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The Blind Watchmaker

The Blind Watchmaker

The Blind Watchmaker 9


  The human tells the computer which one of the current litter of progeny to breed from. The genes of the chosen one are passed across to REPRODUCTION, and a new generation begins. This process, like real-life evolution, goes on indefinitely. Each generation of biomorphs is only a single mutational step away from its predecessor and its successor. But after 100 generations of EVOLUTION, the biomorphs can be anything up to 100 mutational steps away from their original ancestor. And in 100 mutational steps, much can happen.

  I never dreamed how much, when I first started to play with my newly written EVOLUTION program. The main thing that surprised me was that the biomorphs can pretty quickly cease to look like trees. The basic two-way branching structure is always there, but it is easily smothered as lines cross and recross one another, making solid masses of colour (only black and white in the printed pictures). Figure 4 shows one particular evolutionary history consisting of no more than 29 generations. The ancestor is a tiny creature, a single dot. Although the ancestor’s body is a dot, like a bacterium in the primeval slime, hidden inside it is the potential for branching in exactly the pattern of the central tree of Figure 3: it is just that its Gene 9 tells it to branch zero times! All the creatures pictured on the page are descended from the dot but, in order to avoid cluttering the page, I haven’t printed all the descendants that I actually saw. I’ve printed only the successful child of each generation (i.e. the parent of the next generation) and one or two of its unsuccessful sisters. So, the picture basically shows just the one main line of evolution, guided by my aesthetic selection. All the stages in the main line are shown.

  Let’s briefly go through the first few generations of the main line of evolution in Figure 4. The dot becomes a Y in generation 2. In the next two generations, the Y becomes larger. Then the branches become slightly curved, like a well-made catapult. In generation 7, the curve is accentuated, so that the two branches almost meet. The curved branches get bigger, and each acquires a couple of small appendages in generation 8. In generation 9 these appendages are lost again, and the stem of the catapult becomes longer. Generation 10 looks like a section through a flower; the curved side-branches resemble petals cupping a central appendage or ‘stigma’. In generation 11, the same ‘flower’ shape has become bigger and slightly more complicated.

  Figure 4

  I won’t pursue the narrative. The picture speaks for itself, on through the 29 generations. Notice how each generation is just a little different from its parent and from its sisters. Since each is a little different from its parent, it is only to be expected that each will be slightly more different from its grandparents (and its grandchildren), and even more different still from its great grandparents (and great grandchildren). This is what cumulative evolution is all about, although, because of our high mutation rate, we have speeded it up here to unrealistic rates. Because of this, Figure 4 looks more like a pedigree of species than a pedigree of individuals, but the principle is the same.

  When I wrote the program, I never thought that it would evolve anything more than a variety of tree-like shapes. I had hoped for weeping willows, cedars of Lebanon, Lombardy poplars, seaweeds, perhaps deer antlers. Nothing in my biologist’s intuition, nothing in my 20 years’ experience of programming computers, and nothing in my wildest dreams, prepared me for what actually emerged on the screen. I can’t remember exactly when in the sequence it first began to dawn on me that an evolved resemblance to something like an insect was possible. With a wild surmise, I began to breed, generation after generation, from whichever child looked most like an insect. My incredulity grew in parallel with the evolving resemblance. You see the eventual results at the bottom of Figure 4. Admittedly they have eight legs like a spider, instead of six like an insect, but even so! I still cannot conceal from you my feeling of exultation as I first watched these exquisite creatures emerging before my eyes. I distinctly heard the triumphal opening chords of Also sprach Zarathustra (the ‘2001 theme’) in my mind. I couldn’t eat, and that night ‘my’ insects swarmed behind my eyelids as I tried to sleep.

  There are computer games on the market in which the player has the illusion that he is wandering about in an underground labyrinth, which has a definite if complex geography and in which he encounters dragons, minotaurs or other mythic adversaries. In these games the monsters are rather few in number. They are all designed by a human programmer, and so is the geography of the labyrinth. In the evolution game, whether the computer version or the real thing, the player (or observer) obtains the same feeling of wandering metaphorically through a labyrinth of branching passages, but the number of possible pathways is all but infinite, and the monsters that one encounters are undesigned and unpredictable. On my wanderings through the backwaters of Biomorph Land, I have encountered fairy shrimps, Aztec temples, Gothic church windows, aboriginal drawings of kangaroos, and, on one memorable but unrecapturable occasion, a passable caricature of the Wykeham Professor of Logic. Figure 5 is another little collection from my trophy room, all of which developed in the same kind of way. I want to emphasize that these shapes are not artists’ impressions. They have not been touched-up or doctored in any way whatever. They are exactly as the computer drew them when they evolved inside it. The role of the human eye was limited to selecting, among randomly mutated progeny over many generations of cumulative evolution.

  We now have a much more realistic model of evolution than the monkeys typing Shakespeare gave us. But the biomorph model is still deficient. It shows us the power of cumulative selection to generate an almost endless variety of quasi-biological form, but it uses artificial selection, not natural selection. The human eye does the selecting. Could we dispense with the human eye, and make the computer itself do the selecting, on the basis of some biologically realistic criterion? This is more difficult than it may seem. It is worth spending a little time explaining why.

