Perfection in grenade throwing

Darwin Among the Machines
August 14, 1998

Scholarly, deep but never pedantic, George Dyson makes no attempt to "separate the fables from the facts", and that is precisely why this book offers such a compelling read. Dyson stimulates our curiosity and satisfies it as he traces the story of the organisation and manipulation of great quantities of data in our machine-laden world. He especially enlightens the curious like me (with no particular interest in the history of technology) because he casts his story around the unresolved Charles Darwin-Samuel Butler debate.

In 1863, Butler, an emigrant sheep-farmer in New Zealand who was yet to become the well-known novelist, pseudonymously published an essay, "Darwin among the machines" in the local Canterbury Press, having recently acquired and read (by candlelight in a thatched hut) Darwin's Origin of Species. He wrote: "We find ourselves awestruck at the development of the vast mechanical world, at the gigantic strides with which it has advanced in comparison with the slow progress of the animal and vegetable kingdom... the machines are gaining ground upon us; day by day we are becoming more subservient to them; more men are daily devoting the energies of their whole lives to the development of mechanical life."

For the rest of his life, Butler analysed and criticised Darwin's writings, especially subsequent editions of Darwin's most famous book. Considered by many to be Darwin's most able critic, Butler relentlessly attacked the hero from many sides, especially in regard to what some claim is Darwin's only, or at least his most original, contribution: the explanation of species origin. Darwin posited that small, gradually accumulating, randomly generated (ie generated by chance alone) inherited variation is the only process by which living beings change, are selected and therefore evolve. Small cumulative changes were declared to lead gradually, by chance events, to large conspicuous change. Only rapid man-made changes, such as those in machines, evolve by cunning: nature evolves by luck.

Butler (in his books Luck or Cunning?, 1887, Evolution Old and New, 1889, and in essays) argues convincingly that all organisms are sensitive to their surroundings and "direct their own evolution". To Butler live beings play as large a role in their own evolution as they do in the evolution of their extensions, such as their nests, tools, weapons systems and, yes, their machines. Changes in the bodies of organisms and their accoutrements occur not by random chance alone but by use of an enormously resourceful accumulation from the past - in Butler's terms, memory, design and will. In short, for Butler, life, including the machines to which life is connected, evolves not by luck but by cunning.

Dyson, who sees great evolutionary continuity between life and its extensions, agrees far more with the denigrated Butler on this point than with the celebrated Darwin (as do I in my book What is Life?, written with Dorion Sagan). His narrative brings alive such potentially boring subjects as the origin and evolution of computers, the mechanics of grenade throwing and who won the contract to tabulate the 11th United States census (and why he won).

With the development of precision rifles and machine guns, grenades were perceived as doomed and obsolete. Dyson's grandfather, the musician Sir George Dyson, son of an unknown blacksmith from Yorkshire, begged to differ. Switching from the teaching of music to the training of grenadiers, he built a hand-grenade-throwing training ground complete with listening posts, machine gun emplacements and fire trenches. Born with perfect pitch for music he tried to "cultivate perfect pitch in the throwing of grenades". "Timing", comments the younger George, "is everything."

The 1880 US census took almost seven years to complete. At that rate, given the population expansion, it was clear that the 1890 census would not be finished before the census scheduled for 1900 was due to begin. Herman Hollerith, employed as a special agent to accelerate census taking in 1879, began the punch-card information processing industry. Hollerith won the contract for the 11th census of 1890 in which he enumerated 62 million inhabitants with the use of 56 million punch cards, each having 288 punch positions. He was successful because his former supervisor John S. Billings, who was inspired by punched railway tickets, arranged for Hollerith to demonstrate his approach to the Baltimore Department of Health. (Hollerith's mother-in-law wrote in 1889: "He is completely tired out. He has been punching cards at a rate of 1,000 per day - and each card has at least a dozen holes. He has done it all with a hand punch and his arm was aching and paining dreadfully. He really looked quite badly.") In two years, using the new punch-card techniques, the 11th census was not only completed but the quality and quantity of data were significantly augmented compared with previous years. Punch-card equipment proliferated far faster than the US population, such that in 1896 Hollerith incorporated the Tabulating Machine Company. By 1911 it became the CTR (Computing-Tabulating-Recording) Company. By 1924, when punch cards and perforated tapes and their users had greatly expanded, the company, renamed International Business Machines, became known as IBM.

Another major point for Dyson is the correctness of Butler's view that animate life and machines co-evolve. Both bodies and their extensions change as a part of the evolutionary process in ways, partially predictable, that reflect the past experience of life as a whole. Butler, as self-appointed spokesman for the machinate world, exposed the conspiracy of his colleagues with his tongue only superficially in his cheek: "Our plan is to turn man's besotted enthusiasm to our own advantage, to make him develop us to the utmost, and find himself enslaved unawares." Referring to the newly arrived telegraph, Butler continued: "We will say then that a considerable advance has been made in mechanical development when all men in all places without any loss of time are cognisant through their senses of all that they desire to be cognisant of in all other places, at a low rate of charge so that the back-country squatter may hear his wool sold in London and deal with the buyer himself - may sit in his own chair in a back country hut and hear the performance of Israel in Egypt at Exeter Hall - may taste an ice on the Rakaia which he is paying for and receiving in the Italian opera house ... Multiply instance ... this is the grand annihilation of time and place which we are all striving for and which in one small part we have been permitted to see actually realised." The same Butler, who accused Darwin of taking the life out of natural history, appropriately put life into the machines. He signed this letter "Lunaticus". Claims Dyson: "Samuel Butler foresaw the evolution, perhaps not so far off as he imagined, of that phenomenon, somewhere between mechanism and organism, now manifested as the World Wide Web."

Dyson's daughter Lauren, five years old in 1994, while both were watching Tom Ray's digitally self-reproducing organisms on tape, corrected her father. George insisted to Lauren (as no doubt Darwin would have) that Ray's screen images were only imaginary creatures. Lauren - precociously, and to my mind appropriately on the side of Samuel Butler - insisted they were not imaginary. The reality of the imagination is a powerful sub-theme in this delightful and original book, in which meander other variations on Dyson's themes: for example, wildness and unpredictability, wilderness and creativity and the two approaches to boat building. In one the builder, like Dyson himself, assembles a skeletal kayak and provides it with a skin that permits it to float. This Dyson compares to designing a computer. Alternatively, one digs out a large intact log to make a dugout canoe by removing the wood one chip at a time. This, says the author, more resembles the degeneration and loss of unconnected neurons in the development of the mammalian nervous system. The natural selection of an intrinsically proliferating system, one with an immense and complicated history, looms large in this book. So does the tendency of the proliferants to form alliances. Dyson has words to add on the role of crisis and historical contingency in shaping the present, the importance of language and habit in children, and the influence on us of family and its connections. Mercifully, he also supplies excellent notes and an ample index.

Lynn Margulis is professor in the department of geosciences, University of Massachusetts, Amherst, United States.

Darwin Among the Machines

Author - George Dyson
ISBN - 0 713 99205 0
Publisher - Allen Lane The Penguin Press
Price - £20.00
Pages - 286

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