Saturday, November 6, 2010

The Great Programmer

In his blog, Scott Adams (the creator of Dilbert, for those of you who have been holed up in a cave) has, on occasion, mused that we may be nothing more than an elaborate hologram or computer program created and run by some higher being. In one example he cites having had a vision, earlier in life, about becoming famous which, in a very real sense, he did. He postulates that he may, in fact, be nothing more than a holographic self-portrait of the higher being that actually created him.

I like Adams, but many of his theories evoke a decided "yeah, right!" from me. This one certainly did. Until I started watching nature shows.

Ever since I got a wide-screen, high-definition TV, I've really gotten into the BBC Earth documentaries such as "Planet Earth" and, most recently, "Life" (the version narrated by David Attenborough, not Opra Winfrey, thank-you-very-much!)

If you'll bear with my going off on a tangent for a moment, I can't resist noting that my dad, who enjoyed all kinds of nature shows, would have loved these documentaries, especially on high-definition display technology. It's a shame he didn't live to enjoy them.

Getting back on topic, these nature documentaries have reminded me of something for which I have no rational explanation, nor has anybody else as far as I know. More incredibly, extending Adams' theory that humans are nothing more than computer programs to include the animal world as well would provide as credible an explanation for this phenomenon as any other. The phenomenon? In a word, instinct.

"The Pocket Oxford Dictionary" (which happens to be the only dictionary that I have handy while writing this) defines instinct as the "Innate propensity, esp. in lower animals, to seemingly rational acts; innate impulse or behaviour; intuition". In other words, it's that "magical" gift that animals have for knowing what to do and how to do it, without actually having to learn it. All cats wash themselves regularly. Momma cat doesn't have to teach them this. It's an instinct.

That was a simple example. The Monarch butterfly provides us with a much more incredible one. Each fall, great swarms of Monarch butterflies fly from southern Canada, across the North American continent, over 3,100 miles, to converge in a small town in Michoagan, Mexico, where they mate. In the spring, their offspring migrates northward, back to Canada. Since the lifespan of a Monarch butterfly is only a few months, none of them ever make the trip more than once. Each makes a one-way trip, then spawns and dies. So how does each new generation know exactly where to go, or how to get there?

The male garibaldi (no relation to Giuseppe Garibaldi, the Italian political activist), an orange, tropical fish that looks like a goldfish, prepares a nest, entices the female to lay her eggs in it, and then fertilizes them and chases her off, since she's likely to eat the eggs if given the chance. How does the male know this? And why isn't he tempted to eat the eggs?

We call it instinct, but I can't help noticing that instinctive behavior of this sort is very similar to the behavior of a computer program that's been hard-coded to perform a given function. The computer isn't taught by other computers. It doesn't take it upon itself to search Google for instructions on how to open a window or play a video or send and receive e-mails. Some programmer has given it those instructions and, as a result, it simply knows. Electronic instinct.

Maybe Scott Adams' idea isn't so far-fetched after all. Maybe there is a Great Programmer, and the reality that we perceive is just His program, executing its routines. On a darker note, as I observe the world and I witness the on-going unrest in the middle east, the increasing economic disparity between the wealthy few and the proletariat masses, and man-made ecological disasters such as last summer's BP oil rig explosion in the Gulf of Mexico, I can't help but muse as to whether we share more in common with software bugs and computer viruses than we do with useful programs.


Martin said...

As you know, my undergraduate degree is in psychology, and many of my studies focused specifically on "animal cognition." The general belief among scientists is that instinct is a result of "hard-wiring", developed through the process of evolution. Geese are wired to go south for the winter. Babies are wired with the "rooting reflex", which means they instinctively move their mouths towards a nipple. Just like the physical adaptations we usually associate with evolution, behavioural adaptations (or instinct) are crucial for the survival of a species.

Tubes said...

I was thinking that many young adults, once a year, converge on Ft. Lauderdale, many having also never been there before, to mate. How did they know where to go? What to drink? What to wear? Where the wet t-shirt competitions are?