Sunday, 28 October 2012

Tim Tyler: Campbell, Universal Darwinism (review)


Hi! I'm Tim Tyler, this is a review of this book: Universal Darwinism - by John Campbell

This is one of a tiny number of books on the tremendously important - yet dreadfully neglected - topic of Universal Darwinism. The extension of evolutionary theory into fields beyond the realm of organic biology is long overdue.

The book adopts a perspective based on information theory - and makes many links to the concept of Bayesian updating. It suggests that knowledge acquisition by brains and the accumulation of survival know-how by evolution are closely related. This aspect of the book is excellent.

The book takes a rather conservative approach to Universal Darwinism - sticking to those cases with the best literature support. This conservatism has a positive side - in that critics will find fewer flaws in the book. However, it means that there is little discussion of Darwinism in prebiotic systems - such as whirlpools, crystal growth, propagating cracks and turbulence. Nor is there much discussion of the law of "survival of the stable", or natural selection on a cosmic scale - though Smolin's ideas do get a few lines.

The author correctly links Universal Darwinism to maximum entropy thermodynamics. This is a real and important link - but the author's treatment of the maximum entropy idea is very cursory: he just treats maximum entropy as a constraint. Universal Darwinism and maximum entropy thermodynamics are deeply-linked ideas, but although this book has a whole chapter on the topic, it doesn't really go into their relationship very much.

The book deals with four main examples of Universal Darwinism: quantum physics, biology, learning and human culture. The 'biology' section seemed rather unnecessary to me - application of Darwinism there is well known and this topic has been treated by many others. The sections about cultural evolution and brain evolution are both good. For me, it was also nice to see material about memetics in the book. Lastly, there is a large section about "Quantum Darwinism". Quantum physics doesn't make a great example to illustrate Universal Darwinism with simply because quantum physics is so difficult to understand. I didn't really get on with the author's presentation, because it was framed in terms of "wave function collapse" - a proposed physical process which, so far, we have yet to find any evidence for. A presentation that is more agnostic about its interpretation of quantum physics would probably have a smaller chance of alienating the reader.

I thought that probably the biggest problem with the book is what it omits. Application of Darwinism to complex adaptive systems is a large and important subject. It is also much easier to understand than quantum physics. I wasn't convinced that the author understood this aspect of the topic very well - otherwise, surely it would have been included.

So, overall, this is a very welcome contribution to the topic, but I think it leaves considerable scope for further light to be thrown on the subject.


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