Survival of the Fattest: Macheide and Superman

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Survival of the Fattest: Macheide and Superman

When it comes to theories of evolution, there are broadly three sensible options: if you are British, especially if you are a National Treasure, such as Sir David Attenborough, then Charles Darwin is your natural selection as the explanation for the evolutionary process. If, however, you are French, then it boils down to two choices, Lamarckian gradualism, or Cuverian catastrophism.

In the first half of the 19th century, the French naturalist Baron Georges Cuvier (1769-1832) developed his theory of catastrophes. In fact, in keeping with the spirit of his times, this Master of Disaster preferred the term revolution to catastrophe. Cuvier was immensely fat and thereby earned his nickname “The Mammoth”, coincidentally a pachydermic palaeolontogical research sphere in which he excelled. Britain’s greatest chess player, Nigel Short, once reduced me to helpless laughter by describing a certain, strikingly rotund, Soviet chess grandmaster as “spherical.” By all accounts, Baron Cuvier was certainly in that league.

According to Cuvier, the fossil record demonstrates that species, both plant and animal, are destroyed time and time again by volcanic eruptions, meteoric bombardments, giant deluges and countless other shocks and natural cataclysms. In Cuvier’s interpretation of the life cycle of the planet, new species evolve only after each catastrophe or revolution has been completed. Obvious examples are the Permian and Cretaceous mass extinctions, also the igneous convulsions of the Deccan Traps from the early Palaeogene geological period.

A trenchant critic of Cuvier’s theory of cataclysms was his one time mentor, fellow French academic, Jean-Baptiste Lamarck (1744 -1829) who held that all living things had originated from simple organisms, and were thus inextricably related to each other. So far, so good.

The varying species were, according to Lamarck, simply the outcome of disparate environmental conditions: in Lamarck’s view, intensive use of certain body parts would result in their reinforcement and ipso facto “singular” growth; their neglect, on the contrary, would lead to a reversal of their development, and eventual disappearance. The properties thus acquired, in the growth scenario, would be passed on to offspring.

Lamarck illustrated his theory by using the example of the evolution of giraffes. Giraffes must clearly have once had short-necked ancestors whose goal was to reach for the juiciest and highest leaves of certain trees. By constantly stretching their necks, those necks grew longer and longer, a property which they passed on to their offspring. The extended neck of the giraffe is said by Lamarck to have come into existence in this manner over many generations.

Unfortunately, Lamarck’s explanation sounds too close to the controversial theory of the inheritance of acquired characteristics. The dramatic story about the viability of this explanation of evolution, with its various pros and cons, is related in Arthur Koestler’s book The Case of the Midwife Toad (1971). Austrian scientist Paul Kammerer (1880-1926) sought to justify the theory that organisms may pass to their offspring characteristics acquired in their lifetime. Tragically, Kammerer committed suicide when his experiments were found to have been fraudulent, with Indian ink injected into certain parts of the anatomy of the amphibian in question, which, to add insult to injury, actually turned out to be a frog and not a toad at all.

If one is not convinced by Cuvier or Lamarck, that leaves only one winner, namely the British scientist who championed the survival of the fittest by the process of natural selection.

Charles Darwin (1809-1882) was convinced that features, such as the long neck of Artiodactyl ruminants, are the result of natural selection, according to conditions of existence. Accordingly, certain giraffes would have had longer necks through pure chance, and thereby enjoyed an advantage over other members of their species, in being able to reach formerly inaccessible sources of food. The animals passed on this accidental by-product of nature to their offspring, who, for their part, were better able to survive periods of food scarcity. Over geological time, the longer necked giraffes survived and flourished. The shorter necks, unable to compete, died out.

Charles was influenced by his versatile grandfather Erasmus Darwin (1731-1802) a proto-evolutionist, physician, poet and slave trade abolitionist, whose surviving portraits indicate, like Cuvier, a man who, if not exactly spherical, was certainly of impressive girth.

Chess, too, has developed its own theory of evolution, principally through the work of the chess champion and philosopher Emanuel Lasker. Lasker was an intellectual titan, long reigning World Chess Champion and friend of Albert Einstein (who wrote the foreword to Dr J. Hannak’s biography of Lasker). Lasker developed his own concept of evolution, which he construed as strictly teleological. His independence of thought was admirable and even led him to challenge Einstein about the theory of relativity, much as Goethe had challenged Newton over light and colour in his Zur Farbenlehre.

