Re: Stephen Jay Gould and progress

Tony Csoka (
Sun, 12 Jan 1997 21:33:35 -0800 (PST)

On Sun, 12 Jan 1997, Eliezer Yudkowsky wrote:
<Tony Csoka>
> > I mean, the same chemicals that composed the "primordial soup" from which
> > life arose on this planet, and perhaps elsewhere, would probably still be
> > around today whether life arose or not. WHAT "SELECTIVE ADVANTAGE" IS THERE
> Because complexity does things, and in order to do things, you need
> complexity, and you have to do things in order to survive and reproduce.
> Relevant to this debate is the Ancestor ALife program. It is relevant
> because it is known, absolutely, what the laws of physics were. They
> did not include any mysterious forces. The run began with a single
> self-reproducing and random-error-making string of code called the
> "Ancestor", 80 characters long. Soon the Ancestor was replaced by a
> hardier piece of code 79 characters long. (No artificial drive towards
> complexity here, folks - the short pieces of code survived better
> because they took less time to execute!) Then parasites evolved which
> could be much shorter by "hijacking" the reproductive process of other
> parasites. Then hyper-parasites that preyed on the parasites. Then
> defenses against parasites and hyper-parasites. And so on and so on...

Eliezer, maybe you are missing the point.

Evolution is really a reductive scientific theory. It reduces life to
smaller and smaller units. For example a hierarchy of the units of life
might go something like this-

The organism
Organs that constitute the organism
Cells that make up the organs
Organelles within cells

Dawkins and others have proposed that genes are the fundamental units of
life and also
that they are the units that natural selection operates on to generate
complexity. We are all familiar with "The Blind Watchmaker".
Now, if we take the reductionist argument further we must ask what genes
are composed of. Well, DNA, and DNA consists of purines, pyrimidines,
sugar, phosphate etc. All of these molecules are composed of atoms.
At the atomic level, from which we must assume life arose in the first
place, what are (were) the forces operating to generate complexity and
what is (was)
the form of selection operating on the atoms? How can it be "survival of
the fittest" when we consider that, compared to living beings, atoms are
virtually immortal? A block of metal is not alive but under most
circumstances it can far outlive any creature.

The program that you describe sounds interesting, and I'm sure that it is
possible to learn a lot about evolution from simulations, but I wonder if
we can learn the full story. A simulation contains a program, and I think
we are still a considerable way from fully understanding the program(s) of
life. I'm not suggesting I have the answers, I just
wonder if we have asked all the questions. As extropians we should beware
of being dogmatic.

" The significant problems we face cannot be solved at the same level of
thinking we were at when we created them."
-Albert Einstein