Church in the Matrix

George Church is from the Department of Genetics at Harvard Medical School. He makes a couple of very interesting comments that show subtle, but very striking, parallels with The Design Matrix. Let me post a few examples :

Church says:

In terms of past and future, what have we learned from the past, how does that help us design the future, what would we like it to do in the future, how do we know what we should be doing? (emphasis added)


I’m a little more interested in the future than the past, but I don’t dismiss it either.

Now, I should also point out that Church is playing a lead role in the development of synthetic life. As such, this is a nice example of a designer who, while engaged in designing life, already has his eye on the future, “how does that help us design the future?”

In The Design Matrix I outline the logic of front-loading evolution. I note, “Front-loading, by definition, is about designing the future through the present.” I ask, “How does one design future states through the present?” I propose, “We get a better understanding of the past by understanding its future” and “When viewed from this perspective, the purpose of life’s design had to do with the future. The design was intended to reach beyond the original life forms.” Again, all of these points, and more, are weaved into the first and only systematic case for front-loading evolution.

So how does a designer connect his designs to the future? From the DM:

The self-perpetuation of a design is called replication or reproduction…..Reproduction is the means to forward a design into the future.

From the teleological perspective, reproduction is the means by which we can carry design into the future without the need for continual interventions on the part of the designer.

So what is Church currently contemplating?

Both Shannon’s theory and chemical entropy would say that’s a very complicated thing. But what we mean by a living complexity is more like, you’ve taken something very rare like that mineral, made almost an exact copy of it, and that’s replicated complexity. This very unlikely object isn’t really any more unlikely than another rock because they’re kind of random “” their compositional nature is known. But if you made an exact copy of that rock, or nearly an exact one, that would be interesting. That would be indicative that there’s some sort of living process, some living thing was involved. It could have been some 3-D photocopier, but that 3-D photocopier was probably made by an intelligent being. It could be that the rock had the ability to replicate. (emphasis added)

Ah yes, “replicated complexity.” The front-loading designer simply makes the next logical step. Instead of that 3-D photocopier being something apart from the replicated design, it is fused to the core of the designed thing to make replication part of its essence. Life, design, and future – all in one package.

Church also adds:

That’s what we mean when we’re talking about basic life. And that’s sort of what we’re trying to get at when we’re doing synthetic biology; we’re trying to increase diversity, increase replicated complexity, and maintain our ability to continue to do that for many many years, and we don’t want to endanger that by doing something that’s too risky.

Whoa. The design of life comes with the design objectives of increasing diversity and increasing replicated complexity, while maintaining the ability to continue the input from design. What you have here, in embryonic form, is the thinking of a front-loading designer.

To design life is to design evolution. Eventually, the designers will have to confront the following question (again, from the DM):

If a designer is trying to use reproduction to perpetuate a design far into the future, how does one control for all the noise that Darwinian evolution will produce along the way?

Now, I should point out that I am not trying to imply that Church is some type of closet IDer or sympathetic to ID. On the contrary, the significance of the echoes is stronger when you consider that Church is not in anyway associated with ID and would probably dismiss it as nonsense.

The critics of ID have long stated we needed independent evidence of the designers before we can make any judgment about design. And, of course, we have no such independent evidence.

Ah, but that’s where Church comes in.

He is a designer and he is trying to design life. He, in essence, doesn’t know we’re watching and becomes a model – a model for a designer of life. And oddly enough, as the DM ponders what biology has taught us about life and potential ways evolution could be designed, it effectively sketches out the broad outlines of ….George Church. In an oblique sort of way, Church’s timely musings, luckily and conveniently captured by Edge, have worked to throw a bit of corroboration toward my speculations about how “natural” life may have been designed. Consider some more excerpts:

LLOYD: Are you imputing that there’s a virtue in increased complexity somehow?

CHURCH: I’m trying to make that argument. There might be a virtue in carefully contemplating not just short-term diversity, but longish-term, to the extent that we can calculate that, which we can’t right now. But it’s desirable to be able to calculate that as well as we can

The seeds of front-loading are all present. Just prior to this, Church was talking about design and replicated complexity, and here he not only sees a virtue in increased complexity, but is clearly interested in contemplating long-term effects.

But what will really bake your noodle (if, you have read The Design Matrix) is this – Church then begins to describe two types of intelligence:

There’s analytic intelligence and synthetic. And I would argue that life is sort of this replicated complexity, or mutual information, where given the molecules in this leaf we can predict the arrangement of structures in the other leaf. In other words, we know a lot about this thing “” even within the leaf there’s replicated complexity that is somewhat predictable “” and so that mapping, that mutual information, is predictive life in general. But the mutual information is something where one structure will reflect the structure of something at a distance “” especially if you can reflect something distant in time without actually causing it. Intelligence is anticipating things in the future, without causing them. That would be analytic intelligence. Again, it’s replicated complexity “” or mutual information, even better “” where there’s a relationship between the two locations, but you anticipate. That’s analytic.


Synthetic’s harder, because if you synthesize something you’ve used your analytic intelligence to make a plan and then make a replicated complexity of some sort at a distance, but you’ve done it. There’s a cause and effect. And how do you distinguish between that and, say, the sun having patterned light onto the earth, and that has a cause and effect which isn’t necessarily what we would recognize as intelligence. I’m still struggling with this, but I think synthetic intelligence would be something that in some way or another would enhance the analytic intelligence “” the ability of ours to predict what’s going to happen in the future. So we synthesize something that will increase our ability to, say, survive as a species, to get off the planet because we know an asteroid is coming ? Various things that we would recognize as long-term intelligent behavior. Something we need to embrace is our ability to do that.

My, this is very similar to something I write about – passive front-loading and active front-loading.

It’s fun being on the right track!


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