Lasker (1868-1941) was one of the most dominant champions, and he is still regarded as one of the strongest players ever to grace a chessboard. In 1906 he published a booklet titled Kampf (Struggle), in which he attempted to create a general theory, relevant to all competitive activities, including chess, business and warfare. Lasker’s philosophy can be summed up in this quotation from his writings: “By some ardent enthusiasts chess has been elevated into a science or an art. It is neither; but its principal characteristic seems to be — what human nature mostly delights in — a fight.”

Lasker advanced his idea of evolution based on struggle, by postulating the possibility of the “macheide”, meaning “son of battle,” a being whose attributes are so sharpened by evolutionary struggle, that it always chooses the best and most efficient method of perpetuating its own success.

On the chessboard, for example, the macheide would always make the best move, which would result (as one chess master remarked) in the sad result that after the first game between two macheides, chess would cease to exist.

What the macheide chiefly invokes to my mind is comparison with the evolutionary thought experiments of a slightly earlier German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900). In a particularly freezing winter at the end of 1969, after the end of the official term, I decided to stay on in my rooms at Trinity College Cambridge, adjacent to those of my fellow student H.R.H. The Prince of Wales, and read all of Nietzsche’s works in the original German. What follows are the conclusions I reached from my snow bound ivory tower.

In my mind, “Jackboot or Genius?” was the chief question. Nietzsche has suffered from a bad press in England. This is in part due to his unfortunate, though unintentional, and certainly unpremeditated association with 1930s National Socialism in Germany and consequently to an excoriating onslaught by Bertrand Russell in his A History of Western Philosophy.

Published soon after the Second World War, Russell’s book unequivocally identified Nietzsche as a potent source for the ideological inspiration underpinning the beliefs of Adolf Hitler and the tenets of the Nazi party itself. Tellingly adopting the homely simile of a cricket match (what could be more English), Russell claimed that Nietzsche and his followers had “had their innings”, but were now to be ineluctably swept from the field.

Russell was not only misguided in savaging Nietzsche’s reputation, he was also motivated by a crudely political agenda, which deliberately distorted the subtle message behind Nietzsche’s philosophy. Russell was presumably, blissfully unaware of the irony that during World War I, Hitler had formed his own cricket team to play against British prisoners of war.

Nietzsche expressed himself in metaphors, and his chief metaphor was the assertion that God is dead. In the Old Testament it is written that, “without vision the people perish.” This is normally interpreted either as prophecy or as an aspirational nostrum, centring on goal driven targets. As Virgil put it in The Aeneid, book V: “Hos successus alit, possunt quiae posse videntur.” “For those will conquer who believe they can,” in Poet Laureate John Dryden’s concise translation.

From its context, however, in the Book of Proverbs it is clear, to me at least, that the word “vision” is in fact a mistranslation for “supervision”. The powerful Biblical idea which I believe is expressed here, is that human society cannot function properly, unless it is well and firmly governed; and if the celestial governor has abdicated responsibility, or even worse, perished, then the world is in deep trouble.

Nietzsche did indeed fear that his world was in precisely that kind of deep trouble. With the erosion of belief in any kind of just or ruling deity, swept aside by 18th and 19th advances in science and the creed of pseudo-rationality which reached its apogee with the French Revolution, what was to prevent great and terrible wars, horrific injustices and man’s inhumanity to man from running rampant?

Indeed, with two world wars, a Nazi-orchestrated genocidal holocaust, and a couple of thermonuclear devices dropped in anger, within the next half century to come, who could deny Nietzsche’s prophesy?

Nietzsche’s second great metaphor was the Eternal Recurrence (Ewige Wiederkehr). Nietzsche proposed a model of the universe that repeats itself identically in infinite iterations of recycling. What has happened now has happened an infinite number of times before and will continue to replicate itself infinitely into the future. Whether this theory is scientifically tenable is not the point — the metaphor is designed to convey meaninglessness and futility on a cosmic scale. What meaning can there be in an everlastingly recyclable universe, with no God supervising what is just and what is right? Evidently none — all is smoke, mirrors and pygmy hominid delusions of fake grandeur and puffed up self-importance.

