Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

Reflexivity, Reproduction, and Evolution: From Von Neumann to Powers

Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

Reflexivity, Reproduction, and Evolution: From Von Neumann to Powers

Article excerpt

This essay explores reflexivity, reproduction, and evolutionary discourse in John von Neumann's "Theory of Self-Reproducing Automata" and, using Maturana and Varela's notion of autopoiesis, connects cybernetic conceptions of reflexivity to Richard Powers's novel, Galatea 2.2. In this novel, it is argued, the reflexive dynamics of cognitive complexity become entangled with anxieties about parenting and evolutionary progress.


Men create because they cannot have babies. This truism is, to say the least, a considerable over-simplification of men's relation to child-bearing. Yet the entanglement of biological reproduction with textual and technological invention cannot be denied. For the last half-century, much technological invention has taken evolution as its central inspiration, while fiction has increasingly found similar inspiration in technological advance. A key challenge for evolution-inspired technology is moving from machines that can simply replicate themselves to machines that can produce offspring more complex than themselves. Technology's emphasis on evolution only strengthens the age-old connections between biological reproduction and technological and textual invention.

This movement from simple reproduction to evolutionary development marks a significant divide. Crucial to this divide is how reflexivity is conceptualized and performed. A comparison between the automata theory of early-twentieth-century computer pioneer John von Neumann and the 1995 Richard Powers novel Galatea 2.2 will illustrate the difference in approaches to reflexivity and reproduction that developed over the half-century that separates the work of these two figures. Their realms of endeavour may seem incommensurable, but Powers himself points out that his novel "itself becomes a kind of artificial intelligence," a cognitive technology designed to operate reflexively on the reader's consciousness (Powers, Interview 62).

An unacknowledged reflexive entanglement linked John von Neumann's late work with his personal life. He began developing his unfinished "Theory of Self-Reproducing Automata" at a time late in his career when he was anxious about his legacy--both intellectual and genetic--and about the future of science. Both personally and professionally, he feared degeneracy in future generations. Von Neumann viewed reflexivity as a threat of devolution, rather than as a potential resource for increasing evolutionary complexity. In automata theory, this concern emerged through a concentration on the question of whether or not an automaton could produce a faithful copy of itself without introducing fatal errors into the reproductive process. In his family life, he worried that his descendants might dwindle to mediocrity. His early death in 1957, at age 54, robbed him of the chance to see the reflexive links between the professional and the personal that might have helped him overcome these concerns.

Powers published Galatea 2.2 thirty-nine years later. In the interim, Humberto Maturana's autopoietic theory of cognition showed how reflexive dynamics in living systems create self-consciousness and lead to increasing cognitive complexity. During the same period, theorists of neural net technology began to work out how this insight could be instantiated in software capable of learning from its errors. As N. Katherine Hayles and Joseph Tabbi have pointed out, Galatea 2.2 foregrounds reflexivity, both in its language, which constantly doubles back on itself to alter initial meaning, as well as in its plot and structure.

Powers's novel sets up resonances between the process of writing fiction, the process of self-creation, and the investigation of cognition. In Galatea 2.2, a thinly-veiled version of the author, a novelist named Rick, fleeing from a failed relationship, takes a year-long fellowship as a "visitor [...] the token humanist" (4) at his home university's new Center for the Study of Advanced Sciences. …

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