Darwin and spam, part deux

Following the BackSpin column “Darwin and spam”, I got a fair amount of feedback. Reader Brian Fahrenheit (a pseudonym because, he claims, his letters get him in hot water) wrote: “Your article on spam eradication states all attempts to kill spammers actually contribute to their survival. This curious phrasing of Darwin’s thesis is correct if spammers have the means to adapt to all eradication attempts.”

Correct, I did contend that attempts at getting rid of spammers contribute to their survival but it is their survival collectively, not individually. This leads to Fahrenheit’s second statement that my phrasing of Darwin’s thesis is “curious.” Darwinian evolution is inherent in all systems of imperfectly replicating discrete entities that compete for resources in a shared finite environment.

Consider frogs breeding happily in a stream. One day arsenic leaches into the water. Some frogs are very sensitive and die off producing no offspring, while less sensitive ones manage to produce a few offspring before they die.

For a while the reproduction rate of frogs is low, but the imperfect copying mechanism eventually produces frogs that can tolerate arsenic. The new version of the frogs starts to reproduce at a greater rate than the poorly tolerant ones, and in a few generations their duplication instructions, their genome, becomes dominant. Eventually only arsenic-tolerant frogs will be in the stream.

The same principles apply to spammers: Given low doses of arsenic … er, sorry, being whacked out of existence by laws, a few spammers eventually will appear that are capable of surviving those laws.

Reader Bob Moulton pointed out that the same “principle applies to … digital rights management copy protection. We’re just breeding a better species of crackers. Witness the Starforce protection scheme, which was cracked the day after it was released.”

You might argue that because human brains full of ideas, emotions and a desire to drink tea are involved, Darwinian forces don’t apply, but just consider: Most of the guys who run the biggest corporations in the world aren’t Einsteins. That’s not to say they aren’t really smart, just that they aren’t the smartest folks out there, but they are the best adapted to running corporations.

What is different about human brains is that the ability to spam or run a large corporation can be learned and passed on by teaching, or by example, to those who are smart enough. Why are some people smart enough?

Darwinian evolution ensured they pick up ideas and skills effectively — something that in the physical world of thousands of years ago was highly survival-oriented. And here’s a subtle issue: While the rewards of running a huge company successfully or sending out lots of spam are obvious in terms of financial gain, along with the cash comes biological advantages.

Ever see an old, rich, fat guy with an attractive, young wife? The chances are high that his genes, which we know are associated with a high level of survival skills, will be passed on. Humans are adapted to recognize such clues because they are survival-oriented, which is what evolution is all about.

But hackers in general don’t make money or gain reproductive advantage, so is their evolution Darwinian? Sure it is. Moulton gave a good example: “Of the last four games [my son] bought … two were great and two were dreck. At $50+ a pop and that poor a good-to-junk ratio, the game makers (and record/movie companies) are just giving crackers and sharers incentives not to pay.”

In any human activity where there is a course of action with a great enough incentive, humans have evolved to try to take advantage, even when the risk is relatively great. The result is that Darwinian-style evolution is creating humans who get better at anything with a desirable payoff, whether it be spamming, hacking or running large corporations.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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