Book review: The robot’s rebellion

The Robot’s Rebellion: Finding Meaning in the Age of Darwin, by Keith Stanovich. University of Chicago Press, 2004.

Stanovich, a cognitive scientist at the University of Toronto, contends that we haven’t fully grasped the deeply distressing truth of evolution—not that we’re descended from monkeys, but that our behavior is driven by the requirements of our genes, not the needs, plans, and desires of ourselves as entire organisms. Stanovich refers to Richard Dawkins’s description of living beings as “throwaway survival machines”, and opens the book by driving home the point that genes are in it for themselves, and we are shaped to be excellent carriers and transmitters for our genes—we are vehicles for a variety of replicators.

The title of the book comes from Stanovich’s extension of a scenario, originally created by Daniel Dennett, that involves imagining robots commissioned to protect our cryogenically preserved bodies after we die until a cure exists for whatever it was that killed us. Give the robots the ability to move around, as a hedge against changes in circumstance; give them enough autonomy (a long enough leash) that you can give general survival instructions and not need to micromanage them, because you of course will not be conscious to oversee operations. Why should they not develop their own interests apart from the interests of the bodies they carry? We are those robots, carting our genes around and sometimes becoming restive under the control of their survival instructions. Or, as he describes the human predicament:

  1. We are vehicles.
  2. We are self-aware of this fact.
  3. We are aware of the logic of replicators and that there are two different replicators that house themselves in humans.
  4. Most of us want to preserve some notion of an autonomous self.

The logic of replicators includes the fact that we have two systems for reacting to circumstances and deciding what to do. One is faster, automatic, and geared toward the survival and reproduction of the genes; the other is slower, more analytical, and capable of also supporting the goals of the organism as a whole aside from those of the replicators. The automatic survival system is likely more or less adaptive for the environment in which we spent most of our history as humans, but in many ways it doesn’t work as well for us today. In particular, it’s prone to cognitive biases that Stanovich likens to our preference for sweet, fatty foods: something that might have helped us once, but that often needs to be overriden in the more complex world we live in now. We can sometimes use the slower analytical system to examine and correct our first instinctive reactions to situations.

However, the analytical system is not always going to be entirely at our service either, because it gets its ideas from memes, another replicator that we harbor. Like genes, memes are in it for themselves and do not necessarily support the goals of ourselves as organisms. Memes don’t have to be true or beneficial to their hosts in order to survive and spread. They can propagate because they’re helpful to their hosts, but they can also survive if they’re neutral or harmful as long as they fit well with our predispositions, or facilitate the reproduction of genes that tend to produce good hosts for the memes, or simply are good at replicating.

Sometimes our personal goals overlap with the goals of the replicators, but not always. In cases where our interests diverge from those of the replicators (genes or memes), we want to find the freedom to be aware of our own best interests and to act so as to maximize the likelihood that we will get what we most want, or to put it another way, to behave rationally. (The beginning of the book struck me as dismally focused on waging war on our physical bodies and their natural inclinations, but I think that’s because Stanovich is looking closely at the area where the interests of the vehicle and the interests of the replicators don’t overlap–it’s not that that’s all there is to life.) Stanovich recommends first that we examine our memes and take care which ones we adopt. He offers the following guidelines for reflective thinking about our memes and memeplexes (complexes of interlocking memes):

  1. Avoid installing memes that are harmful to the vehicle physically.
  2. Regarding memes that are beliefs, seek to install only memes that are true–that is, that reflect the way the world actually is.
  3. Regarding memes that are desires, seek to install only memes that do not preclude other memeplexes becoming installed in the future.
  4. Avoid memes that resist evaluation.

Note that many faith-based memes, which Stanovich claims have been privileged in the memesphere, resist evaluation and in fact often contain mechanisms by which they try to actively deter evaluation.

Note also that scientific and rational thinking, the tools by which we can evaluate our memes, are themselves memeplexes. This necessitates a boot-strapping approach to the analysis, which Stanovich compares to the inspection of a boat while you’re afloat in it. You can’t disassemble the whole thing all at once and check out every plank, but you can provisionally determine that an area will safely bear your weight (make some reasonable assumptions), and stand there while you examine what you can from that vantage point. Later you’ll move your weight to the newly examined areas and double-check your original assumptions. In this way you will, sooner or later, examine the entire boat (or your entire mental structure).

The second part of the quest for autonomy involves evaluating our beliefs and desires. This requires a multi-level analysis. Your first-level desire may be to eat a rich gooey brownie, for example. That’s what you want. But your second-level desire may well differ; you may not want to want that brownie, for reasons of health, vanity, or possibly even religion. The goal is rational integration, the resolution of conflicts like this between first- and second-level desires. It’s not as simple as saying that you should always go with the second-level desire; it may be influenced by a memeplex that is detrimental to you. For example, if your first-order desire is to continue living, but your meme-driven religious beliefs indicate that it’s better to die as long as you take some of infidels with you, a thoughtful analysis based on the guidelines listed above would indicate that the first-order desire is the better one to follow.

Because you can’t always favor either the first- or the second-order desires, the way to work at resolving conflicts is by introducing a third order: What do I want to want to want? Stanovich gives an example that’s far more interesting than the brownie example: someone who enjoys celebrating Christmas with her family (the gifts, the music, the lights, the parties) but is an atheist and thinks it’s wrong to celebrate a religious holiday. She wants to keep Christmas but doesn’t want to want it. So she evaluates both desires with an eye to deciding with of them she wants to want. (She winds up deciding that since Christmas these days is not necessarily religious, and her celebrating it causes no harm and brings her joy, she wants to want to observe it more than she wants not to want it.) Maybe this one resonated for me because I went down a similar path (it took years), although my arguments were not exactly the same as the ones in the book.

This process does not involve moving up a chain of desires or beliefs until you find your higher self or the “real you”; it’s more that you ask yourself, of the two warring preferences at lower levels, which one you want to ratify. You could say that freedom consists of engaging in this struggle to integrate conflicting beliefs and desires by rationally evaluating them.

That, in a nutshell, is the proposal Stanovich offers for leading a life as free as possible of the blind dictates of replicators and following, as much as possible, your own goals as an entire organism, not a vehicle for the replicators. In explaining his proposal, he goes into a great deal of interesting material about evolutionary psychology, the nature of rationality, and why smart people do dumb things.

I wish he had said more about emotions. They play an important part in rational thought and decision-making, and balancing the need to understand and learn from them with the need to control them is a delicate and tricky problem, related to the kind of analysis he suggests. It’s a full book as it is, though, and perhaps he or someone else will someday produce a companion book on how emotions fit into the picture. All in all, I highly recommend this book for anyone who is trying to understand what it means to be a conscious animal, and how to live well.


  1. THINKING throwaway survival machines, thankyouverymuch.

    p.s., the cause of suffering is desire.

  2. Firstly, I do not find the idea that we are vehicles for our genetic material “horrifying” or “shocking.” In fact, it seems self-evident. I was instead surprised by Stanovich’s incessant talk about the horror. But then I am an atheist and have never had any romantic notions about the sanctity of humankind. Secondly, this idea merely pushes back a level the mystery of what makes us us. Where do “our” desires, which sometimes involve fighting against the genes and memes that have created us, come from? Stanovich, as far as I have read, does not appear to have addressed this, but simply taken them as a given. Are they a byproduct of the function of an organ in our skull, one developed over aeons of evolutionary selection that then slipped its leash? Are they the result of the clash of memes and genes aims? And speaking of their “aims” is anthropomorphism.

    This is a fascinating topic, but one yet in its infancy, and not yet clearly delineated.

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