The 21st Century's Most Important Idea... & Older Natural Algorithmic Forces

Evolution exists and exerts itself in a different way than gravity does... because natural selection is an "algorithmic force." 

Illustration by Julia Suits, The New Yorker cartoonist & author of The Extraordinary Catalog of Peculiar Inventions


1. “The 21st century will be dominated by algorithms,” says Yuval Harari. That makes “‘algorithm’ arguably the single most important concept in our world.”

2. He’s almost right. Natural algorithms have ruled every century with life in it. He means unnatural algorithms (which have been called "weaponized math") now matter.

3. Daniel Dennett says, “Darwin discovered the fundamental algorithm of evolution.” Of course Darwin couldn’t have seen natural selection as algorithmic, but technomorphic analogies to our unnatural computers mean we’re beginning to recognize “algorithmic forces.”

4. For instance, Gregory Chaitin says, “the origin of life is really the origin of software,” and “DNA is multibillion-year-old software.”

5. Algorithms are sequences of step-by-step instructions for complex processes (like recipes, or software). They describe how dumber sub-steps compose complex tasks.

6. Evolution’s survival-of-the-fittest algorithm is very loosely “survive, replicate with variation, repeat.”

7. Out of that dumb process-logic arises all the intelligence and complexity of all living systems. Including what Dennett calls “competence without comprehension.”

8. Consider “termite castles” that look like a monumental Gaudí church. Termites collectively have the competence to build complex castles without comprehending what they’re doing. Smart-seeming higher-level competence and complexity are caused by following dumb lower-level steps.

9. Here, it’s worth noting that evolution exists in a different way than gravity (they differ ontologically). Both cause changes in the world, but forces like gravity operate directly via intrinsic physical properties (having simple algebraic relationships), but evolution is a complex “algorithmic force“ (that emerges and operates indirectly, systemically).

10. Algorithmic forces exist and exert their powers in systemic and relational ways; they’re not driven by isolatable and intrinsic traits. They require sequential steps, and are built from iterative if-then-else logic.

11. Another way to say this is that algo-forces are driven by richer information processes than physical forces. In physics a few isolatable numeric variables (like electric charge) capture the relevant phenomena. But abstract (imagined) attributes like “fitness” in biology can’t be measured (and don’t exist) in isolation from their context.

12. Evolution’s natural algorithm ran for ~4 billion years to generate us. But Harari’s human-generated unnatural algorithms (the kinetic logic built into our culture and technology) are now shaping the biosphere (see the anthropocene era).

13. That puts us in the termite role. We’re building complex higher-level collective structures that we neither intend nor understand. (That’s why we’re facing a global marshmallow test, and why “mindless market” algorithms make musical toilets while people starve.)

14. Evolution and economics are both driven by algo-forces. They’re both in the “productivity selection” business, but the currently dominant profit-maximization algorithm often isn’t prudent (or survivable).

-- 

Illustration by Julia SuitsThe New Yorker cartoonist & author of The Extraordinary Catalog of Peculiar Inventions

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