Break the shackles of genes and memes and escape to utopia of rationality

The Robot's Rebellion

October 8, 2004

Our genes got us here. We are the vehicles that carry them to each successive generation. Then, somewhere in the millennia of evolution, we humans invented culture - or, rather, culture found us. Indeed, the cultural ideas we have are memes, and memes reproduce rather like genes, but faster. I tell you some ideas, and the memes replicate directly into your brain. It is not so much that we choose our memes, but that we live in a meme pool of successful ideas that are passed on from carrier to carrier.

Who is to say what "successful" is? Notoriously, genes are selfish, and so are memes. In fact, memes are worse than genes: they do not even require us to live to the age of sexual reproduction, so a meme for martyrdom can work whereas a gene for sterility would fizzle out.

If, as seems the case, we are merely vehicles for selfish genes and memes, why not use science (itself a meme) to help us validate and filter out better memes?

Keith Stanovich's The Robot's Rebellion gives us a breathless tour of genes, memes and cognitive science, and ends up taking in terrorism, market politics and Christmas delusions. Genes, he says, have given our brains their physical structure, and this lets us down: we are not as rational as we might like to think.

He introduces "dysrationalia", rather like dyslexia, to talk about our cognitive limitations. Knowing that we have dysrationalia, we should do better. Hence the robot's rebellion. We are robots; let us rebel against our raw genetic and memetic heritage!

Stanovich suggests that evolution has got us so far, but now society demands more rationality. It might once have made sense to thump somebody who made you cross, but now it is illegal. When we visit doctors, we want them to recommend the best treatment despite the difficulties of reliable reasoning with statistical evidence and emotional distractions. And what about the dysrationalia that leads to terrorism?

This book functions in a huge theatre, but its wide scope and frequent topic changes are distracting. Stanovich worries that there will be an "intellectual proletariat" who do not understand post-Darwinian science.

Yet his writing is inaccessible to non-scientists, the proletariat. It often reads like an academic paper: if you don't know what a 2x2 covariation detection task is, or if phrases such as "dominance hierarchy of your conspecifics" are mysteries, you will be forced to read some of the thousand-odd references.

We are told that humans violate key principles of rationality. If you are shown two jars of sweets, one with nine white and one red, and one with 92 white and eight red, from which jar are you more likely to randomly get a red sweet? Many people choose the larger numbers, even though they would succeed only 8 per cent of the time rather than 10 per cent of the time.

More intelligent people choose better on such tests - but this is a circular argument, as intelligence tests are designed to measure this sort of performance. Outside the lab, having eight ways to win is more useful than having only one. Moreover, choosing the 8 per cent jar infinitely improves your chances of getting more than one red sweet. It isn't as irrational a choice as it is made out to be.

More to the point, The Robot's Rebellion positions itself as taking a stand on consciousness, the soul, free will and other big issues. The style of argument is contentious. When Stanovich argues that religion is wrong, his argument schemas work as well if one substituted, say, enjoyment of music or mathematics. His style of argument on this topic might as well be that if terrorists use chemical explosives then science is wrong. The author of a book on dysrationalia should know the difference between logic and rhetoric. If valid, would not such arguments undermine his mission of escaping evolutionary determinism through self-awareness?

Stanovich's claim that evolution means there is no deep meaning to life is like saying that because paintings reflect light, they have no meaning beyond photons. He thus ignores the doctrine of multiple representations.

For example, why does my shirt look blue? The best explanation for its colour has little to do with light or dyes; simply, it is blue because my wife chose it for me. Just as physics is a vacuous level of explanation to explore what colour means, so is Stanovich's to explore the meaning of life.

Likewise, overemphasis on genes and memes for a book aiming for Utopia narrows the level of explanation and misses the bigger picture - even to the extent that Stanovich wants to deny there is a bigger picture. He appears to like Oxfam and fair trade. I am sympathetic to their values, but I do not see their immediate connection to the robot's rebellion, particularly as it is personal, not social.

Still, I like his provocation. We humans have pressing problems of unmanageable social complexity and global irrationality, and we need to do better. But if we "must" learn to stop being robotic vehicles for genes and memes, I would like more coherent arguments. Personally, rather than rebel against our nature and push into uncharted territory, I put more hope in the predictable grand challenge of adapting social structures (and computers in particular, even as cognitive enhancements) to better fit human needs - to compensate for our dysrationalia.

Harold Thimbleby is director of the Interaction Centre, University College London.

The Robot's Rebellion: Finding Meaning in the Age of Darwin

Author - Keith E. Stanovich
Editor - University of Chicago Press
Pages - 358
Price - £19.50
ISBN - 0 226 77089 3

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