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Essays

The Big Picture

Published on Saturday, May 16, 01998  •  16 years, 7 months ago
Written by Danny Hillis for Wired

A few billion years ago, the Earth was a big, sterile rock covered with puddles of chemical soup. Gradually, little drops of oil - random chemical combinations - formed in these puddles, and some happened to absorb nutrients from the outside, causing them to grow. They eventually split into smaller drops of roughly the same composition. The "cells" that did a better job of attracting chemicals and dividing survived and split into future generations. These cells evolved an information processing mechanism, a way of recording for posterity their recipes for success. The mechanism they evolved - the genetic code of DNA - is still in use today. With DNA came an evolutionary advantage: knowledge, as genetic recipes, could accumulate from generation to generation.

As cells became more sophisticated, they started to communicate, exchanging chemical messages. Synergistic communities developed that survived or failed together; if the community was successful, all the individuals were favored by evolution. This step took another billion years - bringing life to the stage of multicellular communities, in which cells are no longer out for themselves: digestive cells depend on skin and muscle cells, and vice versa. These communities became so close that they collaborated in writing the whole recipe of the community on one string of DNA. The most interesting evolution shifted from the cellular level to the community level.

Next, these communities of cells, these organisms, began to abstract information and build special structures - neural structures - that did nothing but process information within the community. After communities of cells built up a data processing apparatus (the neuron), they developed structures for sensing, recording, and understanding information - eyes, ears, and brains. With neurons, learning happened within the time span of a single organism. An organism could learn not to eat a fruit that repeatedly made it sick. Lessons no longer had to be absorbed through evolution, through the diminished fitness of millions of individuals over many millennia.

Then these learning individuals started working out the quirks of communicating with each other. The most sophisticated version is human language, whereby complex ideas in one brain generate ideas in another. This lets us function as a community, and in some sense as a single organism. And so we - humanity - have repeated the process of connection, communication, and construction of specialized structures to process our communal information. We're replicating the levels of chemicals and multicellular organisms, abstracting out our methods of sensing, recording, and understanding information. Language was only the first step. Telephony, computers, and CD-ROMs are all specialized mechanisms we've built to bind us together. Now evolution takes place in microseconds.

The first steps in the story of evolution took a billion years. The next step - nervous systems and brains - took a few hundred million years. The next steps, including the development of language, took less than a million years. And the most recent steps seem to be taking only a few decades. The process is feeding on itself and becoming autocatalytic.

And now we are beginning to depend on computers to help us evolve new computers that let us produce things of much greater complexity. Yet we don't quite understand the process - it's getting ahead of us. We're now using programs to make much faster computers so the process can run much faster. That's what's so confusing - technologies are feeding back on themselves; we're taking off. We're at that point analogous to when single-celled organisms were turning into multicelled organisms. We are amoebas and we can't figure out what the hell this thing is that we're creating.

I cannot believe that we are at the end of this story - we are not evolution's ultimate product. There's something coming after us, and Iimagine it is something wonderful. But we may never be able to comprehend it, any more than a caterpillar can comprehend turning into a butterfly.

First published in Wired Magazine in 01998.