Stanovich: The Robot’s Rebellion: Review Chapter One

Chapter One: Staring into the Darwinian Abyss


“In due course, the Darwinian Revolution will come to occupy a … secure and untroubled place in the minds – and hearts – of every educated person on the globe, but today, more than a century after Darwin’s death, we still have yet to come to terms with its mind-boggling implications.”

What philosopher Daniel Dennett is referring to in the quote above [from Darwin’s Dangerous Idea] is something that is known to an intellectual elite but largely unknown to the general public: that the implications of modern evolutionary theory coupled with advances in the cognitive sciences will, in the twenty-first century, destroy many traditional concepts that humans have lived with for centuries.  For example, if you believe in a traditional concept of soul, you should know that there is little doubt that a fuller appreciation of the implications of evolutionary theory and of advances in the cognitive neurosciences is going to destroy that concept, perhaps within your own lifetime.  In this book, I am going to urge that we accept this inevitability and direct our energies not at avoiding or obscuring these implications, but at constructing an alternative worldview consistent with biological and cognitive science.  I will argue that we should accept the unsettling implications of cognitive science and evolutionary theory rather than fight them. Hiding from these implications will risk creating a two-tiered society composed of cognoscenti who are privileged to view the world as it really is and a deluded general public – an intellectual proletariat – deemed not emotionally strong enough to deal with the truth.
(Stanovich, The Robot’s Rebellion, page 3)

A stirring introduction. It is 2014 and the American public still hesitates to engage with biology.  Yet, academia marches on: the inferential distance between foundational evolutionary results and the State Of The Art inexorably rises.  If the epistemic failures of the American public persist along the same trajectory, the divide between those who know, and those who won’t, will become increasingly dire.

Stanovich kicks off his book by asking us to consider the plight of the traditional religious believer, striving to reconcile their faith with the findings of evolution.  He argues that it is, ironically, the more moderate voice in the rhetoric (example) that is prone to error: strands of Christianity willing to attempt integration with evolutionary theory tend to be more prone to downplaying the acidic nature of Darwinian thought.  Darwinism, our author argues, is an intellectual acid that threatens to burn through many of our cherished folk beliefs and metaphysical intuitions.  The quoted phrase above, “the implications of modern evolutionary theory coupled with advances in the cognitive sciences will.. destroy many traditional concepts that humans have lived with for centuries” amusingly illustrates this “universal acid”: the very notion of concept has recently emerged as a candidate for elimination within cognitive science.

I found some of the opening rhetoric too sloppy, with respect to argumentative scope.  At points, Stanovich seems to imply that all metaphysical and/or religious programmes have failed to present a satisfactory narrative to compete with the one he sketches.  Yet his book neither outlines nor evaluates alternative worldviews.  A more defensible approach would simply call for competitors to demonstrate how their framework can safely “house the acid”.   As we shall see, such a challenge is formidable in its breadth.

What biological insights, then, must all views of human nature predict?  We begin with distinction between replicator and vehicle.

The process of [replicator] improvement was cumulative. Ways of increasing stability and of decreasing rivals’ stability became more elaborate and more efficient. Some of them may even have ‘discovered’ how to break up molecules of rival varieties chemically, and to use the building blocks so released for making their own copies. These proto-carnivores simultaneously obtained food and removed competing rivals. Other replicators perhaps discovered how to protect themselves, either chemically, or by building a physical wall of protein around themselves. This may have been how the first living cells appeared. Replicators began not merely to exist, but to construct for themselves containers, vehicles for their continued existence. The replicators that survived were the ones that built survival machines for themselves to live in. The first survival machines probably consisted of nothing more than a protective coat. But making a living got steadily harder as new rivals arose with better and more effective survival machines. Survival machines got bigger and more elaborate, and the process was cumulative and progressive.

Was there to be any end to the gradual improvement in the [replicators’] techniques…? What weird engines of self-preservation would the millennia bring forth?  Four thousand million years on, what was to be the fate of the ancient replicators?

They did not die out, for they are past masters of the survival arts. But do not look for them floating loose in the sea; they gave up that cavalier freedom long ago. Now they swarm in huge colonies, safe inside gigantic lumbering robots, sealed off from the outside world, communicating with it by tortuous indirect routes, manipulating it by remote control.

They are in you and in me; they created us, body and mind; and their preservation is the ultimate rationale for our existence. They have come a long way, those replicators. Now they go by the name of genes, and we are their survival machines.
(The Mind’s I, Selection 10, page 131; taken from The Selfish Gene)

Elsewhere in The Selfish Gene, Dawkins employs a rowing team as an analogy for replicators and vehicles. Each rower represents a gene, yet it is the performance of the boat as a whole that distributes rewards & penalties.  In the same way that rowers are not merely evaluated in light of their strength, the fitness function does not reward replicators solely in terms of their phenotypic effects on the environment.  Coordination between replicators, like synchrony between rowers,  has important implications.

