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THE REALITY CLUB
Darwin Among the Machines
Or, The Origins of Artificial Life

A Presentation by George Dyson


Daniel Dennett, Lee Smolin, Jaron Lanier, Tim Race, Kevin Kelly, Clifford Pickover, Oliver Sacks, Hans-Joachim Metzger, Chris Langton, George Dyson, Tor Gulliksen, George Dyson (2), and Jeremy Ahouse on Darwin Among the Machines by George Dyson


From: Daniel Dennett
Date: 7-10-97

I'm delighted to be introduced to Barricelli's pioneering work on Artificial Life. The obvious parallel is to Art Samuel's checkers program, a pioneering work in Artificial Intelligence from the same paleozoic era of computers. I wish there had been more details in Dyson's account of the actual program. I couldn't make out just how Barricelli's cells might be different from the cellular automata of today's Alife hackers. And I particularly wondered about the "self-repair of damage when digits were removed at random from an individual organism's genes." There is a big difference between "removing" and "replacing with zero." If Barricelli's self-repair phenomenon could re-insert a value, enlarging a genome that had shrunk by one locus, this is spectacular. If the self-repair is just editorially restoring a value that had been mistakenly set to zero, this is good, but not so spectacular. Most contemporary Alife models have genomes that are backstage--not really in the world being modeled. For this reason, there is no way for genomes to get larger, or otherwise change their system of phenotype-specification, which is, as it were, God-given. Almost paradoxically, the genome system cannot itself evolve in these models. John Holland's ECHO system is an exception; it has at least the possibility in principle of genome evolution, since the genome itself is in the world, built up of materials at an energetic cost. But in order to avail itself of this opportunity, the ECHO system would have to be much, much larger than it currently is.

One of the traps of simple modeling, it is now becoming all too clear, is that many phenomena observed in them are strictly artifactual, a product of the simplifying assumptions of the model. For instance, iterated Prisoner's Dilemma scenarios that assume panmixia or random "mating" produce dramatically different outcomes from those that complicate themselves in various plausible ways to include the costs and benefits of getting from place to place, recognizing individuals from prior encounters, and so forth. Which of Barricelli's tantalizing phenomena are false friends and which are glimpses of deep truths will take some sorting out. In Darwin's Dangerous Idea, I quote John Maynard Smith's confession of his early entrancement with Alan Turing's elegant ideas (1952) about morphogenesis:

"for years he was convinced that 'my fingers must be Turing waves; my vertebrae must be Turing waves'--but he eventually came to realize, reluctantly, that it could not be that simple and beautiful." (p207n)
Thanks to Lynn Margulis' work, symbiogenesis does now appear to be one of the established cranes of evolutionary lifting; what remains controversial is just how ubiquitous, powerful or even obligatory a crane it is.

-Dan Dennett


From: Lee Smolin
Date: 7-10-97

The story George Dyson tells is both beautiful and provocative, but on reflection I find I have doubts about the central metaphor, which is the analogy between software and the genetic code. There is of course something right about this: the sequence of bases in DNA or RNA is variable and can be seen as symbolically stored information that codes for the production of enzymes. As such they are something like a computer code that controls the robots in a factory that produce cars.

However, there are also differences between DNA and a computer program. The convenience of the metaphor connecting them, for those of us who have grown used to how computers work, may blind us to some of the complexities and realities of the real biological world. First of all, as Evelyn Fox Keller has been recently emphasizing, what is inherited in real biology is more than just a naked sequence of DNA. The new organism inherits also all the machinery of the cell, including that required to produce proteins as specified by the DNA. The recent cloning of a sheep was done by fusing two cells together, in one of which the nucleus had been destroyed, rather than simply replacing the DNA of one with that of the other. Second, the DNA itself functions as a kind of "computer" through the genetic regulatory networks that turn genes on and off. Some of this may even involve how the DNA molecule curls itself up into a knotted structure. So the DNA itself is part hardware and part software.

Third, the genetic code is not able to run on arbitrary hardware. The code which governs which proteins are produced cannot "run" on any "machine" other than the cell of which it is a part. (Of course, it can exist as a record on a page or a memory that we manufacture, but as such it is sterile, for we know of no way to use the information to build actual enzymes except when it is expressed in terms of real RNA or DNA.) One way to see this is to ask whether the 64 kinds of molecules that implement the code by binding to both the RNA and the amino acids are part of the hardware or part of the software? Their structures code information as surely as does DNA, and they surely have evolved, and might even do so in the future. But over the life of a single cell they may as well be seen as part of the hardware. This suggests, I think, that the distinction between hardware and software in biology is at best a matter of time scale, and at worst greatly oversimplifies what is really happening.

