Conversations

Biological and Cultural Evolution

Six Characters in Search of an Author
[2.19.19]

 

[ ED. NOTE: With the following essay by Freeman Dyson, we're kicking off a regular subscription-based audio feature, EdgeCast. Listen & Subscribe —JB ]

In the near future, we will be in possession of genetic engineering technology which allows us to move genes precisely and massively from one species to another. Careless or commercially driven use of this technology could make the concept of species meaningless, mixing up populations and mating systems so that much of the individuality of species would be lost. Cultural evolution gave us the power to do this. To preserve our wildlife as nature evolved it, the machinery of biological evolution must be protected from the homogenizing effects of cultural evolution.

Unfortunately, the first of our two tasks, the nurture of a brotherhood of man, has been made possible only by the dominant role of cultural evolution in recent centuries. The cultural evolution that damages and endangers natural diversity is the same force that drives human brotherhood through the mutual understanding of diverse societies. Wells's vision of human history as an accumulation of cultures, Dawkins's vision of memes bringing us together by sharing our arts and sciences, Pääbo's vision of our cousins in the cave sharing our language and our genes, show us how cultural evolution has made us what we are. Cultural evolution will be the main force driving our future.

FREEMAN DYSON, emeritus professor of physics at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, in addition to fundamental contributions ranging from number theory to quantum electrodynamics, has worked on nuclear reactors, solid-state physics, ferromagnetism, astrophysics, and biology, looking for problems where elegant mathematics could be usefully applied. His books include Disturbing the UniverseWeapons and HopeInfinite in All DirectionsMaker of Patterns, and Origins of LifeFreeman Dyson's Edge Bio Page 


BIOLOGICAL AND CULTURAL EVOLUTION: SIX CHARACTERS IN SEARCH OF AN AUTHOR

In the Pirandello play, "Six Characters in Search of an Author", the six characters come on stage, one after another, each of them pushing the story in a different unexpected direction. I use Pirandello's title as a metaphor for the pioneers in our understanding of the concept of evolution over the last two centuries. Here are my six characters with their six themes.

1. Charles Darwin (1809-1882): The Beetle Paradox.
2. Motoo Kimura (1924-1994): Smaller Populations Evolve Faster.
3. Ursula Goodenough (1943- ): Nature Plays a High-Risk Game.
4. Herbert Wells (1866-1946): Varieties of Human Experience.
5. Richard Dawkins (1941- ): Genes and Memes.
6. Svante Pääbo (1955- ): Cousins in the Cave.

The story that they are telling is of a grand transition that occurred about fifty thousand years ago, when the driving force of evolution changed from biology to culture, and the direction changed from diversification to unification of species. The understanding of this story can perhaps help us to deal more wisely with our responsibilities as stewards of our planet.

Judith Rich Harris: 1938 - 2018

[1.9.19]

It was in the 1990s that I received a phone call from Steven Pinker who wanted to make the world aware of the work of Judith Rich Harris, an unheralded psychologist who was advocating a revolutionary idea which she discussed in her 1999 Edge interview, “Children don't do things half way: children don’t compromise,” in which she said “How the parents rear the child has no long-term effects on the child's personality, intelligence, or mental health.”  

From the very early days of Edge, Judith Rich Harris was the gift that kept giving. Beginning in 1998, with her response to “What Questions Are You Asking Yourself” through “The Last Question” in 2016, she exemplified the role of the Third Culture intellectual: “those scientists and other thinkers in the empirical world who, through their work and expository writing, are taking the place of the traditional intellectual in rendering visible the deeper meanings of our lives, redefining who and what we are.”

Her subsequent Edge essays over the years focused on subjects as varied as natural selection, parenting styles, the effect of genes on human behavior, twin studies, the survival of friendship, beauty as truth, among others are evidence of a keen intellect and a fearless thinker determined to advance science-based thinking as well as her own controversial ideas.

In this special 16,000-word edition of Edge, dedicated to the memory of Judith Rich Harris, we take a deep dive into her ideas.

