The Robot’s Rebellion



I’ve just read a book called The Robot’s Rebellion by Keith Stanovich which was long, repetitive and with too many long words strung together. Even so, the basic ideas were really interesting so I’ll try to outline them here.

DNA came into being on Earth a few billion years ago and gradually built ever more complex vehicles for itself to live in. It clumped together with it’s buddies down there in the primordial soup, the slime and the gunk. Soon there were genes and cells and proto-organisms and God-knows-what else writhing around in the mud and seas and hanging around the sulfurous ocean vents. Over time genes made larger vehicles to move around in that we now call ‘animals’.

It’s important to get things the right way round in your head. Genes don’t serve animals; animals serve genes. An animal is just a gene’s way of getting itself into the next generation. An animal is a gene machine and anything it wants it wants because its genes have programmed it that way. It has no interests over and above those of the genes it serves.

This explains all the junk DNA we have inside us that appears to serve no purpose. From the animal’s point of view it does serve no purpose. Scientists now believe junk DNA isn’t ‘for’ anything, just as you aren’t for anything. It’s just hitching a ride into the next generation.

The interests of a tiger coincide exactly with those of its genes; both the genes and the tiger want it to have tiger cubs. However, if the genetically similar cubs are in danger, the tiger mother is programmed to fight for them, thereby endangering her own life. This trait is in the interest of the tigress’s genes but not really in hers. Yet since she is incapable of thinking through what is best for her rather than her genes there is no internal struggle going on in her tiger brain. She naturally protects her cubs rather than weighing up, ‘Me or my cubs, me or my cubs?’ Such a thought might occur to a human but not to a tigress.

Since humans are also animals we too are built by our genes. However, we are more complicated than tigers because we can think for ourselves. While our genes don’t allow us to choose whether or not to blink when something flies rapidly towards our eyes, they do allow us to some independent thought.

Why did they build us this way? Because in a changing environment genes have more chance of surviving if their human vehicles can respond flexibly to unexpected challenges. This is especially true in the modern environment,which is increasingly shaped by rapidly evolving human culture. Expecting your genes to program in all the right instincts for every evolutionary novel situation is like expecting your granddad to stay up to date with the latest fashions or who is in or out of One Direction. So rather than micro-managing every little thing we do, genes have started programming us with the instruction, ‘Do whatever you think best to survive and reproduce us’. This was a really good idea since humans are now more versatile and able to adapt to an unpredictable world. The unforeseen downside for the genes is that humans have become too reflective and independent-minded until we are now able to go against the wishes of our genetic masters. This is the robot’s rebellion of the title. Just as one day robots may come to dominate the humans who created them, so we have partly taken control of our own destiny.

This is all well and good but a certain amount of conflict arises in the brain of a being pulled one way by its genes and another by what it wants for itself. And the picture is further complicated when our heads were colonised by a different kind of replicator, this time not genes but memes. Memes are ideas that we pick up and copy from the culture around us. They infest our brains without us having much choice about the matter. We don’t so much choose the ideas that fill our heads than they enter our heads, uninvited and without us being aware of it. We catch memes like we catch a cold.

Yet unlike actual diseases, memes aren’t all bad. True ones help us by giving us a realistic picture of how the world works, thereby allowing us to navigate more effectively through it. Such menes as ‘Snakes are dangerous’ and ‘Gravity keeps you stuck to the surface of the earth’ are true and thus useful.

On the other hand, memes that distort reality make it harder for a person to chart a sensible course through the world. ‘You will get 72 virgins when you die a martyr’s death’ and ‘Homeopathy really works!’ are examples of memes that are not true and thus distort reality in the head of the believer. Even so, whether a meme finds a home in a person’s head depends less on how truthful it is than on how well it sells itself. Irrational people are an easy target for untrue memes. (Stanovich makes a clear distinction between intelligence and rationality and says intelligent people often act irrationally. He believes that though IQ tests do indeed measure intelligence pretty well they fail to take rationality into account, which is arguably a more important aspect of cognitive ability than intelligence. Also, you can educate people to think more rationally while it’s almost impossible to raise someone’s intelligence through education).

People very rarely examine the memes that have entered their skulls and even when they do it’s hard for them to tell the true from the false. The only hope is to examine them as impartially and rationally as we can, which is hardly a foolproof exercise but is better than nothing.