The point, I think, is that in spite of what George Dyson so eloquently says, there are real differences between a system that really did construct itself over time and computer programs that we write running on hardware that we build. The logic of natural selection requires self-replication, it does not really apply to the trivial fact that brands of cars or computers that people like better, or find most useful, are more common.

This is not to say that DNA does not store information, or that there is not a code matching triads of bases to amino acids. Nor is it to say that natural selection cannot be modeled in a computer, as Dyson describes. But real DNA is a component of a system which is both hardware and software, instructions and machine. Analogizing the processes that go on in real biology to the running of a program on a digital computer may suggest some useful ideas, but it may just as well retard progress by giving us the impression that we understand biology, when there may very well be concepts that we will need to understand fully how life spontaneously arose and organized itself.

As an example of this, we may note that of the ideas that George Dyson describes, the ones that really illuminate the question of the origin of life are the proposals for dual origin and symbiosis, and these loose none of their content or interest if we divorce them from the analogy between software and the genetic code.


From: Jaron Lanier
Date: 7-10-97

Dyson's description of early A-life and origin-of-life ideas is wonderful. I love the research direction itself (such as the dual origins hypothesis).

I sometimes wonder if the A-life community isn't relying too much on one extreme of the spectrum of evolutionary theorists, the Dawkins side. At other points on the spectrum are found interesting thinkers, like Niles Eldridge or Stephen Jay Gould, who might contribute important ideas -- about how species become stabilized for long periods of time, for instance.

The ideas about the possible early role of Lamarckian inheritance are fascinating. Lamarckian processes have come to the fore much more recently in the history of life on Earth, in the phenomena of human culture and ideas. How odd to find Darwin sandwiched between a Lamarckian origin and destination.

I must say that I'm a little bothered when A-life terminology is applied to the computer world at large.

The language of artificial life implicitly centers on an ontological claim, not an empirical one. One could state any hypothesis in either A-life terms or not without impeding the process of experimentation. One could say, "these organisms can evolve to understand this problem", or "this software could be adjusted through a trial and error process to become more efficient at this problem". In either case the same science can be done, but with different ontological costuming.

Is a virus alive? This question can have implications of an ethical, moral, or spiritual nature perhaps, but scientists who study viruses aren't loosing sleep over it. At one point Dyson says, "The perforated cards that provided the only lasting evidence of their existence were lifeless imprints, skeletons preserved for study and display." Surely one could argue these cards are more alive than a skeleton ÷ after all they could still be read and run today, while a skeleton could not be resuscitated. Life is always in the eye of the beholder ÷ there is no use in empirical science for an absolute definition of it.

But the definition of life can be important in other spheres of human activity. There's an odd, contradictory tendency in the A-life community ÷ to on the one hand want to deny that humans have been sprinkled with some kind of "magic dust" of life or spirit, but at the same time to try to sprinkle the same magic dust on machines.

Software isn't being developed in laboratory conditions today so often as it's being created for use by people out in the world at large. It seems to me that the only ethical basis for engineering decisions has to be to improve the lives of humans. If we choose a humanistic ontology we'll have clearer heads for accomplishing that task.

The hallmark of bad computer design is that the engineers made decisions for the benefit of the computer, not for the people. If the way we think about software does effect its usefulness in the real world, but is neutral in the laboratory, then we should be pragmatic and choose the language of humanism.


From: Tim Race
Date: 7-10-97

George Dyson, in considering the parallels between the origins, replication and reproduction of natural life and life-like machine output, is addressing a set of crucial questions about technology. His work reminds us that humans have long wrestled with issues like "Who or what created me?" and "Why am I here?" These are not only biological questions. They are essentially theological.

That's why it's important that writers like Dyson are pondering the larger implications of the artificial life that modern technology is spawning.

Through technology, humankind is increasingly becoming the Creator ÷ of hardware (representing protein, in the Dyson thesis) and software (nucleic acid, for Dyson). The created machinery, in mimicking the evolution and even structure of natural life forms, may provide new insights into our own origins ÷ and to the godlike role that technology can let us play.

