Re: Stephen Jay Gould and progress

Eliezer Yudkowsky (
Mon, 13 Jan 1997 00:53:24 -0600

> 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.

We don't look at atoms; we look at systems of atoms. It's the systems
of atoms, the configurations, that evolve and become more complex. If
atoms could evolve, they would. But they can't, so they don't. Instead
the majority of systems we perceive are there because their ancestors
survived and reproduced. The code-codons, the instructions making up
the Ancestor program, were fundamentally immortal as well - they were
baked into the simulation. The Ancestor still evolved, even though the
instructions didn't. And thus life evolves, even though the atoms of
which it is made up are immortal.

Look around you; do you see a lot of plutonium? No, because plutonium
isn't stable; it decays. In point of fact, everything decays into iron
eventually; in some ridiculous number of years, all stars decay to Cold
Iron, master of them all - and thence, in 10^(10^76) years, I think, to
black holes. Selection doesn't operate on the atomic scale in such a
fashion as to produce greater complexity. At best, the Ancestor might
have evolved to contain more "multiply" instructions than "add"
instructions, or some such, but the instructions themselves could not
become more complex. They were not the units of selection. The
arrangement of atoms, in Ancestor and here, are the units of selection.
It is the arrangements that become more complex.

"Evolution" is an abstraction from an informational system. It does not
need to be present in the causal primitives in order to be present in
the system.

--       Eliezer S. Yudkowsky

Disclaimer:  Unless otherwise specified, I'm not telling you
everything I think I know.