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Evolution, Complexity and Philosophy

Essence of evolutionary theory

Evolutionary theory is used in several disciplines. Any theory of evolution is about processes of change. An extra requirement for an evolutionary theory is that purely random and entirely time-reversable patterns are excluded; evolution concerns exclusively change that is, at least statistically irreversible. To qualify, irreversible change must entail processes that lead to emergence, or at least the persistence, of ordered structure in space and time. (The new evolutionary Pardigm [Laszlo E] 1991, pxxiii)

In general, evolutionary theories are about [the dynamics of] processes of adaptation, replication and information of systems in environments. Key to evolutionary theory is that it explains the built-up of knowledge out of "nothing", or better out of at least an evolutionary process with the building blocks mentioned before. Darwinian evolutionary theory explains the built-up of knowledge without any reference to "guided evolution" or any processes guided by thought and mind-like processes.

Five key-references to evolutionary thought can be found here.

Misconceptions about evolutionary theory

Biological evolutionary theory, often meant when just "evolution" is mentioned is often characterised according to pretty old views. The worst of all is the use of "the survival of the fittest" (a sentence Darwin did not like but used and later regretted as a catchy-title for his book). This survival of the fittest is then interpreted as the "survival of the strongest" as if fittest has anything to do with a fittness-center where you pump up your mussles to become fit or strong. BeeuuH!! To fit in in Darwin's sense means to fit in a niche, or to fit in a specific part, much more like the fitting of peaces of a puzzle. It is for instance explained how beas are lured into flowers that have such a shape that the beas fitt in perfectly. Since the theory of evolution explains such fitness, it is a theory of knowledge: how can we explain that the flower "knows" or better "has the knowledge" to built such a flower that the bea fits in so that is takes with it the pollen to fertilize other flowers. How does our body know how to make a liver so that we can process toxic-matter without dying.

Modern evolutionary theory

A modern view of biological evolution still rests on the pillars of concepts like variation, selection and replication resulting in the evolution of the species. Many of us have learned, or are still learning, that evolution explains such things as why deer run fast: to run away form predators. This is certainly not false. But more modern evolutionary views take into account that the main evolutionary forces are built from competition inside the species: for instance competition for mates (sexual selection), and competition between the sexes (how can I get as many offspring as I can without doing any work for it versus how can I detect if a mate has "good genes"). Modern views also take into account the selective pressure coming from deseases: a species can only be very successfull if it has a good way to deal with fast-mutating/evolving bacteria and other patogens. As a third modern point of view it is worth to mention that living organisms can contain more kinds of heriditary material: for instance the dns in the mytochondria has little to do with the rest of our dns and has its own lineage. As such evolution by selection and replication and variation occurs on more arena's: sperm-cells in humans compete amongst themselves for one eggcell, individuals compete for mates, and so on.

Fields of evolutionary theory

Generally a distinction can be made between the disciplines or fields of: biology, where work is done on evolutionary theory, and ecology.

The more philosophical topics or interdisciplinary field of general systems theory/ cybernetic theory.

Artificial Intelligence, often noted as 'the science of complexity'. This science has some connections with chaos-theory.

A special field of evolutionary theory is Memetics which is connected to work from Richard Dawkins and David Hull, having applications in theories about social evolution and learning processes.

These three fields are interconnected by using each others concepts, theories and objects.

The objects and processes of evolutionary theory are mostly very complex. Furthermore they change, and can thus be called dynamic. Moreover the objects in complex dynamic adapting systems are all adapting towards each other [in some degree]. As Mitchell Waldrop in his book book Complexity quoted:

"Holland started by pointing out that the economy is an example par excellence of what the Santa Fe Institute had come to call "complex adaptive systems". In the natural world such systems included brains, immune systems, ecologies, cells, developing embryos, & ant colonies. In the human world they included cultural & social systems such as political parties or scientific communities. Once you learned how to recognize them, in fact, these systems were everywhere. But wherever you found them, said Holland, they all seemed to share certain crucial properties. First, he said, each of these systems is a network of many "agents" acting in parallel. In a brain the agents are nerve cells, in an ecology the agents are species, in a cell the agents are organelles such as the nucleus & the mitochondria, in an embryo the agents are cells, & so on. In an economy, the agents might be individuals or households. Or if you were looking at business cycles, the agents might be firms. And if you were looking at international trade, the agents might be whole nations. But regardless of how you define them, each agent finds itself in an environment produced by its interactions with the other agents in the system. It is constantly acting & reacting to what the other agents are doing. And because of that, essentially nothing in its environment is fixed.

The importance of the view above is that you can see the world different than directed, mechanistic, and linear. Not that these concepts are false, but they abscure a lot of what is the most fascinating to me.