—JB

Paul Allen Remembered

[10.22.18]

Jean Pigozzi & Paul Allen at the Edge Dinner (March 17, 2014)

It was Microsoft’s phenomenal success, early in the evolution of the microcomputer, that made it possible for Paul to make so many other significant contributions to the world, and that success may well have never occurred without Paul’s ability to deliver on the dream to supply the software for all of the microcomputers in the world, beginning with BASIC, and to do so in the early days of the industry. Those at MITS who knew Paul always referred to him as a brilliant polymath and a true gentleman. His quiet, easy going manner, great sense of humor, love of music, guitars, software in all of its forms, compassion and concern for others, together with a totally committed work ethic served as a great role model at MITS.

EDDIE CURRIE is an Associate Professor in Hofstra’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. From 1975 to 1978, he was Executive Vice President and General Manager for MITS, the first commercially viable, microcomputer-based personal computer company, where he was involved in the development and manufacture of the Altair and recruitment and supervision of the staff, which included Paul Allen and Bill Gates (founders of Microsoft). Eddie Currie's Edge Bio Page

Reality Club: Jean Pigozzi


PAUL ALLEN REMEMBERED

In 1974, a small company called MITS, in Albuquerque, New Mexico, was struggling to survive as it watched its kit calculator business being destroyed by Texas Instrument’s draconian calculator price-cutting. An Intel salesman dropped off a data sheet for a new microprocessor called the 8080. That evening the president of the company, Ed Roberts, took the data sheet home and, using an HP calculator, concluded that Intel’s newest product was quite capable of becoming the heart of a microcomputer. Roberts went to a local bank and presented a hastily drafted business plan and when asked by a bank officer how many computers could be sold, he responded “800.” The bank assumed that he meant 800/month and granted the loan. In actuality, Roberts meant 800/year.


Eddie Currie

Also in 1974, some two thousand miles away in Boston, two young men were monitoring Intel’s microprocessor evolution and dreaming of building a microcomputer based on a microprocessor. The Intel 8080 was announced in April of 1974, but it wasn’t until December of that year, in Electronic Design magazine, that a full instruction set was published. As soon as Paul Allen and Bill Gates saw the article, work began by both, using Harvard computing resources, that ultimately resulted in an 8080 simulator that ran on a DEC PDP-10 and the creation of a 4K version of the BASIC language that would run on the simulator.

Thus MITS had hardware and no computer language, and Bill and Paul had a computer language but no hardware. The breakthrough came in the January 1975 issue of Popular Electronics, published in late December of 1974, featuring the “MITS’ Altair, for the world’s first microcomputer kit,” on the cover.

Paul Allen sent a letter to MITS on January 2, 1975, explaining that his company had a BASIC interpreter that could be marketed on paper tape and/or floppy disk and run on the MITS microcomputer. Ed Roberts' response was immediate and resulted in Paul flying to Albuquerque a few days later with a paper tape and successfully demonstrating Microsoft BASIC running on an Altair. Microsoft was founded as Micro-Soft, on April 4, 1975.

I also played a role. Ed Roberts and I had grown up together, attended the same elementary school, junior high and high school, and were best friends. From 1975-78 I worked alongside him at MITS as Executive Vice President and General Manager, which involved supervising the work of Paul and Bill. At one point, I asked Paul and Bill about Microsoft’s ultimate goal. Their response came quickly and succinctly, viz., “… Microsoft wants to supply software for all of the microcomputers in the world…” This unequivocal mission statement was to serve Microsoft well in the years to come. It also resulted in Microsoft staking a claim to what would later become a hotly contested domain. Such a clear vision was surprising not only for its breadth and scope but also because they were 18 and 20, respectively, at the time. While Bill and Paul early on collaborated on software development, overtime Bill’s focus was primarily on business development and Paul’s on software development.

Schirrmacher's Heritage

[2.14.18]

A book of essays claims the authority to interpret, carries the militant title "Reclaim Autonomy”, and demands self-empowerment.
 

The questions of how science and technology are transforming life and society are among the greatest intellectual challenges that surprisingly few of today's intellectuals take on. One of the first to do so was FAZ editor Frank Schirrmacher, who died in 2014. So it was not only an gesture of respect, but also an attempt at a programmatic continuation, when the publisher of the weekly Freitag, Jakob Augstein, dedicated a symposium on digital debate to Frank Schirrmacher.

Pages

Subscribe to RSS - Conversations