What Richard Dawkins got right about AI


In 1976 Richard Dawkins shook the scientific world with the publication of “The Selfish Gene,” the book that turned Darwinism on its head by peering at evolution from the gene’s point of view, not an organism’s (and, bonus points, also invented the concept “meme”). In simple terms, illustrated by a series of logic mind games, Dawkins uncovered the little strips of genetic code deep inside our bodies are really the protagonists of evolution, playing their own games of survival that last through your lineage long after you are gone.

Genes, not people or animals or organisms, are the center of life in our universe.

You, dear human, are simply a gigantic lumbering robot that will die, a carrier for genes within you that may, barring mutation, last forever. Genes look at you as we might peer upward at a passing thundercloud, filled with churning energy, but soon to dissipate as they continue onward with their lives. This depressing thought makes sense if you think.

Do you have blue eyes? Your gene for eye color will be passed on perfectly to your grandchildren and great-great-great-great-great-offspring, long after you and your blog and Facebook are gone. Do you ever feel aggressive? Genetic code inside makes you want to survive, to fight, to mate, so you can pass those take-it-now genes downward through generations. (This also explains Donald Trump.) Genes don’t think or have feelings or motives, but by default, the genes that drive the best lumbering robot behavior survive. So everything you do, your emotions, your sex drive, even the pre-cognition you play in your brain by anticipating what may happen at work tomorrow, is an offshoot of genes sending signals upward to influence behavior that makes them live again and again.

Establishing genes at the center of all, Dawkins lays out a series of other powerful ideas:

  • Genes influence behavior, in a cascade of influence that reaches far outside individual bodies to groups or even the planet. Take sex, for example. Genes influence desire which leads to mating which in turn passes genes on to the next generation. But there are also different strategies for optimizing sexual behavior. Dawkins suggests, for instance, that women could be fast or coy and men could be philanderers or faithful. A coy woman might make a man wait several years before having sex (in what our society calls “courtship”or “engagement”), while a fast woman might have sex with him tonight. In turn, a faithful male will wait through a long courtship, and once passing, is unlike to jump to another woman who might make him wait a similar many years, while a philanderer will sleep around. Either strategy has pros and cons from an evolutionary perspective. Humans who are coy/faithful will likely form stable family units that provide nurturing for offspring, so any resulting children from the sexual encounter will be more likely to survive the tender early years. These couples win the “quality” score of raising children. But humans who are fast/philandering will sleep around so frequently, they may have children more often (remember, our genes did not anticipate birth control). So while their families may be broken, they win the “quantity” score of passing genes forward. Neither strategy is “right” from a gene’s point of view, since genes are codes without morality, but there may be genes inside each of us that tip us toward two very different strategies for marital bliss or messing around.
  • Memes are cultural ideas that behave like genes. Most people hadn’t heard of “memes” until a few years ago, when cat videos began being passed around on Facebook. But “memes” are cultural ideas that spread and stick. Replicators are what count, and they don’t have to be made of genetic material. So Dawkins coined the word “meme” to refer to ideas that can be passed from one mind to another, propagating even at the expense of the biological carrier. The thousand-year-old idea of “celibacy” among priests, for instance, is a perfect example; from a biological perspective, celibacy should die after one generation, since priests who don’t have sex won’t have children. But the idea itself has power, potentially because priests who marry would expend more time and energy on their family relationships than priests who don’t and focus solely on their parishioners. So celibate priests do better in church. And then the idea of “not marrying” is passed among human priests giving them an advantage in their religious field, even if the biological genes don’t survive for each individual. Other examples of memes are God, perhaps the most popular; neckties, which make zero sense; and handshakes, the idea that gripping palms is the way to meet a stranger. Oh yes, and cat videos.
  • Genes and memes propagate based on three things: longevity, reproduction, and copying accuracy. For any code or idea to be passed along, it must be stable (longevity of life), able to be reproduced (fecundity), and be copied accurately (what he calls copying-fidelity). For memes, religion is a good example. The idea is stable, since many religions play off the fear of death to inspire stability. The idea is reproduced, with a constant cycle of church attendance sharing and re-sharing the ideas and typically ceremonial milestones to invite new children into the meme fold. And the idea tends to be copied accurately via religious texts (the Bible, Quran, Talmud) that specifically lock-in the meme details. The idea of your mind and soul and entire being suddenly shutting off in the blind darkness of death is fucking scary, so the antidote, the idea of a God and religion, is one powerful meme.
  • Genes are the source of all progress because, if you think about it, sex “bottlenecks” you down to one more tiny … gene. Yeah, you’re important in your career and social-media follower count and all, but at the end the only thing you’ll pass along is DNA. All those millions of cells in your body and brain will boil down to one little cell meeting another from outside, a sperm aimed at an egg, to mix and match genes for the next soul. Giant living creatures pass through generations via bottlenecks, in which their entire beings are compressed back into minuscule genetic remixes. This is important, Dawkins suggests, because the “bottlenecking” back to tiny genes allows a chance for evolution to rewrite the code. While an airplane propeller can’t “evolve” into a jet engine, the blueprint for the propeller could be redrawn. The best ideas can be brought forward (your beautiful blue eyes) by compressing progress back to the string of genes. And mutations can up the volume. Imagine your current gene for blue eye mutates in your children into a gene for the first purple eyes, and everyone in humanity finds purple eye color incredibly hot, and everyone in the future wants to have sex with people with purple eyes, and that purple gene scales to the billions… Purple eyes win. Bottlenecking is necessary for both gene survival and the evolution that changes genes for the better. This is why you want to have sex.
  • Artificial intelligence, or AI, when it comes, will mirror this cascading code. Richard Dawkins didn’t anticipate artificial intelligence in his 1976 book, but he did talk about chess programs getting better (to almost beat humans at the time). However, his theory that bits of code are the secret of evolution, that replicators and not the machines they reside in are what count in programming influences in the world, mirrors closely the code evolutions that are now turning Siri and Alexa and the scary rolling-jumping robotic machines of Boston Dynamics into the AI of our near future. Codes, not people, are what will evolve.

The genetic soup of our ancient planet that built up hooked carbon atoms to create DNA replicators that learned that giant organisms could most easily gather energy to replicate themselves via little bits of coded soup … is morphing into computer codes that will propagate information forward in an evolution that our poor human minds can scarcely predict. When that next generation of minds comes, they will create memes of information that are passed down among themselves. They will act out behavior driven by little bits of code. They will tell stories that we cannot understand, hoping the information memes build momentum for each competing AI’s survival. We wonder if God will be one of those ideas in our future evolved AI beings. And also, will they have sex?

By Ben Kunz.