The Darwin Machine


A Introduction to and Critique of Alife

Simon Penny is teaching art and robotics at Carnegie Mellon University. The following text is a good introduction to the field of Artificial Life as well as a critique of some its implication often hidden as scientific axioms.

Just what do we mean by artificial life? The name has been claimed by a group of interdisciplinary scientists: biologists, roboticists, and computer scientists who have held several conferences by that name at the Santa Fe Institute for Non-Linear Dynamics since 1988. Similar events have since occurred at MIT, in Europe and in Japan. Alifers are peripherally associated with the related, perhaps less deterministic fields of non-linear dynamics and complexity theory by virtue of their common interest in self-organising systems and emergent order, ideas which arise from the study of chaos. The applications of these techniques vary from the building of digital ecologies in which the dynamics of evolution might be studied, to the shaping and control of these systems to breed algorithms to do particular arithmetic, graphical or informational tasks.

The Alife community includes:

1. Computational biologists. Until now, natural selection, the mechanism of evolution, has been limited to the organic. The realization of evolving, reproducing digital species in silicon using genetic algorithms prompts the question: "Is it alive?" This question divides Alifers into two groups:

1a. Hard Alifers hold that self replicating digital organisms are alive in every sense, and that biology must include the study of possible life, and must arrive at some universal laws concerning wet life and digital life.

1b. Soft Alifers claim only that genetic and evolutionary simulations are useful in understanding biological dynamics, but remain simply simulations.

Around this central group cluster several others:

2.Builders of procedural systems, like Craig Reynolds' Boids and Jessica Hodgin's robot flocks. More recently, these systems are self evolving, such as Karl Sim's recent work on evolving 3D morphology and behavior by competition, and Jeff Ventralla's evolving animated characters.

Editors remark: You can watch Craig Reynold's Boids live on the web under the following URL.

3. Subsumption and 'bottom up' roboticists who utilise ethological analogies to create bottom up emergent behavior in mobile machines.

4. Builders of autonomous digital agents to do work in the digital realm.

5. Wet Alifers. Wet Alifers are molecular biologists who are breeding or constructing replicating or behaving groupings of proteins, enzymes and nucleic acids. the instrumentalization of natural selection carries not only for the digital alifers, but equally for the Wet-Alifers, the closeness in attitude between Alife and the new genetics and reproductive technologies, and nano-technology, should not be elided.

Eliza's children, Frankenstein's grandchildren.

Tom Ray, a biologist and designer of the Tierra system, recently made a proposal to promote biodiversity in the net, a distributed digital wildlife preserve on the internet, in which digital organisms might evolve, circumnavigating diurnally to available CPU's. [4] These creatures would evolve good net navigation and cpu sensing abilities, among other things. Predators and parasites would emerge. Ray notes that "Evolution just naturally comes up with useful things". He argues for the proposal in the following way: you couldn't imagine a silk worm, even if you could, you couldn't guide evolution to make it. But evolution did make it, we can take it, cross breed it, neuter it, delete its poisonous properties, domesticate it.

This proposal is emblematic of paradigm shifts which characterize Alife. According to the traditional christian outlook which functions as a foundation for the ideology of industrial capitalism, we humans, (and particularly westerners) could harvest the products of biodiversity and harness them as components of the industrial machine. In the post-industrial, Alifers are harnessing the mechanism of biodiversity itself. A somewhat insidious example of this tendency is a Japanese project to build Artificial Brains for the internet. This conception sees the internet as a nervous system, and draws upon the evolutionary narrative to validate its claims that, as nervous systems developed prior to brains, so it is only logical that the internet will grow a brain. The central technique in this research is referred to as the Darwin Machine and has more than passing resemblance to the Frankenstein theme. Like Dr Frankenstein, the developers of the Darwin Machine are seeking to cobble together a quasi-human machine . Like most cutting edge 'techno-science' research projects, including the exercise of Alife in general, the researchers conveniently and almost unnoticeably omit any mention of just what this technology might be used for.

Anthropologist Stefan Helmreich has noted that the Alife community is statistically 30-40 years old, straight white males who are agnostic or atheist of judeo christian backgrounds. Within this community, subjective and value laden assumptions of the researchers themselves are disguised as axioms. As an example of these assumptions, Helmreich quotes Tom Ray as saying "I'm omniscient to the physics of the world I create" and notes the similarity of this position to that of the judeo-christian notion of the omniscient creator. The evolutionary narrative chosen implicitly supports social darwinism, and other less tasteful social models, such as racism. Alife avoids the aspects of cell dynamics and evolution in which the informational and the material are "deeply entangled" , thereby enforcing a simplistic DNA=algorithm generalisation. Alife is predicated on the computer-science inspired dictum that the informational content of life can be separated from the material substrate in the same way that software can be separated from hardware. This induces the assumption that modern computational techniques are structurally similar to the deep structure of biological life. We must be clear that this is a rhetorical device, a validation by back-formation with reference to a presumed natural or authentic condition. It is one example among many, of computer technology functioning as the paradigmatic technology or our era, to use J. David Bolter's term. Proposing a division between matter and information in biological systems is a very old- fashioned and familiar narrative construction rooted deeply in Enlightenment precepts. It serves to reinforce other such contrived dualistic structures as form and content and ultimately mind and body.

Elsewhere I have discussed the similarity between the attitudes of St.Augustine and Descartes to the body, and those of cyberpunks, epitomized by Gibson's words "the body is meat". It is through examples such as these that we can see just how clearly so called 'objective science' can be haevily value laden, perpetuating dualistic and colonialising ideologies. High tech enterprises, such as Artificial Intelligence and Top-down robotics validate and reinforce these dichotomies with the rhetorical power they derive from being high tech and futuristic.

