Nature, Bloody in Tooth and Claw?

                                Vernor Vinge
                      Department of Mathematical Sciences
                         San Diego State University

                           (c) 1996 by Vernor Vinge
                (This article may be reproduced for noncommercial
                    purposes if it is copied in its entirety,
                           including this notice.)

                      The original version of this article
                was prepared for the 1996 British National Science
                       Fiction Convention (Evolution).

              The notion of evolution has frightening undertones. The
         benevolent view of Mother Nature in many children's nature films often
         seems a thin facade over an unending story of pain and death and
         betrayal. For many, the basic idea behind evolution is that one
         creature succeeds at the expense of another, and that death without
         offspring is the price of failure.  In the human realm, this is often
         the explanation for the most egregious personal and national behavior.
         This view percolates even into our humor.  When someone commits an
         extreme folly and is fatally thumped for it, we sometimes say, "Hey,
         just think of it as evolution in action."
              In fact, these views of evolution are very limited ones. At best
         they capture one small aspect of the enormous field of emergent
         phenomena. They miss a paradigm for evolution that predates Lord
         Tennyson's "bloody in tooth and claw" by thousands of million
         years. And they miss a paradigm that has appeared in just the last
         three centuries, one that may become spectacularly central to our
              Long before humankind, before the higher animals and even the
         lower ones, there were humbler creatures ... the bacteria. These are
         far too small to see, smaller than even the single-celled eukaryotes
         like amoebas and paramecia. When most people think of bacteria at all,
         they think of rot and disease. More dispassionately, people think of
         bacteria as utterly primitive: "they don't have sex", "they don't have
         external organization", "they don't have cellular nuclei".
              Certainly, I am happy to be a human and not a bacterium! And
         yet, in the bacteria we have a novelty and a power that are
         awesome. At the same time most folk proclaim the bacteria's primitive
         nature, they also complain of the bacteria's ability to evolve around
         our antibiotics. (And alas, this ability is so effective that what was
         in the 1950s and 1960s a medical inconvenience is becoming an intense
         struggle to sustain our antibiotic advantage, to avoid what _Science_
         magazine has called the "post anti-microbial era".) The bacteria have
         a different paradigm for evolution than the one we naively see in the
         murderous behavior of metazoans.
              The bacteria do not have sex as we know it, but they do have
         something much more efficient: the ability to exchange genetic
         material among themselves -- across an immensely broad range of
         bacterial types. Bacteria compete and consume one another, but just as
         often both losers and winners contribute genetic information to
         later solutions. Though bacteria are correctly called a Kingdom of
         Life, the boundary between their "species" is nearly invisible.  One
         might better regard their Kingdom as a library, containing some 4000
         million years of solutions. Some of the solutions have not been
         dominant for a very long time. The strictly anaerobic bacteria were
         driven from the open surface almost 2000 million years ago, when free
         oxygen poisoned their atmosphere. The thermophilic bacteria survive in
         near-boiling water.  Millions of less successful (or currently
         unsuccessful) solutions hide in niches around the planet. The
         Kingdom's Library has some very musty, unlit corners, but the lore is
         not forgotten: the Kingdom is a vast search and retrieval engine,
         creating new solutions from the bacteria's ability for direct transfer
         of genetic information. This is the engine which we with our tiny
         computers and laboratories are up against when we talk airily of
         "acquired antibiotic resistance". For the bacteria, evolution is a
         competition in which little is ever lost, and yet solutions are
         found. (I recommend the books of Lynn Margulis for a knowledgeable
         discussion of this point of view.  Margulis is a world-class
         microbiologist whose writing is both clear and eloquent.)
              For the most part, we metazoans have a strong sense of
         self. More, we have a very strong sense of boundary -- where our Self
         ends and the Otherness begins. It is this sense of self and of
         boundary that makes the process of evolution so unpleasant to many.
              The bacterial Kingdom continues today. It has been stable
         for a very long time, and will probably be so for a long time to
         come. It has its limits, ones it seems unlikely ever to transcend.
         Nevertheless, I find some comfort in it as an alternative to the
         conflict and pain and death we see in evolution among the
         metazoans. And many of of the bacteria's good features I see reflected
         in a second paradigm, one that has risen only in the last few
         centuries: the paradigm of the human business corporation.
              Corporations do compete. Some win and some lose (not always for
         reasons that any sensible person would relate to quality!), and
         eventually things change, often in a very big way. Unlike bacteria,
         corporations exist across an immense range of sizes and can be
         hierachical. As such, they have a capacity for complexity that does
         not exist in the bacterial model. And yet, like bacteria, their
         competition is mainly a matter of knowledge, and knowledge need never
         be lost. Very few participants actually die in their competition: the
         knowledge and insight of the losers can often continue. As with the
         bacterial paradigm, the corporate model maintains only low thresholds
         between Selves. Very much unlike the bacterial paradigm, the corporate
         one admits of constant change (up and down) in the size of the Self.
              At present, the notion of corporations as living creatures is
         a whimsy or a legal contrivance (or a grim, Hobbesian excuse for
         tyranny), but we are entering an era where the model may be one to
         look at in a very practical sense. Our computers are becoming
         more and more powerful. I have argued elsewhere that computers will
         probably attain superhuman power within the next thirty years. At the
         same time, we are networking computers into a worldwide system. We
         humans are part of that system, the dominant and most important
         feature in its success.  But what will the world be like when the
         machines move beyond our grasp and we enter the Post-Human era? In a
         sense that is beyond human knowing, since the major players will be as
         gods compared to us.  Yet we see hints of what might come by
         considering our past, and that is why many people are frightened of
         the Post-Human era: they reason by analogy with our human treatment of
         the dumb animals -- and from that they have much to fear.
              Instead, I think the other paradigms for competition and
         evolution will be much more appropriate in the Post-Human era. Imagine
         a worldwide, distributed reasoning system in which there are thousands
         of millions of nodes, many of superhuman power. Some will have
         knowable identity -- say the ones that are currently separated by low
         bandwidth links from the rest -- but these separations are constantly
         changing, as are the identities themselves. With lower thresholds
         between Self and Others, the bacterial paradigm returns.  Competition
         is not for life and death, but is more a sharing in which the losers
         continue to participate. And as with the corporate paradigm, this new
         situation is one in which very large organisms can come into
         existence, can work for a time at some extremely complex problem --
         and then may find it more efficient to break down into smaller souls
         (perhaps of merely human size) to work on tasks involving greater
         mobility or more restricted communication resources. This is a world
         that is fightening still, since its nature undermines what is for most
         of us the bedrock of our existence, the notion of persistent self. But
         it need not be a cruel world, and it need not be one of cold
         extinction. It may in fact be the transcendent nature dreamed of by
         many brands of philosopher throughout history.