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Friday, 18 January 2013

Darwin's Powerful Science

Darwinian Evolution By Natural Selection, producing descent with modification, is one of the most powerful and fundamental ideas in all of science. That might sound like a sweeping statement but we are really only just beginning to appreciate both the depth and the full scope of the idea. I'll give some examples of its application later. First a little history.

Even as late as the 1950's, a century after Darwin's and Wallace's seminal paper to the Linnean Society, serious biologists were still questioning certain aspects of Darwinian Evolution, the evolution of altruism being one such problem. Even amongst evolutionary biologists debate raged over such questions as whether natural selection operated at the individual or group level, with some using the 'problem' of altruism to reason that selection must be operating at the group level because a tendency to self-sacrifice for the 'common good' would give more successful groups.

For this reason, they argued, a group with altruistic members would be more successful than one comprised of selfish individuals, yet selfishness should have been giving individuals an advantage over altruistic ones. And yet we see altruism in many successful species and especially those tending to form herds, hence, so they argued, natural selection can't be operating at the individual level because that's not what we see.

But reproduction and variation occurs at the individual level so that is where selection must be operating, even though it doesn't seem that way.

Some people even went so far as to argue that the 'unresolved' problem of altruism meant that Darwinian Evolution by Natural Selection must be flawed. They pointed to an apparent difference between what the theory predicts and what we see. (Creationist quote-mine alert!) Creation pseudo-scientists still parrot this out-dated argument, presenting it as an on-going unresolved controversy much as they present Lamarckian Evolution as current Darwinian theory. And of course, in the propagandistic world of creation pseudo-science, aimed at it is at the simplistic scientifically illiterate who find simple black and white easier to understand, any controversy, no matter how slight or imaginary or as yet unresolved, means the entire body of science is completely and irretrievably wrong.

During the 1960's a gene-centred view of evolution was being proposed, especially by George C. Williams, W. D. Hamilton and John Maynard Smith, a student of the great geneticist and evolutionary biologist, J. B. S. Haldane. This view was given huge impetus by the publication in 1976 of The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins by which the real nature and power of Darwinian Natural Selection was explained to a wider audience. This gene-centred view resolves the altruism problem by showing that it is the survival of genes over time and change in allele frequency in the gene pool which constitutes evolution. Altruistic behaviour which produces more copies of allied genes in the next generation will tend to increase in the species gene pool.

It was in The Selfish Gene that Dawkins introduced the world to the possibility that Natural Selection might have an application outside of biology with his coining of the term 'meme' and the idea that cultures too could be the product of a Darwinian Evolutionary process, so explaining their similarities and differences, and why they compete, often aggressively, with the survivors 'winning' the struggle for survival.

As I've pointed out in 'So You Think You Don't Believe In Evolution', Darwinian Evolution by Natural Selection only requires three conditions to inevitably occur:
  1. Inheritance of physical characteristics
  2. Imperfect replication.
  3. Differential selection by the environment.
There are essentially two consequences of an evolutionary process:
  1. The 'species' is automatically moulded or 'designed' by environmental pressure, so tends towards adaptation for that environment, giving a superficial appearance of design.
  2. The process takes place slowly over time, with accumulated small differences adding up to large-scale change, often against an 'improbability gradient', so the end-product looks highly improbable when regarded as a single event.
The consequences of this are that a new 'species' can only be said to have arisen when a large enough number of distinct individuals can be identified as an isolated gene pool, so neither individual variants nor varieties can't be regarded as a new species even though they might evolve into one, and there is no sudden transition from one form to another, so there is no single point in time when a new form can be said to have arisen. In short, evolution is not an event, it is a process.

The following table I'll show how Evolution can explain:
  1. Species
  2. Cultures
  3. Religion
  4. The Bible
  5. Science
  6. The Universe
This is not always strictly Darwinian, where the principle is that inherited characteristics are what selection is operating on, so the individual carrier of those characteristics has no influence on them. It may be acting on characteristics which are acquired after birth so the selection is technically Lamarckian, as indeed Dawkins acknowledged is the case with memetic evolution, and where the individual carrier can, at least in theory both change what they are carriers of, and choose what to pass on.

