Sunday, 28 October 2012

Tim Tyler: Kelley, The Origin of Everything (review)


Hi! I'm Tim Tyler, this is a review of this book:

The Origin of Everything via Universal Selection, or the Preservation of Favored Systems in Contention for Existence D. B. Kelley. The book is clearly named after Darwin's 1859 book titled:

On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favored Races in the Struggle for Life

My book is a review copy - which was sent to me ahead of its release by its publishers. The main topic is universal selection - and what an important idea it is. I'm pretty much on board with the author's views regarding the high level of significance of the topic. Universal Darwinism is a tremendously important subject - and universal selection is a big part of it.

Many people who are interested in expanding the domain of Darwinism only extend the theory to cover the social sciences, the brain and development - leaving the idea still confined to the life sciences. By contrast, this book extends the idea of selection far beyond the social sciences - emphasizing that selection applies to practically everything - including natural selection of moons, stars, atoms, galaxies, chemical compounds and all manner of other things. I think this emphasis is correct - Darwinism and natural selection do also cover the inorganic realm.

Some apply selectionist ideas to complex adaptive systems, but the author points out that even atoms qualify as being complex - and so pretty much any system you care to think of qualifies as a complex system. The author prefers to just call them "systems". I think this is a helpful perspective.

The book offers a symbiosis-friendly version of Darwinism - extending mutualism and parasitism into the organic realm as well. I think that makes reasonable sense - though some will probably view it as being a step too far.

The author presents selectionism as a part of physics. However, since it also applies in a wide range of universes with different physical laws - such as Conway's Game of Life - I prefer to think of it as a principle of statistics - broadly similar to statistical mechanics.

The book offers a treatment of universal selection and the anthropic principle. It's the best treatment of this topic that I have encountered. There is a discussion of memetics, although it is pretty small section. The book also discusses selectionism as a grand unifying principle in science, and the scale of its possible impact.

However, this is a book with a number of problems - some of which I will now describe:

The book is quite repetitive, making essentially the same point regarding the ubiquity of selection over and over again.

There's a lot of discussion of selection, but not much breaking this down into copying and destruction. Copying and destruction are very different ideas, which demand independent treatment and analysis. Bundling them together into the single category of "selection" doesn't really do either of them justice.

The author doesn't really distinguish much between cumulative adaptive evolution and degenerative evolution. This is a pretty critical distinction if extending Darwinism into the inorganic domain.

Other principles - besides universal Darwinism purport to explain the evolution of complex adaptive systems. In particular maximum entropy thermodynamics purports to explain the evolution of a wide range of living and non-living systems. Those discussing universal Darwinism need to discuss the relationship between it and existing ideas like these - but the author doesn't really do that. There is a chapter on entropy - but that addresses quite a different topic.

There's quite a lot of discussion regarding links between Darwinism and relativity in the book. I think this link is overstated.

The author seems to think the material in the book is quite original. However, I wasn't really convinced of that. I published an essay titled "Universal Selection" online in 2010 - which fairly plainly and clearly extended selection into the inorganic domain. I didn't come up with the idea either - my essay cites a paper from 1996 on essentially the same topic.

Radical extensions of Darwinism can expect to face criticism. For example, Massimo Pigliucci says:

Physicists talk about the evolution of the universe all the time but all they mean by that is: change over time. Now, if that is what we mean by "evolution", then pretty much everything falls under evolution - so surely we must mean something more specific than that.

I think those writing in the area should make an effort to anticipate and address such criticisms. However, this book doesn't seem to be written with critics in mind - rather it is a book of enthusiastic advocacy of the idea. I also think that those working on radical reformulations reformulations of Darwinism should probably take efforts to appear credible. The author could have taken more steps in that direction. For one thing, I spotted a number of mistakes. For example, the book claims that trees are asexual. It claims that monkeys and dinosaurs coexisted. It repeatedly reports a discovery of faster than light travel, which was subsequently widely discredited. These kinds of things don't make a positive contribution to making the case.

So, to summarise, this is a good and important book, but it also suffers from a number of flaws. However, because of the vaccuum in the area, any contributions to it are very welcome - and consequently this book makes essential reading for anyone interested in the issue of the domain of Darwinian theory.


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