Artificial life and ‘nature’s purposes’: The question of behavioral autonomy

Human Affairs 30 (4):587-596 (2020)
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This paper investigates the concept of behavioral autonomy in Artificial Life by drawing a parallel to the use of teleological notions in the study of biological life. Contrary to one of the leading assumptions in Artificial Life research, I argue that there is a significant difference in how autonomous behavior is understood in artificial and biological life forms: the former is underlain by human goals in a way that the latter is not. While behavioral traits can be explained in relation to evolutionary history in biological organisms, in synthetic life forms behavior depends on a design driven by a research agenda, further shaped by broader human goals. This point will be illustrated with a case study on a synthetic life form. Consequently, the putative epistemic benefit of reaching a better understanding of behavioral autonomy in biological organisms by synthesizing artificial life forms is subject to doubt: the autonomy observed in such artificial organisms may be a mere projection of human agency. Further questions arise in relation to the need to spell out the relevant human aims when addressing potential social or ethical implications of synthesizing artificial life forms.

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Elena Popa
Jagiellonian University


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