi, Ronaldo or Brady, if you like GOATs, egg-laying chicken GOATs.

The result was a disaster. The ordinary chickens flourished; there was no discernible reduction in egg-laying. But the eggs laying elite turned out not to be elite at all; their numbers diminished, egg-laying fell dramatically. See this TED talk by Margaret Heffernan to see the take told in more detail.

The truth finally emerged: the super chickens' initial success was not down to any innate egg-laying ability; instead, their success was down to their aggressive natures. Their success was at the expense of successful egg-laying by ordinary chickens.

Heffernan went on to describe findings concerning collaboration. First, researchers set groups of people hard problems to solve. It turned out that the most successful groups were not those made up of people with high IQs. Instead, they were teams made up of more diverse individual members, with a high number of women, which gave more time to each team member to contribute.

Virtual reality could have an interesting benefit here. Imagine a brainstorming meeting in virtual reality in which each person's avatar is anonymous. You don't know which avatar pertains to the boss, which avatar pertains to the shy person who never says anything. Shielded by anonymity, there will be no sycophantic agreeing with everything the boss says; the introvert might blossom.

The selfish gene is not the same thing as the selfish host

We are hosts for genes— we all are. According to Dawkins, the genes that form us act selfishly and in this way, evolution functions. But that does not necessarily mean that at the host level, selfishness is good.

To illustrate this point, consider a pet dog. Does it love its owner, or is it just cupboard love? The answer is yes to both. At the gene level, from an evolutionary level, it is cupboard love. The dog that loves its owner is more likely to be treated kindly by the owner and is more likely to be bred. The dog is unaware of this, however, it just loves its owner. Dogs will die to protect their owners. Why? Because the selfish gene has hardcoded that behaviour into dogs.

Tit for Tat — The theory is incredibly profound. It shows that a kind of altruistic behaviour is often more efficient. And as Richard Dawkins showed in the Selfish Gene, the natural world often sees apparently altruistic behaviour.

Darwin's idea wasn't an idea

Darwin didn't invent evolution; he discovered it. You could argue that Darwin was the most important individual in the history of thought, except that he merely discovered something that already existed. If Darwin hadn't come up with his theory, someone else would have done. Actually, someone else did; Alfred Wallace Russell stumbled on an almost identical theory at around the same time.

Evolution — meaning

The word evolution derives from the Latin evolvere, meaning unroll. The word evolution was first used in a biological context by Charles Lyell, a pioneer in developing our understanding of the geological forces that shape the Earth and time periods were born. He used the word evolution to describe the gradual charge, and his work inspired Darwin.

But Darwin used the evolution word in a context that was different from its literal meaning.  Instead of seeing steady progress, Darwinian evolution is more of a random process.

For Darwinian evolution, a mutation must provide sufficient advantages that the organisms that have that mutation are more likely to become parents. That's a simple definition, but its implications are far-reaching.

Evolution does not mean steady progress. On the contrary, different mutations have different effects at different times.

Evolution also builds upon what already exists — you can call it 'the adjacent possible'. It has no vision, no plan. If, by chance, an ape develops a mutation to support bipedalism, at a time when the African Rift Valley is being formed, creating a different terrain, then because of the timing, bipedalism might evolve. At a different time, the evolutionary benefits may have been less significant.

If there is a benefit to a bipedal ape in having a slightly bigger brain — perhaps because the creation of two free limbs could benefit from greater cognitive abilities, or perhaps because group collaboration becomes more important among bipedal apes in grasslands, then mutations offering higher intelligence might be selected.

This does not mean that human evolution always favours more intelligence — only if it provides an advantage measured in terms of reproduction.

For example, humans are getting taller — this has no evolutionary explanation; we are merely returning to the heights that were common before our species invented agriculture because our diet is improving.

Evolution will not create a new bone on our neck as a consequence of us looking down on our smartphones all day. This would only happen if there were a reason why people with this bone had more children who in turn survived to adulthood — and even then, it would take a long time for the mutation to take hold.

But over the last few thousand years, some groups of humans — whom we can erroneously refer to as races — have evolved lactose tolerance. This was because genes to enable the drinking of cows' milk supported survival for women to childbearing age.

The great misunderstanding

Darwin did not use the phrase 'survival of the fittest' in the earliest editions of Origin of the Species. Instead, Darwin tended to emphasise the evolution of collaboration. He said: "Tribes of moral men have an immense advantage over fractious bands of prorated."

Wallace put more emphasis on 'survival of the fittest and Thomas Huxley, known as Darwin's bulldog, emphasised the gladiatorial interpretation of evolution the idea of nature' red in tooth and claw.'

And the Huxley interpretation suited the British Victorians looking for a moral justification for the Empire. Darwin actually emphasised collaboration, but evolution theory is often seen as a rationale for ruthless competition.

Maybe Darwin's ideas were more closely linked to 'coopetition'.

Evolution is not steady

Dawkins says evolution has three speeds, slow, dead slow and stop. He is not entirely right, although it depends on what you mean by slow.

There have been occasions when evolution has seen rapid acceleration, such as human evolution following the formation of the Rift Valley. When the meteorite wiped out the dinosaurs, mammals, in particular, underwent highly rapid evolution. Likewise, the Cambrian Explosion saw rapid and revolutionary change 550 million or so years ago — admittedly, the revolution occurred over several million years. But perhaps the most important evolutionary event, just like the most important event in physics  — the Big Bang — may have occurred in an instant. Around 1.8 billion years ago, the first complex living organism was formed as one cell somehow got inside another cell — creating the first symbiotic relationship. The event is called Singular Endosymbiosis.

Technology, the simplest application of evolutionary theory

Is technology evolving? Not in the Darwinian sense. Instead, it is planned; it is a design that has been designed. Maybe this is only true to an extent; many breakthroughs come about via chance. But the selection method is different; instead of natural selection, we have selection by contemplation or selection by the markets.

Consider a different type of evolution; consider digital evolution: how evolutionary ideas can be applied to develop an algorithm.

The key for digital evolution probably lies in setting a selection mechanism or a fitness score to whatever you want to evolve, such as an AI algorithm.

Imagine how much more rapid digital evolution could be than Darwinian evolution. Evolution is limited by the time gap between generations. In a digital environment, that time gap could be nanoseconds. As computers advance, as quantum computers converge with traditional computers, neural networks evolve, the possible applications that might emerge are mind-boggling. Don't say, 'AI will never be able to do this, or that,' because we never know how AI might develop if it is subject to the force of evolution.

Survival of the fittest is a misunderstood term. Survival of the gene and survival of the ecosystem is not the same thing as 'winner takes it all'. We can not let this be the way of the digital world either.

In the 'digital' evolutionary march, the best ideas don't always win the early race but neither are they wiped from the face of the earth, only to be remembered as fossils. Their protagonists often keep plugging their potential until a time when other collaborators work together to elevate the best ideas to fruition.

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