Sunday, 13 July 2014

Tim Tyler: Universal Darwinism


Hi. I'm Tim Tyler and this is a video about Universal Darwinism and the modern evolution revolution.

The term "Universal Darwinism" is the most popular name for the ongoing revolution concerning the expansion of Darwinian evolution's domain. Most scientists understand that Darwin's pioneering work applies to the evolution of animals, plants, fungi and microorganisms. However, in the twentieth century Darwinian evolution has also been applied to other areas including physics, chemistry, computer science and social science.

This expansion of Darwinism's domain of application is one of the most dramatic revolutions evolutionary theory has seen to date.

Not only do DNA-based creatures evolve in a Darwinian manner, but so do economies, lightning strikes, technologies, crystals, religions and propagating cracks. The basic elements of Darwinism - copying with variation and selection - are ubiquitous in nature - even outside evolutionary theory's traditional domain of biology.

Whenever you see a tree-shaped structure in nature, the chances are high that it's either a family tree or a bunch of family trees that have grown together. The same is true for structures that don't look like family trees - until you plot their history over time. For example a landslide doesn't closely resemble a family tree - but if you look at its history over time, almost all the rocks involved have one or more rocks which they inherited velocity from - whose influence caused them to gain speed and participate in the landslide.

The term "Darwinism" itself is somewhat vague. This can be confusing to some - which sometimes leads to controversy over what Darwin actually believed and what set of evolutionary processes deserves to be described as being "Darwinian" - as opposed to, say "Lamarckian". However, such discussions aren't central to the current revolution - the whole idea can be explained using specific core ideas from Darwinism instead - such as selection, adaptation and cumulative adaptive evolution. Science is about the ideas, more than it is about the people who came up with them - but there is a strong tradition of giving credit to originators and Darwin's name is used mainly to give credit where credit is due.

As a brief history, the term "Universal Darwinism" comes from Richard Dawkins in 1983 - who used it to mean something different. The term was given its current meaning by Henry Plotkin in 1984 - and the idea then popularized by Susan Blackmore, Daniel Dennett, David Hull, Geoffrey Hodgson, Gary Cziko and many others. Many of these folk were also pioneers of memetics and cultural evolution.

Another related term which refers to the same phenomenon is "generalized Darwinism". There's also a related concept called "universal selection" - which is best seen as being part of Universal Darwinism.

Universal Darwinism has faced criticism - mainly from social scientists and philosophers, who are uncomfortable with Darwinian expansionism for various reasons. One idea from critics is that unconstrained mutation can explain anything and so predicts nothing. However, Darwinism's traditional way around this is to constrain mutations to those that are naturalistically plausible and don't involve miracles. Another claim is that generalizing the idea of evolution so that it covers all change trivializes the idea of evolution. However, not many enthusiasts for Universal Darwinism actually endorse this idea. Macroscopic reversible systems such as a Newton's cradle have little to do with Darwinism. There are plenty of aspects of physics that aren't explained by conventional Darwinism. The easiest way to avoid this criticism is not to generalize Darwinism to cover all change in the first place. Most of the critics are wrong. In many cases, their motives are obvious - they are trying to defend traditional social science turf from being biologicized. This is generally a futile and counter-productive endeavour.

It is instructive to compare this current revolution with previous ones in evolutionary theory. It is smaller than the one that started in 1859 - but arguably bigger than most we have seen since then. The competitors include the revolutions associated with Mendel, Watson and Crick, and the discovery of the significance of symbiosis. Universal Darwinism seems to represent a more painful paradigm shift than any of the other revolutions that evolutionary theory has seen in the last a hundred and fifty years.

Another issue is how far through the revolution we are. Most energy expended on Darwinian evangelism seems to be devoted to those who don't understand Darwinism at all. In other words, it is devoted to the first wave of Darwinism. Later waves seem to receive relatively little attention. From this perspective, the Darwinian revolution looks as though it is less than half way through. However, hopefully science should go a bit faster when it is running on internet time. Technology improves connectivity, and links humanity together into a massive global brain. This tends towards a situation where once a few humans understand something, their knowledge becomes within easy reach of everyone - over the internet. Plus automation and outsourcing can help to take care of much of the more tedious work. So: probably the rest of the Darwinian revolution will take place in more of a rush than we have seen over the last 150 years. However there is obviously still a long way to go.

Being in the midst of an enormous scientific revolution makes for exciting times for those involved. Because of the lack of scientific manpower that has been devoted to the topic, low-hanging fruit abound - and it is relatively easy for budding scientists to make big discoveries and go down in history. Evolutionary theory has substantial social and political significance - so this is also a area of science where people can make a big difference with relatively little effort. Lastly, this is also an area of science that is being monetized. In particular, empirical discoveries related to applied memetics and memetic engineering are prone to being rapidly turned into cash by marketers and advertisers and progress in memetic algorithms looks set to play an important role in the development of machine intelligence.

These are exciting times for Darwinism. However this evolution revolution is currently not known about by many. If you have made it to the end of this video, you probably know more about this topic than most biologists do. However, the truth will out, and it now seems inevitable that Universal Darwinism will have its day.


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