At the same time, though, there is still so much we don't understand, as Dyson notes: "A clear-cut definition of 'living' remains elusive to this day."

I recall a recent conversation I had with Terry Winograd, a professor of computer science at Stanford and co-author of "Understanding Computers and Cognition," who spent years researching and writing about artificial intelligence and now concentrates on the concepts behind the interaction of people and computing machinery.

"I am a materialist," Winograd told me. "Thought is electrical and chemical." And yet, he quickly added, "We don't really yet understand how people think." That's why seeming parallels between human thought and artificial intelligence almost inevitably prove themselves to be divergent lines. "Neural networks," for example, says Winograd, "are a very weak approximation of how human neurons really work."

I couldn't help thinking about this as I read Dyson's excerpts from "Darwin Among the Machines." It is a fascinating and useful thesis that natural life and machine life can both evolve through either reproduction or replication ÷ or a combination of the two. But it is still difficult to extend very far the parallels between what we as humans create and experience and what machines may create and experience.

A premise of Enlightenment thinkers in the 18th century was that the universe was a mechanism -- a watch, in which all the parts served necessary and interdependent parts. In the mechanical age, this was a useful metaphor, because it was based on the scientific and technological principles of that era. So, too, does digital technology today provide useful metaphors for our understanding of biology and the nature of life. But there are limits to that understanding ÷ and thus, limits to the metaphor.

There are useful analogies to draw, for example, between computer code and genetic code. In fact, it was a comparison I brought up in my recent conversation with Winograd ÷ who left me with something to ponder.

"Genetic code," he pointed out, "is an extremely indirect code. Computers encode behaviors. But DNA does not encode behaviors; it sets up protein processes. It's a very long way away from how an animal gets built."


From: Kevin Kelly
Date: 7-17-97

I take two lessons from George Dyson's masterful history of the convergence of machine and life.

First is that we forget amazingly fast. It's interesting that neither Chris Langton, who is credited with founding the field of artificial life, nor Tom Ray, who has been one of it most cited practitioners, knew about Barricelli's work until very recently, long after their own work had begun. I know of only one citation of Barricelli in a-life and that is by Langton. Langton cites one of Barricelli's many papers in his bibliography, but I gather from Chris that this was an indirect cite; he has not really studied Barricelli's work, only vaguely knew it existed. Ray likewise is only recently familiar with Barricelli, but still hasn't delved into the corpus -- which in many ways surprising given the immense parallels between their two paths. One great effect of Dyson's piece may be to drive a-life researches back into history, since in many ways Barracelli was ahead of us all even now.

The other lesson I took from Dyson's piece was the realization that biology was ported to computers just as they were born. Almost as soon as a computer was up and running, someone tried putting evolution into it. And it worked. I think this realization will become a key insight over the long haul of history; that computers unleashed Darwin into machines from the first moment.

And I think George himself -- through Barricelli's work -- has a grand idea expressed at the end of this excerpt of his book: that of viewing the world through software's eyes. There is a lot of mileage in this and I hope Dyson explores it fully.

A note to Brockman: you've finally got your Reality Club. Thanks.



From: Clifford Pickover
Date: 7-17-97

Hi, I'd like to comment on George Dyson's presentation on the patterns of life...

Sometime around the end of World War II, astronomer Fred Hoyle began to wonder about the large diversity of organic molecules being identified in the dust clouds of the galaxy. Did they suggest life elsewhere in the galaxy? His speculations lead to his nove The Black Cloud, published in 1957, in which such molecules became organized into a living entity -- a black cloud -- that headed strait for the sun, seeking the sun's energy for nourishment. Unfortunately for Earthlings, the black cloud began to shield us from the sun's light, thereby freezing to death a quarter of the world's population. In the novel, astronomers were able to communicate with the cloud and warn it that certain aggressive governments have sent hydrogen bombs toward it. The cloud reverses the courses of the bomb-equipped missiles, causing further devastation on Earth. The cloud then departs without further retribution.

Could a lifeform like the black cloud really exist? Hoyle's black cloud was a vast, intelligent cloud containing a large amount of interstellar hydrogen. The cloud, 150 million kilometers in diameter, had a complex, central neurological system made up of massive molecular chains. When the cloud approached the vicinity of a sun, it assumed a disklike shape that enabled it to absorb energy more efficiently. By condensing hydrogen in a small area of the cloud, and producing a fusion reaction, the cloud created an explosive jet of gases that acted like a rocket, allowing the cloud to move through space.

