Evolution Icon Evolution
Intelligent Design Icon Intelligent Design

Computers Are Not Darwin Machines

Most people think computers are built by intelligent design. How on earth can you say their development follows Darwin’s mechanism of “survival of the fittest”? Yet an article at Science Daily announces, “‘Survival of the Fittest’ Now Applies to Computers: Surprising Similarities Found Between Genetic and Computer Codes.” (Emphasis added.) Certain similarities between Linux code and bacterial genomes may obtain, but one thing should be clear: they are not Darwinian.
Sergei Maslov, a researcher at Brookhaven National Laboratory, holds appointments in physics and quantitative biology. His grad student, Tin Yau Pang, assisted with the mathematical model. Their idea was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. What were the peer reviewers thinking?

Darwin’s theory of “survival of the fittest” originally referred to natural selection in biological systems, but new research from Brookhaven National Laboratory and Stony Brook University scientists shows that this evolutionary theory also applies to technological systems.

But the essence of Darwinian evolution is aimless, purposeless churning via unguided natural processes, with no design or intelligence. If Linux code behaved that way, woe unto users of Linux!
What the authors found, instead, was irreducible complexity — marks of intelligent design:

Maslov and Pang set out to determine not only why some specialized genes or computer programs are very common while others are fairly rare, but to see how many components in any system are so important that they can’t be eliminated.
“If a bacteria genome doesn’t have a particular gene, it will be dead on arrival,” Maslov said. “How many of those genes are there? The same goes for large software systems. They have multiple components that work together and the systems require just the right components working together to thrive.‘”

That’s the point: multiple working parts essential for function is not “survival of the fittest” the way Darwin meant it. It’s what Michael Behe meant by his term irreducible complexity. How did the essential modules in Linux code originate? By intelligent design, obviously. A similar inference can be made for bacterial codes. Darwinism cannot account for the arrival of the fittest in either case. We know that programmers applied their purposeful minds to writing Linux code. In the case of bacteria, while we cannot observe the designer of their codes at work, we can infer design from the function of multiple interdependent parts. As Paul Nelson says, “If something works, it’s not happening by accident.”
Having got a major conceptual blunder past the peer reviewers, Maslov and Tin proceeded to describe intelligent design in their own words.

“It is almost expected that the frequency of usage of any component is correlated with how many other components depend on it,” said Maslov. “But we found that we can determine the number of crucial components — those without which other components couldn’t function — by a simple calculation that holds true both in biological systems and computer systems.”

What they really found, then, was a large number of essential components in both codes, without which either would be “dead on arrival.” These are “key components that are so important that not a single other piece can get by without them.” Behe could hardly have expressed it better.
Another blunder they commit is to lump open-source software with horizontal gene transfer, and to characterize them both as Darwinian processes. Why do Linux users favor essential routines? Clearly, because they work — they faithfully execute planned functions. Without intelligent design they would be useless and meaningless. If bacteria share “routines” by an analogous method of “file sharing” because they work, Maslov should have inferred design, not “survival of the fittest.”
It’s possible that Maslov and Tin were trying to attract attention to their paper with the use of the iconic phrase “survival of the fittest,” because the abstract of their paper says nothing about that. On the contrary: design permeates what they did and what they found:

Bacterial genomes and large-scale computer software projects both consist of a large number of components (genes or software packages) connected via a network of mutual dependencies. Components can be easily added or removed from individual systems, and their use frequencies vary over many orders of magnitude. We study this frequency distribution in genomes of ?500 bacterial species and in over 2 million Linux computers and find that in both cases it is described by the same scale-free power-law distribution with an additional peak near the tail of the distribution corresponding to nearly universal components. We argue that the existence of a power law distribution of frequencies of components is a general property of any modular system with a multilayered dependency network. We demonstrate that the frequency of a component is positively correlated with its dependency degree given by the total number of upstream components whose operation directly or indirectly depends on the selected component. The observed frequency/dependency degree distributions are reproduced in a simple mathematically tractable model introduced and analyzed in this study.

The lack of clarity about the distinction between Darwinian evolution and intelligent design leads to many abuses of the terms. One can imagine what would have happened, though, if the authors had promoted their paper with a headline that read, “Irreducible Complexity Now Applies to Computers.”