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What is the Evolution of Communication? -- Osamu Sakura

What Is the Evolution of Communication?

Osamu Sakura

"Organisms survive in order to copy their genes. Though we often hear the phrase 'the preservation of species,' strictly speaking, this is wrong: Organisms preserve not species but genes. Or, more precisely, those genes that have tried to replicate themselves have survived. Richard Dawkins, a British biologist, referred to this as 'the selfish gene.' A selfish gene "thinks" only of outliving the others. ("Where We Came From and Where We Will Go" by Osamu Sakura and Toriko Kino (Illustrator))

Nature Interface (NI): These days, we often hear 'society has evolved' or 'information has evolved,' but does society or information really evolve? For that matter, does knowledge evolve?

Sakura: Basically, living things evolve at the point where parents transmit genetic information to their children. Genes are replicated at that moment. When we approach this from the viewpoint of information, then genetic information is regarded to survive by means of the replication system.

Mutation sometimes happens in processes of replicating information, and if the mutation is adaptive to the organism's environment, then this mutant gene spreads. Organisms evolve in this way. Consequently, biological evolution is also regarded as the behavior of information systems.

Similar phenomena are observed in human knowledge. When a person finds a book in a bookstore and finds it interesting, the knowledge that this person obtains from this book spreads. This is perceived as a replication of information. Thus, biological evolution and the spread of knowledge are completely the same process when we regard them as systems for the self-replication of information. And, when we ask what has a similar function to a gene, I think the answer is a meme (an idea, style or phenomenon that spreads from person to person within a culture), though a meme has many tiny differences from a gene.

From the standpoint of self-replication, I think we can find commonalities between the evolution of organisms and that of information. We may also be able to forecast, by studying biological evolutionary processes, how human knowledge will improve.

There are many patterns in biological evolution. Only those adapted to the environment will survive; the others will disappear. This is quite similar to a process of trial and error, by which we study existing knowledge or create new knowledge.

In biological evolution, we can say that genes or genomes learn the environment in order to become better adapted to it. That is, processes of biological evolution are equivalent to the learning processes of genes and genomes. For creatures like humans and chimpanzees, on the other hand, processes of learning and of obtaining knowledge are the learning processes of their brains. This is the difference between biological evolution and information evolution--but the processes are basically the same. In both, when genes or people try various things, there are sometimes failures or mutants; those adapted to the environment remain.

NI: Science led societies until the 20th century. However, ever since the latter part of that century, technology seems to be leading people: computers and the Internet have emerged and have developed rapidly. I feel that communication has also evolved.

Sakura: You wonder if communication is evolving. I think it is important to recognize which evolution we are talking about. We tend to think of everything in terms of our own sake and emphasize our own benefit only, like boosting our efficiency or reducing our stress. Of course, self-interest is a criterion. But when we focus on the information moving in communications, we realize that the amount of information is becoming overwhelming and that the rate at which it is breeding is quite high.

People used to view creatures as individuals. This changed after Dawkins advocated 'the selfish gene.' In fact, the basis of a creature is its genes, or its genetic information. An individual can get good foods, escape from enemies, help other individuals and receive help in turn. As a result, this individual survives where others fail, because the genes of this individual are superior. Individuals appear to be the core of a species but for genes, individuals are just vehicles--it is the genes that evolve. Now, let's think about the evolution of communication in a similar way.

People say every day, everywhere, 'computers have evolved,' 'everyone uses email' or 'the Internet has improved.' But when we focus on the information flowing there, we realize that information has been evolving remarkably. Information comes and goes quite rapidly. Each computer used to be independent, but now computers around the world are connected through the Internet. This is similar to the fact that while all creatures used to live on the ground only, some of them evolved and started to fly. Thus a new dimension is opened for the evolved creatures.

Similarly, whether information can propagate or not is important, whereas its effects on humans don't matter. In this sense, communication also evolves, but whether or not this evolution is comfortable for the human being is another matter.

"For most of the history of life, genes have been the transmitters of information to the next generation. Thus, the evolutionary process of life can be regarded as the process of changing genetic information. The human being added a second process: cultural information. The transmitter of cultural information is the 'meme,' a word chosen by Richard Dawkins, a British biologist." ("Adventure over Life" by Osamu Sakura)

Sakura: Dawkins, who as we said advocated 'the selfish gene,' created the word 'meme' in 1976 (based on the word 'mimesis,') as the unit of human cultural information. Propagation is all that matters for memes moving across computers: Whether their effect is harmful to people or not is irrelevant to memes, so they just keep on replicating.

NI: In what ways are memes harmful to the human being?

Sakura: Such harmful memes are sometimes called 'viruses of the mind.'

A computer virus has only one function: self-replication. When a computer virus infects a computer, this virus replicates itself each time a file is copied through networks or to disks. When the number of copies of the virus exceeds a threshold, the virus destroys the files.

HIV is an archetype of viruses that have self-replication as their only function. Both creatures and computers have self-replicating systems; moreover, both have parasites that utilize these replication systems.

Well, are there any parasites in the human meme system similar to computer viruses or retro viruses? The answer is Yes. Chain letters have messages like 'send this message to 30 people,' merely to propagate themselves. When a person receives such a message, he or she needs only delete it, throw it away. And yet, somehow, the human brain can't ignore the letter. The human brain has a structure to care about such things. Consequently, the recipient of a letter sends it on to 3 or 5 people, even if not to 30. In this way, the chain letter succeeds to replicate the same information.

