The Robot's Rebellion


"While Stanovich, a cognitive scientist at the University of Toronto, agrees with the basic idea of the selfish gene, he finds fault with the conclusion that we are simply at its mercy. Drawing on recent research in cognitive science, he argues for an alternate conception of our relationship with our genes: we may be robots originally constructed as vehicles for genes, but our higher-level analytic reasoning abilities (themselves a product of evolution) enable us to rebel against our genetically programmed 'autonomous set of systems,' as well as the analogous cultural memes that infect our rational minds."—Publishers Weekly

An excerpt from
The Robot's Rebellion
Finding Meaning in the Age of Darwin
Keith E. Stanovich

We are in a period of history in which the assimilation of the insights of universal Darwinism will have many destabilizing effects on cultural life. Over the centuries, we have constructed many myths about human origins and the nature of the human mind. We have been making up stories about who we are and why we exist. Now, in a break with this historical trend, we may at last be on the threshold of a factual understanding of humankind's place within nature. However, attaining such an understanding requires first the explosion of the myths we have created, an explosion that will surely cause us some cognitive distress. This is because the only escape route from the untoward implications of Darwinism is through science itself—by adopting an unflinching view about what the theory of natural selection means. Once we adopt such an unflinching attitude, however, the major thesis of this book is heartening. It is that certain underdeveloped implications of findings in the human sciences of cognitive psychology, decision theory, and neuroscience can reveal coherent ways to reconcile the human need for meaning with the Darwinian view of life.

Why Jerry Falwell Is Right

In his book, Darwin's Dangerous Idea, Dennett (1995) argued that Darwin's idea of evolution by natural selection was the intellectual equivalent of a universal acid: "it eats through just about every traditional concept, and leaves in its wake a revolutionized world-view, with most of the old landscape still recognizable, but transformed in fundamental ways" (63). In short, the shock waves from Darwinism have only begun to be felt, and we have yet to fully absorb the destabilizing insights that evolutionary science contains.

One way to appreciate that we have insufficiently processed the implications of Darwinism is to note that people who oppose the Darwinian view most vociferously are those who most clearly recognize its status as the intellectual equivalent of universal acid. For example, the adherents of fundamentalist religions are actually correct in thinking that the idea of evolution by natural selection will destroy much that they view as sacred—that, for instance, a fully comprehended evolutionary theory will threaten the very concept of soul.

In short, it is the middle-of-the-road believers—the adherents of so-called liberal religions—who have it wrong. Those who think they know what natural selection entails but have failed to perceive its darker implications make several common misinterpretations of Darwinism. Tellingly, each of the errors has the effect of making Darwinism a more palatable doctrine by obscuring (or in some cases even reversing) its more alarming implications. For example, the general public continues to believe in the discredited notion of evolutionary progress, this despite the fact that Stephen Jay Gould (1989, 1996, 2002) has persistently tried to combat this error in his numerous and best-selling books. An important, but misguided, component of this view is the belief that humans are the inevitable pinnacle of evolution ("king of the hill ... top of the heap" as the old song goes). Despite the efforts of Gould to correct this misconception, it persists. As Gould constantly reminds us, we are a contingent fact of history, and things could have ended up otherwise—that is, some other organism could have become the dominating influence on the planet.

There is, however, another misconception about evolution that is much more focal to the theme of this book. This misconception is the notion that we have genes "in order for the species to survive" or the related idea that we have genes, basically, "so that we can reproduce ourselves." The idea in the first case is somehow that the genes are doing something for the species or, in the second, doing something for us—as individuals. Both forms of this idea have the genes serving our purposes. The time bomb in Richard Dawkins's famous book, The Selfish Gene, a time bomb that is as yet not fully exploded, is that the actual facts are just the opposite: We were constructed to serve the interests of our genes, not the reverse. The popular notion—that genes "are there to make copies of us"—is 180 degrees off. We are here so that the genes can make copies of themselves! They are primary, we (as people) are secondary. The reason we exist is because it once served their ends to create us.