AreaMechanism of ReplicationNotes
Species.

Design and diversification of biological species
A hostile environment selects for those better fitted to produce descendants either by avoiding death before reproducing, being better able to find a mate, being better able to protect offspring and/or being more success in the competition for resources.

Speciation is said to have occurred when taxonomists are able to identify a distinct, genetically isolated group in which individuals do not normally reproduce with members of another gene pool.
Genetic reproductive mechanism is susceptible to parasitism by genetic free-loaders called viruses. Viruses may become incorporated into a species genome, even rarely contributing long-term benefits but most viruses are harmful and highly 'selfish'.

According to this view, all species are equally evolved having been evolving for the same length of time. Differences are due to ecological/environmental differences.
Cultures.

Custom and practice within a distinct group of sentient animals.
Collections of meme (units of cultural inheritance) are passed on to the young by example of parents, peers and authority figures. Collections of memes acting in alliance can form distinct 'memeplexes' within the culture.

Memes may be transient, like fashions in clothing, music and art, or longer-term, like language and religion. Memeplexes are subject to rapid change with most individuals changing many of their memes in a single lifetime.
Memeplexes act to isolate their cultures by including memes such as racial or cultural supremacy and paranoia about the intentions of other cultures.

Like species with genetic replicators, cultures can be subject to free-loading parasitic memeplexes in which individuals and cultures may used by the memeplex to further the survival of itself, not the culture or the individual carrier. This has been proposed as an explanation for religions, religious wars and martyrdom.

By this view, all cultures for a given species are equally evolved.
Religion.

Non-scientific views derived from superstition which have no basis in reality, existing as distinct memeplexes within many human cultures.
Closely analogous to viruses which parasitise genetic replication mechanisms, religions behave as though they are parasites on human memetic replication, converting the culture into a means for their own replication.

Many forms of religion contain a meme for aggressive intolerance towards other forms so these tend to be dominant within that culture but act to isolate that culture from others, giving rise to cultural 'speciation' having no benefits to the humans within those cultures but producing highly favourable environments for perpetuation of the parasite within that isolated culture.

Some forms of religion contain a meme for ensuring prolific reproduction of its carriers often resulting in poor quality of life, high perinatal mortality and high rates of poverty, and additional memes offering a spurious and irrational hope for an escape from the conditions imposed by it in the first place.

Many religions offer the opportunity for a good quality of life to those who devote their lives to ensuring the perpetuation of the virus by persuading others to become infected by it by lies, deception and false promises. Ironically, the religion parasite encourages other parasites rather like viruses encourage opportunistic infection, and forms a symbiotic relationship with them.
Just as some parasites can act to control the behaviour of their hosts and bend it to their own needs, so religions appear to control the minds and behaviour of individual carriers, sacrificing them for the benefit of the religion rather than the culture they parasitise.

Aggressively expansionist cultures are often driven by religious zeal, especially where the religion contains an incentive to infect ('convert') others or to remove those not infected or infected by other species of religion.

Because, like other memes, religious inheriance is Lamarckian, we can choose whether to pass on the infection to our children or not, and we are free to change it at will.

Religious reproduction tends to be inhibited or abolished by education which can act as an antidote giving a high degree of immunity. As with viral infections, people who have been cured of religion tend to be highly resistant to re-infection.
The Bible.

A book held to be sacred by a minority of the world's people, compiled from various documents containing Bronze Age origin myths, pre-urban tribal laws, chronicles, religious chants, actions and sayings of legendary 'prophets', letters and other writings of founders of early Middle-eastern religious sects.
Documents were copied by hand with little or no error checking and with scribes free to add or subtract from the documents they were copying. Stories were re-written and sections were added, altered and/or deleted to suit the political agenda of those who commissioned them or to give spurious 'divine' authority to dogma and the right of priest casts to govern.

The priesthoods of various sects used different versions to compete for followers, to exercise authority over them and gain political power. The test for fitness was how well the various competing documents met the needs of the winners in the power struggle. Those best fitted were copied; those least fitted were suppressed or removed from the document pool. Forgery and impersonation, analogous to the viruses of genetic replication, were commonly used to give documents false authority.

