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In other words, we'll be as reliable in assessing the status of the new super-beings as we are in assessing the traits of pet dogs in the present. We aren't up to the task. Before you tell me that it will be overwhelmingly obvious when the superintelligent new cyber-species arrives, visit a dog show. Or a gathering of people who believe they have been abducted by aliens in UFOs. People are demonstrably insane when it comes to assessing non-human sentience.

There is, however, no question that the movement to interpret Darwin more broadly, and in particular to bring him into psychology and the humanities has offered some luminous insights that will someday be part of an improved understanding of nature, including human nature. I enjoy this stream of thought on various levels. It's also, let's admit it, impossible for a computer scientist not to be flattered by works which place what is essentially a form of algorithmic computation at the center of reality, and these thinkers tend to be confident and crisp and to occasionally have new and good ideas.

And yet I think cybernetic totalist Darwinians are often brazenly incompetent at public discourse and may be in part responsible, however unintentionally, for inciting a resurgence of fundamentalist religious reaction against rational biology. They seem to come up with takes on Darwin that are calculated to not only antagonize, but alienate those who don't share their views. Declarations from the "nerdiest" of the evolutionary psychologists can be particularly irritating.

One example that comes to mind is the recent book, The Natural History of Rape by Randy Thornhill and Craig T. Palmer, declaring that rape is a "natural" way to spread genes around. We have seen all sorts of propositions tied to Darwin with a veneer of rationality. In fact you can argue almost any position using a Darwinian strategy.

For instance, Thornhill and Palmer go so far as to suggest that those who disagree with them are victims of evolutionary programming for the need to believe in a fictitious altruism in human nature. The authors say it is altruistic-seeming to not believe in evolutionary psychology, because such skepticism makes a public display of one's belief in brotherly love. Displays of altruism are said to be attractive, and therefore to improve one's ability to lure mates. By this logic, evolutionary psychologists should soon breed themselves out of the population. Unless they resort to rape.

At any rate, Darwin's idea of evolution was of a different order than scientific theories that had come before, for at least two reasons. The most obvious and explosive reason was that the subject matter was so close to home. It was a shock to the 19th century mind to think of animals as blood relatives, and that shock continues to this day.

The second reason is less often recognized. Darwin created a style of reduction that was based on emergent principles instead of underlying laws (though some recent speculative physics theories can have a Darwinian flavor). There isn't any evolutionary "force" analogous to, say, electromagnetism. Evolution is a principle that can be discerned as emerging in events, but it cannot be described precisely as a force that directs events. This is a subtle distinction. The story of each photon is the same, in a way that the story of each animal and plant is different. (Of course there are wonderful examples of precise, quantitative statements Darwinian theory and corresponding experiments, but these don't take place at anywhere close to the level of human experience, which is whole organisms that have complex behaviors in environments.) "Story" is the operative word. Evolutionary thought has almost always been applied to specific situations through stories.

A story, unlike a theory, invites embroidery and variation, and indeed stories gain their communicative power by resonance with more primal stories. It is possible to learn physics without inventing a narrative in one's head to give meaning to photons and black holes. But it seems that it is impossible to learn Darwinian evolution without also developing an internal narrative to relate it to other stories one knows. At least no public thinker on the subject seems to have confronted Darwin without building a bridge to personal value systems.