In fact, a moment's thought reveals the "genes are there to make copies of us" notion to be a nonstarter. We don't make copies of ourselves at all, but genes do. Obviously, our consciousness is not replicated in our children, so there is no way we perpetuate our selfhood in that sense. We pass on half a random scramble of our genes to our children. By the fifth generation, our genetic overlap with descendants is down to one thirty-second and often undetectable at the phenotypic level. Dawkins's discussion of the misconception behind the "our genes are there to copy us" fallacy is apt. He argues that, instead, "we are built as gene machines, created to pass on our genes. But that aspect of us will be forgotten in three generations. Your child, even your grandchild, may bear a resemblance to you.…But as each generation passes, the contribution of your genes is halved. It does not take long to reach negligible proportions. Our genes may be immortal, but the collection of genes that is any of us is bound to crumble away. Elizabeth II is a direct descendant of William the Conqueror. Yet it is quite probable that she bears not a single one of the old king's genes. We should not seek immortality in reproduction" (199).

Our bodies are built by a unique confederation of genes—a confederation unlikely to come together in just that way again. This is an uplifting prospect from the standpoint of appreciating our own uniqueness, but a disappointing prospect to those who think that genes exist in order to reproduce us. We cannot assuage our feelings of mortality with the thought that somehow genes are helping us "copy ourselves." Instead, shockingly, mind-bogglingly, mortifyingly, we are here to help the genes in their copying process—we exist so that they can replicate. To use Dawkins's phrase, it is the genes who are the immortals—not us.

This is the intellectual hand grenade lobbed by Dawkins into popular culture, and the culture has not even begun to digest its implications. One reason its assimilation has been delayed is that even those who purport to believe in evolution by natural selection have underestimated how much of a conceptual revolution is entailed by a true acceptance of the implications of universal Darwinism. For example, one way that the issue is often framed in popular discussions is by contrasting science (in the guise of evolutionary theory) with religion (Raymo 1999) and then framing the issue as one of compatibility (of a scientific worldview and a religious one) versus incompatibility. Adherents of liberal religions tend to be compatibilists—they are eager to argue that science and religion can be reconciled. Fundamentalists are loath to go this far because they want the latter to trump the former.

There is an odd and ironic way in which religious fundamentalists are seeing things more clearly here. It is believers in evolution who have failed to see the dangers inherent in the notion of universal Darwinism. What are those dangers? Turning first to the seemingly obvious, the evolution of humans by processes of natural selection means that humans were not specially designed by God or any other deity. It means that there was no purpose to the emergence of humans. It means that there are no inherently "higher" or "lower" forms of life (see Gould 1989, 1996, 2002; Sterelny 2001a). Put simply, one form of life is as good as another.

Secondly, there is the issue of the frightening purposelessness of evolution caused by the fact that it is an algorithmic process (Dennett 1995). An algorithm is just a set of formal steps (i.e., a recipe) necessary for solving a particular problem. We are familiar with algorithms in the form of computer programs. Evolution is just an algorithm executing not on a computer but in nature. Following a logic as simple as the simplest of computer programs (replicate those entities that survive a selection process), natural selection algorithmically—mechanically and mindlessly—builds structures as complex as the human brain (see Dawkins 1986, 1996).

Many people who think that they believe in evolution fail to think through the implications of a process that is algorithmic—mechanical, mindless, and purposeless. But George Bernard Shaw perceived these implications in 1921 when he wrote: "It seems simple, because you do not at first realize all that it involves. But when its whole significance dawns on you, your heart sinks into a heap of sand within you. There is a hideous fatalism about it, a ghastly and damnable reduction of beauty and intelligence, of strength and purpose, of honor and aspiration" (xl). I am not saying that Shaw is right in his conclusion—only that he correctly perceives a threat to his worldview in Darwinism. Indeed, I do not think that beauty and intelligence are reduced in the Darwinian view, and I will explain why in chapter 8. The important thing here though is the part that Shaw gets right. He correctly sees the algorithmic nature of evolution. An algorithmic process could be characterized as fatalistic, and, because this algorithm concerned life, Shaw found it hideous.

I believe that Shaw is wrong to draw this conclusion, but for reasons that he could never have foreseen. There is an escape from the "hideous fatalism" that he sees (read on to see what I view as the escape hatch and the cognitive science concepts necessary to activate the escape hatch). However, Shaw is at least generically right that full acceptance of Darwin's insights will necessitate revisions in the classical view of personhood, individuality, self, meaning, human significance, and soul. These concepts will not necessarily be reduced in the manner Shaw suggests, but radical restructuring will be required—a reconstruction I will at least begin to sketch in this book.

