virus: Richard Mateosian reviews "Darwin among the Machines"

David McFadzean (
Mon, 08 Sep 1997 18:27:02 -0600

[By way of the Biota mailing list... -dbm]

Date: Wed, 27 Aug 1997 23:31:32 -0700
To: Dave Farber <>
From: Richard Mateosian <>
Subject: Darwin among the Machines

The discussion on your list about George Dyson's Darwin among the Machines
prompted me to read it, and I subsequently reviewed it in my column in IEEE
Micro (Aug 97).

My own website is in transition, and Micro doesn't post the text of my
columns on its website. I've attached the review. Feel free to post it to
your list if you think people will be interested. ...RM

>From time to time in this column I review speculations on thought and
consciousness. In August 1991 I looked at The Emperor's New Mind by Roger
Penrose. That book takes a modern look at the mind-body problem: do our
minds arise from the physical workings of our bodies or do they have
separate parallel existences? If the former, does that preclude free will?
If the latter, how do they influence one another?

In April 1992, I reviewed Daniel Dennett's controversial book Consciousness
Explained. Dennett defines consciousness as follows:

Human consciousness is itself a huge complex of memes (or more
exactly, meme-effects in brains) that can best be understood as the
operation of a "von Neumannesque" virtual machine implemented in
the parallel architecture of a brain that was not designed for any
such activities. The powers of this virtual machine vastly enhance
the underlying powers of the organic hardware on which it runs.

In December 1994 I looked at Mitchel Resnick's Turtles, Termites and
Traffic Jams. Resnick maintains that what looks like group purpose in the
behavior of self-organizing systems is really only the result of local
application of simple algorithms. He developed a version of the Logo
language to help students understand and predict the seemingly irreducible
emergent behavior of such systems.

This time I review a book that touches the same themes, but with a
different perspective.

Darwin among the Machines: The Evolution of Global Intelligence by George
B. Dyson (Addison-Wesley, NY, 1997, 298pp, ISBN 0-201-40649-7, $25.00

George Dyson is the son of physicist Freeman Dyson and mathematician Verena
Huber-Dyson. He is the brother of industry analyst Esther Dyson. He credits
their respective writings for his knowledge of foundations of biology,
foundations of mathematics, and computational ecology. He brings all of
this knowledge to bear on the subject matter of this book.

Dyson grew up on the grounds of the Institute for Advanced Study, then left
at age 16 to live in a tree and work aboard boats. Looking down into the
Pacific Northwest fog from his tree house, nearly a hundred feet above
ground, he wondered whether trees think. Calmed by the womb-evoking throb
of engine rooms, he wondered whether machines have souls.

Others have had such thoughts, but Dyson develops them into a serious work
on the history and significance of digital computers and global
telecommunications. The speed with which these technologies are merging and
changing leaves us with little time to consider our personal and societal
attitudes toward the new issues they raise. Dyson's book helps us see those
issues in perspective.

Dyson derives his perspective from a line of philosophers and scientists,
going back to the seventeenth century. As he examines their work he always
has one eye on the present. He wants to know where the proliferation of
digital computers and the growth of the worldwide telecommunications
network that connects them is leading us:

"Do we remain one species, or diverge into many?
Do we remain of many minds, or merge into one?"

Dyson makes no predictions. Instead, he lets scientists and philosophers --
some dead, some not -- predict the present with their long overlooked
words. He hopes that those prophetic thinkers can help us answer his

Dyson starts with Hobbes, whose Leviathan is a group intelligence
representing the future of human society. Hobbes believed that reasoning is
computation. He believed that life arises from the physical behavior of the
underlying objects. The parts of the body give rise to a person whose life
and thought are of a higher order than those of its heart, nerves, or
muscles. Similarly, people, their institutions, and their machines give
rise to a group intelligence of even higher order.

The arguments of Hobbes and his detractors resonate loudly today in the
speculations about human consciousness and artificial intelligence (AI).
The only way Hobbes falls short of a coherent modern position is in the
mechanism of evolution. For that part of the story Dyson turns to Samuel
Butler, from whom he borrowed the title Darwin among the Machines.

Butler is interesting because he highlights the differences between Charles
Darwin and his illustrious grandfather Erasmus Darwin. Erasmus originated
the key ideas in Charles' theory of evolution, but he never gathered his
ideas into a coherent theory. This left him open to misinterpretation and
guilt by association with his follower Lamarck, who believed, mistakenly,
in the inheritance of acquired characteristics.

Butler disliked the randomness of Charles Darwin's theory. Like Einstein,
who nearly a century later said "I shall never believe that God plays dice
with the world," Butler looked for design. He looked at species as
superorganisms. He saw that ideas could develop like organisms, thus
anticipating Dawkins' concept of memes. He took a germ-plasm-oriented view
of life (a chicken is an egg's way of making another egg). This led him to
wonder where it all began. He concluded that life must have arisen from the
non-living forces and matter of the world.

In 1985, Dyson's father Freeman Dyson wrote about the origins of life. He
observed that reproduction and replication need not have arisen
simultaneously. The type of living cell that replicates its germ plasm
while reproducing may have arisen as a symbiotic merging of organisms that
reproduce with organisms that replicate. If this is true, then a Lamarckian
process may have governed the evolution of the self-reproducing branch for
many eons.

Dyson doesn't do much with his father's idea beyond mentioning it. He does,
however, trace the theory of symbiogenesis from its Russian origins early
in the twentieth century through the early computer-based simulations of
Nils Barricelli to the modern work of Thomas Ray. Ray is constructing a
globally networked habitat, called Tierra, for digital organisms. He
intends to turn them loose there and watch them evolve.

The ideas of Hobbes and Butler lead via Godel, Turing, von Neumann, and
many others to digital computation. For distributed communications, Dyson
follows a path running from Robert Hooke to Paul Baran and the global
packet-switched data network.

Communication at a distance has its roots in antiquity. Robert Hooke, the
greatest inventor of the seventeenth century -- perhaps of all time
--developed most of its modern form. His lantern array scheme used a 5-bit
character encoding, control codes, and encryption. Store-and-forward
schemes came later with the telegraph. Baran's packet-switching scheme for
a network that can survive nuclear attack provides the distributed control
and scalability to support global intelligence.

Dyson's accounts of recent history are one of the most interesting aspects
of his book. Relying only on a small university library in Bellingham,
Washington, Dyson has assembled many intimate pictures, based on eyewitness
accounts, of the development of digital computers and global
telecommunication since the 1940s.

Dyson weaves together all of this and more, skillfully but sketchily.
Exclusive of the front matter, notes, and index, the book is only 228
pages. There are many parts I can't summarize without trivializing them. I
don't know if the book has an identifiable thesis, but a central idea is this:

"In the game of life and evolution there are three players
at the table: human beings, nature, and machines. I am
firmly on the side of nature. But nature, I suspect, is on
the side of the machines."

This is a deep book. There is not much point to reading it unless you want
to think about the issues it raises. Most of us are usually too busy to do
that. If you have a little free time this summer, reading and thinking
about this book might be a good way to spend it.

Richard Mateosian <>
Review Editor, IEEE Micro President (1995-97), Berkeley STC
Director, 1996-97 Northern Calif Technical Communication Competition

(C) Copyright 1997. All rights reserved.

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