Thoughts about Evolution

June 6, 1995


All text found on this page is the opinion of the author- not the author's employer, friends, family, or pets.

I'd like to start with some random thoughts about evolution. I don't really know where this will lead, but since the basic concept of evolution is central to the way I try to understand existence, I'd like to blather about it for a while. I think it's a worthwhile paradigm from which to start. Please add to this, I'd love to see what other people have to say.

I often hear people talking about evolution as an event that happened, or even, occasionally as one that didn't. But to me, evolution is not an event, it's really just a process. Let me propose a definition. Evolution is a process that requires two elements: a source of changes and a selection force. Something makes a change to our hypothetical, "evolving", subject, and something else "decides" whether or not to keep the changes. If we look at it this way, then almost any change can be seen as the result of evolution. For example- the composition of my mountain bike. Components on my bike wear out and break, and I replace them. If a specific component wears out very quickly, or I don't like it for some reason, I won't buy that brand again. So over time, the bike progresses toward someting that suits my needs better. The changing force is me buying new components, and the selection force is my decision as to which components to buy again.

When someone uses a phrase like "The evolution of modern architecture," I don't think she's just making a clever analogy. Rather, i think she's quite literally correct- the architects try new styles and techniques, and the market buys what they like. The architects build more of that. Now, these changes in style are not entirely random- an architect can make guesses as to which style changes will appeal to his customers; this results in a sort of directed evolution, where the changing agent is consciously making changes that are intended to suit the selection pressure.

Let me quickly define my concept of "traditional" or "darwinian" evolution. In this sort of evolution, the changes must be more or less random. In addition, the subject must be some self-replicating object or process, because the selection pressure is the simple advantage that the object has if more of it's kind make it to the next generation. It's merely statistical.

In that case, we can make a simple comparison between biology and technology (to the extent that they're even separate anymore). Biology's evolution has been slow- about 3.5 billion years to get to where we are. But technology, which is already beginning to be able to compete with biology's accomplishments in some areas, has evolved in, say, 15,000 years or so. I'd guess that in another 1000 years, technology will be able to outdo traditional biology in most ways. The only real difference in the process, it seems to me, is that the evolution of technology has been highly directed- a conscious intelligence is making changes that are more likely to bring results than a random change. There are many effects of this. The obvious one is the speed difference. There's also a significant difference in the robustness of the designs. All organisms are capable of healing themselves. There aren't many machines or computer programs that can really do this, and the ones that can do so only in a very limited fashion. Of course, the intelligence used to direct the evolution of technology arose out of biological evolution. Leads one to wonder if the evolution of technology will give rise to something else. If that thought intrigues you, I heartily suggest that you read "Mind Children" by Hans Moravec (non-fiction).

Anyway, to wrap up my original topic, it seems to me that doubt about whether or not "evolution happened" are entirely missing the point. Evolution happens, present tense as much as past. Almost every process is a form of evolution, or shares some attributes of it. Every decision you make contributes to the evolution of whatever you're working with, be it a computer program, a Harley, or your love life.

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