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Biology 103
2000 Third Web Report
On Serendip

The Evolution of Technologically Inspired Evolutionary Thoughts

Debbie Plotnick


It is my intention in the final chapter of my biology and technology trilogy to examine the concepts referred to as Genetics, Nanotechnology and Robots (GNR) in an evolutionary context, albeit to do so in a less formal and more personal manner than the preceding papers. What follows is a bit of the how and why I have wanted to know about these technologies and much of what led me to conclude that the ramifications of GNR will have consequences far beyond human intentions.

Perhaps my fascination and comfort level with concepts such as artificial and alien intelligences and interspecies interactions stems from my life-long status as a science fiction reader. I spent my childhood believing that just around the corner there would be machines that could impart fabulous knowledge directly into our brains, such as how to read, like in Isaac Asimov’s short story The Profession.  My preoccupation began as a preliterate youngster. My grandfather used to read to me from Asimov’s late 50’s collection I Robot. I’d try to imagine what it would be like when robots were part of people’s everyday lives. Any trepidation was, of course, tempered by the belief that when the day came that in reality, just like in the fiction, other forms of intelligence would also be governed by Asimov’s three laws:

1. A robot may not injure a human being, or through inaction allow a human being to come to harm.

2. A robot must obey the orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law

3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law. (1):

Not coincidently, long before biological terms had any place in my vocabulary, those concepts had touched my consciousness. They too had entered by way of science fiction. As a teen and young adult I read feminist science fiction of other worlds, where meiosis could occur even when the diploids were of the same gender, as in Joanna Russ’s classic 1970’s novel The Female Man (2).

During the 1980’s I alternated between technologically enhanced (or were they depleted) worlds, such as the cyber-punk novel Neuromancer (3), and David Brin’s Uplift novels (4), which dealt with the consequences to humanity of helping other species to achieve sentience. Throughout the decades, I also visited and revisited famous sentient science fiction computers, such as Heinlein’s Mike and Dora (5) and Clark’s infamous Hal 9000 (6). 

And I took a little detour in the 90’s and hoped I wasn’t recognized in the New Age/Spiritually sections. I scared myself a little as the century drew to a close when my literary choices took a curious turn to volumes that were still considered technological and speculative, but no longer classified as fiction.

I found myself in the engineering section on occasions other than when I was looking for my husband. It was K. Eric Drexler’s 1986 book The Engines of Creation (7) that led me there. I suppose it was only a short distance from there to the computer/technology section, but for me it was a foray into yet another alien territory. Leading me there were books that mused about souls and interconnectedness but were certainly not new age or spiritual tomes. It was there among the programming books that Ray Kurzweil’s The Age of Spiritual Machines (8) was prominently displayed. And those who were buying it did not appear to be seeking anonymity.

Then, shortly after I read Kurzweil’s book, some strange things began happening.  One day, for example, I found myself reading (of my own volition) one of my husband’s computer magazines. The Wired April 2000 issue caught my eye with an article that heavily referenced Kurzweil. It was entitled Why the Future Doesn't Need Us (9), and it was there that I first encountered Sun-Microsystems co-founder Bill Joy lamenting:

I may be working to create tools, which will enable the construction of the technology that may replace our species.

Then all of a sudden Joy was ubiquitous and having realized that he wasn’t complaining about the post industrial revolution job market, I was compelled to read the book that he claimed would explain why computer technologies would mean the end of humanity. The result of having done so is that, for almost a year, I’ve been agonizing over the concepts presented in George Dyson’s Darwin Among the Machines: The Evolution of Global Intelligence (10). The library classifies it as artificial life/artificial intelligence and also as neural networks/computer science. I didn’t get it at all, but I have been determined to try it again. After all, Dyson’s talking about biology, (Darwin, evolution and such) thus raising my hopes that all I need is just some more basic science. 

Therefore, it has been my sincere hope that if I put to use some of the biological concepts that I learned this semester, perhaps I’ll be able to reconcile my ingrained fiction inspired perspectives, and spiritual wonderings, along with the technological and biological transitions that Drexler, Kurzweil and Dyson insist are connected and imminent. And maybe too, I’ll figure out why I find Bill Joy so whinny.

Some of the concepts gave me no trouble at all. I quite agree with Eric Drexler (the undisputed expert and leading thinker with regard to nanotechnology) that humans are biochauvinists (11). Perhaps it is innate, but nonetheless we are extraordinarily prejudiced with regard to the superiority of biological life forms, particularly ourselves. Historically, we humans have privileged ourselves as standing at the pinnacle of evolution. However, in order to help people keep this tendency in check, and to assist the public in maintaining a realistic biological perspective, I am considering designing a set of biologically inspired bumper stickers, complete with options for optimists, pessimists and equivocating pragmatists. They will read, “Negative Selection is Also Good,” “Naturally, I’ve Been Selected,” “Evolution Happens” and “Evolution: You Can’t be Beat It.” 

