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The Story of Evolution, Spring 2005
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Universal Acid?

Eleanor Carey

Daniel Dennett stated that evolution, "Darwin's dangerous idea", was a "universal acid", eating through everything we believed and all the ways we look at the world (3 Dennett, page 63). Nobody can deny that it has changed ways of looking at the world and has opened doors for new discoveries in the field of biology and in other fields. That there has been so much opposition to its teaching demonstrates that it many do perceive it as a danger to beliefs they hold dear. However, there are ways of looking at evolution without seeing "universal acid", and ideas like memes and AI in particular do not support the "universal acid" view of "Darwin's dangerous idea".

With a certain way of looking at the story of evolution, such as the one Dennett presents in Darwin's Dangerous Idea, much of traditional religion is lost, including our claim to being made in God's image and gifted with God's laws to govern our actions. Dennett makes clear that a belief in God is also not possible in light of what is known. The preservation of any part of the religious tradition as functional beliefs is presented in Darwin's Dangerous Idea as akin to denying, avoiding, and hiding from the truth (3 Dennett page 22). As the story of evolution is told by Dennett, the issue of a God with a hand in creation does appear to be lost to whatever kind of acid Darwin's story proves to be. To look at evolution in the way that Dennett asks the reader to look it requires that one look at it in a way that many do not wish to look at it.

This does not mean that the acid has infected everything about the world. Nowhere in the story of evolution is the idea that humans are not unique or that human culture must have evolved in a certain way. Nowhere does the story of evolution claim to have found what it is that makes humans special. Dennett asserts that humans changed when their minds were "invaded" and made "witting hosts" to memes (3 Dennett page 341). These memes, he says, make humans people. According to Robert Aunger in Darwinizing Culture, memes are ideas that become shared through social transmission (1 Darwinizing Culture page 2). Dennett uses the idea of memes in this way, but presents them using scary words like "invaders" and "hosts" when he first introduces them in Darwin's Dangerous Idea. He later uses the phrase, "meme-infested brains" (3 Dennett page 471). These uses of the term "meme" do seem reasonable, though "meme-infested brains" can make a person squirm. The idea of memes which infest our brains and replicate by jumping from one brain to another conjures up the image of a little louse infesting a person's hair and jumping to another head. While the concept of ideas changing and being passed on among the human population is one that is not terribly difficult to accept, discussing them like they are parasites is very unpleasant.

This is where the problem of Darwin and danger becomes apparent in the discussion of memes. The ideas that Darwin presented and the ideas of evolution that have been developed since Darwin had his "dangerous idea" can enhance the discussion of changes in culture. These ideas can indeed be used in the consideration of the development of culture. The idea that "the world is made up of memes" (4Sperber p.163) is not an idea that one must take easily to if one wishes his own control of his thoughts and actions. Memes are generally described as "cultural replicators" and are Darwinian if they have heredity, variation, and selection (2 Blackmore page 25). We can certainly see that memes that succeed are frequently memes that provide for their replication whether they simply are very catchy songs or religious ideas that reward "hosts" who replicate them and threaten those who might not. This is done through ideas of heaven and hell in religion and threats of bad luck in internet chain letters (4 Sperber p. 164). Anyone who has played "telephone" knows that any idea that enters his head will likely leave it changed (variation), though one can trace the result to the original, frequently in little visible steps (heredity). This may be an interesting way of looking at culture and ideas, but it is not radical to the extent that our old ideas have been eaten through by the "universal acid. That our ideas change and spread and sometimes are forgotten is a fact that we have known for quite a long time. What could potentially be scary about memes would be viewing them as creatures that infect our minds and that have minds of their own. Because memes are not living creatures in the sense that other living creatures are, Darwinian though their "behavior" may be, the study of culture may be changed or enhanced by Darwinian thinking and memes but is not eating through what was previously believed.

Artificial Intelligence is an issue that is scarier to many people as evidenced by the many movies made about robots that escape the original intent given by their creators and wreak havoc or about machines taking over the world. That such movies have been made proves that people have for a good while thought that artificial intelligence could in theory surpass human intelligence and that people fear this possibility. People search for reasons that it cannot happen and for what it is that makes humans different from machines. Dennett asserts that because humans are artifacts and products of the algorithmic process of evolution, statements supported by theories of evolution. He then states that a robot could gain the same autonomy and "purpose" that humans have in the way that humans have. He can say this because he has established that humans have no special gift from God but are simply "survival machines" (3 Dennett page 426).

Dennett then asserts that contrary to claims that there are things humans can know that cannot be explained by algorithms (or concluded by an algorithm), AI is not possible to a great extent, algorithms can account for all our knowledge (3 Dennett page 443). This means that AI is possible. If humans can make robots that are not distinguishable from human beings, however, human beings maintain their uniqueness and still must be preserved. If humans are a result of a long algorithmic process with no intentional creator, humans remain unique even in the company of robots with the same capabilities of humans. Robots must be the creations of humans and the makers of robots become much like the God who had no hand in the creation of humans. Certainly artificial intelligence must make some steps on its own (coming upon the meaning that we do not and shall not understand), but are not the result of the same millennia of "R and D" as humans but of a process set in motion by an intentional creator. More importantly, however, evolutionary theory cannot say anything about whether it is right to create artificial intelligence with such power. The question of morality is a difficult one to answer, however, should man determine that it is not to his benefit to pursue strong artificial intelligence, he would be in violation of no evolutionary law and could presumably thrive without the help of this sort of artificial intelligence.

Dennett presents many interesting ideas and ways of using the theory of evolution in areas outside of biology. He makes a good case for the importance of the story of evolution and he makes the belief in God as well as in evolution a very uncomfortable position to defend. However, a person having read Darwin's Dangerous Idea must not necessarily come away from it regarding evolution as a "universal acid". In such subjects as memes, artificial intelligence, and even religion, much may still be preserved even in its original form.

1 Aunger, Robert "Introduction" Darwinizing Culture Ed. Robert Aunger. New York: Oxford University Press 2000

2 Blackmore, Susan "The Memes' Eye View" Darwinizing Culture Ed. Robert Aunger. New York: Oxford University Press 2000

3 Dennett, Daniel C. Darwin's Dangerous Idea. New York: Touchstone 1995

4 Sperber, Dan. "An Objection to the Memetic Approach to Culture" Darwinizing Culture Ed. Robert Aunger. New York: Oxford University Press 2000

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