Evolution is the designer of black boxes.
For thousands of years the origins of life on Earth have perplexed thinkers of all disciplines. It was originally believed that the life on Earth was held together not by science but by tradition: all things in the universe, from humans to raindrops were the creation of God. This belief is known as the trickle-down theory of evolution or a top-down design.
But by far the scientist who has made the greatest contribution to the theory of evolution is Charles Darwin. Darwin’s theory by natural selection united the realm of physics and mechanism on the one hand with the realm of meaning and purpose on the other – that all life on Earth originated through one common ancestor some billion years ago, all tying back to bacteria. We, humans, show up 60+ million years later as a result of biological evolution through the process of natural selection and other natural processes whereby living things have diversified, branching from one species into many.
Despite evolution is purposeless, mindless and lacking in foresight, it is also a brilliant designer.
In order to make a perfect and beautiful machine, it is not requisite to know how to make it
– Robert Beverley MacKenzie, 1868
Natural selection creates for brilliant design as seen in predator-prey communication. There are reasons behind this design, but both organisms do not need to understand. Competence without comprehension can be seen in both organisms in the natural world (Darwin’s Theory of Evolution) and machines in the technological world (Turing’s theory of universal computation). Both organisms (evolved) and machines (designed) can do remarkable things, without comprehension of what or how they do what they do.
According to Darwin, through a strange inversion of reasoning, a process with no intelligence, no comprehension was nonetheless capable of all the achievements of creative skill. Fast forward many years later, Alan Turing, widely considered to be the father of theoretical computer science and artificial intelligence also echoes this same view:
It is possible to invent a single machine which can be used to compute any computable sequence. In order to be a perfect and beautiful computing machine, it is not requisite to know what arithmetic is.
What makes us human is our ability to reason. Therefore, human culture is the second great evolution – the coming together of two independently evolved competencies to suddenly create an amazing thing. Daniel Dennett refers to us, humans, as ‘apes with infected brains”. We are the byproduct of many billion years of genetic mutations, yet we have evolved to be competent with comprehension. What we are – is made of several hundred billion cell neurons in our brains. Think – a bit of nano-engineering that does all kinds of interesting work! The brain has trillions of moving parts – it’s mindless and that’s what we’re essentially made of.
Our cultural revolution has evolved into designed thinking tools that impose novel structures into our brains, making us into virtual machines; thinking tools which are made of information – such as habits, language / words, techniques (e.g. English vocabulary memory to recognise phonics), software (learning), etc. Our brain therefore consists of informational structures that enhance the powers, such as the likes of the Turing machine, which is between our ears. These bits, this technology, have redesigned our brains into human minds.
So, did our minds evolve to make us smart enough to invent culture, or did culture evolve to make us smart enough to have minds? Which came first, intelligence (top-down) or culture (bottom-up)?
Intelligent design: Being alive is not a prerequisite for evolution.
Let’s look at a virus – it doesn’t have a mind, it is absolutely ignorant but it has an amazing competence to replicate itself. A virus exists in a grey area between living and non-living. The categorisation of viruses as non-living during much of the modern era of biological science has had an unintended consequence: it has led most researchers to ignore viruses in the study of evolution. But if we were to refer back to Darwin’s Theory of Evolution, a virus is pretty similar to natural selection. If successful, copy it. Viruses, similar to humans are made from data structures, which are made of information.