August 19, 2009 | David F. Coppedge

Evolution 2.0: What’s in the Upgrade?

Consider Evolution 1.0.  That was the old biological, Darwinian stuff.  Now, there’s Evolution 2.0 – the evolution of technology.  W. Brian Arthur explained the upgrade package for New Scientist: “On the origin of technologies.”
    Arthur is not the first to try to define a law of nature for the origin of technology.  He recognized, though, that prior attempts failed because some technologies do not fit the picture of an accumulation of small variations.  “The jet engine, for example, does not arise from the steady accumulation of changes in the piston engine, nor does the computer emerge from accumulated changes in electromechanical calculators,” he explained.  Therefore, “Darwin’s mechanism does not apply to technology.”  His new book The Nature of Technology tried to identify the laws of technological evolution.  He argued that new technologies do, indeed, derive from older ones, but not in a gradualistic way.  It’s more a combinatorial evolution, he said: “we need to tailor our thinking directly to technology, not borrow from biology.”
    In order to think technologically instead of biologically, he said, “To start with, we can observe that all technologies have a purpose; all solve some problem.”  Then, “novel technologies form from combinations of existing ones, and in turn they become potential components for the construction of further technologies.”  As a result, a kind of tree of technology emerges:

This mechanism, which I call combinatorial evolution, has an interesting consequence.  Because new technologies arise from existing ones, we can say the collective of technology creates itself out of itself.  In systems language, technology is autopoietic (from the Greek for "self-creating").  Of course, technology doesn't create itself from itself all on its own.  It creates itself with the agency of human beings, much as a coral reef creates itself from itself with the assistance of small organisms.
    Autopoiesis tells us several things: that every technology stands atop a pyramid of ancestral ones that eventually made it possible; that all future technologies will derive from those now existing (though we cannot say exactly how); and that a novel technology’s value lies not just in what it does, but also in what further technologies it will lead to.

Arthur tried to make tie-ins to Darwin wherever he could.  He has common ancestry, he has progress, he has a tree (or pyramid), he has building blocks, and he has emergence.  He even has digital organisms producing logic circuits in silico.  He fed a computer program a few simple logic circuits, some random mutations, and watched what emerged:

Once we launched the experiment we found, unsurprisingly, that most new random combinations failed to meet any needs.  But after a few hundred steps, circuits started to appear that matched some elementary needs, and could be used as further building blocks.  From these, more sophisticated technologies evolved.  After about a quarter of a million steps, we found that the system had evolved quite complicated circuits: an 8-way-exclusive-OR, 8-way-AND, 4-bit-Equals – even an 8-bit adder, the basis of a simple calculator.

He did admit, of course, that the emergence of these “technologies” was predicated on the fact that he had defined “needs” for the program.  These served as goals that could be rewarded.  “When we took away these simpler needs, these stepping-stone technologies did not emerge, and complex needs went unfulfilled.”
    How does Evolution 2.0 differ from Darwin’s kind of evolution?  The primary difference is that combinatorial evolution is rare (but not absent) in biology.  Living organisms, he argued, evolve primarily through incremental changes and selection.  Technologies only emerge when pre-existing technologies combine in new ways.  “Darwinian variation and selection kick in only once a technology exists,” he said.  “For what really counts, the formation of new ‘species’ in technology, combinatorial evolution holds sway.”
    One phrase notably missing from his theory is intelligent design.  It would seem ID would play heavily in any theory of technology, but references to human intelligence, goal-directed behavior, and purpose were referred to obliquely at best.

It sometimes seems inconceivable that such shallow logic can pass for scholarship and scientific reasoning these days.  Someone needs to inform poor Dr. Arthur that he cannot derive Evolution 2.0 from Darwinism.  What he calls Ev 2.0 is nothing more than human intelligent design.  Humans are not omniscient.  They don’t create radar and iPhones ex nihilo.  But they learn, they create, and they choose.  They know what they want, and they can move mountains and organize materials to get it, once they find a method that works.  So yes, there will be elements of progress in human technology.  When the Sicilians invented the catapult, a way to inflict damage on an enemy city from a safe distance, the Romans were quick to improve on it.  These were all purposeful actions by intelligent beings capable of arranging materials for ends.  What on earth does that have to do with Darwinian mutation and selection?  Nothing.  Even the Victorian notion of progress in biology had a serious falling out in the 20th century.  Our perceptive readers surely noticed Arthur cheating in his software.  Just like the “digital evolution” charlatans, he held the strings of his marionettes so that they would do his own purposeful bidding.
    That’s one of the fundamental errors in Arthur’s thinking.  He fails to constrain himself to the world of particles he describes.  He sits like Yoda, looking down on the world of nature, to explain it in a detached manner, like some disembodied sage on an alternate plane.  Once these guys understand that it is impossible to justify the Yoda Complex in a naturalistic world view, they will start understanding the scornful looks coming from the sentient designed beings around them.
    So what’s in the Ev 2.0 upgrade?  Intelligent design – of an inferior kind from what came in its predecessor, life.  It’s a downgrade.  Unload your stock in Darwin & Co.  The smart money is on biomimetics – imitating the advanced technology found in the living world (e.g., AskNature.org).

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