Hi, I'm Tim Tyler - and today I will be discussing the idea of Self-Directed
Evolution - a phrase which refers to the concept of biologial evolution being
directed by intelligent agents.
When considering the ways in which evolution may be directed it is useful to
consider a simple symbolic diagram of the evolutionary process:
Here, the processes responsible for generating variations in inherited genetic
information are represented on the left, and the processes responsible for
deciding which variants persist are represented on the right.
When intelligence affects the processes responsible for generating variations,
that is a type of directed mutation which we will call an
When intelligence affects the processes responsible for deciding which
variants persist, we will call that "intelligent selection".
Intelligent mutations are a phenomenon that has mostly been
associated with cultural evolution so far - though there is a case for
it being implicated in DNA evolution via the Baldwin effect.
Intelligent selection has been a significant factor in evolution so
It is how sexual selection in higher animals works. Female choice typically
involves females getting males to display for them - and then using their
intelligences to select between them.
Natural selection can also involve selection by intelligent agents on other
members of the same species. The most obvious example is probably male combat.
Males sometimes kill each other - and often have to decide when to run and
when to fight.
Lastly, there is the Baldwin effect. In this, behaviour patterns repeatedly
acquired by organisms in their own lifetimes can alter the way in which
selection acts on them. An example would be birds that learn to open
milk-bottle tops. This behaviour is learned - and can be transmitted
culturally - from bird to bird. Once the behaviour exists, birds are then
subject to selection, favouring lactose tolerance - and other traits related
to bottle-opening and milk-drinking. Here is a case of a psychological
disposition going on to result in subsequent germ-line ramifications.
However, even if decisions about who dies and who reproduces are often being
made by intelligent agents, the overall behaviour of the resulting system may
not necessarily appear to be very smart. Similarly, a crowd may be composed of
many intelligent agents - but its overall behaviour may not necessarily seem
to be very smart either. So, the question arises of whether it is possible for
the whole evolutionary process to act more like a single intelligent agent.
We know that organisms could be made effectively immortal - and also that
self-improving systems could be made which progressively modify their own
structure in order to grow and develop.
In the future, there is the possibility that a new mode of evolution will
emerge - in which a single, large, intelligent agent is constructed which is
capable of controlling its own evolution.
Such an organism would have no competitors or peers. It would not senesce or
die - rather it would continually reinvent itself.
In this kind of scenario, the organism would not necessarily pursue the same
goals that traditional biological systems do. Natural selection tends to
produce systems which degrade the available sources of order as rapidly as
possible - by using the available resources to make copies of their own
genomes. However, if a single large intelligent agent were in charge of the
direction of evolution, it could conceivably select other goals to pursue.
So, we can imagine an evolving system which is as completely in
charge of its own evolution as it is possible to be. The next question is
whether such systems will ever arise. I fully expect that they will. Over time,
nature has built progressively larger cooperative systems. Cooperative
systems do very well competitively: if you look at multicellularity and the
social insects, these developments have been wildly successful. Also, now,
genetic engineering has destroyed the barriers to gene flow between different
species - so now all living things can more easily be united - and can
collectively utilise the discoveries of all the organisms on the planet.
We are currently witnessing the emergence of planetary-scale cooperation via
the internet. It seems to me that the process of globalisation is likely to
lead to a world government, a world economy, a world currency, a world
language, a world immune system, and a world mind, which will then effectively
take control of much of the evolution of the biosphere.
Initially, there may still be some quarrels within the system - due to
internal genetic conflicts of interests. However, it seems likely that such
conflicts will be quelled - and eventually the creature's insides will
come to operate harmoniously.
Another question is whether such a cooperative entity could survive
as a unified organism - even if it spreads out across multiple star systems,
or across multiple galaxies. It seems to me that fragmentation could
- and probably would - be avoided.
If such an entity dissolved itself, then another would probably form.
Eventually, a stable one would arise, and then that is what would be observed
from then on.
Another question involves what aims such a system might have. This is a
non-trivial question. My guess would be that it would probably have
much the same aims as the evolved system that preceded it - so it too would be
inclined to use the available resources to rapidly expand its domain and thus
ensure its own survival. However, it seems possible to imagine systems being
built with other drives and goals.
Then there is the question of whether such a system is desirable, or
avoidable. Already we can see an anti-globalisation movement - so it seems
obvious that not everyone will like the idea. Is there anything that can be
done to prevent it? Realistically, I doubt it. I see the situation as being
essentially another Tech vs Luddite battle - and the Luddite factions rarely
seem to get enough power to actually offer much resistance.
What about capitalism? Today we have capitalist political systems that attempt
to preserve competition between companies using a monopolies and mergers
commission. However, the system is clearly a dreadful one - and the government
only uses it because it hasn't yet come up with a superior alternative. Also,
note that - as in the proverb - each government has only one monopolies and
What about democracy? - yes, there are mock battles between factions for
control of government, but - as in the Yes Minister TV show, much of
the government infrastructure is unaffected by such reshuffles. Democracy
seems unlikely to prevent a single large governing body forming - but might
influence how it is run.
The dynamics of such systems can be seen through the lens of today's politics -
as being associated with the battle between capitalism and socialism.
My expectation is that capitalism will be discarded as a stupid, inefficient
and primitive system - and future metabolic activities, will be managed and
run directly by the government.
Another way of looking at the topic is in the context of the battle between
individual liberty and the state.
My expectation is that the state will obliterate individual liberty - and
that any autonomous individuals will become slaves of the state - much like
worker ants are slaves to the hive mind.
My expectation is that the march towards globalisation and cooperation will
continue until all traces of conflict between sentient organisms have been
eradicated. There may still be viruses - and other conflict on a small scale -
but it seems likely that even that kind of activity will be heavily subdued.
Of course, there will still be trial-and-error exploration. However,
the trials and errors will probably not involve death or damage to sentient
agents - or a battle for reproductive success between them. Indeed, much trial
and error will probably be done under simulation.
In conclusion, Self-Directed Evolution looks likely to represent the
future of all living systems on the planet. However, so far there has been
relatively little exploration of the dynamics of such systems. Since this
seems likely to be the shape of biological evolution in the future, it seems
to me that some study is warranted.