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Denton, Gilder: The Biology of Surprise


Michael Denton and George Gilder are both Discovery Institute Senior Fellows, and each has a new book out, respectively Children of Light and Life After Google. Having highlighted today a pair of excellent interviews with them (here and here), I wanted to point out something others have probably noticed as well, a telling point of overlap in their views.

Denton is a biologist, and Gilder is a technology guru and polymath. Their intellectual paths have been quite different. But whether thinking about the limits of Darwinian theory or the equally severe limits on artificial intelligence, both emphasize surprise.

One of Gilder’s standout insights, derived from information theory, is that information, including biological information, is characterized by surprise. That is also a quality that separates human creativity from machines churning through algorithms. What is creative always comes as a surprise. 

“Non-Adaptive Order”

Denton, meanwhile, came to doubt Darwinian theory, with its reliance on natural selection to explain biological invention, because life is replete with what he calls “non-adaptive order.” That is, structures that don’t serve any conceivable specific adaptive purpose but instead seem to have been selected for other reasons, such as beauty, elegance, or personal taste. Yet Darwin’s evolutionary mechanism is just a blunt recipe, an algorithm, and it can only select what is immediately functional. This is at odds with the evidence of life, which appears to be guided as much by visionary design, full of surprises, as it is by function. Recognizing that was a blow to the young Denton’s confidence in Darwinism.

Watch this short documentary video, The Biology of the Baroque, that features Denton and his thoughts on this theme. It could be retitled The Biology of Surprise. 

Image source: The Biology of the Baroque (screen shot), via Discovery Institute.