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The Cornell molecubes didn’t build themselves. Instead, they were built by intelligent researchers using other tools and systems — by a separate “factory” so to speak — that was, in turn, built by other tools and systems, and so on. Yet beyond the observation of this uncomfortable regress, there are several additional instructive issues we need to examine if we are to really appreciate what self-replication entails.
The “Self” Isn’t Optional
If we’re serious about self-replication, then we have to take the self part of the equation seriously. After all, all kinds of things can be replicated. If I find a widget and am able to create a copy by hand, I could end up with multiple copies, but it certainly wouldn’t mean that the original widget self-replicated. I could add tools to the process, perhaps replicating the widget more quickly and with more precision, but that wouldn’t mean we could ignore my involvement in the process and ascribe the replication to the widget. I might even go on to design and build a sophisticated automated factory, with identical copies of the widget rolling off the assembly line in rapid succession, but that wouldn’t mean that the first widget had self-replicated into multiple copies.
True self-replication requires not simply that the widget be replicated (note the passive voice) by an intelligent agent or engineer (whether directly or by using tools and processes), but that the widget replicate itself. In the one case the replication capability and process resides entirely outside of the widget; in the other case the capability and process takes place within. Although challenging in its own right, the former is quite doable and is something we see happening in human technology on a regular basis. The latter is a much more onerous task, one that’s still far beyond the capability of any human-built system.
This isn’t to argue that self-replication is inherently impossible. But we had better understand the scope of the task if we are ever to achieve anything close to this remarkable engineering feat.Eric H. Anderson, “Self-Replication? Not Even Close” at Evolution News and Science Today (October 21, 2021)
The distinction, while critical, may be lost on many.
Anderson also notes Sewell’s comments here.