I believe, as does physicist Freeman Dyson, that life will evolve into whatever material embodiment best suits its purposes. It is possible that life in the remote future is something like Hoyle's black cloud, a large assemblage of dust grains carrying positive and negative charges, organizing itself and communicating with itself by means of electromagnetic forces. While it's hard for modern-day scientists to imagine in detail how such a cloud could maintain the delicate, complex, and persistent balance of pattern-and-order we call life, we could not have imagined the structure and functioning of a living cell of protoplasm if we had never seen one.

- Clifford A. Pickover



From: Oliver Sacks
Date: 7-17-97

Comment on George Dyson's book Darwin Among the Machines:

To bring Hobbes and Samuel Butler and Olaf Stapleton together, and John Wilkins and von Neumann and Lewis Thomas and Erasmus Darwin, would seem almost beyond the bounds of possibility; but they all, and fifty others, come together with a sort of miraculous naturalness in this book, which is as remarkable an intellectual history as I have ever read.

-Oliver Sacks



From: Hans-Joachim Metzger
Date: 7-17-97

Science, usually, is not concerned about its own history. And, in a way, I think, rightly so. Science not only, as some sort of choice, may forget about its own past, it has to do so, necessarily, to make way for new paradigms (to adopt Kuhn's and Wittgenstein's terminology which I still find useful). In that sense a paradigm is a new way of doing science both in practice and in theory as well as a way of forgetting. To science in itself there's probably only one reason to turn to its own history: when the unearthing of earlier approaches offers fresh insight into what's being doing later, or when the reconsideration of earlier approaches leads to a reorientation in a field that has proved to be a dead end. I tend to think that this very rarely, if ever, happens. Much more frequently things are being re-discovered - but to call a discovery a re-discovery means you're already talking from the point of view of an outsider, an observer, from the point of view of a historian of science rather than from the point of view of the scientist himself.

To me Dyson's wonderful, well-written book is a book about the history of science and technology. That is, I don't think it will make any difference to the way science, especially ALife, is currently being done.

Nevertheless, I feel we have to be grateful that, inter alia, he has introduced us to the "largely forgotten contributions" of Barricelli. That man, obviously, deserved some kind of monument. Dyson has erected this monument.

Barricelli seems to have been what one might call a tragic figure. Imagine him witnessing the development of ALife (the first ALife conference was held in 1987, and he died in 1993). Imagine his feelings when he found that the new movement was dating back its own origins to von Neumann's work on the kinematic self-reproducing automaton without ever being aware of what he, Barricelli, had been doing.

I have looked up the indexes of the proceedings of the first four Artificial Life workshops. In fact, Barricelli is not mentioned once. Judging by the ECAL (European Conference on Artificial Life) proceedings, in Europe, too, nobody seems to have been aware of his research. Today, at least, you'll find references to his work on the homepage of the AVIDA project: http:///www.hip.atr.co.jp/~ray/tierra/like.html. (BTW, by making use of a search engine you may find out that Barricelli seems to have been active in the field of SF too: He has contributed an essay called The Imbrium Impact to Analog Science Fiction/Science Fact, August 1971, Auth/Ed: John W. Campbell, Jr.)

On the other hand, closer consideration of Barricelli's work will have to decide whether or not it might contribute to avoiding dead ends in current research. This, inherently, poses the question of whether or not there are forerunners or precursors in the history of science and technology. Very often, in finding so called precursors, with the appropriate amount of surprise accompanying your discovery, what you are really dealing with is some kind of rearview mirror effect. Because only the research that has been done later permits to see what has been (or might have been) done earlier.

I fully agree with the doubts raised by Lee Smolin and Tim Race in relation to Dyson's central metaphor, the software/genetic code analogy. One of the main problems of systems like Tom Ray's Tierra is that those digital creatures do not have a body because they, as phenotypes, are (!) their genotypes, or vice versa. With the evolution of these creatures everything seems to be morphogenesis because they are nothing but form. As Winograd (cited by Tim Race) said, the genetic code of natural life is "extremely indirect". Indirect also, I might add, in the sense that, in natural life, there is a breach of symmetry between information and matter. I think that, in ALife, we have not yet reached that degree of indirectness that seems to be present in organisms, the complexity of which is based on this breach of symmetry or on the pertinence of the genotype/phenotype dichotomy.

