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2003-10-14 8:50 AM
The Beauty of Evolution
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I just started reading Richard Dawkins' A Devil's Chaplain, a collection of essays on a wide variety of topics.
The lead essay, from which the title of the book is taken, talks about the author's personal view toward the evolutionary process.
Dawkins points out that evolution is a morally-blind, wasteful, often cruel, and short-term-directed process.
There is the wasp that stings a particular species of caterpillar in each neural bunch along its body, not to kill it, but to paralyze it. The wasp lays its eggs in the caterpillar, and it has paralyzed, rather than killed the creature, so that its hatching young can dine on fresh meat.
Sadistic, no? (And yet, for some reason, the intelligent design folks like to point to butterfly wings and eagle's eyes. But if god designed those, he also designed the wasp, didn't he?)
But the same evolutionary process also gives us acts of seemingly pure selflessness and altruism. There are birds that cry out when they see a predator such as a hawk, warning their fellow birds, but putting themselves at much greater individual risk. And then there's a simple bee, willing to sting an enemy and disembowel itself in the process for the good of the hive.
As Dawkins is right to point out, no intelligence was making the design decisions here, and evolution had no underlying guiding force, other than deterministic ones: selection, mutation, genetic drift, and so on.
Species evolved either "cruel" or "altruistic" behavior as a result of blind forces acting on gene pools. Selflessness survived when it was best suited to the situation, and won out over alternative strategies in the same niche. Same with those we think of as cruel.
But Dawkins goes further, to make a moral judgement on the process itself. He notes that some people think he is an advocate for social Darwinism because of his insight into evolutionary theory. But he likens himself more to a doctor who studies cancer so that he can fight it.
He argues that evolution has produced brains big enough to understand the processes that led to it, and ultimately reject our biological imperatives, if we choose. Basically, we can decide what is good and what is bad, what we're going to do with our lives, rather than what our genes want us to do, which is to make more genes.
I agree quite a lot with this last part, but I take exception to his judgement of the evolutionary process. In the last year, I've become much more involved with emulating biological phenomenon in computers. Even if you work with computational evolution for a short time, I don't see how you can't have a particular appreciation for, yes, its beauty.
In natural selection, the environment is the overarching selective pressure (e.g., the weather, availability of resources, etc.). In artificial selection (e.g., agriculture, the breeding of pets), humans are the ones deciding which individuals live and breed. We select the more robust corn, the dog with the prettier eyes. And we've been doing this for thousands of years.
Computational evolution is much more like artificial selection. The programmer decides which traits to select for, then generates a population, tests them against the standard, culls, breeds, and starts all over.
Its almost like a game of Yahtzee. You have raw material that have multiple combinations (dice). You throw them each turn and get different combinations. But you pick which elements and combinations to keep. Well, evolution is a lot like Yahtzee, only with millions of cups and millions of dice.
So it is somewhat crude and wasteful. It's like trying to sand a rock smooth by putting it in a desert for a thousand years. But the beauty is, it produces innovations and combinations that most human designers could not even conceive. Because it is an indirect design process, if a human harnesses it to solve a problem, that person does not need to know very much about the problem (most importantly how to rate a particular individual's performance at solving that problem).
I think this is wonderful. With the explosion of computation power, we can now begin to approach design problems the way life has for millenia.
You want a faster car? Instead of trying to think about how to get more drag or less drag or more efficiency out of the engine or aerodynamics, you can instead focus on the end result. You devise a way of simulating the materials of a car, then create a way to encode for those traits in the form of a genome. Then, in your computers, you create a population of cars, race them on a simulated track, and keep the five fastest. Mutation, crossover, selection, then do it again. And again, and again. If you've laid the groundwork properly, eventually a design for a faster car will emerge from this process. It will probably be more aerodynamic than the original design, but probably not in ways that you might have imagined. The cylinders might be more efficient, or an entirely different type of engine might have emerged.
This is still in the future, but not that far off. And when the era of evolutionary design finally blooms, its going to make our modern-day trinkets and baubles look like trash.
So I ask, how could you not admire such a process? Wasteful...yes. Inefficient...yes. But also incredibly robust, and incredibly powerful.
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