"By the time he got his doctorate, however, he'd seen enough of the political infighting and blind prejudice that structure the real work of contemporary scientific investigation to sour the romance permanently."
"................... he has found that Darwin's venerable theory fails the test.
Running his beloved viruses through assorted experimental hoops and mazes, Ludwig followed them to the conclusion that Darwinian evolutionary mechanisms alone are just not mathematically fertile enough to have created and shaped life as we know it. "
Regarding book later mentioned-
Little Black Book of Viruses [$14.95] and
Computer Viruses, Artificial Life, and Evolution [$22.95]
by Mark Ludwig are available from
American Eagle Publications Inc., PO Box 41401, Tucson, AZ, 85717
From- WIRED Feb.1995 [begin page 126]
VIRUSES ARE GOOD FOR YOU
"Spawn of the Devil, computer viruses may help us realize the full potential of the net."
By Julian Dibbell
[------- [begin page 132-33] ----]
THE MUTATOR IN THE DESERT
Mark Ludwig lives in a desert, and compared to Hellraiser's background, seems to hail from an entirely different planet. But Ludwig, too, is chasing the elusive nature of computer viruses. A married man with three young children, Ludwig lives in Tucson, Arizona, where barrens of sand and sun and saguaro cactus shimmer not too far beyond the sun-cooled confines of his home. But the desert where he wanders is someplace else entirely: it's the lonely intellectual wilderness reserved for those who practice science on the fringe, outside the cozy realms of institutional affiliation, professional consensus, or methodological decorum.
He doesn't have to be there. With his PhD in physics from the University of Arizona (and his prior course work at Cal Tech and MIT), Ludwig could easily return to the fold of respectable researchers if he chose. All he'd have to do is let go of his somewhat obsessive scholarly pursuit of the wild computer virus, and pick a slightly more conventional object of study. Or maybe just pursue his present subject with a little more sober attention to devising antivirus countermeasures and a lot less gleeful fascination with viruses in and of themselves. Or maybe just tone down the florid libertarian rhetoric and sweeping philosophical claims in which he tends to couch his otherwise gruelingly meticulous analyses of viral performance and technique.
Really, it wouldn't take much.
But Ludwig isn't likely to do any of these things, because he actually seems to prefer the hardships of the fringe to the rewards of a life on the techno-scientific inside.
He didn't always-
"Once I was a scientist of scientists,"
writes Ludwig in the introduction to his latest self-published treatise, Computer Viruses, Artificial Life, and Evolution.
"Born in the age of Sputnik, and raised in the home of a chemist, I was enthralled with science as a child. If I wasn't dissolving pennies in acid, I was winding an electromagnet for playing with a power transistor, or doing a cryogenics experiment - like freezing ants - with liquid propane"
Eager to work his way into the company of "the great men of science" and join their noble quest for objective Truth (he'd read about it in textbooks), Ludwig rushed through his undergraduate work at MIT in two years,then plunged into his graduate course of studies with equal enthusiasm.
By the time he got his doctorate, however, he'd seen enough of the political infighting and blind prejudice that structure the real work of contemporary scientific investigation to sour the romance permanently. Disillusioned, he dropped out of the hard-sci grind and into a job working with computers, a field that at least provided some of the wide-open pioneering spirit that the textbook histories of science had promised, even if it moved him further from pure science's intimacy with the mysteries of nature.
Mark Ludwig also publishes a newsletter ..... Computer Virus Developments Quarterly, in which he mingles detailed technical discussions of viral code with rants against the tyrannical tendencies of American government, the moral bankruptcy of contemporary Western culture, and [last but not least] the evils of repressing detailed technical discussion of viral code.
[---- delete for brevity---- begin page 172 ----]
Having carefully constructed this ambitious claim, Ludwig proceeds to test drive it straight into the heart of biology's most vexing questions:
How did life get here in the first place?
How did the staggering diversity of life forms that exists today come to be?
He sics viruses on the theory of evolution itself, in other words, sending them in to illuminate with their logical simplicity the still murky depths of Darwin's grand hypothesis.