But there is another, more methodological doubt I want to raise about Dyson's approach. What he is really getting at is expressed by the subtitle of his book: the evolution of global intelligence. Actually, what he is trying to tell us is not only a story and, ultimately, a history. He strives to render account of an evolutionary (!) process by which a software-based global intelligence is supposed to be coming into being.

Strange to see that, in endeavoring to do this, Dyson, as far as I can see, never even tries to show that there have been Darwinian processes at work in bringing about certain scientific approaches and technologies rather than others. His narrative, it seems, is based on "conventional" historical causality (whatever that might be). But if you're making use of the concept of evolution, I think you have to be able to demonstrate that not only did this event lead to that result, but that that result is due, for example, to a selection (in the Darwinian sense) between various specimens or species of scientific and/or technological approaches.

Thanks to Dawkins, there is a term for a demonstration like that in the realm of ideas: memetics. I must confess that, to date, I have never come across a compelling and convincing memetical account of an evolutionary process in the history of science or in the history of ideas. But memetics, without any doubt, would have been the way to do what Dyson has been trying to do, if we are to take seriously his use of the concept of evolution.

I'm not sure, but maybe this has to do with the fact that Dyson is finding evidence that the evolution of (global) intelligence is in itself, at least in part, an intelligent and not a purely random process. In his chapter on Symbiogenesis, for example, he says: "A certain collective intelligence adheres to the web of relationships among genetic regulators and operators, a vague and faintly distributed unconscious memory that raises Samuel Butler's ghost. What randomness does contribute to evolutionary processes is a small but measurable element of noise. By definition, a Darwinian process has an element of randomness - but it does not have to be a game of chance."

Still, if this is true, then a historical account of science and/or technology would have to point out both the "certain collective intelligence" and "the element of randomness" that have been generative in producing certain results rather than others.

This, obviously, is a dangerous terrain, a terrain of danger, the terrain of Darwin's dangerous idea.

- Hans-Joachim Metzger



From: Chris Langton
Date: 7-17-97

I have to bite the bullet on this one - I had not read Barricelli's work in detail before - I've just gotten copies of some of his papers and am going to read them over the next few weeks.

I was aware of it - I listed his 1962 Acta Biotheoretica papers in the bibliography of the first Alife Proceedings. However there are over 600 works in that bibliography, some of which I pulled from other people's citation lists and/or had just read brief accounts or abstracts of. I knew that I was probably going to miss some pieces of work that should have been highlighted more, but this looks to be a real forehead slapper...

It is really too bad that I didn't catch on to his work earlier, we missed the opportunity to have him at the first Alife workshop in 1987. However, I had some good luck there also, Aristid Lindenmayer came to that first workshop, but had died of cancer before the second one.

We should be aware that the era from the late-40's to the early 70's produced a huge amount of work in the area of computational approaches to biology/intelligence. I'm sure that there are other great works that we're still not aware of or appreciating enough.

George Dyson has given us a good incentive to redouble our efforts in the archaeology of our fossil thoughts...I'm really looking forward to reading his book.

Chris Langton


From: George Dyson
Date: 7-17-97

Many thanks to those who contributed such a fascinating and informed response. I hope I am not evading too many questions with the general reply provided here. First of all, I must acknowledge how much I owe to Chris Langton, Thomas Ray, and many others who left Barricelli's publications untouched, so that, without doing a single experiment of my own, I stumbled upon the makings of a whole chapter in my book. Like a lucky amateur who discovers an unknown comet, I just happened to be looking in the right direction at the right time. Now it is time for the professionals to take a closer look. A technical note: in the E-mail version of Edge 21, the references in the text are one step ahead of the bibliography; in the Web version they are one step behind. As a politician would say, on average they're right.

Many details of the IAS experiments can be gleaned from the published literature, but not enough to reproduce Barricelli's results. "The great majority of the phenomena and the various features recorded are not described in this paper," he reported in 1957 (p. 182). "A considerable material is recorded, and a few of the most important codes are stored in the Computer Project of the Institute for Advanced Study. Investigations for other purposes and with other criteria may find new objects in the material existing today or by new evolution experiments which can be done by the codes which are available." Unfortunately, the records of the IAS computer project seem to have been haphazardly preserved. I have NOT visited the IAS to look.