There is a person in the United States who investigates chain letters. According to this person, the chain letter originated in Louisiana in the first decade of the 1900s.

I think what we have seen with chain letters is analogous to the evolution of creatures. The evolution of a chain letter has a similar process to that of a virus, indicating that communication also evolves and survives by adapting itself to its environment. Though a chain letter may be awfully harmful to people, memes are concerned only about multiplying themselves.

"I think his prospect probably won't be realized easily, but imagining what will happen when it becomes true is interesting. When absorbing the information inside a human brain, inputting it inside a hard disk and copying this hard disk become possible, I think it is interesting to make 100 or 200 copies of my brain and distribute them throughout the world, though I hardly hear such an argument. I think people stick to the idea that 'I am the only one,' as Hans P. Moravec does, but if my imagination is realized, terrible things may happen." ("The Currents of the Science Paradigm" compiled by Masao Kurosaki)

NI: It may sound like science fiction, yet there are simple questions, like 'Does the human being continue to evolve by technological improvements?' or 'To what extent does this evolution proceed?'

Sakura: This is a very difficult question. In any case, the human being as a creature hasn't evolved a lot in the past several millennia. When we focus on the shape or functions of an individual, I think almost nothing has changed in the past several hundred thousand years. Even size of the human brain hasn't changed a lot. Indeed, Neanderthal people are said to have had slightly bigger brains than people today do. Likewise, the face shapes of people today don't have much difference with those of pre-modern Homo sapiens or of Cro-Magnons.

Of course, dietetic conditions have much improved, so people came to have better physiques, whereas people's jaws have become smaller because humans have come to eat softer foods. However, there has been almost no change in the human DNA.

Well, what has changed is the artificial environment. Machines and technologies have advanced drastically. Human beings have adapted to the environment by changing it through technology, not by changing themselves.

The human being, who was originally naked, wears clothes, builds houses, makes urban areas around these houses, creates artificial environments and then changes those environments. Birds and mammals evolve by exposing themselves to the environment. On the other hand, human beings adapt to the environment by building thick walls of artificial environments between themselves and the natural environment, and by changing these artificial environments.

Thus, though Homo sapiens as biological species hasn't evolved at all genetically, human beings and their technology have evolved radically. When we think about the future of Homo sapiens, we must consider not only genes, but also memes and their technology.

NI: Well, when we think about gene therapy or artificial beings such as robots, Homo sapiens may evolve by incorporating artificial environments inside the human body.

Sakura: I think the fusion of flesh-and-blood humans with machines will proceed further. I suppose the relationship between humans and machines will become so close that humans could become unable to live anymore without machines. As people wearing no clothes seem strange now, people without computers will become peculiar. I'm convinced that such a situation will become true when I see how young people today use cellular phones.

"Blow the conventional sphere of science! If science can't deal with 'existence,' 'perception,' 'mind,' 'God' or 'beauty,' such science should be thrown away! Science should spread, be armed with theories and mature so that it can deal with such objects. Why? Because they are what people want to know and whose answer people search for, that is, they are important things. The science which ignores what people want to know will not exist for long." ("Science to Approach 'God' -- The Artificial Life" by Hideaki Sena (editor))

NI: Reading your books, I thought you had tried to approach the essence of time objectively from 'outside of time.' Well, in which field are you interested these days?

Sakura: One of my interests is knowledge distribution, or, the popularization of science. It is one of the current big problems that students are moving away from science in the field of school education in Japan. Why is this trend occurring? A certain measure of background knowledge is required to understand science, particularly in special or forefront fields. Though a certain amount of knowledge is needed in order to understand any field, Japanese and social studies require less background knowledge than arithmetic and natural science do. Recently I've been interested in determining how to convey the information in special or forefront fields to those who don't have background knowledge, though I know this is a difficult proposition.

Each person's knowledge is like an organism living in a specific environment. For example, what a novelist expects from the 'theory of evolution' is quite different from what a medical doctor expects from it. When we assume that an organism called 'evolution theory' has lived in and adapted to different fields, such as the minds of novelists or the minds of medical doctors, we realize that there is no communication about this organism of 'evolution theory' between these different fields. People's knowledge has become so specialized or fragmented that communication between the tips of the branches hardly occurs. I'm interested in letting these branches communicate.

This model can be applied not only to education but also to other things. For example, I wonder what non-experts in the study of evolution--say, philosophers or sociologists--think about Darwin's theory. Such a question is related to communication between different fields or the effects of different cultures.

Firstly, I was curious about how evolution theory, which was born in the U.K., was accepted in other cultural areas, such as Japan, China or Korea. But now, I'm also interested in how evolution theory has affected philosophy, literature, sociology or economics. And this relates to another problem: to what extent the knowledge of science can be compatible with the values of philosophy or religion.

Expressing the dynamism of human knowledge with the analogy of life processes is the basic idea. I wonder how I can convey special knowledge to non-experts. This relates to science education, the popularization of science and the acceptance of forefront scientific theories.

NI: The image of science or scientists that we have was established in the 20th century, and as this image became firm, all things scientific became so strong that science came to be regarded as the standard of value. However, in the 21st century, people have started to doubt this value of total belief in science. One of the themes of Nature Interface is to learn the extent to which scientific knowledge can be compatible with the knowledge or values of philosophy or religion.

I hope we can talk more about this when we have a chance.

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