Richard Dawkins & Universal Darwinism

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The Brights

 Richard Dawkins

Richard Dawkins was one of the first researchers to develop ideas that have come to form the subject matter of Universal Darwinism. The final chapter of his book The Selfish Gene entitled 'Memes: the new replicators' introduced the concept of memes and was one of the first efforts in modern time to extend the power of Darwinian processes to explain design outside of biology.

 Richard is a champion of the beauty and awe inherent to the scientific world view. His book Unweaving the Rainbow is a plea for the wonders of science and a rejection of superstition and religion.

Extracted from the July 1995 Wired Magazine article "Revolutionary Evolutionist"

Born and raised in East Africa, Dawkins grew up amid one of the most irresistible bioscapes on Earth. Dawkins came to Oxford in 1959 as an undergraduate, and eventually came under the spell of Niko Tinbergen, the eminent Danish biologist. Author of The Study of Instinct and winner of the Nobel Prize in biology for his pioneering work on animal behavior, Tinbergen was one of the first of the modern ethologists (biologists who explore and explain the nature of animal behavior). What is instinct? Tinbergen would ask. What behavior is learned? How can we truly know the difference? How does behavior change? How do animals communicate? How do animals behave differently in groups than they do as individuals? Why do animals cooperate? How do they compete?

Ethology, as Tinbergen constantly stressed, was a highly interdisciplinary biological science, requiring insights into psychology, physiology, ecology, sociology, taxonomy, and evolution. Tinbergen focused on the eternal tension between the breadth of behaviors observed in nature and a scientist's need to reduce these behaviors to a set of fundamental principles. "My own dominant recollection of his undergraduate lectures," Dawkins recalls, "was that I was particularly taken with two phrases of his - behavior machinery and equipment for survival. When I came to write my first book, I combined them into the brief phrase survival machine."

Dawkins developed a special protoge/mentor relationship with Tinbergen. After a stint at the University of California at Berkeley, Dawkins returned to his alma mater, where he ultimately became a fellow at New College (he still teaches there).

Dawkins's dual interest in the nature of machines and the machinery of nature took place amid the rise of molecular biology. Just a few years after Francis Crick and James Watson's 1953 discovery of the double helix, the molecular biologists - not the naturalists, zoologists, or ethologists - began calling the intellectual shots in biology. The increased ability to track and explain what the genome was and what it was doing - classic reductionalist science as opposed to mere descriptive taxonomies - radicalized the way nature was observed. Centuries of animal breeding had, of course, created an explicit awareness of links between genetic endowment and behavior. The double helix became the new scaffold for erecting theories of evolution.

For the young Dawkins, the ethology of Tinbergen quickly became the conceptual lens through which he viewed the world. Behavior, say of the chicks he studied as a graduate student, was the empirical observation that Dawkins sought to identify and explain. At the same time he was observing chicken processing, Dawkins was busy processing his data with a clunky punch-tape Eliot 803. The machinery metaphor - the machinery meme - that resonated with and reinforced Tinbergen's ideas ultimately welded itself to Dawkins's strong notions of the primacy of the gene. What happens to scientific thinking if the survival machine is defined by the machinery of the genes?

Amid this primordial soup of new paradigms, Richard Dawkins the ethologist rapidly mutated into an evolutionary biologist. In 1965, he hit upon an idea breathtakingly simple to understand but extraordinarily powerful in its implications. In essence, Dawkins argued for an ethology of the gene: How do genes communicate? How do genes behave differently in groups than they do as individuals? Why do genes cooperate? How do genes compete? The same questions ethologists ask about chicks and geese and chimpanzees are virtually identical to the sorts of questions they should be asking about the genome and its genes.

Others had played with this notion before, but Dawkins made it his own and aggressively pushed it into the mainstream of science culture.

As the first true ethologist of the gene, Dawkins de facto became an evolutionary biologist. How genes behave over time - which ones dominate, which ones die off, which ones cooperate, which ones compete, which ones change, which ones remain the same - is the very definition of an evolution based on the flow of information.

When Dawkins published The Selfish Gene in 1976, the book further heated the debate over whether humans were ruled more by nature or nurture, a debate refueled by the emerging sociobiologists - notably Harvard biologist Edward O. Wilson in his 1975 book Sociobiology. By proposing an ethology of the gene, Dawkins shifted that debate away from the individual animal as the unit of evolution to the nature, nurture, and behavior of the genes. With The Selfish Gene, Dawkins offered scientists a conceptual bridge between the reductionist imperatives of molecular biology and the taxonomies of zoology, psychology, and sociology. In other words, the metaphor of the selfish gene not only created an important context to explain human and animal behavior - it also created a framework for molecular biologists to examine the organic interactions of genes. The metaphor scaled from double helices to human interactions.

But looking at the richness and complexity of life on Earth, Dawkins freely acknowledged that an ethology of the gene alone was simply not robust enough to explain evolution. So he applied a Darwinian view of culture, as well. Dawkins argued for the concept of memes - ideas that are, to use the felicitous phrase of William Burroughs, "viruses of the mind." Memes are to cultural inheritance what genes are to biological heredity. A meme for, say, astrology, could parasitize a mind just as surely as a hookworm could infest someone's bowels. Ideas - like genes - could compete and cooperate, mutate and conserve. They, too, are operated on by natural selection. Human evolution, Dawkins postulates, is a function of a co-evolution between genes and memes.