Barricelli's colleagues at the Department of Mathematics in Oslo might provide other leads. Barricelli trusted the durability of punched cards. "He insisted on using punch cards, even when everybody had computer screens," says his former student Simen Gaure. "He gave two reasons for this, when you sit in front of a screen your ability to think clearly declines because you're distracted by irrelevancies, and when you store your data on magnetic media you can't be sure they're there permanently, you actually don't know where they are at all." Perhaps Barricelli's universe can be resurrected on a simulation of the IAS machine. But I believe this would simply be a historical, commemorative exercise, adding little to the approach embodied in later systems such as Thomas Ray's. My own reference to punched cards as "lifeless imprints" referred not to executable coding but to the output of the IAS computer during the running of Barricelli's experiments--which, in the absence of a printer was simply sent to the card punch as a primitive form of graphic display.

I share the suspicion of "modeling" and would repeat, in Barricelli's words: "Are they only models? They are not models, not any more than living organisms are models. They are a particular class of self-reproducing structures already defined." Likewise metaphors. Analogies between digital computation and biology are indeed dangerous--this being one of the reasons, I suspect, that John von Neumann (and the Institute administration) did not draw attention to Barricelli's work. The metaphor--as far as there is one--runs both ways, and is more profitable when importing insights from the world of biology into the world of computers rather than the other way around. The value lies not in tenuous similarities between software and DNA, but in the more fundamental distinction that coding--digital or molecular--can be *replicated*, whereas the complexities of real-world machines or organisms have to be *reproduced*. Exactly how biology and technology navigate and take advantage of this distinction has much to do with the origins of life, real or artificial--the latter constituting an intentional contradiction, as John McCarthy said of artificial intelligence in 1956.

Barricelli, both in his numerical evolution experiments and his more reputable career as a viral geneticist, was primarily interested in the origins of the genetic code. He began his IAS experiments in 1953, the year that Watson and Crick elucidated the structure, but not the origin, of DNA. He was well aware of the importance of making a distinction between genotype and phenotype, acknowledging "the striking feature that the symbioorganisms we have obtained in our experiments are only sequences or patterns of selfreproducing elements to be compared with a sequence of genes. We may ask: 'What about the rest of the body? Does not the organisms consist of anything more than hereditary material?'. . . The nature of the symbioorganisms we have obtained . . . was dictated by the necessity of economizing with the space in the universe because of the limited capacity of the computing machines. . . . If we want to see anything like a body or any structure more suitable than genes . . . we must give the genes some toy bricks to play with, so to say, or in other words some material they may organize and may eventually use in the competition among different symbioorganisms. The material should preferably be of a kind which has importance for the existence of the symbioorganisms." (1957, p. 179-80)

This gets to the heart of why, and where, Barricelli figures in my discussion of the origins of freely-evolving--rather than laboratory-supported--artificial life. The origins of life, whether in biology or technology, depend less on the distinction between hardware and software and more on how life manages to bridge these distinctions by an effective process of translation between the two. Barricelli pointed out the analogy between subroutines (specified by strings of bits) and proteins (specified by strings of nucleotides). Even Alan Turing, at the very beginning (with I. J. Good) referred to the coding of subroutines as "machine building"--assembling structures that *do* something, on a level different from the underlying code. In our digital universe--which dawned, in part, at the IAS--there *is* a distinction between genotype and phenotype: for a word processor, a web browser, or anything else, there's a genotype--the code--and a phenotype--the "application"--which comes to life (excuse the metaphor) when the genotype is executed by its (real or virtual) host. And, as Charles Simonyi can attest, there's many, many, levels of translation and abstraction (constantly evolving) between the genotype and the phenotype, and between the digital universe and our own.

With regard to Darwin and "Darwinian" evolution, I had better leave this discussion to others, excusing myself from the debate by pointing out that Erasmus, not Charles, is the Darwin featured in "Darwin Among the Machines." The subtitle "evolution of global intelligence" is a publisher's catchphrase; the World Wide Web is mentioned three times in the book. What isn't history or fable is more science fiction than science. And yes, the electromagnetic, pulse-coded distributed intelligence of Fred Hoyle's "Black Cloud" (1957) left a tremendous impact on me as a child--but I kept wondering, why not here on Earth? Which brings me back to the question of models, and the epigraph I chose for the chapter on Nils Barricelli. It's a statement made by Marvin Minsky, at the Byurakan Astrophysical Observatory in Yerevan, Armenia, at the 1971 conference on communication with extraterrestrial intelligence:


"Instead of sending a picture of a cat, there is one area in which we can send the cat itself."