  It is trivially easy to select for a particular genetic formula, so long as you can read the genes of all the animals. But natural selection doesn’t choose genes directly, it chooses the effects that genes have on bodies, technically called phenotypic effects. The human eye is good at choosing phenotypic effects, as is shown by the numerous breeds of dogs, cattle and pigeons, and also, if I may say so, as is shown by Figure 5. To make the computer choose phenotypic effects directly, we should have to write a very sophisticated pattern-recognition program. Pattern-recognizing programs exist. They are used to read print and even handwriting. But they are difficult, ‘state of the art’ programs, needing very large and fast computers. Even if such a pattern-recognition program were not beyond my programming capabilities, and beyond the capacity of my little 64-kilobyte computer, I wouldn’t bother with it. This is a task that is better done by the human eye, together with — and this is more to the point — the 10-giganeurone computer inside the skull.

  Figure 5

  It wouldn’t be too difficult to make the computer select for vague general features like, say, tall-thinness, short-fatness, perhaps curvaceousness, spikiness, even rococo ornamentation. One method would be to program the computer to remember the kinds of qualities that humans have favoured in the past, and to exert continued selection of the same general kind in the future. But this isn’t getting us any closer to simulating natural selection. The important point is that nature doesn’t need computing power in order to select, except in special cases like peahens choosing peacocks. In nature, the usual selecting agent is direct, stark and simple. It is the grim reaper. Of course, the reasons for survival are anything but simple — that is why natural selection can build up animals and plants of such formidable complexity. But there is something very crude and simple about death itself. And nonrandom death is all it takes to select phenotypes, and hence the genes that they contain, in nature.

  To simulate natural selection in an interesting way in the computer, we should forget about rococo ornamentation and all other visually defined qualities. We should concentrate, instead, upon simulating nonrandom death. Biomo
rphs should interact, in the computer, with a simulation of a hostile environment. Something about their shape should determine whether or not they survive in that environment. Ideally, the hostile environment should include other evolving biomorphs: ‘predators’, ‘prey’, ‘parasites’, ‘competitors’. The particular shape of a prey biomorph should determine its vulnerability to being caught, for example, by particular shapes of predator biomorphs. Such criteria of vulnerability should not be built in by the programmer. They should emerge, in the same kind of way as the shapes themselves emerge. Evolution in the computer would then really take off, for the conditions would be met for a self-reinforcing ‘arms race’ (see Chapter 7), and I dare not speculate where it would all end. Unfortunately, I think it may be beyond my powers as a programmer to set up such a counterfeit world.

  If anybody is clever enough to do it, it would be the programmers who develop those noisy and vulgar arcade games — Space Invaders’ derivatives. In these programs a counterfeit world is simulated. It has a geography, often in three dimensions, and it has a fast-moving time dimension. Entities zoom around in simulated threedimensional space, colliding with each other, shooting each other down, swallowing each other amid revolting noises. So good can the simulation be that the player handling the joystick receives a powerful illusion that he himself is part of the counterfeit world. I imagine that the summit of this kind of programming is achieved in the chambers used to train aeroplane and spacecraft pilots. But even these programs are small-fry compared to the program that would have to be written to simulate an emerging arms race between predators and prey, embedded in a complete, counterfeit ecosystem. It certainly could be done, however. If there is a professional programmer out there who feels like collaborating on the challenge, I should like to hear from him or her.

  Meanwhile, there is something else that is much easier, and which I intend trying when summer comes. I shall put the computer in a shady place in the garden. The screen can display in colour. I already have a version of the program which uses a few more ‘genes’ to control colour, in the same kind of way as the other nine genes control shape. I shall begin with any more-or-less compact and brightly coloured biomorph. The computer will simultaneously display a range of mutant progeny of the biomorph, differing from it in shape and/or colour pattern. I believe that bees, butterflies and other insects will visit the screen, and ‘choose’ by bumping into a particular spot on the screen. When a certain number of choices have been logged, the computer will wipe the screen clean, ‘breed’ from the preferred biomorph, and display the next generation of mutant progeny.

  I have high hopes that, over a large number of generations, the wild insects will actually cause the evolution, in the computer, of flowers. If they do, the computer flowers will have evolved under exactly the same selection pressure as caused real flowers to evolve in the wild. I am encouraged in my hope by the fact that insects frequently visit bright blobs of colour on women’s dresses (and also by more systematic experiments that have been published). An alternative possibility, which I would find even more exciting, is that the wild insects might cause the evolution of insect-like shapes. The precedent for this — and hence the reason for hope — is that bees in the past caused the evolution of bee-orchids. Male bees, over many generations of cumulative orchid evolution, have built up the bee-like shape through trying to copulate with flowers, and hence carrying pollen. Imagine the ‘bee-flower’ of Figure 5 in colour. Wouldn’t you fancy it if you were a bee?

