Category Archives: evolution

Autonomous

There is a certain flavor that nearly all science fiction seems to contain. It’s not just the “future” aspect of the situations. It’s not only the “stuff” that appears, things that we maybe only vaguely imagined might come to be – that is all to be expected. Otherwise, how do we know we are in the future? No, it’s something about the tenor of the dialogue, or the particular way the scenes are depicted, that says, “yes, there’s just a little bit of affectation here that exists because I want to tell you something really cool that’s coming, but without sounding like it’s any big deal.”

That doesn’t describe with sufficient clarity what I want to say, but it does certainly apply to the present novel. I have no problem with it, per se, except that it does tend to detract from what would otherwise be a deeper engagement in the novel. I didn’t get lost in the narrative, because I was always listening to the author’s voice.

On second thought, maybe that’s not a flaw that is particular to science fiction. Maybe science fiction just shows it up more, because we are being asked in the first place to accept situations that seem, almost by definition, to be fantastical.

And yet, that’s the thing that makes a book such as Neuromancer so wonderful – the fact that everything seems so just out of the reach of the present day that I can accept it all, hook, line, and sinker. And yet Autonomous, although it is compared to Neuromancer in the liner notes, just doesn’t seem to have the same “of course” feeling.

And that is coming from one who has no problem at all accepting that humans and machines are going to merge, both physically and mentally. Yes, let’s take the best of both realms and see if we can’t make something better. Both heart and mind. It’s just a matter of evolution.

The Evolution of Everything

Ridley has beat me to the punch. Not that my book would take this form. But his message is the same one that I’ve been shouting from the rooftops for the past, what, 20 years?

If you want to understand not only the past, not just the present, but also the future, you must understand evolution and its ability to explain everything. Everything.

This, from the epilogue, makes any summation on my part superfluous:

“To put my explanation in its boldest and most surprising form: bad news is man-made, top-down, purposed stuff, imposed on history. God news is accidental, unplanned, emergent stuff that gradually evolves. The things that go well are largely unintended; the things that go badly are largely intended. Let me give you two lists. First: the First World War, the Russian Revolution, the Versailles Treaty, the Great Depression, the Nazi regime, the Second World War, the Chinese Revolution, the 2008 financial crisis: every single one was the result of top-down decision-making by relatively small numbers of people trying to implement deliberate plans – politicians, central bankers, revolutionaries and so on. Second: the growth of global income; the disappearance of infectious diseases; the feeding of seven billion; the clean-up of rivers and air; the reforestation of much of the rich world, the internet, the use of mobile-phone credits as banking; the use of genetic fingerprinting to convict criminals and acquit the innocent. Every single one of these was a serendipitous, unexpected phenomenon supplied by millions of people who did not intend to cause these big changes. All the interesting things are incremental, says the psephologist Sir David Butler, and very few of the major changes in the statistics of human living standards of the past fifty years were the result of government action.

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As I argued in the prologue, the theory of evolution by natural selection as outlined by Charles Darwin in 1859 should really be called the ‘special theory’ of evolution, to distinguish it from the ‘general theory’ of evolution. I owe this notion to Richard Webb, an expert on both evolution and innovation. The point he is making is one that I have tried to develop in this book, namely that the flywheel of history is incremental change through trial and error, with innovation driven by recombination, and that this pertains in far more kinds of things than merely those that have genes. This is also the main way that change comes about in morality, the economy, culture, language, technology, cities, firms, education, history, law, government, religion, money and society. For far too long we have underestimated the power of spontaneous, organic and constructive change driven from below, in our obsession with designing change from above. Embrace the general theory of evolution. Admit that everything evolves.”