The Robot’s Rebellion:
Finding Meaning in the Age of Darwin by Keith E. Stanovich

University of Chicago Press, ISBN 0-226-77089-3 358 pp, $27.50 £19.50 hb

In press for Philosophical Psychology

(This is the version submitted to the journal. It may be edited before publication)

Stanovich sets out to show how we human robots can – in those stirring words that ended Dawkins’s classic The Selfish Gene – “rebel against the tyranny of the selfish replicators”. Along the way he explores the chilling implications of the Darwinian view of life, urges us to accept it rather than fight against it, and tries to replace the immaterial mind with a “soul without mystery”. Although he doesn’t entirely succeed, and gets into some interesting confusions about what people want of a self or a soul, this is a wonderful book full of challenging ideas and lucid examples.

Stanovich describes the human situation in a way that seems absolutely right to me, and yet is very rarely articulated as clearly and starkly as this. It is this: we humans live in a world driven by the competing interests of three kinds of entity – two replicators and one vehicle. We are the vehicles; we are Dawkins’s “lumbering robots”, built initially by the first replicator, the selfish genes, in order to protect and replicate them, and then infected with the second replicator, the selfish memes, in order to protect and propagate them. In this we are unique on earth. We alone are such efficient hosts for memes that they can construct a world-wide culture using us as copying machines. And we alone “ are the only robots who have discovered that we have interests that are separate from the interests of the replicators” (p xii). It is this knowledge that gives us both the motivation to rebel and the power to do so.

The first step in that rebellion is to realise the true state of affairs and its implications. Modern scientific thinking, and especially that arising from the Darwinian view, requires us to rethink such central concepts of folk psychology as the soul, the self, free will, and personal responsibility. Yet, claims Stanovich, folk psychology generally remains sealed off from scientific insight, raising the spectre of a future in which an intellectual elite understands the implications of the Darwinian view and everyone else does not. The book traces out just what some of these implications are and urges us to get used to them, however uncomfortable they may be.

One is the “frightening purposelessness of evolution” (p 7). Of course there is a kind of purpose – the survival of replicators – but this is just the mindless playing out of the evolutionary algorithm of copy, vary, and select. This is not the kind of purpose most of us want in our lives. We want human purpose, and even noble ideals, rather than the replication of meaningless bits of information. Stanovich explains all this clearly, but oddly he gets into some contradictions when he talks about the vexed issue of progress. When writing about biological evolution he adopts Gould’s extreme denial of any progress, or any sense in which some forms of life are more complex or more designed than others. Yet, when it comes to memetic evolution, having explained how memes are just following the same evolutionary algorithm as genes, and in the same mindless and selfish way, he claims that culture advances and modern science progresses. I sense that we need to push these ideas still further than he does if we are to understand what we mean by scientific progress.

The concept of the leash is critical for Stanovich’s account of the human condition. This concept comes from E.O. Wilson’s famous claim that the genes will always keep culture on a leash, but it has been challenged in the past by some theories of gene-culture co-evolution and in particular by memetics. Stanovich explains that for simple organisms the leash between the genes and their vehicle may be very short. So, for example, the genes of a bacterium may specify precisely how the cell is to behave in given circumstances. But when vehicles become longer-lived and more complex, their genes have to adopt long-leash strategies that give their vehicles more autonomy. This is like the difference between the control exerted by a driver sitting in her car, and the control required for the Mars explorer; NASA engineers realised that, given the time that signals would take to get to Mars, the robot had to be given some generic goals, a flexible intelligence, and allowed to get on with the mission itself. This is the sense in which we humans are the robots of our genes, and are held on a very long leash.

One of the central themes of this book concerns the important differences between disciplines, and how these relate to understanding the conflicts between genes, memes and vehicles. Sociobiologists, Stanovich claims, failed to see the divergence of interest between the genes and their vehicles – they treated the leash as being very short and the genes in direct control, when in fact the vehicle is sometimes more like a Mars explorer run amok. More recently, evolutionary psychologists have sometimes been guilty of the same mistake, he says, and this could even thwart the robot’s rebellion. As one example, he discusses the many varieties of human rationality, with all its peculiarities and what look like errors of reasoning. Evolutionary psychologists, he claims, often make the mistake of seeing these errors as being adaptations to the environment in which most of our evolutionary changes took place. So even if they look like errors, they were actually designed to serve the genes. But if the leash is really much longer, and the vehicle more like a Mars explorer, then much of our behaviour may be serving the interests of the robots, rather than their genes.

