The Unexpected Link Between Charles Darwin and Charles Babbage


Most people are familiar with Charles Darwin, and his theory of evolution by natural selection. Far less are aquatinted with Charles Babbage and his contributions to creating the computers that dominate the 21st century. The point of this short piece is to show that both men were revolutionary thinkers, approaching the world from new angles. Further, each man’s contribution is not only stunning in its own right, but the combination of both bodies of work, is more profound and essential, than either Charles Darwin or Charles Babbage, could ever have imagined.

The Unexpected Link Between Charles Darwin and Charles Babbage

It is perhaps worth taking a moment to recognize the distinction, between Darwin’s procedural thinking which was integral to his theory of evolution by natural selection, and the pervasive thinking at the time. Many contemporaries of Darwin believed that the world, and particularly the biosphere, consisted of what were, in some sense, fundamentally inalterable forms. Prototypes that could not be made by dynamic processes in nature, but instead required some supernatural act of divine creation.

I want to briefly shed light on a connection between the theory of evolution, and the development of computational devices. Many people don’t realize how much the two are related, 1.

Great Minds Think Alike, But Differently

During the time Charles Darwin was doing much of the hard work developing his theory of evolution by natural selection, there was another Charles, dreaming of world-changing ideas. A man whose thinking was highly relevant to Darwin’s work in retrospect, though few if any could have known that at the time.

Charles Babbage, an English polymath and inventor, was creating plans to build a machine called the ‘Analytical Engine”, sometime around 1837. At the time, few if any really had much of an idea for what Babbage was up to, though I suspect Leibniz could have gotten there as well. The key point for this discussion is that, Babbage was in the process of trying to build what we now recognize as perhaps the first “Turing Complete”2 mechanical computer. So, what you may ask, does this have to do with Darwin’s theory of natural selection?

The key point is to recognize that in the 19th century, humans as a species were undergoing a change in thinking that was largely unprecedented. A paradigm change with ramifications that are still shaking the foundations of human knowledge, in the present day.

At the core of this groundbreaking tide, that would leave no field of inquiry untouched, was the accession of viewing the world, in terms of simple rules and processes. These would gradually begin to take over, on the mantel of explanatory models, from the static forms and unexplainable miracles, that had been the standard for so long.

If you think about Darwin’s theory of natural selection, outside of the actual animals and plants it pertains to, you can see something far more general. You can see that Darwin, perhaps unknowingly, was telling us something about the world that extended well beyond the origin of species. Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection, was not only applicable to explaining how new species could be created without humans, or gods, as it might seem at first glance. In a broader sense, and with the benefit of hindsight, we can see it is also about how processes could run in the world to generate all manner of complex forms, both biological, and otherwise. Processes that would appear on the surface, to require intelligence and intention, from a top-down vantage point3.

I am not certain how much of a mere coincidence it is that in 1837, you had Charles Darwin developing his theory of natural selection, at the same time that Charles Babbage was inventing perhaps the first universal “computer”. Further, Ada Lovelace, a main collaborator with Babbage, became arguably the first computer programmer by figuring out how to encode various operations, that could be run on Babbage’s theoretical mechanical computer.

It might seem strange that the work of Charles Babbage and Charles Darwin, who seem utterly unrelated on the surface, would turn out to be very much in close relation to each other. One cannot help but to feel an almost uncanny sense of synchronicity, for the shared time and place, when both of these men began to change the world with their thoughts. I think it may have been largely an effect of the era. The world was changing from being pastoral and agrarian, to becoming increasingly mechanical and industrial. Where humans had once viewed themselves as being insignificant pawns under the gods, they were now creating factories, and ships, and global empires. In the old world, humans had to look to their own bodies to perform labor, or to beasts of burden, that were selectively bred for domesticated use. The kinds of animals that Darwin initially studied to understand the power of selection, in this case human selection, to change and mold species.

Changing Times

Although 19th century minds were often slow to take up the radical ideas of Darwin and Babbage, they were not the first geniuses to nudge us toward new horizons. Glimmers of revolutionary and powerful ways to think about the world, in procedural and mathematical ways, had existed before Darwin and Babbage.

Isaac Newton had published his masterwork “Philosiphae Naturalis Pricipia Mathematica” (Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy) in 1687, almost 150 years prior to the work of Darwin and Babbage. What is particularly striking and relevant, is that Newton’s laws of motion, applied to celestial bodies such as stars and moons, just as they did to humble rocks and apples on earth. This was shocking to some people, because it suggested that there were ways to think of the world, that did not Balkanize it into artificial domains of say “heavenly bodies” and “common objects”. Further, the fact that Newtonian laws of motion worked so well4, made their practical value hard to argue with, regardless of one’s belief system. That said, equations alone, would not be the great change agents in a world of religious obedience. It was one thing to perhaps be able to predict that trajectory of canon balls, which the military was obviously quite interested in. That said, this kind of application can still feel incidental and irrelevant to life’s big questions (unless, of course the accuracy of that cannonball calculation, determines your life or death in on the battlefield).

