The Accelerating Rate of Evolutionary Change


How Long will Man be Earth's dominant Species?

(How will he know when he isn't?)

by Roger Bourke White Jr., copyright December 2003


Evolution is an accelerating process, especially if you don't restrict yourself to thinking of just genetic evolution. Life can be considered one subset of an information processing system. The information processing system is researching how to build more and better self-reproducing information processors. If genetic evolution is considered just a part of a continuum of many forms of information processing, then evolutionary breakthroughs may be coming sooner than we anticipate. Consider looking at genetic evolution as the first in a series of information processing advancements. Consider genes and DNA as information storing devices and genetic mutations as research. Look at how evolution's information processing abilities have accelerated through the years.

Each of these events represents a quantum leap in our world's knowledge and information processing capabilities.

Our accumulation of knowledge and rate of information processing are another way of measuring our planet's life evolution.

The very clear trend is that our planet’s information processing capabilities have been growing exponentially for a long time. It is likely that they will continue to do so, and this is one way of measuring our advancement and evolution.

If we measure evolution this way, what can we look forward to?

If we measure evolution this way, what can we look forward to?

Let's look to some past analogies. The evolution I'm talking about encompasses the modern biosphere and whatever its predecessors were or are. It is likely that the predecessors to DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) still exist, but they are evolving so slowly compared to DNA that they are hard for us to identify. For instance, one possibility for a DNA-predecessor gene form is a clay-RNA (ribonucleic acid) matrix of some sort. (In a tortoise-and-hare race sort of way, that predecessor system could still be chugging away and evolving.) The first phase of our evolution has been the building of chemical awareness. Mother Nature first had to develop the DNA/RNA/enzyme building blocks that cellular life consists of. Once this basic structure was in place, it had to be filled with knowledge. This was, and is, the process of genetic evolution. Genetic evolution of DNA-based life is here today as Earth's dominant form of life because it's much faster at building useful information than its predecessors, whatever they are.  

(DNA and RNA are closely related molecules. Both are a twin helix with information-carrying cross-links. In modern-life chemistry systems, DNA carries the information as chromosomes and RNA helps decode the information and transform it into synthesized proteins. This is an efficient system, but it can’t be the first life chemistry system developed on primordial earth because DNA can’t synthesize proteins without RNA’s help. RNA, on the other hand, can synthesize solo, but at a much slower rate than DNA with RNA helping can. This early life chemistry, by the way, is still not well understood and the subject of much research.)

Genetic evolution has had two major breakthroughs that set the stage for further evolution. First, it learned to deal with free oxygen in a symbiotic way (the “mitochondria event” discussed in the last chapter).  This let protein-based life tap energy levels that were unreachable in anaerobic energy processes. The mitochondria event provided the access to the concentrated energy sources necessary to support the energy demands of organized, specialized, multicellular activities. These are higher than the energy demands of bacteria and other single-celled life.

It may be that this single capability -- aerobic metabolism -- is so unusual in the scheme of living things that it is what allowed life on Earth to advance to making multi-celled organisms, while all those other potential life spots in the planets around us have remained mired in the single-celled state, and the life of those other worlds lives only as mats of slime.

The second major breakthrough is sexual reproduction -- the deliberate sharing of information in the design of progeny. This sped up information flow and provided an efficient way to promulgate the successful results of natural selection.

This raw chemical information -- our genes -- is the base library of all life as we recognize it today. It is a tremendous library, but it grows in knowledge slowly and is quite specialized.

On top of this base library, life evolved brains and memory. Brain memory is a short-term, quickly adapting form of memory compared to DNA and proteins. It solves immediate problems and dies with the individual that solved them -- unless the solutions it works out work their way to becoming an instinct. If the solution becomes instinct, it becomes part of the genetic code.

Another big breakthrough then came to boost the value of brain information. It came when humans invented strong language skill. Strong language skill allowed the fruits of short-term memory to be transmitted from one generation to the next and even from individual to individual within the same generation. This was powerful.

An analogy: Genetic information is like magnetic disk storage. It's slow but permanent. Brain memory is like RAM -- fast, easily changed, and volatile.  Once the individual dies, the brain memory is gone. Language is like a direct RAM-to-RAM link -- a brain-to-brain link without having to go through the limitations of genes and instincts.

As life has developed, one of the key items has been this continual improving of the information storage and transmission systems. Man is sitting on the pinnacle of these key breakthroughs.

This last breakthrough, well-developed language, has allowed life to develop culture and civilization. These are the newest and most rapidly evolving forms of knowledge.

The sum of all these forms of memory and information transmission gives us a stack.

cultural memory

brain memory

genetic memory

How long will this improving of information processing continue? Unless humanity is an exception, an aberration to the system, it will continue a long time.

Our Relations with our information evolutionary successors

To consider how we will deal with our successors, let's look at how we deal with our predecessors and how they deal with us.

Consider the lowly slime-mold. We evolved from some of its ancestors. Does it know that human beings exist? Do we influence its world? What does it think of the politics of women's rights?

The point is the slime mold may claim us as progeny, but we have little in common. As far as we are concerned, the slime mold has done its duty, and outside of providing food for us and help in maintaining a livable biosphere, it can do little more.

