Friday, September 3, 2010

Darwin's Dangerous Idea, Part 1

There seems to be a great deal of evolution flavored stuff going around. In August, there was a story floating around the Huffington Post about Darwin being wrong (the horror! link to the perfectly reasonable abstract here). Some artificial life evolved a simple form of memory. Even Futurama recently did an episode with evolution vs. creationism.
On top of all that, I recently watched the three part BBC series titled Darwin's Dangerous Idea. I don't know if it was based on Dan Dennett's book of the same name (I've never had the opportunity to read it), but it was a fascinating journey through the history of the idea. It brought up some thought provoking points. First of all, a common misconception- the whole "Survival of the fittest" shtick. This actually wasn't coined by Darwin, but sums up his idea quite well. Well enough that by the third edition of Origin, it could actually be found. But there was a problem with it, too. Survival of the fittest implies, at face value, that the most fit, or strongest survive. This is wrong- the core point of natural selection is that the best adapted organism or species survive, not necessarily the strongest, or the smartest, or any other single trait. This simple misunderstanding changed the face of the world for the worse. More on that later.
First, "best adapted" begs the question, To what? Well, that very question led scientists to start examining the interactions between organisms and their environment. This led to the founding of a new school of thought- the science of ecology. Scientists shortly realized that it wasn't so much the competition between organisms that was the guiding force behind evolution, but rather that the diversity of species is a function of the myriad complexities of environment. After that is when species begin competing for dominance in whatever niche they fill. The artificial life program stumbled across the same phenomenon- only after adding incentive in the environment to do what they did before did the "Avidians" evolve the capacity to remember what they did. The environment alone pushed them to evolve. The more niches organisms can fill and thrive in, the more likely that evolution will occur.
That very fact explains the so called Cambrian explosion, and us as well. Immediately prior to the Cambrian period, there was a mass extinction. Evolution flourished- overnight, by geological standards (in other words, if night was some 100,000 years or so), life rushed to fill the gaps left by the cataclysm. And again after the dinosaurs- it was only after the meteor that the weak mammals, hiding in caves, were able to surge forth and dominate the planet- let alone birds and reptiles. If not for that meteor, evolution would have been sluggish indeed, and may never have resulted in intelligent life- at any rate, certainly not our life. I hope this helps Ann Coulter understand what I discussed in the last post(specifically point 1 which I left for later).
More next time since this post is nowhere near stopping.

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