  My main reason for pessimism is that insect vision works in a very different way from ours. Video-screens are designed for human eyes not bee eyes. This could easily mean that, although both we and bees see bee-orchids, in our very different ways, as bee-like, bees might not see video-screen images at all. Bees might see nothing but 625 scanning lines! Still, it is worth a try. By the time this book is published, I shall know the answer.

  There is a popular cliché, usually uttered in the tones Stephen Potter would have called ‘plonking’, which says that you cannot get out of computers any more than you put in. Other versions are that computers only do exactly what you tell them to, and that therefore computers are never creative. The cliché is true only in a crashingly trivial sense, the same sense in which Shakespeare never wrote anything except what his first schoolteacher taught him to write — words. I programmed EVOLUTION into the computer, but I did not plan ‘my’ insects, nor the scorpion, nor the spitfire, nor the lunar lander. I had not the slightest inkling that they would emerge, which is why ‘emerge’ is the right word. True, my eyes did the selecting that guided their evolution, but at every stage I was limited to a small clutch of progeny offered up by random mutation, and my selection ‘strategy’, such as it was, was opportunistic, capricious and shortterm. I was not aiming for any distant target, and nor does natural selection.

  I can dramatize this by discussing the one time when I did try to aim for a distant target. First I must make a confession. You will have guessed it anyway. The evolutionary history of Figure 4 is a reconstruction. It was not the first time I had seen ‘my’ insects. When they originally emerged to the sound of trumpets, I had no means of recording their genes. There they were, sitting on the computer screen, and I couldn’t get at them, couldn’t decipher their genes. I delayed switching the computer off while I racked my brain trying to think of some way of saving them, but there was none. The genes were too deeply buried, just as they are in real life. I could print out pictures of the insects’ bodies, but I had lost their genes. I immediately modified the program so that in future it would keep accessible records of genetic formulae, but it was too late. I had lost my insects.

  I set about trying to ‘find’ them again. They had evolved once, so it seemed that it must be possible to evolve them again. Like the lost chord, they haunted me. I wandered through Biomorph Land, moving through an endless landscape of strange creatures and things, but I couldn’t find my insects. I knew that they must be lurking there somewhere. I knew the genes from which the original evolution had started. I had a picture of my insects’ bodies. I even had a picture of the evolutionary sequence of bodies leading up to my insects by slow degrees from a dot ancestor. But I didn’t know their genetic formula.

  You might think that it would have been easy enough to reconstruct the evolutionary pathway, but it wasn’t. The reason, which I shall come back to, is the astronomical number of possible biomorphs that a sufficiently long evolutionary pathway can offer, even when there are only nine genes varying. Several times on my pilgrimage through Biomorph Land I seemed to come close to a precursor of my insects, but, then, in spite of my best efforts as a selecting agent, evolution went off on what proved to be a false trail. Eventually, during my evolutionary wanderings through Biomorph Land — the sense of triumph was scarcely less than on the first occasion — I finally cornered them again. I didn’t know (still don’t) if these insects were exactly the same as my original, ‘lost chords of Zarathustra’ insects, or whether they were superficially ‘convergent’ (see next chapter), but it was good enough. This time there was no mistake: I wrote down the genetic formula, and now I can ‘evolve’ insects whenever I want.

  Yes I am piling on the drama a bit, but there is a serious point being made. The point of the story is that even though it was I that programmed the computer, telling it in great detail what to do, nevertheless I didn’t plan the animals that evolved, and I was totally surprised by them when I first saw their precursors. So powerless was I to control the evolution that, even when I very much wanted to retrace a particular evolutionary pathway it proved all but impossible to do so. I don’t believe I would ever have found my insects again if I hadn’t had a printed picture of the complete set of their evolutionary precursors, and even then it was difficult and tedious. Does the powerlessness of the programmer to control or predict the course of evolution in the computer seem paradoxical? Does it mean that something mysterious, even mystical was going on inside the computer? Of course not. Nor is ther
e anything mystical going on in the evolution of real animals and plants. We can use the computer model to resolve the paradox, and learn something about real evolution in the process.

  To anticipate, the basis of the resolution of the paradox will turn out to be as follows. There is a definite set of biomorphs, each permanently sitting in its own unique place in a mathematical space. It is permanently sitting there in the sense that, if only you knew its genetic formula, you could instantly find it; moreover, its neighbours in this special kind of space are the biomorphs that differ from it by only one gene. Now that I know the genetic formula of my insects, I can reproduce them at will, and I can tell the computer to ‘evolve’ towards them from any arbitrary starting point. When you first evolve a new creature by artificial selection in the computer model, it feels like a creative process. So it is, indeed. But what you are really doing is finding the creature, for it is, in a mathematical sense, already sitting in its own place in the genetic space of Biomorph Land. The reason it is a truly creative process is that finding any particular creature is extremely difficult, simply and purely because Biomorph Land is very very large, and the total number of creatures sitting there is all but infinite. It isn’t feasible just to search aimlessly and at random. You have to adopt some more efficient — creative — searching procedure.