By Robert Hickson 21/05/2016

Here’s a really absurd mis-reading of biology from a Professor of History in a Huffington Post interview:

The whole of biology since Darwin can be summarized in three words: “Organisms are algorithms.”

I wasn’t aware that we were living in the Matrix.

This is the type of talk you most commonly hear from Silicon Valley folk talking or writing about technological progress and what they see as our future.

What do they mean? An algorithm is usually defined as:

“A process or set of rules to be followed in calculations or other problem-solving operations, especially by a computer.”

As a metaphor, it is just an updating of the older view that bodies are machines. But it just doesn’t compute. A petunia, E. coli, or a kakapo isn’t a process or set of rules. Each has a physiology and set of behaviours that may help solve problems, but they’re not optimised pieces of biological software.

I’ve written previously about the use of metaphors and how they can matter. In this case, it’s being used to imply that conceptually, merging bodies and machines is a logical and achievable progression.

The Professor goes on

“The basic insight which unites the biological with the electronic is that bodies and brains are also algorithms. Hence the wall between machines and humans, between computer science and biology, is collapsing and I think the next century and probably the future of life itself will be shaped by this algorithmic view of the world.”


I’d call that blindsight rather than insight.

Robert Epstein discusses the vacuousness of considering the brain as a computer, noting as well that various metaphors have been applied to the brain over the centuries. The metaphors reflect the prevailing technological development – hydraulics, engines, computers. While they can be useful as a shorthand communication tool, they usually fail to describe how the organ or organism actually functions. Rather than aiding the technological endeavour, they can mislead it.

Sure, in the future many will probably have the option of getting some physical and mental help from hardware and software. However, most of us will want to be better humans with non-programmed idiosyncrasies not optimised sub-routines.

I’ll always prefer to enjoy some of my views of the world from the perspective of natural science rather than computer science.



Featured image: CC pixabay

A robotic “Cambrian explosion”?