Universal Constructors


The apparent link between biological and cultural evolution, as set out in the previous post, was identified by the philosopher Karl Popper in the mid-twentieth century. More recently, the physicist David Deutsch has taken the model devised by Popper and augmented it to produce an even more embracing thesis. In his 2011 book, The Beginning of Infinity: Explanations that Transform the World, Deutsch argues that human potential is as extensive as the reach of explanatory knowledge, and he applied this idea not only to scientific knowledge but also to our cultural, political, social and economic theories and expertise. In this account humans are ‘universal constructors’, capable of creating anything consistent with the laws of physics. Hence, he writes, ‘…human bodies (including their brains) are factories for transforming anything into anything that the laws of nature allow.’

This is possible because humans are universal learning machines, entities which have made the transition from embodied, adaptive, biological knowledge to a potentially unrestricted form of conceptual knowledge which enables them to identify and solve problems. Each solution will give rise to a new problem, and no solution can ever be all-encompassing. Even so, humanity is currently on the brink of a ‘jump to universality’. In this new phase of cultural evolution problems will be identified, conjectures advanced, solutions found and those solutions criticised, found wanting and revised. According to Deutsch this process has the capacity to be unlimited, infinite, and the source of unrestrained progress in those areas to which we give our collective attention.

Of course, many of us will consider it too early to form any such judgement. Deutsch relies heavily on the potential reach of Enlightenment values in an era when they are manifest much more in science than in wider society. Moreover, he acknowledges that the future will always remain uncertain, if only because human creativity is mysterious, or at least poorly understood, and that therefore predicting what kind of future awaits us is impossible.

But what his and Popper’s original theories point to is the remarkable connection between biological evolution through natural selection, on the one hand and, on the other, human learning, knowledge and creativity. Both promote unpredictable creation; biological evolution achieves this by virtue of random natural variation whilst human knowledge expands through creativity, the guesses or conjectures that we make about which problems to address and how they might be solved.

In natural selection the knowledge of how to survive and replicate is embodied in our genes; of course, this is a limited form of knowledge, one aimed narrowly at the replication of successful genes and gene vehicles, albeit with occasional, and entirely accidental favourable consequences for the survival and replication of certain hosts. But in a comparable way human knowledge gives rise to the survival and replication of certain ideas and forms of learning. Many of these historically have been self-limiting or regressive, designed to promote the status quo and discourage creative thought. But some have been the opposite, creative conjectures with the effect of destabilising accepted practices and norms.

If we adopt a purely materialistic view we can think of these ideas as embodied also, embedded in cerebral structures that we as yet only dimly understand, but which will be increasingly embedded in artificially-intelligent structures also. Despite their differences these two forms of learning, evolutionary and cultural, share a strange unity founded on the identification of problems, a conjecture as to a solution, and the testing of that solution.

In this way there appears to be a logic to our being a species that solves problems, and in particular the problem of survival. Moreover, we approach problems in the same way that nature does. We propose solutions and test them critically. Yet we have the advantage over most of the species that preceded us in that we do not need to generate the solutions entirely randomly. We can use our accumulated knowledge to select the ones that seem most appropriate.

In this process, whether it is of the scientist or artist, the child at play or the adult with a living to make, we are free to use our imagination and intuition to call up possible solutions. Of course, every time we ask a question another problem appears; we may find ourselves answering a different question to the one originally asked. Or the artist, in finding a solution to a narrow technical problem, may find herself launched on an entirely new programme of endeavour. Every aim can become a new problem; and knowing what our personal aims should be can become the problem, requiring us to secure agreement with others as to what our collective aims should be.

In this view everything is in flux, is plastic, in a state of feedback, and connected to something else. But there is nothing new in this. Indeed, humans throughout history have subjected themselves to the most rigorous testing of what their minds can achieve, employing their natural intelligence, invention and capacity for learning.

Such an interpretation points to another analogy, that between genes and ideas in the human mind, or to make the point stronger, ‘memes’, the word that Richard Dawkins coined to convey anything that might lodge in human minds and be transmitted culturally from one mind to another. Memes, like genes, give rise to a form of evolution in which ideas play the role of replicator.