From: Tor Gulliksen
To: George Dyson

Date: 9-20-97

Dear George Dyson,

Let me introduce myself. I am aprofessor of mathematics at the University of Oslo, Norway.

Nils All Barricelli died on the 27. of January 1993, 81 years old. I knew Barricelli for many years, and I wrote a one page article about him in connection with his death. Unfortunately it is written in Norwegian, otherwise I could have sent it to you. I also have in my posession another page of biographic information (copied from a Norwegian newspaper after his death), written by one of his friends, Oystein Aars.

I learned to know Barricelli in my studet days in Oslo in the early 60's, and soon, like many other students, became very interested in his ideas about numerical evolution, and what he called "numerical organisms". In fact I worked with him one summer as an assistent in Manchester, England, where he was using the big Atlas computer in numerical evolution experiments. The goal was to obtain through evolution, chess playing (!) numerical organisns.

Here is an absract of the two articles mentioned above:

Barricelli was born and raised in Rome, and completed his education in mathematics and physics at the University of Rome in 1936. As extremely opposed to Mussolini, Barricelli mooved in 1938 to Norway with his sister and mother who was Norwegian.

In 1946 he submitted his doctoral thesis on climate variations. However it was 500 pages long, and was found to be too long to print. He did not agree to cut it to an accepable size, and chose instead not to obtain the doctoral degree! (In a way typical for his kind of uncompromising personality).

In the period 1947 - 52 he was research assistent in theoretical statistics in the Mathematics institute, University of Oslo.

In 1952 - 53 he had two stays at the Institute of Advanced Studies in Princeton, cooperating with von Neumann on numerical evolution processes.

From 1955 to 1968 he was most of the time at different American universities, working with virus genetics.

The fall 1969 he was back at the Mathematics institute, in Oslo as a guest researcher. From 1970 until he got sick in 1991 he continued his research at the institute, - but without salary. He would rather keep his complete freedom as a researcher than entering a permanent position at the University.

Among his many fields of research I mention

  • Virusgenetics, DNA, theoretical biology
  • Space flights and space research
  • Theoretical physics
  • Mathematical language

I hope this can be of some help to you.

With regards,

Tor Gulliksen



From: George Dyson
Date: 12-12-97

BIONUMERICAL PALEONTOLOGY, continued

Recently, I visited the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey, to examine the surviving records of the Electronic Computer Project (1945-1958) for evidence of Nils Barricelli's bionumeric evolution experiments (see EDGE 21). The Electronic Computer Project's Monthly Progress Report (Contract No. DA-36-034-ORD-1023-RD) for March 1953 explains:

"A code has been written and preliminary runs made which attempts to present a mathematical model for symbiogenetical processes... According to the theory of symbiosis of genes, the genes were originally independent, virus-like organisms which by symbiotic association formed more complex units. According to this theory a similar evolution should be possible with any kind of elements having the necessary fundamental properties... A series of numerical experiments are being made with the aim of verifying the possibility of an evolution similar to that of living organisms taking place in an artificially created universe."

Although none of the original coding appears to have survived, Barricelli's initial report, *Experiments in Bionumeric Evolution Executed by the Electronic Computer at Princeton, N. J.* (August 1953) provides many details--from seeding the empty universe by means of a deck of playing cards to an analysis of the first series of experiments, keyed to large-format photo-mosaics of the punched cards representing its results. The machine log-books, kept by the engineers, provide a cryptic record of the obstacles presented by equipment (especially the temperamental cathode-ray-tube memory) that was working reliably only for very short periods of time. From the Operating Log, 7 April 1953: "Dr. Barricelli claims machine is wrong. Code is right."

Barricelli had no illusions about the difficulty of evolving self-sustaining numerical organisms, and in the first published report on the Institute experiments ["Esempi numerici di processi di evoluzione," *Methodos,* vol. 6 no. 21-22 (1954, received 30 December 1953); draft translation by Verena Huber-Dyson, "Numerical Models of Evolutionary Processes"] he offered some sound advice:

"Small wonder that from Darwin's time to this day a somewhat gratuitous optimism has prevailed in many quarters about the possibility of settling that 'ultimate detail' needed for completion of a theory of the nature of living organisms."

