Darwin Among the Machines tells the story of humankind’s journey into the digital wilderness. Introducing a cast of familiar and not-so-familiar characters, historian of science George B. Dyson traces the course of the information revolution, illuminating the lives and work of visionaries—from Thomas Hobbes to John von Neumann—who foresaw the development of artificial intelligence, artificial life, and artificial mind.
This profound and elegant book derives both its title and its outlook from Samuel Butler’s 1863 essay, “Darwin Among the Machines.” Observing the beginnings of miniaturization, self-reproduction, and telecommunication among machines, Butler predicted that nature’s intelligence, only temporarily subservient to technology, would resurface to claim our creations as her own. Updating Butler’s arguments, Dyson distills the historical record to chronicle the origins of digital telecommunications and the evolution of digital computers, beginning long before the time of Darwin and exploring the limits of Darwinian evolution to suggest what lies beyond. Weaving a cohesive narrative of his brilliant predecessors, Dyson constructs a straightforward, convincing, and occasionally frightening view of the evolution of mind in the global network, on a level transcending our own. Dyson concludes that we are in the midst of an experiment that echoes the prehistory of human intelligence and the origins of life.
Just as the exchange of coded molecular instructions brought life as we know it to the early earth’s primordial soup, and as language and mind combined to form the culture in which we live, so, in the digital universe, are computer programs and worldwide networks combining to produce an evolutionary theater in which the distinctions between nature and technology are increasingly obscured. Nature, argues Dyson, is on the side of the machines.