How Intelligent Could Life Be Without Natural Selection?

Arik Kershenbaum in Nautilus:

Natural selection seems, at first glance, to be so frustratingly inefficient. Generation after generation of baby gazelles are born, destined to be eaten by lions. Only by chance is one baby born with longer legs, able to run faster, and so escape being eaten. Of course, the very beauty of natural selection is that it doesn’t require any foresight; natural selection explains life in the universe precisely because there is no presumption of any prior knowledge. No Creator is necessary, because the evolutionary process is guaranteed to proceed even without any predefined rules. Life evolves—albeit slowly—without having to know where it’s going.

But what if it were all different? What would life look like if it did know where it was going?

The 1950s physicist Anatoly Dneprov wrote quirky and characteristically Soviet science fiction. His novel Crabs on the Island tells the story of two engineers conducting an experiment in cybernetics on a deserted island. A single self-replicating robot (a “crab”) is released, and forages for the raw materials to build other robots. Soon the island is overrun with baby robot crabs. But the crabs begin to mutate. Some are larger than others, and ruthlessly cannibalize the smaller robots for spare parts to build even larger robots. How would such an experiment end? Catastrophically, of course, as is consistent with the genre, with robot crabs spreading exponentially across the entire island.

Science fiction can be terribly pessimistic, but that pessimism is unfounded. Other factors are at play. Resources are limited. Eventually, even the crabs on the island run out of materials with which to make new robots. Admittedly, humans have caused tremendous damage to our own planet, but we’ve hardly destroyed the universe. In fact, there’s no indication in the night sky that any organism, biological or artificial, has spread its influence as far and wide as we might expect if they were growing exponentially like robot crabs.

More here.