Vernor Vinge, Department of Mathematical Sciences, San Diego State University
© 1996 by Vernor Vinge (This article may be reproduced for noncommercial purposes if it is copied in its entirety, including this notice.)
The original version of this article was prepared for the 1996 British National Science Fiction Convention (Evolution).
The notion of evolution has frightening undertones. The benevolent view of Mother Nature in many children's nature films often seems a thin facade over an unending story of pain and death and betrayal. For many, the basic idea behind evolution is that one creature succeeds at the expense of another, and that death without offspring is the price of failure. In the human realm, this is often the explanation for the most egregious personal and national behavior. This view percolates even into our humor. When someone commits an extreme folly and is fatally thumped for it, we sometimes say, “Hey, just think of it as evolution in action.”
In fact, these views of evolution are very limited ones. At best they capture one small aspect of the enormous field of emergent phenomena. They miss a paradigm for evolution that predates Lord Tennyson's “bloody in tooth and claw” by thousands of million years. And they miss a paradigm that has appeared in just the last three centuries, one that may become spectacularly central to our world.
Long before humankind, before the higher animals and even the lower ones, there were humbler creatures … the bacteria. These are far too small to see, smaller than even the single-celled eukaryotes like amoebas and paramecia. When most people think of bacteria at all, they think of rot and disease. More dispassionately, people think of bacteria as utterly primitive: “they don't have sex”, “they don't have external organization”, “they don't have cellular nuclei”.
Certainly, I am happy to be a human and not a bacterium! And yet, in the bacteria we have a novelty and a power that are awesome. At the same time most folk proclaim the bacteria's primitive nature, they also complain of the bacteria's ability to evolve around our antibiotics. (And alas, this ability is so effective that what was in the 1950s and 1960s a medical inconvenience is becoming an intense struggle to sustain our antibiotic advantage, to avoid what Science magazine has called the “post anti-microbial era”.) The bacteria have a different paradigm for evolution than the one we naively see in the murderous behavior of metazoans.
The bacteria do not have sex as we know it, but they do have something much more efficient: the ability to exchange genetic material among themselves – across an immensely broad range of bacterial types. Bacteria compete and consume one another, but just as often both losers and winners contribute genetic information to later solutions. Though bacteria are correctly called a Kingdom of Life, the boundary between their “species” is nearly invisible. One might better regard their Kingdom as a library, containing some 4000 million years of solutions. Some of the solutions have not been dominant for a very long time. The strictly anaerobic bacteria were driven from the open surface almost 2000 million years ago, when free oxygen poisoned their atmosphere. The thermophilic bacteria survive in near-boiling water. Millions of less successful (or currently unsuccessful) solutions hide in niches around the planet. The Kingdom's Library has some very musty, unlit corners, but the lore is not forgotten: the Kingdom is a vast search and retrieval engine, creating new solutions from the bacteria's ability for direct transfer of genetic information. This is the engine which we with our tiny computers and laboratories are up against when we talk airily of “acquired antibiotic resistance”. For the bacteria, evolution is a competition in which little is ever lost, and yet solutions are found. (I recommend the books of Lynn Margulis for a knowledgeable discussion of this point of view. Margulis is a world-class microbiologist whose writing is both clear and eloquent.)
For the most part, we metazoans have a strong sense of self. More, we have a very strong sense of boundary – where our Self ends and the Otherness begins. It is this sense of self and of boundary that makes the process of evolution so unpleasant to many.
The bacterial Kingdom continues today. It has been stable for a very long time, and will probably be so for a long time to come. It has its limits, ones it seems unlikely ever to transcend. Nevertheless, I find some comfort in it as an alternative to the conflict and pain and death we see in evolution among the metazoans. And many of of the bacteria's good features I see reflected in a second paradigm, one that has risen only in the last few centuries: the paradigm of the human business corporation.
Corporations do compete. Some win and some lose (not always for reasons that any sensible person would relate to quality!), and eventually things change, often in a very big way. Unlike bacteria, corporations exist across an immense range of sizes and can be hierachical. As such, they have a capacity for complexity that does not exist in the bacterial model. And yet, like bacteria, their competition is mainly a matter of knowledge, and knowledge need never be lost. Very few participants actually die in their competition: the knowledge and insight of the losers can often continue. As with the bacterial paradigm, the corporate model maintains only low thresholds between Selves. Very much unlike the bacterial paradigm, the corporate one admits of constant change (up and down) in the size of the Self.
At present, the notion of corporations as living creatures is a whimsy or a legal contrivance (or a grim, Hobbesian excuse for tyranny), but we are entering an era where the model may be one to look at in a very practical sense. Our computers are becoming more and more powerful. I have argued elsewhere that computers will probably attain superhuman power within the next thirty years. At the same time, we are networking computers into a worldwide system. We humans are part of that system, the dominant and most important feature in its success. But what will the world be like when the machines move beyond our grasp and we enter the Post-Human era? In a sense that is beyond human knowing, since the major players will be as gods compared to us. Yet we see hints of what might come by considering our past, and that is why many people are frightened of the Post-Human era: they reason by analogy with our human treatment of the dumb animals – and from that they have much to fear.
Instead, I think the other paradigms for competition and evolution will be much more appropriate in the Post-Human era. Imagine a worldwide, distributed reasoning system in which there are thousands of millions of nodes, many of superhuman power. Some will have knowable identity – say the ones that are currently separated by low bandwidth links from the rest – but these separations are constantly changing, as are the identities themselves. With lower thresholds between Self and Others, the bacterial paradigm returns. Competition is not for life and death, but is more a sharing in which the losers continue to participate. And as with the corporate paradigm, this new situation is one in which very large organisms can come into existence, can work for a time at some extremely complex problem – and then may find it more efficient to break down into smaller souls (perhaps of merely human size) to work on tasks involving greater mobility or more restricted communication resources. This is a world that is fightening still, since its nature undermines what is for most of us the bedrock of our existence, the notion of persistent self. But it need not be a cruel world, and it need not be one of cold extinction. It may in fact be the transcendent nature dreamed of by many brands of philosopher throughout history.