Hi! I'm Tim Tyler - and this video discusses the idea that evolution
progressively develops techniques to perform evaluations in simulated
environments - where failures are less costly.
I will be discussing the history of evaluation under
simulation, and the future prospects for the technique. I will
argue that there is a trend towards increase use of evaluation
under simulation - and that in the future, this will result in
the elimination of much real-world conflict.
To start with some basics: in order to evaluate designs, it is
necessary to build and test them - and this is true both for the
biological designs nature produces, and for ones produced by humans.
In the human sphere this process is known as research and
development - and biological evolution employs a broadly analogous
strategy - involving trial and error - in order to produce its natural
In the modern era, evaluation under simulation is a familiar
engineering technique. Bridges are constructed and tested in simulated
environments before being deployed for real. Similarly with
skyscrapers, dams - and other construction projects.
The technique is related to other common tools: rapid prototyping and
Evaulation under simulation can be seen as a type of prototyping or
modelling that is performed in a virtual world.
The benefits of evaulation under simulation are pretty clear
- testing a virtual model helps reduce real-world failure rates -
thereby reducing costs.
Bits of information provide an excellent and highly flexible modelling
material, which can apparently be used to construct and test anything.
A brief history
For the origins of the technique of evaulation under simulation we
must go back millions of years - and look at the origins of brains.
An important function of brains is to act as a simulator of the world,
to allow an organism to predict the likely consequences of its actions
and thereby choose between them.
Brains are virtual reality simulators. Here is Dawkins making the point:
Having a simulation of the world benefits animals in several ways.
One example is male combat. With a world simulator, males no longer
need to actually fight each other to determine who is the
fitter and stronger. They can fight in the simulated environment
provided by their brains, decide who the winner would be if
they did fight, and then avoid actual combat. That can
benefit both parties: the loser of the fight is no longer dead, and
the winner has avoided the risk of getting damaged in the battle.
Venomous animals are among those likely to engage in ritual combat -
because the potential costs of battle are high - and so the benefits
of avoiding real combat are large.
To illustrate this, here are some spiders sizing each other up:
...and here are some snakes - engaged in mock-fighting behaviour:
Another example of male combat is found among male elephant seals.
These often roar at each other, and rear up to estimate each other's
size before going into battle.
[male elephant seal footage]
If they are of equal size and strength then sometimes a real battle
results. However, frequently the loser retreats without much of a
fight - here a dominant male tramples on a baby seal in his effort to
see off a smaller rival.
[footage of male elephant seal in retreat]
It is not just male combat where a simulation of the world is useful.
Female choice is another important area where understanding the
consequences of your actions is useful.
Rather than actually mating with suitors and producing
offspring for natural selection to evaluate, females who have brains
can imagine the consequences of being impregnated by
particular males. This allows them to select males with desirable
traits, such as disease-resistance genes - or the ability to provide
supplementary parental investment. If their brains are working
properly, the females can thus avoid wasting their resources by
investing in unsuitable offspring.
This strategy of evaluation under simulation seems to have been
something that evolution has liked. Brains have enjoyed explosive
growth on the planet - and they are now popular and widely distributed.
However, for a long time, the main development seems to have mostly
involved making brains bigger.
However, in the modern era, evaluation under simulation has
enjoyed further successes in the biosphere - as a result of
intelligent design. Engineers have successfully constructed digital
computing machines that out-perform biological brains in many areas.
These new devices can be made more reliable than brains, can perform
serial computations much faster, and have better memories. They also
interface conveniently to long-distance communications technologies.
It seems likely that their capabilities will continue to improve - and
that in the relatively near future, their functionally will surpass
biological brains in most areas that matter.
A likely result of this seems to be even more extensive use of the
technique of evaluation under simulation.
To recap, evaluation under simulation reduces the costs to
the evolutionary process of performing tests - by executing those tests
in a virtual environment, where building things, testing them, and
discarding the ones that don't work is relatively inexpensive. The
result is faster evolution and so more rapid progress.
The strategy generates benefits directly for the individuals that
employ it. Having a high-quality simulator is useful - and will often
lead to improved fitness.
The virtualisation of conflict
One possible conseqence of the rise of simulation environments
is the virtualisation of much of the world's conflict.
Today, we can see that society has successfully chanelled male
competitive energies into ritualised, mock battles in many cases.
Laws dictate that companies compete economically for resources in a
marketplace - rather than engaging directly in attacking or fighting
behaviour oriented towards acquiring resources by more direct means.
Similarly many nations play football matches with each other - rather
than going to war.
Looking at what happens in nature, ritualised combat often breaks down
when combatants are evenly matched - and neither side can calculate in
advance who the likely winner will be. Then they have to perform their
test in the real world - in order to evaluate their issue.
However, in one respect this can be seen as a consequence of the
limitations of their simulation equipment. With better simulators, the
cases where the outcome would appear to be uncertain to the combatants
would be reduced - and so fewer real-world fights would happen. Also
there are conventions for deciding the outcomes of combats between
evenly matched competitors - rematches, tie-breaks, and so on.
It seems reasonable to expect that the combination of better
simulators, and conventions for deciding outcomes in cases of ties
will reduce the frequency of real-world combat to very low levels.
Already we are witnessing progress in the moral zeitgeist -
and combat is being regarded is increasingly primitive and barbaric.
Warfare is bad for business - and these days, many powerful corporate
and government interests are simply opposed to it. The virtualisation
of warfare seems likely to result in a reduced frequency of real-world
It seems likely that - like slavery - the frequency of real-world
combat situations will be drastically reduced in the future - and that
eventually, most of the evaluations required for evolution to progress
will be performed under simulation.