Once a clear winner emerged in the power struggle the 'best' of the resulting documents from the governing priests' point of view were eventually bound together into a book which was then the only version allowed to be replicated. This is today called 'The Holy Bible' to give it an added gloss of authority. Inevitably, this book supported the view the winning priests wanted and which justified their actions in ways they needed.
So important was it to the governing priests that the book continued to give them authority that it was a capital offence to make unauthorised copies of it. Many cultures still have laws governing which versions of this created book may be copied and sold.

Priesthoods still refer to this book to justify the power they still exercise over followers and wish to exercise over others, although they are having to become increasingly inventive in their interpretation as science exposes more an more of the stories as fanciful and the product of ignorance and imagination.

None of the original stories has ever been verified and none of the original documents has ever been found. Few of the main characters in the stories have ever been shown to be more than legendary.

Most fragments of earlier versions of these stories and related legends to have been found are of documents later declared 'heretical', suggesting that the eventual winners were a small sample of the many competing versions in the original document pool.
Science.

A memeplex consisting of the body of human knowledge developed from a rational view of reality, and a methodology for perfecting that knowledge, which has developed all the technology upon which advanced economies depend.
Ideas or 'hypothesis' are developed to explain observable phenomena and experiments are developed to test out these ideas and compare them to other ideas for explaining the same phenomenon. A meme for honesty ,integrity and strictly impartial objectivity in the science memeplex helps ensure personal bias is minimised and acts tp prevent parasitism.

The body of scientific opinion is the environment in which competing theories are tested for fitness, with those being best able to explain the phenomenon tending to be more successful and so being selected for passing on to the next generation of scientists.
Because the process is iterative and repetitive, unfit ideas tend to be quickly eliminated from the science meme pool and because it is designed to ensure only the best ideas survive in the long term, the science memeplex tends to converge on a single form, regardless of where it started. The scientific method is an active process for detecting and removing less fit forms of scientific theories from the science meme pool.
Universes.

Universes are collections of everything. By definition, only the universe we are part of can be detected by us and universes are not able to interact otherwise they would be part of each other.
Current theories suggest universes arise as singularities which may be quantum fluctuations in a non-zero energy field such as exists in a black hole. Feynman's Equation shows that a particle takes all possible paths through space-time which implies that all possible universes will arise from a single quantum fluctuation. Current thinking is that this universe began as a singularity some fourteen billion years ago.

It is assumed that nothing of the parent universe (in which the black hole formed) can be carried through to the nascent universes. However this assumption may not be valid, giving the possibility that the tendency to produce black holes may be an inherited characteristic of universes, with those best able to produce them being more likely to occur in the quantum foam.

Those best able to produce black holes may be those with initial conditions which give rise to universes like this one, in which the conditions necessary for the formation of atoms, planets and life also exist.
Each universe contains its own space, time and energy and each has it's own fundamental laws. (For excited Creationists who haven't given up reading yet, a 'law' in this context is descriptive, not prescriptive. No one made it up and there is no enforcement agency to ensure the universe behaves itself.)

A Darwinian Evolutionary process by which universes climb an improbability gradient, so that the probability of the initial conditions being just right for the evolution of intelligent life increases from highly improbable to virtual certainty, riding on the back of a selection process selecting for the formation, not of life, but of black holes, would be a delicious irony.

The possibility remains that Darwinian Evolution by Natural Selection could explain the most fundamental of all scientific questions - why is the universe the way it is?

So far as this universe is concerned, of course, we could not be considering this problem in a universe in which intelligent life was not possible, hence the fact that we are discussing it in this universe means the conditions for intelligent life evolving were inevitably a characteristic of this universe.





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3 comments:

  1. Another tricky feature of religions is what can be called exaptation; see for example: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Exaptation .

    In the beginning religious faith seems to have some positive traits, but as time goes by these traits are transformed into more negative ones.

    For example: Membership of a religious congregation looks after a while more and more like an incarceration of the member, and his way of thinking and analyzing becomes severely restricted.

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  3. Who ever you are, your parasitic spam was deleted.

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