This conflict of interest becomes more interesting, and the concept of the leash less useful, when the second replicator is brought into play as well. And here is one of the great strengths of the book – that Stanovich takes seriously, as so few people do, the replicator power of memes. As he points out, memes are selfish replicators that get on in the world by using us to get themselves copied. We can then be witting or unwitting hosts for these memes, accepting some and rejecting others. Here he explores the difference between those memes we adopt unreflectively, such as the religious memes of our childhood indoctrination, or the fashion memes of our teenage culture, and those we reflect on before accepting. These might include theories we evaluate, games we try out and enjoy, or moral principles we reflect on and adopt as our guide.

So now we have three players in the game; three sets of interests that potentially control our behaviour. The genes have given us TASS (the autonomous set of systems), including responses to hunger, thirst, and sexual stimulation as well as in-built preferences and peculiar methods of reasoning. The memes have given us all kinds of new behaviours, beliefs and desires, including positively harmful ones like martyrdom and warfare, as well as useful ones that increase our intelligence and reasoning power. And then there is us, the vehicle, the robot, that has its own agenda to survive and be happy and fulfilled.

Towards the end of the book Stanovich explores some important moral issues, and how they relate to the three main players. In particular he points out that we cannot always side with one replicator or the other. In many cases we do, and should, side with those rational responses that override TASS, such as trying to eat less fat and sugar, or suppress a natural desire to stare at people who look strange or deformed. But he gives the opposite example of Huckleberry Finn, who wants to help free his slave friend Jim. In this case we want him to follow this gut TASS reaction based on empathy and friendship, rather than heeding the memes of his indoctrination. However, Stanovich argues that in this case the memes that make the boy feel guilty were unreflectively acquired. With greater analytic ability, and more effective critical memes at our disposal, we can rebel against both genes and unreflectively acquired memes.

This leads to peculiar paradoxes and the truly difficult question of whether there is some ultimate neutral stand point from which to evaluate memes. Stanovich says not, and describes the whole enterprise as a kind of bootstrapping process in which we restructure our own goal hierarchies and try to achieve rational integration.

But who or what is doing this, and who or what is it all for? Throughout the book, Stanovich sides with the vehicle. We humans are the vehicles of these two replicators and it is as vehicles or robots that we must rebel. Yet he recognises that what most people mean by “I” or “me” is not the vehicle at all, but some sort of mythical inner self or soul. Believing in this, we shrink from anything that does not put human consciousness at the centre of the action. So number 1 in his list of “creepy facts” is that “There is no “I” in the brain who is aware of everything going on and who controls everything.” (p 252) and “no immaterial ‘mind’ where consciousness occurs and there your ‘self’ makes decisions” (p 209). He goes on to add that since our brains were built by subpersonal replicators with their own interests, “the purpose of your brain is not to serve the ‘I’” (p 253).

If this is so, then we must throw out the myth and live without it, but I don’t think that Stanovich has successfully replaced the myth of self with a “soul without mystery” as he claims. His conclusion seems to be that, without the false notion of self, there are only replicators and vehicles in the game. The robot’s rebellion means the latter using its powers of reason to rebel against the former.

But why? I am left confused. I agree with the analysis of genes, memes and vehicles; I agree that there is no neutral standpoint from which to evaluate memes; I agree that the inner self or soul is a myth. But why then should I (whatever that is) side with the vehicle? Or – put more neutrally – why should all this rational cognitive reform side with the vehicle? One might instead argue, rationally, that human vehicles are the scourge of the planet and so prefer to put the whole ecosystem first. Or one might conceive a desire for humans to survive as long as possible and so put human genes before any individual vehicle. One might believe that the memes of great science and literature are more important than any genes or vehicles of any species. There are many possibilities once you give up centering the world around the myth of an inner self.

This is why I ended my own book on memes with the words “there is no one to rebel.”, for once you truly give up the notion of an inner self, the implications are profound. Stanovich has done a great job of describing the human condition, and written a fascinating book, but I think the implications of his ideas go even further than he admits.