In the pub on friday night Dan showed me his boids – virtual creatures that evolve in a virtual world according to a genetic algorithm (yes, these are the sorts of friends I have!). He told me that when he made mistakes in the code, the boids seems to evolve to take advantage of it. So there was a bug that meant that predator boids moved quicker when they were with other predator boids. What happened was that the boids exploited this bug and learnt to hunt in packs.
What I found was interesting was my reaction to this – “Cripes!” I thought “How the hell did they work out how to do that?!”. Even though, as a programmer, I knew exactly how much intelligence and autonomy these boids had (none). Even though, as a dyed-in-the-wool evolutionist, I could understand the directionless-logic of a genetic algorithm, some part of me leaped at the chance to ascribe intention to those little coloured triangles as they floated around the screen. Despite years of thinking about evolution, despite knowing that an evolutionary algorithm was an undirected process, that no boid made any decisions, that all that happened was that those boids which had some simple rule that made them associate with other boids moved faster and this made them more likely to be reproduced in the next ‘generation’ and that this meant that pack-like behaviour became more prevalent – despite all this, my instinct was still to ask “Why did they decide to hunt in packs and how did they see it would work”.
It made me realise just how alien the logic of evolution is, that someone like me who is theologically and intellectually predisposed to want to understand it still fails to grasp it instinctively.