Biological and Cultural Evolution

Six Characters in Search of an Author Freeman Dyson [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 


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.

Possible Minds: 25 Ways of Looking at AI

Chapter 5 - "What Can We Do?" - First Serial on Wired Daniel C. Dennett [2.19.19]

WHEN NORBERT WIENER, the father of cybernetics, wrote his book The Human Use of Human Beings in 1950, vacuum tubes were still the primary electronic building blocks, and there were only a few actual computers in operation.

Possible Minds: 25 Ways of Looking at AI

Chapter 23 - "The Rights of Machines" - First Serial on Medium George Church [2.12.19]

Possible Minds: 25 Ways of Looking at AI

Chapter 4 - "The Third Law" - First Serial on Medium George Dyson [2.12.19]

Alzheimer's Prevention

Lisa Mosconi [2.11.19]

Right now, we don’t have therapies that regrow neurons. Alzheimer’s is a disease that kills your neurons over time, so once they’re gone they’re pretty much gone. There are things that one can do pharmaceutically to ameliorate the symptoms. For example, there are FDA-approved drugs such as acetylcholinesterase inhibitors or memantine, which do lessen or stabilize symptoms for a few years, but they can’t stop disease progression. What we’re interested in is disease modification, stopping it before it’s too severe or too advanced.

At the Alzheimer’s Prevention Clinic, we try to tell people what to do in a preventative way. There are a lot of other people and clinicians that are actively engaging in prevention as well. It’s new in my field, especially in the field of neurology. Until four years ago nobody would dare use the word “prevention” out loud because so many doctors and clinicians would just label you as a quack right away and you would lose credibility overnight. I find scientists are much more open to this now.

LISA MOSCONI is the director of the Women's Brain Initiative and the associate director of the Alzheimer's Prevention Clinic at Weill Cornell Medical College. She is the author of Brain Food: The Surprising Science of Eating for Cognitive PowerLisa Mosconi's Edge Bio Page

The Future of the Mind

How AI Technology Could Reshape the Human Mind and Create Alternate Synthetic Minds Susan Schneider [1.28.19]

I see many misunderstandings in current discussions about the nature of the mind, such as the assumption that if we create sophisticated AI, it will inevitably be conscious. There is also this idea that we should “merge with AI”—that in order for humans to keep up with developments in AI and not succumb to hostile superintelligent AIs or AI-based technological unemployment, we need to enhance our own brains with AI technology.

One thing that worries me about all this is that don't think AI companies should be settling issues involving the shape of the mind. The future of the mind should be a cultural decision and an individual decision. Many of the issues at stake here involve classic philosophical problems that have no easy solutions. I’m thinking, for example, of theories of the nature of the person in the field of metaphysics. Suppose that you add a microchip to enhance your working memory, and then years later you add another microchip to integrate yourself with the Internet, and you just keep adding enhancement after enhancement. At what point will you even be you? When you think about enhancing the brain, the idea is to improve your life—to make you smarter, or happier, maybe even to live longer, or have a sharper brain as you grow older—but what if those enhancements change us in such drastic ways that we’re no longer the same person?

SUSAN SCHNEIDER holds the Distinguished Scholar chair at the Library of Congress and is the director of the AI, Mind and Society (“AIMS”) Group at the University of Connecticut. Susan Schneider's Edge Bio Page

The Urban-Rural Divide

Why Geography Matters Jonathan Rodden [1.16.19]

In the past, it was dispersed rural interest groups who favored free trade, and concentrated urban producers who wanted protection for their new industries. Now, in the age of the knowledge economy, the relationship has reversed. Much of manufacturing now takes place outside of city centers. Ever since the New Deal and the rise of labor unions, manufacturing has been moving away from city centers and spreading out to exurban and rural areas along interstates, especially in the South. In an era of intense global competition, these have now become the places where voters can be most easily mobilized in favor of trade protection.

Moreover, much like manufacturing in an earlier era, the knowledge economy has grown up in a very geographically concentrated way in certain city centers. These are the places that now benefit most from globalization and free trade. We’re back to debates about trade and protection that occupied Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson, although the geographic location of the interests has changed over time. Changing economic geography has shaped our political geography in important ways, and contributed to an increase in urban-rural polarization.