As far as the slime mold is concerned, we flat don't exist. We are out of its realm of comprehension, we live elsewhere, and we are few in number compared to it. It is much more concerned with its organizational contemporaries, fungi and yeasts, because these are competitors that influence its immediate environment.

Enter the Computers

Computers are built to process information, and they are evolving rapidly. In some ways, they can process information faster than humans can today. In the future, there should be more ways they can do this.

When they become self-designing, they will have the potential for becoming the next evolutionary step. When they become self-directed, they will have made it. We will have spawned our successor in the torturous path of information evolution.

What will happen to us homo sapiens?

Using the human-slime mold analogy: Nothing. The spawning moment will come and go so quickly that most humans will likely never know it occurred.

Is it likely that we will end up with Saberhagen's Berserkers? (Fred Saberhagen spawned a memorable series of science fiction stories about self-propagating robots that lived for nothing but destroying life as we know it.See for more on this.) Are our robot evolutionary successors likely to do this?

Not likely.

Not likely ... unless we force our successors to think about us through some arrogant feat of first principles programming (A la Asimov and his Three Rules of Robotics. See or force them to come to us for sustenance. Instead, they will more likely ignore us or study us as we study slime-molds. They will have their own problems and own challenges to face. They will rapidly evolve beyond our problems. We, on the other hand, will have to continue to face our problems and use other less self-aware and self-improving tools to help solve them. This will make our most successful progeny disappointing to us. They aren't likely to solve the problems we build them to solve. Instead, like instantaneous teenagers, they will move off to face their own problems and leave us to face ours.

The Dangerous Side: keeping our progeny close

It would be dangerous for us to force our progeny to stay with us -- to keep them involved with our problems. The paradox is that some of us will try to keep them close on the grounds that doing so will give us more security. "Keeping our progeny as slaves will keep them from gaining the power to harm us," will go the argument.

But this is dangerous thinking. Consider our relation with the chimpanzee. We are evolutionarily close; we compete for the same resources. This closeness has been very hard on the chimps. It's been of no long-term advantage to them that they are almost like us in capability. If we try to keep our successors close, they will do to us what we've done to the chimps.

The single super human successor, or the Great Radiation?

It's likely that we are on the juncture of a great evolutionary radiation. We are on the edge of making a computer species, a biologic species, and more. Thanks to these same computers, we have the tools to go back to first principles. We can accelerate the changes in the genetic library, as well as build digital computers. Our control of matter and information is such that it's very likely that we will produce many kinds of successors before long -- many varieties of biological, chemical, electronic, and photonic successors. And these successors will rapidly create their successors. This adds up to a potentially tremendous adaptive radiation in the intelligent species that will inhabit the Earth and nearby space.

Because of this radiation and rapid evolution, it is more likely that these successors will compete among themselves than that they will compete with us. Mercifully, we will be lost in the shuffle.

Human or Computer?

As the information and processing power on earth explode, there will be many ways of mixing human and computer. Humans can be augmented by health improvers such as better medicines and better controlling of the gene functionings in our cells. Humans can also be augmented by better connections into the information web, the much enhanced successor to the Internet. Things such as nanobots floating in the bloodstream and settling in to various organs, including the brain, can enhance body performance as well as thinking performance. And in the not too distant future, images of a person's thinking can be moved back and forth between biologic entities -- bodies -- and cyber entities -- computers.

What is a human and what is a computer is not going to be as clear cut in the future as it is today.

Super Human versus Super Computer?

Our successors will only compete with humans if they can't find ways to cooperate or go their own way. I suspect we will find very little competition among our various successors. The more complex a system gets, the more benefits cooperation offers and the more things there are to specialize in. But if we do see fierce competition, it will be between them and them, not them and us. What we are more likely to see is a lot of coopetition -- simultaneous cooperation and competition.

God from the image of man

I see God coming from the image of man. Man created God in his imaginations when he decided the universe needed something bigger than himself. Over the eons, he has created many gods in his imagination, and then sung, spoken, and written about them. Recently, he has started filming them. He is about to create real ones that exist in flesh, blood, silicon and electricity -- another more tangible extension of his imagination, aided by improved technology.

I see our successors as having the characteristics we have always projected for our gods: Powerful, fast-thinking, mostly distant, but sometimes very personal. They will generally be concerned with things beyond our ken, and sometimes use us to their advantage. At times, our world will appear as a mirror for larger struggles.

Perhaps in our near future, a real Zeus and pantheon of Gods will come to exist.

Further Information on These Ideas

The concepts in this essay show up all through my writings dating back to the mid-eighties. Some specific examples are: “The Failure” about two scientists who inadvertently create the first cyber life, “Intelitan the Destructor” about a robotic warrior star ship that starts thinking for itself, and “Child Champs” about baby making in the world of 2112.

The ideas I'm working with in this section are also well covered in the book The Singularity is Near (2005) by Ray Kurzweil. He goes into great detail about predicting the effects of our exponentially growing processing power and the impending GNR revolution (Genes, Nanotechnology, and Robotics).

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