Sunday, October 12, 2008

Dawkins, Computer Viruses & Evolution

Greg’s report of computer-generated virtual creatures caused me to reread an old (1991) Richard Dawkins essay entitled Viruses of the Mind.  Tucked into his criticism of faith were a number of observations re computer viruses.  While Dawkins doesn’t claim that they “evolve”, he points to a number of features that selectively render computer viruses more transmittable (and more likely to reproduce).  While this doesn’t quite rise to “evolution”, it does come close.  Coupling computer viruses with a mechanism such as described by Lee Graham could lead to ever more “life-like” viruses with respect to reproducibility and adaptive means.  Dawkins suggests that future computer viruses may mutate and evolve by true natural selection and notes that “whether their evolution is steered by human designers may not make much difference to their eventually performance.”
Darwinian features of computer viruses include:

  • DNA viruses and computer viruses spread for the same reason: an environment exists in which there is machinery set well set up to duplicate and spread them around and to execute the instructions that the viruses embody.   Their success depends upon their ability to reproduce.
  • The practice of viruses being activated on a particular date is analogous to the Medawar/Williams theory of ageing (hosts are often victim of lethal and sub-lethal genes that are expressed only after the host has had time to reproduce).  By allowing a long dormancy period, the virus is able to infect more computers.
  • “A virus that clones itself too prolifically will soon be detected and annihilated” (a Darwinian disadvantage).  To circumvent this, many viruses examine their target host and determine if the host is already infected.  This ability is often exploited by antivirus software, which disables the malicious code of the virus, leaving its external signature (which Dawkins likens to a viral protein coat) intact.
  • A “computer virus that is too virulent will be rapidly detected and scotched”.  A virus that sabotages every computer it infects will not be effective because its ability to thrive depends upon the host.
  • Some viruses evade detection by being triggered probabilistically (i.e. erasing only one in sixteen of the disks they infect).

Some of Dawkins other ideas don’t stand the test of time. 

  • Dawkins spoke of a future in which computer systems would be advertised as being compatible with all viruses registered before a particular date (which presupposed a world wide entity that would register viruses).
  • “Gangs of mutually compatible viruses might grow up, in the same way as genomes can be regarded as gangs of mutually compatible genes.”  He later talks about “a time when … computer viruses may evolve toward compatibility with other viruses, to form communities or gangs.”
Cy Ashley Webb


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