Posted by: Chris | January 19, 2011

Evolutionary Biology: A Primer

I know I have previously snarked about this website on intra-Lure channels, but this series on evolutionary biology is absolutely fantastic (especially if you can look past some of the blinkered and hubristic rationalism endemic to its environs).  It makes explicit a lot of the logic and limitations of the subject that one must usually absorb passively from regular exposure to the material.  I also enjoyed his rebuke of attempts to apply the logic of evolution to non-organisms, like corporations or self-replicating nanotech:

Do corporations evolve?  They certainly compete.  They occasionally spin off children.  Their resources are limited.  They sometimes die.

But how much does the child of a corporation resemble its parents?  Much of the personality of a corporation derives from key officers, and CEOs cannot divide themselves by fission.  Price’s Equation only operates to the extent that characteristics are heritable across generations.  If great-great-grandchildren don’t much resemble their great-great-grandparents, you won’t get more than four generations’ worth of cumulative selection pressure – anything that happened more than four generations ago will blur itself out.  Yes, the personality of a corporation can influence its spinoff – but that’s nothing like the heritability of DNA, which is digital rather than analog, and can transmit itself with 10^-8 errors per base per generation.

With DNA you have heritability lasting for millions of generations.  That’s how complex adaptations can arise by pure evolution – the digital DNA lasts long enough for a gene conveying 3% advantage to spread itself over 768 generations, and then another gene dependent on it can arise.  Even if corporations replicated with digital fidelity, they would currently be at most ten generations into the RNA World.

Finally, in an otherwise unrelated series, he critiques the use of unexamined scientific beliefs, evolutionary biology in particular, as code for one’s sophistication far more clearly and succinctly than I could:

I encounter people who very definitely believe in evolution, who sneer at the folly of creationists.  And yet they have no idea of what the theory of evolutionary biology permits and prohibits.  They’ll talk about “the next step in the evolution of humanity”, as if natural selection got here by following a plan.  Or even worse, they’ll talk about something completely outside the domain of evolutionary biology, like an improved design for computer chips, or corporations splitting, or humans uploading themselves into computers, and they’ll call that “evolution”.  If evolutionary biology could cover that, it could cover anything.

Probably an actual majority of the people who believe in evolution use the phrase “because of evolution” because they want to be part of the scientific in-crowd – belief as scientific attire, like wearing a lab coat.  If the scientific in-crowd instead used the phrase “because of intelligent design”, they would just as cheerfully use that instead – it would make no difference to their anticipation-controllers.  Saying “because of evolution” instead of “because of intelligent design” does not, for them, prohibit Storm.  Its only purpose, for them, is to identify with a tribe.


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