The Selfish Gene

200px-The_Selfish_Gene3Another book that is a must, “The selfish Gene“, first published in 1976 and written by Richard Dawkins. It is a good perspective on the beginning of life on earth. The way to describe it as replicator machines that fight for resources is perfect.

Everyone knows the second law of thermodynamics, right? In a natural thermodynamic process, there is an increase in the sum of the entropies of the participating systems. This basically means that the state of “confusion” of a system will increase in time. It explains why your house is such a mess if you don’t do anything about it! And yet, out of this chaos, life emerged. Isn’t that amazing? Life is about information, structure, organization… Exactly the opposite of the second law of thermodynamics.

So these replicator machines were organizing materials and replicating themselves. They were saving information about their structure for the replication process. They didn’t care about the second law of thermodynamics.

And they were getting better and better doing this until resources started to be scarce. So they developed new strategies, some were stilling materials from other replicator machines, some were protecting themselves from being stolen. These new machine functionality and properties were saved inside them for the future generations. The saving process was the predecessor of our genes. But then something even mode amazing happened! They started developing brains. Why? Well, brains do the same thing as the whole evolution process was doing but much faster. They can save information about survival tactics much much faster. So brains appeared as a powerful tool to help synchronize the more complex structure of these replicator machines so they could be more successful.

But brains have a major drawback, its information is lost when the replicator machine is destructed. To optimize survival of a replicator with a brain, this information must be broadcasted to other machines. That’s why brains are hard wired to detect identical machines and imitate its behavior, imitation being the best way to store this new information. This is how information is transmitted between generations. We need to learn fast. But that’s another story.

So I was saying, brains are getting better and better, at this point the replicator machines are multi-cell complex machines called animals, one animal family developed a new system in the brain, what we call the cortex. These specialized brain cells are a huge advantage over the previous brain structure, they are more efficient predicting the future. Not like a crystal ball, but an animal equipped with a cortex is much better doing things like: ah, I’ve seen this scenario before and my friend got eaten, so I’m not going that way.

And this keeps getting better and better! In some brains there is a new structure we call neocortex. Think of it as the cortex++. One animal species in particular has lots of it, they are called humans. Now that type of animal can go much further in the process of storing information, processing it and taking decisions. This description from Ray Kurzweil is very good: “… understand a structure composed of diverse elements arranged in a pattern, representing that arrangement with a symbol, and then using that symbol as an element in a yet more elaborate configuration”. In brief they can extract a concept out of a complex system and work over this concept to create completely new stuff.

If you are reading this you are most likely part of this human species, as I do. We all have this neocortex hypertrophy issue that makes us believe we are very smart.  Its ok to think that way… but lets not get carried away. We need to understand what we really are: Programmable sequential machines. We process information. Stored information. Then we make decisions on that stored information. That’s all. If the information is bad, the decisions are bad. If we lack information, decisions are bad too. This leads us to obvious conclusions such as, we should spend all time possible collecting good information in order to improve our decisions.

This understanding of our brain’s workings and limitations is improving in recent years and I believe it will lead to another human revolution, comparable to the original “Human Revolution“. It will definitely separate us from one of the first rules in the origin of life: eat or be eaten. If we manage to make this new revolution happen then maybe human species is a viable species after all…!

This book also introduced the term “meme“. A meme is the equivalent of a gene, from a brain’s perspective. It replicates from brain to brain the same way a gene replicates in the physical world.

PS: This is an interesting article about the cortex.

Author: pedro_nf

Independent contractor on IT solutions and automation

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