Are we driven by ancient genes or our own cognitive faculties? Human beings may have two distinct cognitive systems in conflict with each otherby Jonathan Evans / January 16, 2005 / Leave a comment
Published in January 2005 issue of Prospect Magazine
Imagine a world in which you decide to have your body frozen in order to be revived in 500 years, by when a cure for death may have been discovered. You might have your body placed in a special facility. But suppose that the facility is damaged by war or natural disaster? A lot could happen in 500 years. So you decide instead to design a robot to carry your body around and keep it safe. The robot will need to be programmed to protect you against all possible hazards. Now you have a new problem: you cannot anticipate all the situations that the robot may have to deal with. So you decide to give the robot a high level of intelligence so that it will be flexible enough to think out solutions to the problems that it may confront. The robot is still a tool for your preservation and might well be expected to sacrifice itself to that end. For example, it may need to transfer you at some point to a new robot of superior design. However, there is a snag. You have programmed the robot with the ability to think for itself. What if it starts to pursue its own objectives rather than yours? What if the robot rebels?
The robot is, of course, really you and its designer is your genes. In The Selfish Gene, Richard Dawkins urged us to think of evolution in terms of replicators (genes) and vehicles (organisms). Genes do not serve the purposes of organisms; it is the other way around. The organism is programmed to carry, and serve the interests of its potentially immortal passengers, the genes. For many this idea conveys a depressing, if not alarming, message. It conflicts with all religious beliefs and seems to challenge our deepest intuitions about free will and humanity. Keith Stanovich, a distinguished experimental psychologist, also advocates the selfish gene hypothesis but with an interesting twist that applies only to human beings. Combining the selfish gene with recent theoretical developments in cognitive psychology, he argues that we are only just beginning to comprehend the implications of evolutionary theory.