Even that was not enough. Dawkins's intellectual adventure went well beyond the ethology of genes and memes to explore an even more radical insight into the nature of evolutionary dynamics. This idea, too, was astonishingly simple, but it offers a powerful intellectual framework for a new understanding of life as an information process.

What do genes and memes have in common? Dawkins asked. They are replicators. Through various but distinct coded systems, they reproduce; they effect change in their world so they can propagate, just like viruses in either digital or organic form. Dawkins's most powerful paradigm is that the unit of evolution is not the individual - the gene - or the meme, but the replicator.

This was apostasy to Darwinian evolutionists, who took it as dogma that the dynamics of natural selection cared only for the fitness of individual organisms and absolutely nothing else. But here was Dawkins saying that what really counted in "nature tooth and claw" was the replicating code beneath the organism. Evolution is really the story of replicators čber alles.

Dawkins aggressively evolved this replicator concept. He noted that discussing the evolution of birds without looking hard at the evolution of their nests, or at beavers without considering the evolution of their dams would be prima facie ridiculous. Each is essential to the survival of the other. It is the combination of bird and nest, the combination of beaver and dam, that gives a competitive edge to the animals who build them. Not only does the body of an organism march to the orders of its genes, but so do the artifacts the organism builds or uses. In this sense, the egg uses both a chicken and a nest to make another egg, and so the nest, too, is an evolutionary extension of the egg.

In biology, the genes in the egg would be called its genotype, while the physical expression of those genes - the chicken - would be called its phenotype. Dawkins called this marriage of organism to artifact The Extended Phenotype - the title of his second book, published in 1982. Still extending the outer limits of his replicator idea, Dawkins used this "extended phenotype" construct to look beyond the individual and artifact to embrace the family of the organism, its social group, the tools and environments it created. These are part of the physical "readout" of the genes, the extended phenotype of the replicating code. The invisible code in genes are therefore, in a very real sense, manipulating large chunks of the visible world to their selfish advantage.

Of course humans - with our massive and complex array of technologies - have extended our phenotypes more than any other living species. Just like a bird's nest, a beaver's dam, or a groundhog's intricate set of underground tunnels, our technologies are now an integral part of our evolutionary fitness. In light of Dawkins's work, to be a scientist today and talk about human evolution divorced from technological evolution no longer makes sense. In the truest and most fundamental sense, human evolution is now inextricably bound with technological evolution. Taken to its natural conclusion, Dawkins's idea suggests that humankind is really co-evolving with its artifacts; genes that can't cope with that new reality will not survive into future millennia.

What happens to life - to artificial life - when our unit of evolutionary observation becomes the replicator? By framing life and its evolution in the context of replicators and networks of replicators, Dawkins has forced all of biology to reexamine its assumptions of the fundamental mechanics of living things. Is technology just what our genes want, or is it a cultural conspiracy of our genes and memes? Does human DNA control the technosphere we've created and live in and around? What does it mean to say that nerve gas and microprocessors are extensions of selfish genes? These questions - as much as the genetic underpinning of embryology and neurophysiology - are the sorts of questions that evolutionists must now address, posits Dawkins.

So essential is Dawkins's work to redefining life that he might have fairly titled one of his books On the Origin of Replicators and expected it to revolutionize science in the most radical fashion since Darwin. But Dawkins is not the sort to run the risk of parodying Darwin in this way, because of his respect for the principles of natural selection. Already, however, this transforming view is proving to be an extraordinarily robust meme that is rapidly replicating in human minds.

When Dawkins spoke at the first artificial life conference in Los Alamos, New Mexico, in 1987, he delivered a paper on "The Evolution of Evolvability." This essay argues that evolvability is a trait that can be (and has been) selected for in evolution. The ability to be genetically responsive to the environment through such a mechanism as, say, sex, has an enormous impact on one's evolutionary fitness. Dawkins's paper has become essential reading in the artificial life community. His multidisciplinary, interdisciplinary fluency in fields ranging from ethology to software has made him someone who is closely watched not only by fans of his popular books but especially by his scientific peers, who range from Stephen Jay Gould to Marvin Minsky to Roger Penrose.

Now 54, Dawkins has few students of his own. Dawkins likes tossing around a semi-serious idea of awarding prize money to spur innovation and ingenuity in artificial life. (A decade ago, when his Biomorph program came out, he offered US$1,000 of his own money to anyone who could find the exact image of a chalice, or Holy Grail, he had come across in his own explorations. To Dawkins's surprise, a Caltech software jock claimed the prize within a year.) Dawkins detailed his new idea in an exchange of e-mail: "My prize would be for a visually appealing world in which the life-forms have a visible, and preferably 3-D, morphology on the computer screen. They must evolve adaptations not just to 'inanimate' factors like the weather (which would produce essentially predictable, not emergent evolution) but to other evolving life forms (which is a recipe for emergent properties)."

Excerpt from July 1995

 

The feeling of awed wonder that science can give us is one of the highest experiences of which the human psyche is capable.

Richard Dawkins