Algernon's Law ?

John K Clark (
Mon, 2 Dec 1996 13:29:38 -0800 (PST)


>"Charlie, of Flowers for Algernon, could learn a dozen
>languages, had an eidetic memory, could read a textbook
>an hour - all the things we ask of a computer. But when
>the rat Algernon keeled over, it took poor Charlie
>completely by surprise. It didn't occur to Charlie that if
>there was a simple surgical method to enhance
>intelligence, with no downside, it would have long since
>occurred as a natural mutation."
> Eliezer Yudkowsky

Point mutations are very common, all of us have several in our genome,
sometimes they're harmless, usually they're harmful, occasionally they're
disastrous, very rarely they are helpful. I disagree that nature must have
already found all the good ideas, it never found the wheel for large animals,
but I concede that it's very unlikely that one simple point mutation could
dramatically increase intelligence with no downside. On the other hand, this
argument breaks down completely if you talk about 2 separate point mutations.

If the tire on you car is going bad you can take it off and put on a new one.
Evolution is far too stupid to understand this simple act because it has
absolutely no foresight. When you take the bad tire off you have temporally
made things worse, now you have no tire at all. Evolution doesn't understand
one step backwards 2 steps forward, every mutation must benefit the animal
NOW, or it will not be passed on to the next generation. If the first
mutation needed to make a genius was even slightly harmful it would not
spread in the population. Even if the first mutation was neutral the second
mutation would have to come along mighty quickly or genetic drift would soon
eliminate the first. Also, it's clear that a small change in the genome can
cause a big improvement, its a lot more than a point mutation but the fact
that only about 1% of the genome of a human is different from that of a chimp
gives some support to my view.

An even stronger case can be made for longevity, just one point mutation
could work wonders. A mutation that put the bodie's cell repair mechanism
into high gear so that it would never get grow old and feeble would probably
not be passed on. In the first place it doesn't matter how much the individual
likes his mutation. The unit of natural selection is the gene not the
individual. An enormously successful strategy genes have found to reproduce
themselves is to make individuals that live for only a short time but breed
very rapidly, just look at the insects. In the second place such a mutation
might not even be good for the individual. In the wild few animals die of old
age, something eats them first. Good maintenance takes energy, if the
mutation increased the energy requirements of an animal by 10% it might
actually decrease its life span and die from starvation before it could

John K Clark

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