We have—living as we do in a scientific society—no choice but to accept Darwin's insights because there is no way we can enjoy the products of science without accepting the destabilizing views of humans in the universe that science brings in its wake. There is no sign that society will ever consider giving up the former—we continue to gobble up the DVDs, cheap food, MRI machines, computers, mobile phones, designer vegetables, Goretex clothing, and jumbo jets that science provides. Thus, it is inevitable that concepts of meaning, personhood, and soul will continue to be destabilized by the knock-on effects of what science reveals about the nature of life, the brain, consciousness, and other aspects of the world that form the context for our assumptions about the nature of human existence. The conceptual insights of Darwinism travel on the back of a scientific technology that people want, and some of the insights that ride along with the technologies are deeply disturbing.

The mistake that moderate religious believers in evolution make (as do many people holding nonreligious worldviews as well) is that they assume that science is only going to take half a loaf—leaving all our transcendental values untouched. Universal Darwinism, however, will not stop at half the loaf—a fact that religious fundamentalists sense better than moderates. Darwinism is indeed the universal acid—notions of natural selection as an algorithmic process will dissolve every concept of purpose, meaning, and human significance if not trumped by other concepts of equal potency. But concepts of equal potency must, in the twenty-first century, be grounded in science, not the religious mythology of a vanished prescientific age. I think that such concepts do exist and will spend most of this book articulating them. But the first step is to let the universal acid work its destructive course. We must see what the bedrock is that science has left us to build on once the acid has removed all of the superficial and ephemeral structures.

The Replicators and the Vehicles

In order to cut through the obfuscation that surrounds evolutionary theory and to let the universal acid do its work, I will make use of the evocative language that Dawkins used in The Selfish Gene—language for which he was criticized, but language that will help to jolt us into the new worldview that results from a full appreciation of the implications of our evolutionary origins. What we specifically need from Dawkins is his terminology, his conceptual distinction between the replicators and the vehicles, and his way of explicating the logic of evolution. The technical details of the evolutionary model used are irrelevant for our purposes here. Dawkins's popular summary will do, and I will rely on it here. No dispute about the details of the process has any bearing on any of the conceptual arguments in this book.

The story goes something like this. Although evolutionary theorists still argue about the details, all agree that at some point in the history of the primeval soup of chemical components that existed on Earth, there emerged the stable molecules that Dawkins called the replicators—molecules that made copies of themselves. Replicators became numerous to the extent that they displayed copying-fidelity, fecundity, and longevity—that is, copied themselves accurately, made a lot of copies, and were stable. Proto-carnivores then developed that broke up rival molecules and used their components to copy themselves. Other replicators developed protective coatings of protein to ward off "attacks" from such carnivores. Still other replicators survived and propagated because they developed more elaborate containers in which to house themselves.

Dawkins called the more elaborate containers in which replicators housed themselves vehicles. It is these vehicles that interact with the environment, and the differential success of the vehicles in interacting with the environment determines the success of the replicators that they house. Of course it must be stressed that success for a replicator means nothing more than increasing its proportion among competitor replicators. In short, replicators are entities that pass on their structure relatively intact after copying. Vehicles are entities that interact with the environment and whose differential success in dealing with the environment leads to differential copying success among the replicators they house.

This is why Dawkins calls vehicles "survival machines" for the replicators, and then drops his bombshell by telling us that:

survival machines got bigger and more elaborate, and the process was cumulative and progressive.…What weird engines of self-preservation would the millennia bring forth? Four thousand million years on, what was to be the fate of the ancient replicators? They did not die out, for they are past masters of the survival arts. But do not look for them floating loose in the sea; they gave up their freedom long ago. Now they swarm in huge colonies, safe inside gigantic lumbering robots, sealed off from the outside world, communicating with it by tortuous indirect routes, manipulating it by remote control. They are in you and in me; they created us, body and mind; and their preservation is the ultimate rationale for our existence. They have come a long way those replicators. Now they go by the name of genes, and we are their survival machines. (1976, 19-20)

Our genes are replicators. We are their vehicles. This is why—as I stressed earlier—a critical insight from modern evolutionary theory is that humans exist because they made good vehicles for copying genes. To think the reverse—that genes exist in order to make copies of us—is, as Dawkins notes, "an error of great profundity" (237). But in fact most people tend to make just this error when thinking about evolution. Even among biologists, it can become a default mode of thinking in unreflective moments because "the individual organism came first in the biologist's consciousness, while the replicators—now known as genes—were seen as part of the machinery used by individual organisms. It requires a deliberate mental effort to turn biology the right way up again, and remind ourselves that the replicators come first, in importance as well as in history" (265).