I think there is some real power in the phrase “seeing is believing”. By the mid-1800s, humans had machines, that harnessed the power of steam and combustion, to do more work than any man or animal was capable of. So, bit by bit, there starts to be a sense, that there are perhaps other ways to think about the world, that are explicitly mechanistic, and devoid of divine intervention. Other ways of thinking, that do not merely describe the world as god made it, but instead enabled humans to start changing it in radical ways that would have seemed “godlike”, to farmers in the dark ages.

All of this was “in the air” so to speak, both literally, and metaphorically. I think that sometimes, even without knowing it, our ideas take on a life and trajectory of their own. They may filter through all kinds of unpredictable channels, to cross pollinate with other minds, and become the seeds for thoughts their originators would never even dream of.

The Common Link

What Darwin was saying about nature, most likely without knowing it, is similar to what Babbage was saying about calculation and computation. The common link, is that the world can be conceived of as a system that can run programs5. In the case of evolution by natural selection, it’s that nature itself, through the process of many simple programs running at all different scales, can output biological forms. Species and individuals, that would appear at first glance as if they had been designed or selected, by an intentional and intelligent being.

“…if a little pollen were carried, at first occasionally and then habitually, by the pollen-devouring insects from flower to flower, and a cross thus effected, although nine-tenths of the pollen were destroyed it might still be a great gain to the plant to be thus robbed; and the individuals which produced more and more pollen, and had larger anthers, would be selected.” — Charles Darwin, The Origin of Species

Charles Babbage echoes a similar sentiment in a way that is very close to a generalized and abstract rendition, of Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection.

“In the works of the Creator ever open to our examination, we possess a firm basis on which to raise the superstructure of an enlightened creed. The more man inquires into the laws which regulate the material universe, the more he is convinced that all its varied forms arise from the action of a few simple principles.“ — Charles Babbage, Passages from the life of a philosopher, The Belief In The Creator From His Works, p. 402 (1864)6

In turn, this notion that you could have a system, that could not just do one thing, but could implement any program you wanted, was the spark that lead from Babbage’s thinking, to the technology of the 21st century.

This kind of computational/procedural/programatic thinking, was just too much for many contemporaries of Darwin and Babbage, to accept.

“Propose to an Englishman any principle, or any instrument, however admirable, and you will observe that the whole effort of the English mind is directed to find a difficulty, a defect, or an impossibility in it. If you speak to him of a machine for peeling a potato, he will pronounce it impossible: if you peel a potato with it before his eyes, he will declare it useless, because it will not slice a pineapple.” — Charles Babbage, Thoughts on the Principle of Taxation (3rd ed. 1852) preface

I suppose we should cut them some slack because almost 150 years later, these are still difficult concepts to grapple with. The big difference is that we now live in a world where we can actually use electronic computers, the decedents of Charles Babbage’s Analytical Engine, to simulate Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection. By combining the insights of both men, we can really start to see, how the machinery of nature could create the world of our human experience.

This, of course, was not at all possible back in 1859 when Darwin published his first manuscript of “The Origin of Species”. So, it should be no surprise that there were many objections, to Darwin’s theory that kept popping up, and at times, threatened to derail the whole endeavor.

Closing Thoughts

In this article, we briefly looked at the link between Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection, and its unexpected connection to the mechanical computers, envisioned by Charles Babbage.

We saw that these two men, whose ideas could not seem more removed from each other at the time, turned out to be deeply connected in hindsight. Once you understand how the computational paradigm and the evolutionary paradigm, are linked, the world looks very different. It seems as if fate had planted a great clue in plain sight, by naming both men Charles, and locating them in the same country, and letting their genius run wild, at the same era in time.

The greater significance of this link between Charles Darwin and Charles Babbage, goes well beyond a mere historical coincidence. What I hope you take away from this article, is the idea that there are ways to think about the world, that explicitly demonstrate how some of the most miraculous aspects of nature, come to be. Contrary to what some people may think, this does not diminish the wonders of nature, or make them any less impressive. A falcon soaring through a clear blue sky, is no less immaculate and graceful, merely because we know it is a product of evolution, rather than a supernatural creation. An ant colony, a global economy, or even a human brain7, are no less awe-inspiring in their complexity, once we know that computation underlies their function.

