Excerpt from The Selfish Gene

The following passage caught my eye when I read Richard Dawkin’s “Selfish Genes and Selfish Memes” (1976).

Computers do not yet play chess as well as human grand masters, but they have reached the standard of a good amateur. More strictly, one should say programs have reached the standard of a good amateur, for a chess-playing program is not fussy which physical computer it uses to act out its skills. Now, what is the role of the human programmer? First, he is definitely not manipulating the computer from moment to moment, like a puppeteer pulling strings. That would be just cheating. He writes the program, puts it in the computer, and then the computer is on its own: there is no further human intervention, except for the opponent typing in his moves. Does the programmer perhaps anticipate all possible chess positions and provide the computer with a long list of good moves, one for each possible contingency? Most certainly not, because the number of possible positions in chess is so great that the world would come to an end before the list had been completed. For the same reason, the computer cannot possibly be programmed to try out ‘in its head’ all possible moves, and all possible follow-ups, until it finds a winning strategy. There are more possible games of chess than there are atoms in the galaxy. So much for the trivial nonsolutions to the problem of programming a computer to play chess. It is in fact an exceedingly difficult problem, and it is hardly surprising that the best programs have still not achieved grand master status.

The programmer’s actual role is rather more like that of a father teaching his son to play chess. He tells the computer the basic moves of the game, not separately for every possible starting position, but in terms of more economically expressed rules. He does not literally say in plain English ‘bishops move in a diagonal’, but he does say something mathematically equivalent, such as, though more briefly: ‘New coordinates of bishop are obtained from old coordinates, by adding the same constant, though not necessarily with the same sign, to both old x coordinate and old y coordinate’. Then he might program in some ‘advice’, written in the same sort of mathematical or logical language, but amounting in human terms to hints such as ‘don’t leave your king unguarded’, or useful tricks such as ‘forking’ with the knight. The details are intriguing, but they would take
us too far afield. The important point is this: When it is actually playing, the computer is on its own and can expect no help from its master. All the programmer can do is to set the computer up beforehand in the best way possible, with a proper balance between lists of specific knowledge and hints about strategies and techniques.

The genes too control the behavior of their survival machines, not directly with their fingers on puppet strings, but indirectly like the computer programmer. All they can do is to set it up beforehand; then the survival machine is on its own, and the genes can only sit passively inside.

In the last paragraph, Dawkins is closing out his analogy between genes and computer programs.

I read this in The Mind’s I (Hostadter, Dennett), but it was originally published in Dawkin’s The Selfish Gene. Read the entire essay online [PDF] or you can buy the book.

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