Skynet Is Us
How biology is more sophisticated than Hollywood scriptwriters
On Sunday 7th June as I was walking up through Lausanne on the way to the gym, I saw evolution in action.
I didn’t realize the fact immediately, because from ground-level it’s not obvious when something radically new is occurring even when it’s happening right in front of our eyes.
Here was the obvious phenomenon: a large group of earnest people all dressed in black were congregating in the Place de Riponne. They were eagerly virtue-signaling, waving placards demanding an end to police brutality.
I was initially puzzled by this, because although no nation’s police force is one-hundred-percent perfect, the Swiss police come pretty close, as do those of the Scandinavian countries, the Netherlands, and Germany. The last seemingly overt case of racist-inspired police aggression in Switzerland occurred back in 2014. So protesting against police racism and brutality in Switzerland is a bit like people in Iceland protesting about the scorching hot winters they have to endure, or Trump supporters complaining that their average IQ is too high.
Perhaps these earnest folk were protesting against police brutality in the USA, but not a single sign indicated that. Nor would such a protest have made any sense because no one in the USA is going to pay any attention to a demonstration in Switzerland. Indeed, 95% of US citizens can’t even locate Switzerland on a map. So on an a priori basis the demonstration made no sense.
And then I realized the phenomenon had nothing to do with the nominal cause at all. I realized I was seeing evolution occurring in front of me.
To explain what I mean, we need to step back to a quick sketch of the origins and subsequent development of life on Earth.
While the Victorian definition of life went something along the lines of “it respires and it reproduces” it’s become apparent that this is a very poor basis for understanding anything. A virus doesn’t respire but no one could claim that a virus can’t reproduce. So perhaps a more adequate definition of life is a self-organizing physical system that propagates.