There is a bad tendency that some people have, which is akin to the problem of “real magic” as described by Dan Dennett. Some people hold the view, that the only magic that can be done is “fake magic”, and the only magic that is “real” can’t be done. It’s a strange kind of logic wherein people essentially decide that they can only marvel at wonders that cannot be observed and explained. At the same time, they will refuse to marvel at “real” wonders that are right in front of their very eyes, or perhaps, wonders that are their very eyes. So, there is a strong undercurrent of this kind of thinking, that I very much want to dissuade. I want to eliminate this, in part because it robs people of the ability to appreciate the wonders of the universe. Selfishly, I aim to fight against this perspective because it reduces the pool of people who can keep the spark of wonder alive, to go forward to invent the future. Rather than belaboring the point at the risk of beating a dead horse so to speak, I will let another great thinker, and futurist, say it best.

“Reality provides us with facts so romantic that imagination itself could add nothing to them.” ― Jules Verne 8

  1. I want to be clear that I am not saying that Darwin himself was knowingly thinking about evolution as a computation. The formal notion of computation most used today, did not come about until Alan Turing’s invention of the abstract “Turing Machine” in the 1930s. Even Babbage who was contemporary with Darwin, was never able to physically construct his mechanical computer “The Analytical Engine”, during his lifetime. The point is that Darwin’s theory of evolution requires one to think of nature running a series of processes, that take existing animals as input and eventually output the species we see as products of evolution. This kind of procedural transformation of inputs to outputs, can be thought of as computation, running the program of evolution. ↩︎
  2. The term “Turing Complete” refers to a class of computer or automaton that is capable of simulating any other classical computer, given enough memory, and time. If thinking in finite physical terms one would have to include energy as well, but universality of computation is an abstract notion, that speaks to what could be computed in principle, not merely what could be done in practice. ↩︎
  3. The philosopher Daniel Dennett, has a phrase “Competence Without Comprehension”, that is very applicable in understanding this connection between Charles Darwin and Charles Babbage. Though the two almost certainly had no obvious or direct influence on each other’s work, in hindsight, one cannot help but to notice striking similarities in how they were approaching the world. Essentially, Darwin was working out how nature could simulate and surpass, the selective breeding of domesticated animals by humans, with unintentional undirected processes. Babbage on the other hand, was trying to invent a machine that could change its function by changing the instructions, ie, the process you wanted it to run. So, both men were grappling with how “competence without comprehension” could be manifested in the world. Darwin looked for this in terms of evolution, while Babbage saw this in terms of computation. All these years later, we are starting to see that in some sense, they are one in the same. ↩︎
  4. Newton’s laws of motion worked so well in fact, that for all intents and purposes, they are sufficient for exhaustively describing the physics, at the scale of human experience. The one obvious exception is maybe, adjusting for time dilation in GPS navigation systems, which requires Einstein. Note that long after Einstein gave us Special and General Relativity, and decades after Quantum Mechanics was formalized, we still went to the moon with calculations almost entirely based on the laws of motion, that Newton laid down in 1687. ↩︎
  5. Although Darwin and Babbage began to show the power of thinking in terms of a procedural / computational paradigm, we should not confuse simple rules and processes, with simple predictions and outcomes. Chaos, computational irreducibility, and other factors, prevent a mechanistic view of the world from leading to the kind of ultimate prediction and control, we might wish to have. Further, we now know that that world has quantum properties which can not be predicted by any known mechanism, and may play a role at various points in evolution. So, just as variation between generations, was shown to be an ultimately wild and uncontrollable aspect of nature, so it seems that evolution as a whole, resists domestication. ↩︎
  6. Note that even men as brilliant as Charles Babbage were still speaking in the religious language of “The Creator”, while at the same time pondering natural mechanisms that presumably were devoid of divine intervention. It’s important to see this in the proper context of the times. Few if any would doubt, that 21st century versions of Darwin and Babbage, would no longer be speaking this way. ↩︎
  7. Neuroscience and artificial intelligence research, has shown that there are computational underpinnings for many brain functions, that is not in dispute. What still remains unknown, is what relation if any, computation has to consciousness. This remains an open question. ↩︎
  8. Jules Verne was a a French novelist, playwright, and poet. He authored many books that dealt with fantastical applications of technology and human engineering. His notable books included “Journey to the Center of the Earth (1864), published just 5 years after “The Origin of Species” by Charles Darwin. Other works include “Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea” (1870), and “Around the World in Eighty Days” (1872). ↩︎