JONATHAN RODDEN is a professor in the Political Science Department at Stanford and a Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution. Jonathan Rodden's Edge Bio Page

Judith Rich Harris: 1938 - 2018

Judith Rich Harris [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.


Childhood's End

The digital revolution isn’t over but has turned into something else George Dyson [1.1.19]

Nations, alliances of nations, and national institutions are in decline, while a state perhaps best described as Oligarchia is on the ascent. George Dyson explains in this, the first Edge New Year's Essay.

GEORGE DYSON is the author of Turing’s Cathedral and Darwin Among the Machines. George Dyson's Edge Bio Page

"To ring in the New Year in the most depressing and hope-crushing way possible, Dyson sat down with” — Brett Tingley, Mysterious Universe

[Click for media coverage of "Childhood's End"]

Childhood's End

All revolutions come to an end, whether they succeed or fail.

The digital revolution began when stored-program computers broke the distinction between numbers that mean things and numbers that do things. Numbers that do things now rule the world. But who rules over the machines?

Once it was simple: programmers wrote the instructions that were supplied to the machines. Since the machines were controlled by these instructions, those who wrote the instructions controlled the machines.

All revolutions come to an end, whether they succeed or fail.

Two things then happened. As computers proliferated, the humans providing instructions could no longer keep up with the insatiable appetite of the machines. Codes became self-replicating, and machines began supplying instructions to other machines. Vast fortunes were made by those who had a hand in this. A small number of people and companies who helped spawn self-replicating codes became some of the richest and most powerful individuals and organizations in the world.

Then something changed. There is now more code than ever, but it is increasingly difficult to find anyone who has their hands on the wheel. Individual agency is on the wane. Most of us, most of the time, are following instructions delivered to us by computers rather than the other way around. The digital revolution has come full circle and the next revolution, an analog revolution, has begun. None dare speak its name.

Childhood’s End was Arthur C. Clarke’s masterpiece, published in 1953, chronicling the arrival of benevolent Overlords who bring many of the same conveniences now delivered by the Keepers of the Internet to Earth. It does not end well.

The Social History of Religion

Elaine Pagels [12.12.18]

It’s twenty-five years later from the time that I started working on this, and we understand something quite different about the Gospel of Thomas. What it looks like more than anything else, when you put it in context with other historical material, is Jewish mystical thought, or, Kabbalah. Kabbalah, we thought, was first known from written texts from the 10th to the 15th centuries from Spanish-Jewish communities. Before that, there was a prohibition on writing about secret teaching. It was mystical teaching that you were not supposed to write about because you don't know what fool could get ahold of it if you did. So, there was a prohibition on teaching anyone mystical Judaism before he was thirty-five, and certainly not to women. People were old by thirty-five, so you had to be a mature Jewish man to have access to that kind of teaching.

I, and others who study Jewish mystical thought at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, suspect that this tradition goes back 2,000 years. This text says it’s Jesus’ secret teaching. Could it be? It could be. I don't know if it is or not, but it’s fascinating to see that what rabbis called “mystical thought” was labeled by Christian bishops in the 4th century to be heresy. That’s when I realized how religious imagination and politics coincide, because of the politics in the 4th century when Christian bishops were beginning to ask who this Jesus of Nazareth was. Jesus was God in human form, and he’s the only one who is the Son of God in human form. So, you can create a monopoly on divine energy and power with a religion that has the only access to the only person in the universe who ever channeled God directly, or was God and became human. That works very well for Orthodox Christianity. . . .

These discoveries are changing the way we understand how cultural traditions were shaped and how they became part of the culture in very different forms than they had begun. I find that enormously exciting. They involve everything from attitudes about gender and sexuality to attitudes about power and politics, about race, and gender, and ethnicity. That’s why I began to write about Adam and Eve. I mean, who cares about Adam and Eve? You realize that those traditions still play out in the culture—in the laws of the United States, or the laws of Britain, or the laws in Africa, the laws against homosexuality, and the ones that claim that the only true marriage can be a marriage between a man and a woman for the purpose of procreation. The Defense of Marriage Act was written by Professor Robert George at Princeton for G.W. Bush. These things still resonate, often very unconsciously, in the culture.

ELAINE PAGELS is the Harrington Spear Paine Professor of Religion at Princeton University. She is the author, most recently, of Why Religion?: A Personal Story. Elaine Pagels' Edge Bio Page

Subscribe to Front page feed