It's a bold move, but a puzzling one at first glance. Although the viruses found in the wild may exhibit a wide range of lifelike features, they've never been known, after all, to evolve. Or have they?
Not too long after the first virus was written, the first antivirus program was written as a countermeasure. Once anti-virus software was introduced into the cybernetic ecology, viruses and the programs that stalk them have been driving each other to increasing levels of Sophistication. This is nothing less than the common coevolutionary arms race that arises between predators and prey in organic ecosystems.
Step one in this quasi-Darwinian dance took place when security-minded programmers developed what has since become the standard defense against viruses for most PC owners - scanning software that looks for telltale code fragments of known viruses (often some scrap of graffiti-esque text) and alerts the user when it finds any.
In time, virus hackers responded by wrapping their programs in a blanket of encryption impenetrable to scanners. But since the built-in subroutines that decrypt the programs for execution cannot themselves be enciphered, antivirus programmers simply retooled their scanners to look for the decryption code. Later, in step two, the legendary Bulgarian writer Dark Avenger came up with a clever innovation known as a mutating, or polymorphic, virus. A mutating virus randomly reorganizes its decryption algorithm every time it replicates to outsmart the policing of the scanner. In step three, antivirus engineers devised "heuristic" scanners, built to sniff out all but an insignificant percentage of a virus' mutants through educated pattern recognition.
Surveying the fossil record of this game, Ludwig found himself pondering a logical next move: what if someone were now to develop a strain of polymorphs with a genetic memory, so that rather than completely reshuffling their structure with every generation, the few mutants that escape discovery by heuristics could pass their undetectable code on to their offspring?
The prospect of virus populations able to autonomously build up immunity to any scanning techniques thrown at them thoroughly depressed antivirus programmers. To Ludwig, however the possibility proved too intriguing to wait around for some random underground hacker to realize it, and he resolved to do the job himself. The result: Ludwig's Darwinian Genetic Mutation Engine, a programming utility that turns any normal DOS virus into a souped-up, genetically evolving polymorph, complete with an option for sexual gene-swapping between individuals that come into contact in the wild. Curious hackers can find the Darwinian Genetic Mutation Engine is complete source code in the pages of Computer Viruses, Artificial Life, and Evolution, along with detailed experimental results demonstrating the ability of Darwinian Genetic Mutation Engine-enhanced viruses to run rings around existing scanners. But the program's deeper significance, of course, lies in its potential to transform viruses' heretofore hacker-driven pseudo-evolution into something very like the real thing: a finely tuned interaction of variety and natural selection that allows the environment itself to shape the internal code of the organisms dwelling in it.
The Darwinian Genetic Mutation Engine is all Ludwig needs, in other words, to prove viruses capable of meaningful evolution, and incidentally, test Darwin's theory.
And it's no surprise perhaps, given Ludwig's hard-earned distrust of anything smacking of intellectual orthodoxy, that he has found that Darwin's venerable theory fails the test.
Running his beloved viruses through assorted experimental hoops and mazes, Ludwig followed them to the conclusion that Darwinian evolutionary mechanisms alone are just not mathematically fertile enough to have created and shaped life as we know it.
This is a well-worn scientific heresy, of course, but it's not without its small but respectable following within the ivory walls Ludwig so proudly dismisses.
To be fair, though, Ludwig is not asking to be ranked among his boyhood heroes-those scientific greats whose unique insights clear broad new vistas of understanding in a single bound. All he wants from the rest of the world is a modicum of respect for the wild computer virus as a legitimate subject of scientific investigation. Or at least acknowledgment that this enduringly lifelike wonder could be useful if we but understood it, rather than the casting of it as the ultimate technological taboo.
Ludwig managed a remarkable intellectual shift. He elevated the computer virus from the digital equivalent of a can of spray paint to an object capable of perhaps infinite variations and almost lifelike behavior. He transformed a tool of vandals into a field of scientific study by emphasizing a computer virus' biological affinity. But by the time Ludwig began publishing, the computer virus was already well on its way from the fringes of science to the seat of honor at research symposiums.