Inevitable Minds by Kevin Kelly

Kevin Kelly has a wonderful post about the preponderance of minds in nature, all the way down to plants.

Plants exhibit all the characteristics of intelligence, except they do it without a centralized brain, and in slow motion. Decentralized minds and slow minds are actually quite common in nature, and occur at many levels throughout the six kingdoms of life. A slime mold colony can solve the shortest distance to food in a maze, much like a rat. The animal immune system, whose primary purpose is to distinguish between self and non-self, retains a memory of outside antigens it has encountered in the past. It learns in a darwinian process, and in a sense also anticipates future variations of antigens. And throughout the animal kingdom collective intelligence is expressed in hundreds of ways, including the famous hive minds of social insects.

It’s worth reading the whole article. There’s even speculation about what “Dinoman” would have looked like had dinosaurs not been wiped out, and continued to evolve instead of mammals. The result would have been, well, something like this:


Kelly does get a little too enamored with his own rhetoric, to the point where it seems he comes dangerously close to assigning purpose and / or intention to the blind processes of evolution.

The daily grinding of evolution, as accelerated by technology, churns out more and more complex organisms, with higher rates of energy use, and with increasing specialization. Minds are the ideal way to express complexity, energy density, increasing specialization, expanding diversity — all in one system. Mindedness is what evolution produces. Mindedness is what technology wants, too.

As I understand it, evolution doesn’t “want” anything. It happens because it happens, and for no other reason. But then I’ll grant you my view is very much that of a layman’s, simplistic and unnuanced. So perhaps I’m missing something.

And the speculation that AI research could “evolve” minds in its own way; well, I don’t know about that. I guess it could happen. It is the stated intention of the folks at Google, anyhow, and they’re powering this (sub par) Blogger system. I don’t think it’s inevitable, but Kelly’s point that already web AI can do something no human can – remember everything via a search engine – seems to point to the very distinct possibility. Anyhow, more than I can chew off here.

The whole article is here.

Kevin Kelly, by the way, is the founding executive editor of Wired magazine. Which I didn’t know until I’d been around his sites for a while and a commenter mentioned it. No doubt this is common knowledge to the technorati but it was news to me. While I was busy growing up and then gallivanting around foreign parts the digital age happened and I’m on a steep learning curve of catch-up.

3 thoughts on “Inevitable Minds by Kevin Kelly

  1. Spokie

    I would quibble with one point: evolution does ‘want’. Evolution wants to enable reproduction, which requires survival. So all of evolution’s outcomes are driven by this urge to survive.

    Reproduction requires survival. Survival is the reward for successful mutations (death the punishment for less successful genes). Mutations therefore drive evolution.

    My point – evolution isn’t some blind or random occurrence (unlike individual mutations, which random). Evolution’s guidemap is survival, so survival is what evolution wants.

  2. Court

    Spokie, I understand what you’re saying, and perhaps I’m engaging in semantics here, but I don’t see how the set of processes that are evolution over time can “want” something, or act with intention. In the article, Kelly makes the (it seems to me) unwarranted jump from apparent intention to plants and animals to apparent intention in the very processes of evolution. I think you may be doing the same.

    While survival and the struggle for it is certainly a mechanism of evolution, it’s not a “want”, per se, I don’t think. Seems possible to me that us humans viewing the process insert this into evolution, so as to make it more explicable to ourselves. But that doesn’t mean it’s actually there. Similarly, would you say the Milky Way “wants” things? Or, an oxygen molecule? The analogy is imperfect, I’ll grant you.

  3. Spokie

    I don’t think we actually disagree on this. We’re getting tripped up on the word “want.” Obviously, evolution doesn’t psychoanalyze, deconstruct, or wax lyrical about its desires. Neither do oxygen molecules.

    So let’s skip semantics, and move to useful analogies.

    Evolution is like a heart. Evolution drives species improvement like the heart drives muscle respiration. Evolution uses survival to push species improvement, just like the heart uses hydraulic pressure to push oxygen-rich blood. Evolution doesn’t know where improvement will lead, any more than the heart knows where the blood vessels go.

    Maybe the heart doesn’t “want” the muscles to receive oxygen. Maybe the word want lends too much agency to a ball of muscle. Perhaps you can think of a better word than want. But the heart sure as hell beats with a purpose.

    Evolution: no brain, all heart.

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