A meme might be language as a whole, or a phrase or word in that language, fashion in dress, diet, dance routines, sport, ceremonies and customs, art and architecture, engineering, science and technology, and many other things beside. Memes are units of cultural transmission, units of imitation. Moreover, if we adopt a thorough-going materialistic viewpoint memes, like genes, must also be physical structures, or have some physical correlate, in the brains of their hosts. One might even regard them as parasitical in the sense that their only purpose is to replicate, and the effect on the host is collateral at best. They seek only their own advantage, their own replication, and to do so they exploit the imitating characteristic of their human hosts.

Some have a high degree of stability in the meme pool, some arise (like fashions) temporarily only to disappear soon after. The most successful memes are the ones which, rather like genes, have adaptive qualities in the particular environment in which they operate, ideas and cultural patterns which are flexible, can be modified and survive longer in the host brain than their competitors. Genes have ruled as replicators for several billion years, but with the evolution of humans memes have begun to form what amounts to a new replicator that initiates a new phase of evolution, one which, in the Deutsch analysis, has infinite reach.

One of the most powerful forms of the meme are human goals or objectives, ideas that we form as to what our objectives should be and how we might realise them. Here too the trial-and-error analogy is apt; we adopt certain goals in order to explore how far they might take us. Indeed, one definition of intelligence itself is the ability to realise complex goals.

Many human goals are conferred by natural selection, and are essentially the goals of the genes rather than of their hosts. Animals and humans have the goal of surviving and reproducing, and we can see that the source of these objectives lies outside our personal history. Even when we pursue goals that are not themselves directly conducive to survival and replication, say abstract knowledge, artistic endeavour or mere entertainment, we may still be unclear as to whether they arise essentially as aspects of our natural inheritance or rather of something that we could regard as uniquely ours as individuals. We can never be quite certain when or if we are acting independently of our genetic legacy. Are we then ‘mere puppets’ of natural selection or are we truly ‘universal constructors’, the first species of animals to reach beyond their evolutionary origins?

The nature of what human beings might now justifiably adopt as their goals, and whether they will be inherently selfish and divisive, or shared and altruistic, is the key question. Four billion years of physical evolution is not to be easily dismantled or superseded. One might even conclude that the pace of human cultural evolution has rendered our genetic inheritance somewhat unfit for purpose, or at least unfit for the purpose of human as opposed to gene survival. The challenges posed by cultural evolution are now acute and we see them all around us. They are reflected most strongly in economic and technological inequality, in environmental damage, in social instability, and in political and cultural divisions. The more numerous we are, and the more competing memes we afford space in our collective brains, the more problems we create and the more solutions we have to find.

The one thing we could surely never forget is the original problem, the problem that started it all, the problem of survival. This is the problem that nature has designed us to solve. Oddly though this is what we, or at least many of us, appear to be forgetting as we forge ahead with our current projects. It seems odd not to prioritise the aim of survival, particularly when our evolutionary inheritance has designed us for precisely that purpose, but this, collectively at least, is what as a species we appear to be failing to do.

It would seem that the survival-enhancing qualities that inform our existence as individuals have come into increasing conflict with the narratives we have created at the inter-subjective level, and in particular the narrative that is founded on self and sectarian interest. We have become the victims or prisoners of these overriding collective theories, whether cultural, economic, political or religious, in the face of which the individual seems impotent. Yet if we are built to survive and solve survival problems the solution cannot be far away; in fact it must lie in what is most intimate, what is closest to us.

What then lies closest? What lies closest to each one of us? What is it that rationally we should wish to celebrate and preserve? Our capacity to explain, understand and control the natural world? Or our innate longing for inner peace, contentment, the hope of living harmoniously with ourselves and with each other? Which of these identities better describes and encompasses our deepest aspirations? Or can we have both? Can we reconfigure our minds and our behaviour so that both become achievable? This is the critical question, one that we have urgently to debate and determine.

#Identity #ProblemsInSurvival #Memes #NaturalSelection


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