Wednesday, April 1, 2015
Take the BS by the Horns
Today while I was on my break at work, I sat in the wrong place, surrounded by conversations that distracted and annoyed me, but there wasn't another suitable place for me to sit. It didn't help that I'm currently reading a novel that I'm very ambivalent about, which I may write about some other time. That ambivalence made it even harder to concentrate.
Just a couple of feet away from me, two undergraduates were having an animated conversation about artificial intelligence and its implications. "If you really believe in evolution," said one, "you have to believe that computers are going to get smarter and smarter until they're smarter than humans." And so on, in that vein. I gave up trying to concentrate on my book and spoke to them. Computers, I told them, like culture, don't "evolve" according to Darwinian theory: they "evolve" according to Lamarckism, the transmission of acquired traits. They acknowledged me, I shut up and went back to trying to read, though I continued to be distracted by their conversation. The kid who'd talked about computers evolving said he knew about evolutionary psychology, and then chuckled, saying that he'd read a textbook. His friend asked what his major was, and he replied Informatics, Philosophy, and something else.
I went back to work a few minutes early since I couldn't concentrate on my reading and couldn't give the kid the dope slap he so clearly needed. It suddenly dawned me that Lamarckianism wasn't the proper way to think about computers. The proper way was Creationism. I'd remembered a science fiction story by James Morrow, "Spelling God with the Wrong Blocks," that I read about twenty years ago:* Two science missionaries travel to a planet inhabited by androids, the product of an experiment many years earlier by some sociobiologists at Harvard. The androids use Charles Darwin's The Origin of Species and The Descent of Man as sacred scripture, and accordingly believe that they evolved, like every other living thing. The missionaries, scandalized, tell the androids that they didn't evolve, they were created. Unwilling to tolerate heresy, the androids execute the missionaries.
The story is a satire, with numerous targets. But how odd that I encountered a real-life devotee of the same cult, who believes that computers evolve like organisms, rather than being created like artifacts. From other things I've read, I know he's not alone. Indeed, my university has harbored one of the cult's prophets.
*"Spelling God with the Wrong Blocks" can be found in Morrow's collection Bible Stories for Adults, Harvest Books, 1996.