This page is constructed for the exploration of such evolutionary thought on the internet.

Pointers concerning www sites linked to thoughts of evolutionary theory:


 Biological Evolutionary and Ecological Theory

An original Darwin publicatin in nature online with a picture of Charles Darwin.
Catalog of Information about Evolution on WWW
Evolutionary/ Geological Timeline
the full text of Darwin's " Origin of Species and the journey of the Beagle"
the full text of Darwin's " Descent of man"
the History of Evolutionary thought and a tree (cladogram) depicting the Evolution of Dinosaurs at the Museum of Paleontology(hypermedia exhibit at UC Berkeley),
Ecology and Evolution archive (gopher)
a review article on the theory of Punctuated Equilibria
Center for the Study of Evolution and the Origin of Life
newsgroup sci.bio.evolution on the biological theory of evolution ( archive (gopher))
newsgroup talk.origins: informal discussions about evolution (and creationism!), has produced an extensive Web archive discussing different arguments in the evolution-creation debate, and including an especially rich set of FAQs on different mechanisms and examples of evolution
newsgroup bionet.molbio.evolution on molecular biological methods for studying evolution

 Philosophical topics

The page on evolution and philosophy a project going on at the Free University of Brussels
The Principia Cybernetica Web a project going on at the Free University of Brussels
General selection theory from Campbell and Cziko , with a bibliography
Homeokinetics the physics of complex systems. This is not really philosophical I believe, but I am not very informed about its content. At this site you can find further information and references to make up your own mind.
newsgroupcomp.ai.philosophy : about philosophical questions with the computation that is used in artificial intelligence.


Artificial intelligence

Cognitive science in Sussex has a homepage integrating artificial intelligence and evolutionary thought.
cellular automata to simulate darwinian evolution
Australian National University's Complex Systems homepage.
SFI / MIT Press Artificial Life Online
A page of Complex (Adaptive) Systems Information availiable on the net.
The University of Illinois IlliGAL (Illinois Genetic Algorithms Laboratory) home page.
The The Santa Fe Institute
The The Tierra home page Of Tom Ray (artificial life)
The Artificial life software.
The Biotopia IIThe best artificial life game for fast viewing on a dos/windows system. Only 200 kb, and easy to install and to run. View evolving little 'animals' and decide whether you like it before going further in downloading a-life games.
The Artificial life links.
T.S. Ray: An evolutionary approach to synthetic biology (paper on artificial life)
Illinois Genetic Algorithms Lab
Interactive genetic art (evolves according to user preferences)
Genetically programmed music
FAQ's on Genetic Algorithms
The cellular automata faq is now on the web.
newsgroupcomp.ai.genetic : about evolutionary computation, including genetic algoritms [GA] and genetic programming [GP]. Also very usefull, but not on W3 yet is their FAQ available through anonimous ftp: rtfm.mit.edu:/pub/usenet/news.answers/ai-faq/genetic/ as the files part1 to part6

 Chaos theory

Chaos theory is connected to evolutionary theory in a quantitative way. It appears that evolutionary systems are mostly systems that are far from equilibrium, and that the dynamics of such systems, or clusters of systems cannot be described by linear-dynamics. Therefore there are a lot of connections between chaos-theory and evolutionary theory.

Chaos in Maryland: maryland chaos, where the picture is from featuring lots of pictures and some theory.
The Society for Nonlinear Dynamics and Econometrics (SNDE) homepage.
A hypertext Bibliography of Measures of Complexity at Manchester Metropolitan University.
Los Alamos National Labs CNLS Welcome
The chaos Network at prairienet
Nonlinearity and Complexity home page at DUTh (Democritus University of Thrace in Xanthi, Greece)
ChaoPsyk Browser
gopher://gopher.tmn.com

Memetics

Memetics is the study that sees cultural 'rules' [memes] as the analog to genes. It focusses on replicative cultural artifacts [ideas, behavioral rules, solution spaces for problems] that are transmitted. In contrary to classic views the human is seen as an evolutionary being. This means that a human must learn, its actions are biased by its past and its thoughts and that its knowledge is limited. It uses memes to think, act and learn. These memes can be innovations, but generally they are imitated from others. In this sence there is place for the focus of what memes do to people, that is how they can guide human thought and action. As with genes my suspicion is that memes influence each others chances of being replicated, and exist in complex systems in human brains, books, etc. For many people the concept may seem threatening, because it may seem to suggest that people are not free even in their mind. Because memes can only be picked up if encountered, and memes already in the brain select partly the new memes that are included. If true this is an example how the idea of freedom is connected in some way to the idea of memes, and how it restricts the acceptance of that idea.