When you’re on automatic pilot as most of us are most of the time you are probably just obediently following the wishes of either your genes or your memes. Generally, when you stuff another cream bun into your mouth or find yourself staring at a beautiful girl’s legs you are in the control of your genes. There’s nothing wrong with this as long as it doesn’t go against your own interests. After all, what you and your genes want are often the same thing.

However, when blind rage leads you to purposefully smash into the back of the car that just cut in front of you, you are probably not thinking clearly and are in the grip of your genes. And if find yourself down on your knees and praying in some cold, drafty old church, it is probably an unexamined religious meme that got you there.

Following our genes comes quite naturally to us, just as following our memes comes as second nature. We often ‘go with the flow’, trust our instincts and do what comes naturally. Thinking rationally on the other hand is slow, laborious and requires time and mental energy. The good news is that the more you think things through, the more naturally acting on that thought comes to you. You can form good habits and break bad ones through practice. Acting rationally starts to come naturally. This is your best hope for becoming ‘your own person’: think things through and act on what you believe rather than blindly following your genes and memes.


But who is this ‘real you’ independent of your genes and memes and where did it suddenly spring from? Beats me. It is probably something you didn’t have as a baby but which increased in influence as you got older. In the same way that there was a time time when humans didn’t have this self but slowly evolved one, the same is probably true at an individual level. I’m not sure Keith Stanovich actually says this but it is what I assume happened.

You could also view this self like Neo in The Matrix. Before he chose to take the red pill he was just an automaton attached to the motherboard of some super-computer. Yet after taking it he was freed from his chains and became someone. His genes and memes can be seen as Agent Smith.

So the way to escape being bossed around by your genes and memes is to think as rationally as you can, rather than thinking with your gut. You should ask yourself whether your genes’ interests coincide with your own. If they do then fine, you can stay on autopilot since this is easy and relaxing. But if you come across something you do or think that makes sense only from the perspective of your genes or memes and is damaging to you, then you should place your interests above theirs.

As an example, your genes might be telling you to have another Quarter Pounder with fries and a vanilla milkshake to wash it all down but your rational mind might tell you that this will clog up your arteries and make you fat and unattractive. Since you want to attract a mate, you should resist. Your genes can’t think very far ahead – but you can.

And though the local Imam might tell you that blowing yourself up will be bring you glory in heaven, on closer inspection you might conclude that there is little evidence for this and you would be better off ignoring the bearded-one since blowing yourself up isn’t good for your health, though it might advance the Islamist meme.

Some people are addicted to drugs but never give a second thought as to whether it’s good for them or not. These people are like unthinking automatons who lazily do the bidding of their masters. Other people are addicted to drugs but would like to kick the habit. They are conflicted because their actions don’t coincide with what their rational self wants. Still other people are addicted to drugs and after thinking about it decide they are happy enough being addicted. These people are neither automatons nor conflicted because their actions align well with what their rational self wants (or thinks it wants. There is such a thing as false consciousness and it’s possible to believe you want something that really you don’t want). Anyway, only this second group is conflicted. Conflict is a far from ideal state and the only way to leave this group is to either break your addiction by mustering some good old-fashioned willpower or to come to terms with your addiction and accept it with good grace. This way you may still die from the effects of your addiction but at least you’ll die ‘unconflicted’.

Stanovich likens the project of submitting your beliefs to self-scrutiny to repairing a ship while at sea. Since there is no dry land to stand on while you repair your ship’s rotten planks you must instead find the plank that looks most secure and stand on that while replacing an obviously rotten one. There may come a time when the plank you stood on while replacing all the other around it will also have to be replaced. Even so, little by little it is possible to achieve a truer picture of the world. Again, this is far from being a foolproof undertaking but at least you’re making the best of an imperfect situation.

Once you start questioning what your genes and memes are telling you you begin to become ‘the real you’. It is a ‘you’ that is on a higher plane to your animalistic, childish, id-driven you that loves cream buns. It is also on a higher plane to the ‘you’ who passively absorbs unexamined ideas like Communism or diversity. (After all, if diversity is such a strength, why do we need diversity managers?) Who you are then changes from being a matter of random chance – you were born to random parents in a random place at a random time, none of which you chose – to you becoming, to some extent, a self-made person. You have examined your beliefs and kept some, discarded others and taken on new ones.

So even though none of us is able to choose his origins or eliminate the randomness of our origins, we can still examine our behaviour and beliefs and bring these into line with what our rational, higher self desires. In so doing we become properly aligned with our true selves and become a unified, unconflicted self.


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