Evolution as Algorithm

in The Mind, the Brain and Complex Adaptive Systems, ed, Harold Morowitz and Jerome Singer, Santa Fe Inst. Studies in the Sciences of Complexity, Proceedings Vol. XXII, 1995, Addison-Wesley, pp. 221-223.

Daniel C. Dennett

Evolution as an Algorithm--the Ultimate Insult?


John Locke offered what he considered a sound a priori argument that Mind must come first, must be the original Cause, not merely an Effect:

If, then, there must be something eternal, let us see what sort of Being it must be. And to that it is very obvious to Reason, that it must necessarily be a cogitative Being. For it is as impossible to conceive that ever bare incogitative Matter should produce a thinking intelligent Being, as that nothing should of itself produce Matter. Let us suppose any parcel of Matter eternal, great or small, we shall find it, in itself, able to produce nothing. . . . . Matter then, by its own strength, cannot produce in itself so much as Motion: the Motion it has, must also be from Eternity, or else be produced, and added to Matter by some other Being more powerful than Matter. . . . But let us suppose Motion eternal too: yet Matter, incogitative Matter and Motion, whatever changes it might produce of Figure and Bulk, could never produce Thought: Knowledge will still be as far beyond the power of Motion and Matter to produce, as Matter is beyond the power of nothing or nonentity to produce. And I appeal to everyone's own thoughts, whether he cannot as easily conceive Matter produced by nothing, as Thought produced by pure Matter, when before there was no such thing as Thought, or an intelligent Being existing. . . . So if we will suppose nothing first, or eternal: Matter can never begin to be: If we suppose bare Matter, without Motion, eternal: Motion can never being to be: If we suppose only Matter and Motion first, or eternal: Thought can never begin to be. For it is impossible to conceive that Matter either with or without Motion could have originally in and from itself Sense, Perception and Knowledge, as is evident from hence, that then Sense, Perception, and Knowledge must be a property eternally inseparable from Matter and every particle of it.
(from An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, 1690, IV, x, 10)

Darwin's great contribution was the complete destruction of Locke's argument and the nearly universal blockade of imagination that it both reflected and fostered. An early critic of Darwinian thinking put his finger on it:

In the theory with which we have to deal, Absolute Ignorance is the artificer; so that we may enunciate as the fundamental principle of the whole system, that, IN ORDER TO MAKE A PERFECT AND BEAUTFIUL MACHINE, IT IS NOT REQUISITE TO KNOW HOW TO MAKE IT. This proposition will be found, on careful examination, to express, in condensed form, the essential purport of the Theory, and to express in a few words all Mr. Darwin's meaning; who, by a strange inversion of reasoning, seems to think Absolute Ignorance fully qualified to take the place of Absolute Wisdom in all the achievements of creative skill.
(from an anonymous review of a work on evolution, Atheneum, 2102, 8 February, 1867, p. 217.)

Exactly! What this critic saw and hated is precisely what others have seen and loved: the idea (whether or not Darwin saw it with clarity) that all the Design in the universe can be explained as the product of a process that is ultimately bereft of intelligence, in other words an algorithmic process that weds randomness and selection to produce a unique branching, recursively revised structure that bears as its fruit all the intelligence that exists. This "strange inversion of reasoning", as the critic calls it, spreads its revolutionary perspective through all of science, unifying as it reformulates most of the philosophical ideas that have guided (and often misguided) science.

The anonymous critic has had many intellectual descendants, up to the present. A recent critic puts the same misgivings as follows:

Life on Earth, initially thought to constitute a sort of prima facie case for a creator, was, as a result of Darwin's idea, envisioned merely as being the outcome of a process and a process that was, according to Dobzhansky, "blind, mechanical, automatic, impersonal," and, according to de Beer, was "wasteful, blind, and blundering." But as soon as these criticisms [sic] were leveled at natural selection, the "blind process" itself was compared to a poet, a composer, a sculptor, Shakespeare--to the very notion of creativity that the idea of natural selection had originally replaced. It is clear, I think, that there was something very, very wrong with such an idea." (Tom Bethell, "Darwin's Mistake," Harper's Magazine, February, 1976.)

Or something very, very right. Many who have shared Bethell's discomfort have sought to contain Darwinian thinking within some "proper" sphere--ceding it some limited role within biology but trying to prohibit its spread into cosmology, psychology, the arts, ethics, religion. These attempts at containment have largely been misguided, but as byproducts they have often produced important strengthenings and deepenings of the underlying Darwinian idea. Let us understand a skyhook to be a "mind-first" force or power or process, an exception to the principle that all design, and apparent design, is ultimately the result of mindless, purposeless, mechanical processes. Then a crane is a subprocess or special feature of a design process that can be demonstrated to permit the local speeding up of the basic, slow process of natural selection, and that can be demonstrated to be itself the predictable (or retrospectively explicable) product of the basic process. Much of the most fruitful (if often extremely emotional and even vicious) controversy in evolutionary thinking since Darwin can then be characterized as searchers for skyhooks discovering cranes. Time and again, challenges to Darwinian thinking of the "you can't get here from there in the time available" variety have been met by discoveries or reformulations that show how the underlying Darwinian algorithmic processes can be cascaded recursively into ever more powerful and swift mechanisms for "lifting" in Design Space. The idea of evolution as fundamentally an algorithmic process is often misunderstood, but it is in fact the source of the power of Darwin's contribution.