Monod characterised evolution in terms of its most basic features, Daniel
Dennett has championed a conception of evolution at the next higher level of
abstraction. He proposes that Darwins theory of natural selection should be
thought of as an algorithm.
features of the world can be satisfactorily described in terms of laws and
equations. Newtons inverse-square law of gravitation is a perfect example.
Others require statistical descriptions. But a faithful abstraction of natural
selection needs to capture its cumulative and temporal character. Algorithms do
this in ways that differential equations cannot.
typical discoveries in the sciences, an algorithm once uncovered, is no longer
up for debate. The closest analogue is with mathematical theorems. Once
Pythagoras had developed his theorem relating the lengths of the sides of right
triangles, it could not be undeveloped. There
is much to be gained from thinking of natural selection in algorithmic terms,
and it is as unlikely to be refuted as Pythagoras theorem. This is one more
reason why Dennett refers to natural selection as Darwins Dangerous Idea.
is once we start thinking of life in algorithmic terms, that the power of
Darwins theory becomes shockingly clear. It is a matter of common experience
that offspring inherit traits from their parents, and that no two descendants
are completely alike. Darwin recognised that whichever offspring had been born
with variations that were somehow more profitable than its peers - however
slight these variations may be - they would pass on these advantageous traits
to more offspring than their less advantaged contemporaries. The advantageous
traits would then spread and become commonplace within the population. This kind
of system lends itself to algorithmic modelling. Imagine two variables
representing the fitness of normal members of a species (variable a), and a
mutant, b. The mutation is very minor, perhaps corresponding to a slight strengthening
of teeth, giving b a 1% fitness advantage in cases where that strength is
helpful. We are in the abstract world of mathematics and algorithms, so if b
> a on average it is inevitable that b will continue to increase and the number
of b organisms will come to significantly outnumber the a organisms. The
only question is how many generation it will take. The new fitness value for
the overall population will have become normalized at 101% compared to where we
started. The stage is now set for the eventual emergence of another beneficial mutation
that will see the whole species renormalized to a still higher value of fitness.
Of course, neutral mutations and deleterious mutations will occur as well, but at
the simplistic level of description provided here, these have essentially no net
effect because beneficial mutations are inherited more often - by definition,
and therefore inevitably overwhelm the non-beneficial mutations.
at this level of description there is no difference between so-called micro
and macro evolution. While common sense allows that descendents with stronger
teeth may come to outnumber those with weak teeth (micro-evolution), when
viewed in abstract algorithmic terms, the same mechanism accounts for any
adaptation whatsoever, including
macro-evolutionary changes. Darwin was quite correct to observe I can see no
limit to this power and
conclude that it could serve to drive the origin of species.
loudly Darwins critics protest, this level of explanation of adaptation is
powerful and irrefutable. Dennett is correct to claim natural selection is
about as likely to be refuted as is a return to a pre-Copernican geocentric
view of the cosmos. Once
understood, the idea is so obvious as to be self-evident.
its immense explanatory power and irrefutable nature is also its Achilles
heel. Expressed in the abstract terms laid out so far it can explain any and every adaptation; we have not
specified the interval between generations, so by default the value of b
reaches infinity almost immediately, as does the population of b organisms. In
order to serve as an explanation for adaptations in terrestrial biology, the
algorithm of natural selection needs to be properly parameterised. The same
holds true for Newtons f = ma. This formula tells us nothing useful about an
actual event in the world until parameters of force, mass or acceleration are
evolution, specifying parameters is no easy task. Real-world populations
compete for multiple resources, and lives are lived out in specific but
changing environments. One of the key parameters is the net effect of natural
selection. Since it is not the only force acting on populations, depending on
the parameters that are plugged into the algorithm, it is possible that other
factors could overwhelm it temporarily, or even in the long run. However, if on
average, it has the slightest net effect, natural selection will serve as a
possible explanation for any adaptation (in fact, every adaptation) that is logically possible in any given
present situation is one where the mechanism and theoretical power of natural selection is not in doubt, but its
place within an account of the actual terrestrial biological history is
dependent upon it being correctly parameterised and placed within a larger
model of the 3.8 billion year history of life on Earth.
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