Enter the “Ubermensch” or “Superman”! Nietzsche’s Superman, his prototype version of Lasker’s “Macheide”, is not some jack-booted fascist, oppressing lesser breeds who have failed a crudely misinterpreted test of Darwin’s aphoristic formulation “Survival of the Fittest”, but that person who can, with full spiritual conviction, continue to act and function, as if there were meaning, but in a meaningless universe. It is the power of the brain, not of the boot, which Nietzsche extols, and Russell was surely aware of the stickiness of his wicket, when he hypocritically consigned Nietzsche to the historical scrapheap of rejected and defeated Nazi detritus.

The tarnishing of Nietzsche by association with the Nazis was originally the work of his sister. Elizabeth Foerster Nietzsche was an opportunistic right wing fanatic who had tried, and failed, to establish a German extremist colony in the jungles of South America. It was she who took control of Nietzsche’s literary heritage after his death and perverted the message of the Superman to fit the deranged fantasies of the new would be world colossus, Adolf Hitler. The Great Dictator often visited the Nietzsche Museum to greet the sister of the Great Philosopher, but it is doubtful whether Hitler ever read a word of Nietzsche’s, or would have understood it, even if he had.

The influences on Nietzsche are manifold and complex. In terms, though, of literary antecedents it seems to me that the grand soliloquy in Shakespeare’s Macbeth: “Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow, creeps in this petty pace from day to day…” where the eponymous anti-hero fantasises on the futility of existence, but nevertheless decides to soldier on, must have played some part in Nietzsche’s philosophical grounding. Even more likely is that Goethe’s Faust epic, predicated on the morally, scientifically and religiously variegated career of a man who achieves salvation through personal striving (“Wer immer strebend sich bemueht, den koennen wir erloesen”) must have underpinned Nietzsche’s concept of the Superman, as one who imbues existence with meaning, solely by the exertion of iron will and personal effort.

Nietzsche lived alone for much of his life, and died in mental isolation, immobile, insensate, and “cared” for by a sister who loathed him but loved the potential wealth and prestige concealed in his writings. The time has come, therefore, for those who have, at least, made some effort to understand him, to refurbish his reputation, and ensure that this, at any rate, no longer stands alone against artificially manufactured tides of prejudice and wilful misinterpretation.

Chess has now acquired its own evolutionary Macheide and Superman in the shape of Demis Hassabis’s AlphaZero program. How long did it take for this to evolve into a chess super brain? Just eight hours, during the course of which it grew in strength by playing billions of games against itself at the speed of light. This sounds more like a revolution of the rotund Baron Cuvier to me, rather than the alternative species of evolutionary gradualism promulgated by Darwin or Lamarck.

Take this week’s game Alpha Zero (computer) vs Stockfish (computer) to which I also referred in my column, Arise Sir Demis. Far from killing off chess, this reborn Macheide of the sixty-four squares has opened up remarkable new vistas for creative potential. Is it a surprise, therefore, that the words Macheide and machine appear to share the same root in Ancient Greek?

AlphaZero wins by breaking all human rules. It invests material for vague compensation; its queen dashes around the board, with illusory aimlessness, even visiting that Ultima Thule of the chessboard, h1, one would have thought the least promising square from which a Queen might launch an attack. Finally, while serious material in arrears, it positively encourages exchange of pieces, ostensibly a suicidal decision. The final diabolical blow comes in this variation:


Diagram after White’s 36th move.


Here is the critical diagram for the Alpha Zero win. Black, who has been a knight ahead for a long time, developed its extra piece with Black’s 36th move … Nd7 when the following move, White’s 37th, Rd1 pinning the Knight, wins for White. But what if Black defends, instead of apparently blundering, by choosing an alternative and seemingly much safer knight move?

1… Na6

But now comes the supremely cunning manoeuvre:

2 Qe5+ Qf6

And the death blow.

3 Rh7+

Winning Black’s Queen and thus winning the game.

Evolution on the chessboard? If the Macheide or Uebermensch comes in the form of an AI program, capable of such rich beauty and astonishing depth, then I am all for it.

Game Changer (published by New in Chess) is the book by Matthew Sadler and Natasha Regan, which I extolled earlier this year. It is unrivalled as an account of the adventure of the creation of AlphaZero and it has gone on, deservedly, to scoop the Book of the Year awards from both the English and World Chess Federations.

Member ratings
  • Well argued: 94%
  • Interesting points: 95%
  • Agree with arguments: 90%
58 ratings - view all

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