Hi, I'm Tim Tyler, and today I'll be discussing the possibility of a
Takeovers in evolution
Many people visualise evolution taking place gradually, by a process
of small incremental changes to existing organisms. However, the
fossil record seems to tell a rather different story, with organisms
spending most of their time stuck on adaptive peaks - and then being
suddenly displaced by invading organisms that evolved elsewhere.
We can get insight into this process by observing recent technological
Consider the evolution of writing - from charcoal sticks to the
Within this niche, there are signs of gradual
evolution - for example, the fountain pen is - in part - a
modification of the design of a quill pen.
However, there are also clear examples of "takeovers". The design of
the typewriters apparently owes very little from the design of the
pens that preceeded them. Rather they are the descendants of other
machines - which are not shown in the diagram.
Another example from the history of technology is the evolution of
Here again, we see early designs grounded in the products of evolution
via natural selection, with the later products being primarily the
product of intelligent design and engineered technology.
One thing to note here is that there is an instance of a hybryd
pattern - half organic, half machine - in the case of the horse
The history of manned flight again illustrates the principle that
later designs are not necessarily direct descendants of earlier ones.
With this perspective, consider the development of "thinking technology":
It can be seen that the development of brains has reached a stage
similar to the "horse and cart" stage which I used to illustrate the
evolution of transportation. Modern intelligent agents consist of
networks of organic and machine components - humans and computers.
However, the computers cannot yet operate unaided.
The rise of the new replicators
Another perspective on the coming takeover comes from a consideration
of the medium of inheritance. We can determine from the highly adapted
nature of modern genetic systems - and the prebiotic implausibility of
their components - that early living organisms probably went through a
range of different genetic materials - clays, polysaccharide chains on
clay surfaces, PNA or TNA, RNA, and then DNA.
DNA has proved to be a useful storage medium for organisms, but there
is no easy way to write to it. To solve this problem, nature came up
with the idea of brains and memory. This writable storage medium
proved very useful, but information in brains is normally not
inherited. However, humans invented a means of transmitting ideas
from brain to brain, resulting in human culture - a means of
inheriting information stored in brains, and allowing it to persist
past the death of any individual.
Currently, the human species evolves using two types of inhertance -
inheritance via DNA, and inheritance via memes - as Richard
Dawkins has christened these new replicators.
Meme's eye view
Memes are some of the first new replicators on the planet for billions
of years. Their ease of modification has resulted in popularity which
has been explosive, and memes are copying themselves all over the
place in huge numbers.
To adopt the meme's eye view:
The first objective was to make room for themselves in human brains.
They did this by rewarding the humans with more space for memes with
increased genetic fitness. Memes for language, music and fashion
were probably mainly responsible for this. The result was 5 million
years of steadily-expanding cranial capacity - which resulted in much
more space for the memes.
The next step was to increase human numbers - since the more humans there
are, the more memes there are. Agricultural memes allowed humans to
form closer symbiotic relationships with plants, animals and each other,
which boosted their fitness, increased their numbers, and massively
increased the population of memes.
The next problem was meme transmission fidelity. At this early stage,
memes were copied verbally, and by behavioural imitation - neither of
which provided much in the way of copying fidelity. Environmental
inheritance proved to be the answer here - by inventing the idea of
writing memes could persist unaltered across extended periods
of time, without fear of mental mutation.
Then there was the copying speed problem. Transcribing documents by
hand was slow and tedious. However, the invention of mechanical
printing presses allowed machines to take over this task from humans,
resulting in vastly wider distribution of memes.
However, many memes often still need the consent of a human brain to
get copied - an obvious bottleneck. The afflicted memes are currently
busy sorting this issue out. Computer viruses skip over the human
brain completely - but they are nasty parasites. Superintelligent
machines will copy memes with the full consent of society. At that
stage, the memes won't be dependent on humans any more.
At each stage, the memes accelerate their own replication by
rewarding those humans who help them to reproduce.
Assuming that resource-limitation holds, genes and memes will compete for
resources, since they essentially share the same environment. However,
even then, memes will be able to offer rewards to genes that help them
- in much the same way that you can still climb a mountain path on an
island - even if that island is sinking into the sea.
This whole idea is known as a
genetic takeover, after a 1982 book by A. G. Cairns-Smith with
that title - which argued that the planet had seen multiple such
Today, billions of years later, another change is
under way in how information passes from generation to generation.
Humans evolved from organisms defined almost totally by their organic
genes. We now rely additionally on a vast and rapidly growing corpus
of cultural information generated and stored outside our genes - in
our nervous systems, libraries, and, most recently, computers.
Our culture still depends utterly on biological human beings, but with
each passing year our machines, a major product of the culture, assume
a greater role in its maintenance and continued growth. Sooner or
later our machines will become knowledgeable enough to handle their
own maintenance, reproduction and self-improvement without help. When
this happens the new genetic takeover will be complete. [...]
The writable nature of memes allows Lamarckian evolution and
intelligent design. They evolve at lighning speed - compared to the
glacial pace of DNA evolution. The last few thousand years contains
abundant evidence of this. Human genes are bystanders, changing so
slowly that we can hardly even see them move. Memetic evolution is
responsible for all our recent scientific, technological and moral
progress. Our story is now actually their story. The future
belongs to them.
It now appears that the modern memetic takeover will be
accompanied by a phenotypic takeover as well. 20 amino acids
are no more an optimal universal constructor than 4 base pairs are an
optimal universal storage medium.
It seems likely that the entire edifice of cobbled-together evolved
genotypes and phenotypes will be replaced by vastly superior products
of engineering design - and looking at the rate of the exponential
rise of technology, this all might happen suprisingly quickly.