Although it may not be immediately recognized as such, one of the stated goals of genetic and nano-research actually is to facilitate evolutionary change: i.e. to modify the gene pool. And ostensibly the motivations for GNR technologies are to improve human life (we always put ourselves at the top of the list). Several obvious (and intended as beneficial) examples of both of the above concepts are mapping and repairing of the genes implicated in mental illness, cancer and other such heritable diseases. As with all evolutionary changes (in this case is negative selection) will begin with a few isolated individuals. But unlike the usual mechanisms behind natural selection, (positive or negative) in this instance individuals will self-select. An example of someone who might self-select could be me. In the near future when it will be probable for the genes responsible for bipolar disorder (which I am known to possess) to be correctable through nanotechnology, I just might do so. And if such a modification were to occur, it would be morphological and mutagenic because it would change both my characteristics and my existing DNA. However, such a change would not have any potential evolutionary repercussions, as it is highly unlikely that I would reproduce beyond my three existing offspring. But if my offspring were to modify their inherited, potentially bi-polar causing genes, they would also be instituting a potential modification of phenotype as well as a morphological change. With such a modification they would also be prevented from manifesting the disease and in that case the change would be heritable; they would not pass bipolar causing genes to their offspring. But this still would not be an evolutionary change. Bipolar disorder would still exist in the population at large. However, if many of those who carry such genes had them modified (and those who did posses the genes did not reproduce) then bipolar causing genes would no longer be entering into the gene pool and over time an evolutionary change will occur as this disease is eliminated from the entire population. One of the promises of genetic and nanotechnology is to facilitate a lot of this type of evolutionary negative selection and thus eliminate many of diseases that have long plagued humans.

Drexler and the other nanotechnologists offer more tempting morphological possibilities, such as those that will be realized by re-enforcing and repairing aged or broken body parts or cells through the use of nanomachines. These changes too may or may not be heritable. Nano-enhanced sixty years olds probably will look like twenty year olds and might have the strength of a sumo wrestler, but because these types of changes probably will affect only a few self-selected individuals, there would be little impact upon the human population as a whole. But if Drexler is correct (12) and nanomachines do function as biological assemblers behaving like ribosomes within cells, they’ll modify the cell’s DNA. This newly recoding DNA would then reproduce itself and potentially allow the genes that turn sixty year olds into twenty year olds to become heritable alleles. And if, over time, many individuals were to pass along such alleles, it would be an evolutionary event, as such positive and planned mutations made their way into the gene pool.

There is also the promise of morphological, and again perhaps heritable, changes to brain capabilities for humans, through the use of nano-sized computers composed of proteins implanted within the brain cells. All of the aforementioned would be micro evolutionary. And the accumulation of many of these types of occurrences would be macro-evolutionary.

In the short term, humans might believe that they were in charge. The elimination of disease, infirmity and suffering would seem wonderful, and prove irresistible. However, their choices are likely to also precipitate another type of macro-evolutionary event, speciation  (the formation of two or more species from the division of an existing species (13)). Genetic modifications would begin with the best of intentions, with populations willingly becoming modified or enhanced. People might even choose traits for specific professions or geographic locales. But the forces of evil might also have access to such technologies. And biological nano-weapons that could target living beings with specific genetic traits needn’t be our only nightmare-inducing scenario. Repressive regimes could create or exploit speciation, perhaps by producing or enslaving a race of modified drones to serve the nano-enhanced. (Racism could effortlessly provide a similar outcome.) There really is no need to continue with scenarios already fully fleshed out in my science fiction collection and in Bill Joy’s prognostications. But in order to understand that such scenarios are not unusual in evolutionary terms, one need only to look at human history, examine fossil records, or observe the living things all around us. At quick look at the insect world, or thinking about how a bacterial invasion can modify or decimate entire populations, species or ecosystems is succinctly illustrative of the fact that at best humans can influence but never control evolution. Evolutionary processes will continue, so why shouldn’t we proceed, even against Mr. Joy’s unscientific advice:

The only realistic alternative I see is relinquishment: to limit development of the technologies that are too dangerous, by limiting our pursuit of certain kinds of knowledge. (9)

The reality is that we can’t help but proceed. Ray Kurzweil contends that technology is also an evolutionary process, replete with a history, in the form of computer code that replicates, as does the ultimate model of replication, DNA. In less than 100 years we have seen technologies evolve at an unprecedented rate.  Computer technologies (designed by humans) used to create increasingly complex self-replicating code, which allows for increasingly greater computer intelligence, which in turn allows computer technologies to be further used to design machines of still greater capabilities to be used inside and outside of biological systems.

But evolutionary acceleration is not just technological. The pace of biological evolution has increased exponentially. It took billions of years to go from single celled organisms to multi-cellular life forms. The pace quickened to millions of years, to get from primates to humanoids. And finally, only hundreds of thousands of years separated the earliest humanoids from Homo sapiens (14). 