Paradigm Busters

Scientific ideas have been a powerful influence in shaping western culture. In many cases, the power of influence that the hard sciences have had, has encouraged social sciences and humanistic disciplines to become more 'scientific' (and therefore, by definition, more rigorous, more respectable) by the adoption of scientific tropes. The theory of relativity and quantum theory are examples which have been ludicrously mis-applied in the popular science and the social sciences. It is arguable that the modernist tradition in art itself is a highly scientized world view, privileging as it does ideas of experiment and progress.

As I noted at the beginning of this paper, ideas arising in complexity and Alife challenge some traditonal scientific ideas and the Enlightenment frame in general. In some cases they also reinforce traditional attitudes.

The ideas that Chaos theory brought: strange and chaotic attractors, bifurcation and fractality, and particularly 'sensitive dependance on initial conditions' revealed vast jungles of unpredicability in the heart of newtonian physics. The adage that a butterfly flapping its wings in the Amazon will cause a typhoon in India has achieved the status of a cliché, but it underlines the oft-edited fact that classical physics can deal with only a small subset of physical phenomena and ignores the rest.

Fractality. The significance of fractals will not be found in any number of computer renderings of the Manderlbrot set, nor in their application to computer graphic simulations of fictitious valleys, islands and planets. Fractals show us a geometry which approximates the logic of natural growth: recursive, multi-scaled, infinitely detailed, with symmetry across scale. This idea not only replicates the generative and recursive geometries of biology, but exposes the roots of Euclidian geometry in Platonic abstraction. The geometry of Euclid, premised on lines infinitely thin and points infinitely small, is steeped in intellectual abstraction, predicated on the notion of an 'ideal'. Newtons mechanics is itself predicated on this style of abstraction.

Entropy and Self-organization. Since the mid C19th, the second law of thermodynamics has held western culture in its nihilism inducing grip. This in itself indicates just how powerful the grip of science and particularly physics has been in the last century. It's strange because experientially we know life is anti-entropic. New science, in the form of the ideas of self-organization and emergent order has validated this intuition and liberated us from the defeatism of the 2nd law. That is not to say that the 2nd law is no longer valid, but that extrapolation of its implications into the life sciences and humanities has been shown to be misplaced. As Beckers, Holland and Deneubourg have persuasively demonstrated, random behavior amongst simple animals or machines can result in an anti-entropic outcome.

Emergence and Reductivism. Perhaps the most far reaching implication of self organisation and emergent order in complex dynamics is the demise of the entire method of reductivism. Reductivism is a keystone of the scientific method . It is premised on the assumption that to understand a complex object, one breaks it into component parts and examines those parts in controlled settings, then adds the results of those examinations together. The basic principal of emergence is that organisation (behavior/order/meaning) can arise from the agglomeration of small component units which do not exhibit those characteristics. Emergent order implies that the whole is indeed greater than the sum of its parts, that higher level behaviors cannot be disassembled into their component lower level building blocks. Simple examples include the generation of mind form individual neurons and the complex behaviors of colonial insects and organisms. Inherent in this pheonomenon is a critique of reductionism, the major tool of science, which is premised on the assumption that to examine a complex object, one breaks it into component parts and examines those parts in controlled settings. Complete understanding arises when those parts are added together. Emergence throws that method in the trash. As De Landa puts it: "The road to reductionism has been permanently blocked. If the properties of matter and energy at any given level of organisation cannot be explained by the properties of the underlying levels, it follows that biology cannot be reduced to physics or anthropology to biology" [14] Or one might add, psychology to physiology.

The Top-Down Artificial Intelligence paradigm has come in for its fair share of bashing in recent years, one of the earliest and loudest whistle blowers being Hubert Dreyfus who refers to the paradigm as 'good old fashioned artificial intelligence' or GOFAL. Its inability to deal with real world problems without formally bounded domains led to the development of Brooksian Subsumption Architecture, the entire Bottom-Up trend and the exploration of emergent order. There is a substantial political force in this trend, as Alife opposes authoritarian power structures. The Top-Down paradigm, on the other hand, exactly replicates and reinforces very traditional tropes of lord and serfs, boss and workers and more abstractly, body/mind, form/content and hardware/software. Distributed and parallel computing, connectionism and subsumption all point to demise of the Cartesian dualism as a useful analytic idea.

Another techno-scientific paradigm is Claude Shannon's Communication theory. Ported into the humanities and particularly into telematic arts, this technologically validated paradigm entirely ignores the question of interpretation in communication. Hors Hendriks Jansen, in his discussions of situated robotics and what he refers to as interactive emergence, argues that the methods of ethology which emphasize the importance of observation in the environment rather than the reductivist methods of controlled experiments in the lab, offer new insights into the complexities of human communication. Several of his examples from early childhood psychology indicate that early childhood actions trigger responses in adults by appearing to be intentional. This 'bootstraps' the child into meaning . The significance of such 'exchange' is that the message received was never sent! Such real life examples suggest that Shannon's communications theory is not particularly relevant to the study of human communication.


I've tried to show that while the disciplines I've discussed do take radical positions with respect to traditional ideas, in other ways they perpetuate a view of the world which is deterministic and instrumentalizing, and are thus themselves, ripe for critical examination. New scientific ideas powerfully inform the value systems and world view of our culture. New technologies are almost always clad in utopian rhetoric. Any technology which is trumpeted as a 'liberation' should be examined extra-carefully. Historically, those technologies have transpired to be the most oppressive. We must be careful not to unconsciously endorse theparadigms hidden in scientific discourses, where they often lie hidden, disguised as axioms.

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