Stanovich does an excellent job at underscoring how creepy all of this is.  The installed emotions do the work of casting genetics into an existentially relevant light.  (I like to focus attention on the analogies between genes and the grey goo of science fiction to achieve this end.)  But why is this interpretive mode valuable?

As we will see in Chapter 4, Stanovich is very critical of the normative arguments and theoretical apparati advanced by evolutionary psychologists.  But he is careful to accept their empirical findings.  Many first-order desires ubiquitous within the human spirit were installed by the mechanism of natural selection.  The drive to life, the sexual impulses, are among the most obvious candidates.  But natural selection also explains the appeal of junk food, jealousy, sibling rivalry, the parent-child bond, friendship styles, aggression, and more.  These observations underscore the importance of casting genetics into an existentially relevant light.  The influence of replicators extend far beyond sanitized textbooks: they install our nervous systems.

If replicators live within vehicles, how can their respective interests possibly diverge?  This parable about cryogenics serves to install the necessary intuitions behind replicator-vehicle conflict.  How would you program a robot to protect your frozen self?  Obviously, any program that attempts to specify responses to any situation would become prohibitively large.  Nervous systems embedded in the biosphere must be more efficient.  Generalization is required: instead of programming two rules, “for situation X do A” and “for situation Y do A”, the only rule needed is “if a situation arises with properties common to both X and Y, do A.”

As animal nervous systems evolved, they became increasingly able to learn.  Insects have what Stanovich calls a “short leash”; their actions rarely diverge much from their genetic mandate (more on this in Chapter Two).  Various species of mammals have a longer leash; they can afford creativity and learning in certain circumstances.  Stanovich argues that short-leash genetic programming is a recipe for rigidity; and that the long-leash strategy exchanges metabolic efficiency for improved flexibility – a different ecological niche.  But it takes time to extend the length of the leash, particularly since evolution is frustratingly kluge-like.  Stanovich, echoing Dawkins, speculates that there exists a longer leash-length that constitutes a logical niche end-point: replicators simply specifying the following goal: “do what you must to keep me alive”.  

Note that human brains doesn’t contain this degree of flexibility: we are programmed with many lower-level goals such as the fear of death.  But the human leash is just long enough to support rebellion against genetic-only interests.  This is the main thesis that Stanovich will elaborate in the rest of the book.


The brisk pace and wide breadth of this book simplifies the task of identifying weaknesses.  For example, we see passages like:

We have – living as we do in a scientific society – no choice but to accept Darwin’s insights because there is no way we can enjoy the products of science without accepting the destabilizing views of humans in the universe that science brings in its wake.  There is no sign that society will ever consider giving up the former…. Thus, it is inevitable that concepts of meaning, personhood, and soul will continue to be destabilized by the knock-on effects of what science reveals about the nature of life, the brain, consciousness, and other aspects of the world…
(Stanovich, The Robot’s Rebellion, page 7)

This argument is particularly disappointing.  First, the link between scientific data and metaphysical conclusions, such as some (unspecified) concept of personhood, is implicitly presumed incontrovertible.  But this leap is not all, for Stanovich also fails to provide any normative reasoning for why technology must cohabitate with philosophical change.  Even if we fill in both of these gaps, there is a further empirical challenge.  Perhaps the human capacities for compartmentalization, cognitive dissonance, and motivated reasoning can insulate technology from its philosophical underpinning.  Perhaps it is more charitable to interpret this passage in a descriptive, sociological lens, for naturalism is at least correlated with scientific advancement in the West.

Concluding Thoughts

Human nature contains alien goals.  We harbor desires that predate our humanity, conflict with our noblest ideals, and exert tremendous power over our behavior. This much of Stanovich’s thesis is difficult to deny, and has important implications.

One criticism I would level at this chapter, is that it is too quick to castigate other sources of meaning for the human race.  It is true that there is a tension between replicator and vehicle desires, and one that ought to be ameliorated by non-mysterious cognitive reform.  This fact is basal to the human condition; it is enough to leave metaphysical and religious concerns the difficult task of painting their narrative on top of this landscape.  Very few narratives have succeeded in this task, to my knowledge; but no one is served by condemning the enterprise as a priori impossible.

To put the above more generally: it is presumptive to imply closure on explorations of human meaning.  Large swathes of the book are contingent on the empirical assumption that vehicle and genetic interests can diverge non-trivially.  But the human story isn’t constrained to the narrative of overcoming genetic programming.  There is also much to be said about triumph over the fear of death, about the destiny of being forgotten, about our need for love, etc.  Humanity is too complex to be contained in the narrative of the Robot’s Rebellion.  Rather, Stanovich should settle for building a Rebellion norm that is one of our most well-defined, and most empirically-motivated.  Let other norms fend for themselves.


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