Kurzweil is a pretty credible guy, a highly successful inventor with an extraordinary record of predicting future technological events (see his technological time line (15)). Which leads me to believe that it is more than my science fiction warped perspective that allows me to find great validity in the following two Kurzweil pronouncements regarding the ways in which we will view machines and ourselves in the very near future:

They will believe that they are conscious. They will believe that they have spiritual experiences. They will be convinced that these experiences are meaningful. [And] …we’re likely to believe them when tell us (8).


By the end of the twenty-first century, there won’t be a clear difference between humans and robots (8).

Once nanotechnology can cause the bodies of people to become biological/mechanical hybrids, it would not be a large step to construct bodies for sentience claiming, computer intelligences to inhabit. A science fiction-like debate regarding the definitions and/or the rights of artificial intelligence and artificial persons quickly would be rendered moot because of biological truths and evolutionary forces. In the short term, I believe that biochauvinism will provide the impetus to design beings that look like us. However, I can see nothing that will alter the fictional status of Asimov’s Three Laws (1):. And there is no reason to imagine that by what ever means a biological system achieves its form, that it will not be driven by the same overriding force as every other life form that has every existed -getting its own alleles into the gene pool. Assortive mating coupled with natural selection will have no use for present-day human intentions.

After at first believing that my desire to understand George Dyson’s book Darwin Among the Machines: The Evolution of Global Intelligence (10) would ultimately prove as futile as human’s belief that they have power over evolution, I was comforted by finding I was not the only one who found some of his augments dense and impenetrable (16). Dyson postulates about GNR technologies as he extrapolates upon some old and some very common notions. There is a strong connection to Drexler and Kurzweil (they all cite each other) and there is an interrelated quality to all of their notions, which all makes perfect sense in light of Dyson’s central augment, which includes interconnectedness. Simply stated, Dyson argues that the power of computers, because they are globally networked, is a new and evolving intelligence, which has the potential (with an evolutionary nudge) to generate new life forms.

He reached this conclusion by way of a route almost as circuitous as this paper, which praises Darwin, re-appraises Butler, loses me (and many others) with number theory, and ultimately concludes with the fact that there is a difference between replication, (what code does) and reproduction (which biological systems do) that will cause the next great evolutionary leap.

Butler (a contemporary of Darwin) put forth an evolutionary thesis that states that there is intelligence within, but not behind, species’ evolution. He believed that individuals are intelligent and collectively their species exhibits its own intelligence through evolution. And Butler, (like Kurzweil) also further asserted that there is intelligence inherent in technologically. Darwin, according to Dyson, made a mistake in avoiding any mention of intelligence, either from within (like Butler does) or from outside (God) of evolutionary forces.

Dyson then tries to apply Butlerian and Darwinian theories to computers.  Because they are more intelligent collectively, i.e., networked, he argues that there is intelligence akin to Butlerian species intelligence. Then he puts forth (here's where number theory comes in) that when the intelligence of computer networks becomes complicated enough, its code will find ways to combine in a reproductive (rather than replicative) fashion. Finally, he asserts that there will be a symbiosis between computer intelligence and the biological creatures that created it, which will result in the formation of lots of new species through speciation and through a process called symbiogenesis (two distinct life forms joining to produce a new life form). Once new life forms begin to emerge, the forces of Darwinian natural selection will create heretofore-unimagined diversity.

However, my take on Dyson’s book is that it requires an incredible amount of hard work to ultimately arrive at an amalgam of evolution theories, a fairly complete history of computer technologies, and common religious and new age spiritual concepts. But I guess that’s why I was drawn to it.

Thinking about GNR technologies has for me been an evolutionary process. It began slowly, a long time ago, built upon itself, and took some dead ends, then tried some variations. It has not yet taken any big leap, but is always constantly moving. I am quite convinced that because of nanotechnology, people will influence (in the very short term) evolutionary change. And I think that Kurzweil is also correct, machines will be sentient and merge with us because we will want to merge with them. Dyson, difficult as his book was, helped coalesce many concepts I’ve been (and will continue) wrestling with. But he, more than the others, made me understand why Joy’s position is so very wrong. Joy suggests that we stop developing GNR technologies and heed the teachings of the Dalai Lama to lead compassionate, ethical lives. Surely, I have no dispute with the Dalai Lama’s teachings, but I do think that Joy needs to contemplate the Buddhist concept that the only constant is change, and get a set of my bumper stickers.

Web References

(1): Asimov’s Three Laws

(2): Review of The Female Man

(3): Neuromancer on-line

(4): The Uplift Novels

(5): Heinlein’s Novels

(6): Hal 9000

(7): Engines of Creation on-line

(8): The Age of Spiritual Machines

(9): Wired April 2000

(10): Darwin Among the Machines: The evolution of Global Intelligence


(12): Engines Chapter 4

(13): Macroevolution website

(14): The Story of the 21st Century

(15): Kurzweil’s Technological Timeline

(16): Article entitled Author's look back helps reveal the future of intelligence


Thanks to Mike Plotnick, for being my designated proofreader.

And with gratitude to Dr. Grobstein for giving his students the required tools for basic biological understand and for designing a course that offers the latitude for in depth examination of individually chosen subjects and self-exploration.




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