Field of Science

Is a new mode of evolution emerging?

Evolutionary theorist Susan Blackmore argues in the New York Times (and elsewhere) that a new form of evolution is emerging, based on the replication of digital information.

This would be the third mode of evolution that we humans are aware of. The first is, obviously, the biological evolution of life. Organisms grow according to DNA blueprints, then produce offspring from copies of these blueprints, perhaps with some variations. Competition between variant copies drives the evolution of life as we know it.

The second mode of evolution is cultural. Ideas spread from person to person, and through this process, whole cultures evolve. Richard Dawkins coined the term "meme" for the units of cultural evolution (i.e. the ideas that "replicate" themselves in people's minds), analagously to genes in biological evolution. Blackmore is a strong proponent of the meme concept, but there is much debate over the utility of this idea in explaining cultural evolution. In any case, it is clear that there are major differences between how biological and cultural evolution work. Understanding and quantifying these differences is a major project for evolutionary theory, and I hope some day to contribute to this effort.

Blackmore calls her proposed third mode of evolution "technological", but "digital" might be a more precise term. Every day, millions of files (encoded in binary) are copied from one location to another. Some files are even programmed to copy themselves. But copying isn't always perfect, and sometimes copies differ slightly from the originals. If these variant copies compete for the ability to reproduce, might we witness a whole new form of evolution in which the "organisms" (which Blackmore calls "temes") are purely digital?

One reason this idea is compelling to me is it follows a pattern of symbolic representations driving changes in the evolutionary process. Biological evolution took off with the advent of DNA/RNA encoding, in which the characteristics of an organism were recorded in an easy-to-copy format. Written language isn't necessary for cultural evolution, but it sure helps. It is much easier to copy the blueprints for, say, a motorcycle, and build new motorcycles from the copied blueprints, than it is to build a new motorcycle by observing an existing one. Symbolic languages facilitate the copying process which is essential for evolution.

Binary is one of the most powerful symbolic languages ever, with the potential to encode almost anything. Binary is also extremely easy (for computers) to copy. It is therefore quite appealing to think that the copying of binary files could form the basis of a new evolutionary process. The artificial life community has been experimenting with this idea for several decades, and I am far too ignorant to comment on their successes and challenges.

I will say that, so far, I can't see much evidence of Blackmore's teme-based evolution happening outside of simulations. The closest parallel seems to be computer viruses, which can copy themselves from computer to computer and sometimes mutate along the way. But these viruses are all designed by humans, and I don't know of any that have evolved novel functionality on their own. Viral videos and other internet memes also rely on the copying of digital information. But the decision to copy such memes is made by humans, so this falls within the domain of cultural evolution.

Will we, in the future, see pieces of code that replicate themselves across the internet, compete with each other, and evolve toward increasing complexity? And if so, will we be able to harness this process for good? Or will it be a mere nuisance, like weeds or spam-bots? I'm not yet convinced that this will happen, but these are important questions to ask.


  1. "Evolutionary theorist"? Maybe in the sense of having a theory on memes. Meme evolution is non-darwinian (no inheritance), so not "[biological] evolution".

    Richard Dawkins calls Susan (Sue) Blackmore a psychologist (confirmed by Wikipedia):

    "Here's a heartwarming little anecdote to illustrate Stephen Gould's gentle courtesy. The BBC has a Monday morning radio program called Start the Week, in which a panel of four intellectuals, or authors with new books to promote, gather in a studio and have a civilised conversation with a chairman. The psychologist Sue Blackmore was on the panel one week, and so was Stephen Gould. They hadn't met before, but Dr Blackmore recognized him in the lobby of the BBC as they waited to go in, and she thought she ought to go up and introduce herself. Hand outstretched and with her usual bright smile, she approached him. "How do you do, Dr Gould, I believe we are on Start the Week together." Gould uttered not a word, but turned on his heel and faced the other way, presenting her with his back."

    Evidently neither Dawkins nor Gould thinks highly of her and her accomplishments in biology.

  2. Yeah, I wasn't exactly sure what to call her. I guess psychologist makes sense. But I think cultural evolution is a legitimate discipline, regardless of whether one believes in the meme approach. So in my view it's possible to be an "evolutionary theorist" without being a biologist.

  3. Technological evolution might be a real possibility only after we have reached singularity. No?

  4. That depends on what is meant by "singularity". If it means rapid, accelerating technological progress, then we're already there. If it means autonomous machines that are "smarter" than humans in some sense, then yes, that could facilitate an independent evolutionary process.

    Personally, I don't think the singularity concept is particularly useful. We're already at a place where technology accelerates the pace of discovery, leading to new technologies and even faster discoveries. This has arguably been happening since the industrial revolution, or even since the dawn of civilization. I expect this acceleration to continue in similar fashion. I don't forsee any particular turning point where it becomes a completely different process.


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