Edge question 2017
my alternative answer

My answer – Replicator Power was published on the Edge Question site and below.

My original suggested answer, on out-of-body experiences, was rejected as too ‘woo‘ but you can read it here.

Replicator Power

Where does all the design in the universe come from? Around me now, and indeed almost everywhere I go, I see a mixture of undesigned and designed things: rocks, stars and puddles of rain; tables, books, grass, rabbits and my own hands.

The distinction between designed and undesigned is not commonly made this way. Typically people are happy to divide rocks from books on the grounds that rocks were not designed for a function while books were. Books have an author, a publisher, a printer, and a cover designer, and that means ‘real’ top-down design. As for grass, rabbits and hands – they do serve functions but they evolved through a mindless bottom-up process, and that is not ‘real’ design.

This other distinction, between real design and evolved ‘design’, is sometimes explicitly stated, but even when it’s not, the fear of attributing design to a mindless process is revealed in the scare quotes that evolutionary biologists sometimes put around that word ‘design’. Eyes are brilliantly ‘designed’ for seeing and wings are ‘designed’ for flying. But they are only ‘as if’ designed. They were produced not top-down by a mind with a plan but bottom-up by an utterly mindless process. In other words, our human ‘real’ design is different.

If the concept of replicator power were better known this false distinction might be dropped because we would see that all design depends on the same underlying process. A replicator is information that affects its environment so as to make new copies of itself. Its power derives from its role as information undergoing the evolutionary algorithm of copying with variation and selection, the process that endlessly increases the available information. Genes are the most obvious example, with the varying creatures they give rise to being known as their vehicles or interactors. It is these that are acted on by natural selection to determine the success or failure of the replicator.

The value of the term ‘replicator’ lies in its generality. This is what Dawkins emphasised in writing about universal Darwinism – applying Darwin’s basic insight to all self-replicating information. Whenever there is a replicator in an appropriate environment, design will ensue. This is why Dawkins invented the term ‘meme’, to show that there is more than one replicator evolving on this planet. He also made the claim, which follows from this way of thinking about evolution, that all life everywhere evolves by the differential survival of replicators. I would add that all intelligence everywhere evolves by the differential survival of replicators.

This makes clear that human design is essentially no different from biological design. Both depend on a replicator being copied, whether what is copied is the order of bases in a molecule of DNA or the order of words in a book. In the molecular case new sequences arise from copying errors, mutations and recombination. In the writing of a book new sequences arise from a person recombining familiar words into new phrases, sentences and paragraphs. In both examples multiple different sequences are created and very few survive to be copied again. In both examples creatively designed products emerge through replicator power. To see human design this way is to drop the assumption that top-down control, intelligence and planning are essential to creativity – to see that these capacities and the designs they create are consequences, not causes, of evolution.

Accepting this may be uncomfortable as it means seeing that everything we think we designed all by ourselves was really designed by a clueless bottom-up process using us as copying machinery. The unease may be similar to that expressed by the Bishop of Birmingham’s wife – that such knowledge belittles us and diminishes our humanity and power.  Yet we have (more or less and in only some parts of the world) learned to embrace rather than fear the knowledge that our bodies evolved by mindless bottom-up processes. This is another step in the same direction.

The significance of recognising replicator power is that there are other replicators out there and may soon be more. The mindless processes that turned us from an ordinary ape into a speaking, meme-copying ape allowed us to produce tables, books, cars and planes, and – in a crucial step – copying machines. These include writing leading to printing presses, potters’ wheels and woodworking tools leading to factories, and now computers leading to the information explosion.

Artificial intelligences, whether confined to desktop boxes and robots or distributed in cyber space, have been created by replicator power just as our own intelligence was created by replicator power. They are evolving far faster than we did and may yet give rise to further even faster replicators. That power will not stop because we want it to. And its products will certainly not be impressed by our claims to be in control or to have designed the machinery on which they thrive. That intelligence will continue to evolve, and the sooner we accept the idea of replicator power the more realistic we are likely to be about the future of our life with intelligent machines.