"But a question that might embarrass the optimists is the following:"

"'If it's that easy to create living organisms, why don't you create a few yourself?'"

I was able to speak briefly with Julian Bigelow, von Neumann's lead architect and original chief engineer. He remembered the numerical evolution experiments and commented that "Barricelli was the only person who really understood the path toward genuine artificial intelligence at that time." Barricelli's view of intelligence was unusually broad, and encompassed both biological and non-biological systems, epitomized by the provocative title of his last published paper (1987) on bionumeric evolution: "Suggestions for the starting of numeric evolution processes intended to evolve symbioorganisms capable of developing a language and technology of their own."

On the final day of my brief visit, Nathan Myhrvold and Charles Simonyi (Microsoft Research Directors, and IAS Trustees) happened to show up for a meeting, and, at 4:45 on Friday afternoon, James Fein, the Institute archivist, was persuaded to bring up the seven cardboard boxes so that we could take a look. If there are any documents, anywhere, that can be said to represent the "Big Bang" of the modern digital universe, these papers (including the minutes of the first meeting of the Electronic Computer committee, held 12 November 1945 in Vladimir Zworykin's office at RCA) are high on the list.

In 1947, Arthur Burks, Herman Goldstine, and John von Neumann commandeered a couple offices (including an annex to Kurt G˛del's) among the pure mathematicians and mathematical physicists at the Institute for Advanced Study, and started writing code. In 1997, Nathan Myhrvold and a small band of followers commandeered a few offices among the programmers at Microsoft, and are starting to do pure mathematical research.

On my flight from New Jersey to Seattle, I found myself pondering this symmetry, fifty years removed.



From: Jeremy Ahouse
Date: 2-15-98

Like the other respondents I enjoyed the discussion of early Alife. Especially the reminder that computers were being explored creatively (even as bombs were being simulated) and before they became "office productivty suites" (word processors, etc...). Not enough people view cpus and memory as playground these days. Given the modest resources that Barricelli had it should be easy enough to reproduce his approach on a personal computer or a palm pilot for that matter. Has anyone done so? I won't repeat other's praise or complaints I have but a small nit to pick and an observation.

The nit:

George Dyson suggests that reproduction wedded to selectionism somehow underwrites Lamarckian evolution in a way that it doesn't when we have a separate germ line. But what he describes as reproduction+selectionism is actually Darwinism. Historically, part of the neo in neoDarwinism is the commitment to set-aside cells and a separate germ line (i.e. Weissmann's understanding of gamete formation). This has come under some pressure as we include more examples from the tree of life and since more than DNA is inherited even in sexual species that do have gamete production.*

The Lamarckism that Darwin referred to as a belief in "an innate and inevitable tendency towards perfection in all organic beings" gets no shelter from what Dyson describes. Although it is obvious, I will remind us that Darwin could not have depended on notions of genetic replication for his ideas of natural selection - as he was just a touch too early and while Darwin lore has it that he had access to Mendel's papers it also tells us that he didn't cut the pages of that journal. In any case Natural selection (for Darwin at least) did not depend on the replication reproduction distinction.

Darwin did argue against the ability of exercise or habit becoming heritable (whatever that was) with an appeal to sterile insect castes;

[A]ny amount of modification may be effected by the accumulation of numerous, slight, spontaneous variations, which are in any way profitable, without exercise or habit having been brought into play. For peculiar habits confined to the workers or sterile females, however long they might be followed, could not possibly affect the males and fertile females, which alone leave descendants. C. Darwin, Origin Ch 8.

Still he would as Dyson asserts have allowed that N.S. does not require replication; statistically approximate reproduction...is enough. It was for Darwin and it is in contemporary quantitative genetic accounts.

The observation:

If one really believes that protein (approximate) reproduction preceeded or was contemporaneous with DNA replication there would be a lot to be gained by the discovery of how this worked. The PCR amplification technique has put so many questions within our grasp that weren't before. A protein amplification technique that started with protein would be a terrific boon. So far there isn't any residue of such a process in biology that I know of.

- Jeremy

* as Lee Smolin mentions in an earlier response, EFK and I discuss this with respect to the Dolly cloning experiment. Keller, E. F. and J. C. Ahouse (1997). Writing and Reading about DOLLY. BioEssays 19(8) 741-742.


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