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Big Data: The New Replicators

April 2, 2013, 12:57 PM

Charles Darwin and Richard Dawkins may never have envisioned the current era of Big Data, but their shared fundamental principle – "all life evolves by the differential survival of replicating entities" – may also apply to the new exponential proliferation of 1’s and 0’s in the digital universe. Is there any reason why data - just like ideas, fashions, behaviors, catch-phrases and other mind memes - can not also replicate and evolve, actively looking for ways to propagate themselves in the world? Viewed from this perspective, our computers and digital devices are nothing more than "survival machines" for Big Data -- a mechanism for individual bits of data in the primordial soup of human knowledge to transmit themselves to future generations.

Selfish Gene

That line of thought is just one reason why The Selfish Gene, the groundbreaking 1976 work by Richard Dawkins, was so provocative -- Dawkins suggested that humans were just "survival machines" for our genes - humans were not running the whole evolutionary process, it was our genes. Genes were "selfish" -- they wanted to replicate and survive, and all evolution took place at the genetic level. The other reason the book turned so many heads was because, in chapter 11 ("Memes: the new replicators"), Dawkins made the (at the time) outlandish suggestion that there were other replicators out there that had nothing to do with DNA, stuff that we had never ever thought of as replicators -- like ideas and fashions and language:

"For more than three thousand million years, DNA has been the only replicator worth talking about in the world. But it does not necessarily hold these monopoly rights for all time. Whenever conditions arise in which a new kind of replicator can make copies of itself, the new replicators will tend to take over, and start a kind of evolution of their own."

The word he used to describe this new type of replicator - meme - was a clever linguistic way to establish the link between cultural evolution and genetic evolution. If data represents a new form of replicator, it would function much like the cultural meme, in that it would "parasitize the brain."

Once you've seen a long string of 1's and 0's, there can be little or no doubt that data is capable of replicating at a faster rate than anything we know about in the universe. In the language of Richard Dawkins, data has amazing "copying fidelity." In the case of Big Data, this means that replication can occur at an exponential rate. We are literally drowning in zettabytes of data.

So who's in control now -- humans struggling with a massive influx of data in their lives, or Big Data, which has found a way to propagate exponentially? Until now, the narrative has been that smart humans program dumb machines, which in turn crunch the even dumber data. Now that we've entered the era of Big Data, the data may end up controlling us. The data - by following the inexorable rule of nature outlined by Charles Darwin - may be "smarter" than we thought. 

Where things become both exciting and creepy is if the data replicators (data memes) become truly "selfish" and start to challenge the classic genetic replicators (genes). It's not just that Big Data wants to become Bigger, it's that it may eventually want to out-compete our genetic material. As Dawkins pointed out in The Selfish Gene:

"Once this evolution begins, it will in no necessary sense be subservient to the old. The old gene-selected evolution, by making brains, provided the soup in which the first memes arose. Once self-copying memes had arisen, their own, much faster, kind of evolution took off. We biologists have assimilated the idea of genetic evolution so deeply that we tend to forget that it is only one of many possible kinds of evolution."

In short, the evolution of data (1's and 0's) may soon challenge the evolution of our own human DNA. Concepts like Juan Enriquez's "Life Code" already hint at a future in which our human DNA is expressed as a cascading row of digital bits. That's when we may see a true survival of the fittest, in which the 1's and 0's of Big Data compete with the 1's and 0's of our genetic DNA for supremacy. If, as Dawkins suggested, humans are just "survival machines" for our genes and memes - we better find out a way for us to remain useful for all the Big Data currently propagating in the digital universe, or all those digital bits may decide that they don't need us anymore.


image: Encrypted data of DNA molecule / Shutterstock


Big Data: The New Replicators

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