In short, the ultimate purpose of humans in nature is to serve as complicated survival machines for the current replicators—the genes. At this, we rightly recoil in horror.

But to say that in some sense this is the ultimate reason that humans exist does not mean that we must continue to play the role of survival machines. There is an escape hatch. The lumbering robots that are humans can escape the clutches of the selfish replicators. And when you truly understand the implications of this imagery you certainly will want an escape hatch. Dawkins admits to being mind-boggled himself about what an extraordinary insight evolution by natural selection is from the gene's-eye view: "We are survival machines—robot vehicles blindly programmed to preserve the selfish molecules known as genes. This is a truth which still fills me with astonishment. Though I have known it for years, I never seem to get fully used to it. One of my hopes is that I may have some success in astonishing others" (v). And it does indeed astonish. Conjure, if you will, "independent DNA replicators, skipping like chamois, free and untrammeled down the generations, temporarily brought together in throwaway survival machines, immortal coils shuffling off an endless succession of mortal ones. ... A body doesn't look like the product of a loose and temporary federation of warring genetic agents who hardly have time to get acquainted before embarking in sperm or egg for the next leg of the great genetic diaspora" (234).

So that, in short, is the horror: We are survival machines built by mindless replicators—the result of an algorithm called natural selection. And we will not escape the horror by looking away from it, by turning our heads, by hoping the monster will go away like little children. We will only escape the horror—or find a way to mitigate it—by inquiring of cognitive science and neuroscience just what kind of survival machine a human is.

Of course, terms like robot are used to trigger associations that cut against the ingrained intuitions in our folk psychologies—for example, the assumption that the genes are there in service of the goals of people. Instead, we need to get clear that humans are here because constructing vehicles (of which there are thousands of different types in the plant and animal worlds—humans are just one type) served the reproductive goals of the replicators.

In this book I have deliberately chosen to employ the provocative terms used by Dawkins (e.g., vehicle, survival machine) because I do not want to take the edge off the evolutionary insights that the language evokes. Only if we are able to hold on to these alternative insights and appreciate how disturbing they are will we be motivated to undertake the cognitive reform efforts that I advocate in this book. For example, biological philosopher David Hull and others prefer the term interactor to the term vehicle because the latter connotes passivity and seems to minimize the causal agency of the organism itself (compared with the replicators). The term interactor is thought to better convey the active agency and autonomy of organisms. I completely agree that the term interactor is more apt in this strict sense, but I will continue to use the term vehicle here because it conveys the disturbing logic by which evolutionary theory inverts our view of the world by deflating the special position of humans within it. More importantly for my purposes, the term vehicle more clearly conveys the challenges facing humans as they more fully recognize the implications of their biological origins. One of the themes of this book is that humans are at risk of being passive conduits for the interests and goals of their genes if they do not recognize the logic of their origins as vehicles for mindless replicators. The term vehicle, with its pejorative connotations when used in the context of humans, throws down the challenge that I feel is necessary to motivate efforts at cognitive reform.

It is likewise with the use of the terms survival machine and robot. They are also used deliberately and provocatively to spawn disturbing intuitions—intuitions that we will seek to escape. To the extent that these disturbing intuitions prod us into necessary cognitive reforms, then such terms are useful because they help us sustain these disturbing intuitions. For example, in a famous phrase, Dawkins noted that humans are the only vehicles that could rebel against the dictates of the selfish replicators. If humans can be conceptualized as survival machines—lumbering robots built by replicators and evolved via natural selection—they are the only such survival machine to have ever contemplated fomenting a rebellion against the replicators. In the tradition of Dawkins, I will use the term "robot's rebellion" to refer to the package of evolutionary insights and cognitive reforms that will lead humans to transcend the limited interests of the replicators and define their own autonomous goals.


Copyright notice: Excerpt from pages 4-11 of The Robot's Rebellion: Finding Meaning in the Age of Darwin by Keith E. Stanovich, published by the University of Chicago Press. ©2004 by the University of Chicago. All rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of U.S. copyright law, and it may be archived and redistributed in electronic form, provided that this entire notice, including copyright information, is carried and provided that the University of Chicago Press is notified and no fee is charged for access. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the consent of the University of Chicago Press.

Keith E. Stanovich
The Robot's Rebellion: Finding Meaning in the Age of Darwin
©2004, 374 pages, 9 figures, 2 tables
Cloth $27.50 ISBN: 0-226-77089-3
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