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After reading Richard Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene,  John Cribben’s In Search of the Multiverse and Philip Balls’ Critical Mass, my interest in evolution as a generic or more universal concept has been revived. Is evolution a concept much broader than Darwin ever envisaged? Can it apply to human behaviours? Natural structures? How about our entire universe?

With the current socio-political climate in the US being driven more and more toward the extreme right, where so-called “respected” politicians harp on about intelligent design and other such bullshit, I found it interesting to see that evolution may extend from explaining how our genes have changed over the millena, to actually understanding everything from our place in the universe to the inherent behaviours that we exhibit. Darwin’s work may have uncovered a greater universal truth. As Daniel Dennett once said:

“If I were to give an award for the single best idea anyone has ever had, I’d give it to Darwin, ahead of Newton and Einstein and everyone else. In a single stroke, the idea of evolution by natural selection unifies the realm of life, meaning, and purpose with the realm of space and time, cause and effect, mechanism and physical law.”

My first proper exposure to the theory of evolution beyond basic biology class was when I was about 17 and learnt about genetic algorithms (GA) when writing the Generation5 website I put together for the ThinkQuest competition along with Samuel Hsuing and Edward Kao.

AH-64D Apache Longbow
The AH-64D Longbow’s radar has genetically evolved algorithms powering it.

Sam had written an article (which I later expanded upon) about using a GA to solve a diophantine equation. I found it amazing that computer scientists had taken Darwin’s idea of “survival of the fittest” and applied it to something as abstract as solving mathematically equations. Not only that, it was bloody efficient at doing it!

Two years later, I interviewed Steve Smith, one of the engineers behind that massive radar that sits atop the AH-64D Apache Longbow (right). The Apache’s radar can automatically detect the target from the radar signature, and the software that powers this intelligence was evolved via genetic programming.

At the time though, the deeper meaning behind all this “cool technology” never really dawned on me. Fast forward many years and my fascination with genetic algorithms remained. I was stunned by the ability of evolution to seemingly solve huge problems if you could simply assign a fitness to any given solution. Now with that said, this post isn’t meant as a lesson on genetic algorithms as I’ve written plenty in the past (including this bad boy if you’re feeling adventurous).

However, when I started this blog one of the first topics I wrote about was the evolution of cooperation which absolutely fascinated me at the time. When it seems that people are inherently selfish, why do cooperative strategies seem to work? Why are humans cooperative even in extreme situations such as war? For example, World War I generals were very upset that Germans and British soliders in the trenches didn’t shoot each other, but it was a mutual understanding between frontline soldiers to avoid tit-for-tat retributions. So with all this in mind, are cooperative strategies an emergent by-product of civilization (nurture) or are they innate, evolved behaviours (nature!).

My initial studies came from rediscovering the Iterated Prisoner’s Dilemma (IPD) in game theory. I extended the IPD to a spatial 2D map and started running randomly generated strategies through a genetic algorithm to see if cooperation evolved. They did to a certain extent, although I felt I had to tweak my models and methods a bit to more closely emulate the more academic and rigourous tests. However even in my initial findings I saw deceptive or selfish strategies eliminated from the world quickly.

I soon forgot about my game theory experiments and went about reading Dawkin’s The Selfish Gene only to be surprised there was an entire chapter dedicated to Axelrod’s IPD simulations and the evolution of cooperative behaviour! As with the title of Dawkin’s book, he asserts that cooperative behaviour evolves as genes are selfishly trying to propagate themselves rather than the “machines” (us) that hold them or the species they’re contained within — that is largely irrelevant. In short, Axelrod showed how cooperation could evolve as an Evolutionary Stable State (or ESS), which is generally a state (or strategy, depending on context) which, if dominant in a population, cannot be bettered by an alternative. This is not because it may be the “best” strategy or state but because it is immune to treachery from within the population.

In fact, Dawkins points out that evolutionary biologist Robert Trivers has even speculated many of our psychological traits (sympathy, guilt etc.) have evolved to detect cheats and equally co-evolved to cheat better. We may owe our over-sized brains to an evolutionary arms race to avoid being duped!

Dawkin’s pièce de résistance though is two-fold — he discusses how factors external to a species can be evolved. He coined the terms memes and extended phenotypes to cover these two phenomena. Memes are cultural artifacts that are capable of replicating and evolving over time. Human language is a great example of this. The human spoken word is hugely diverse, with hundreds (if not thousands) of languages, all peppered with dialects and vocabularies that change and morph many times over the course of even a single human’s lifespan. I speak English, as did William Shakespeare and Isaac Newton – however my ability to converse with them would be minimal. Our language has evolved – passed from generation to generation and evolved with time. The “fittest” words and grammar structures have remained and colloquialisms and fads have come and gone many times over.

The second concept, extended phenotypes, are a little harder to explain in any detail (or convincingly, for the skeptics). Effectively, Dawkins argues that there are many physical phenomena that have been evolved. His favourite and most striking example is the beaver dam. Somewhere in the beaver’s DNA is a series of genes that has evolved to create and build dams. Again, many (especially the more anthromorphically-minded!) will argue the “nature/nurture” route however there are many other, less extreme, examples (such as a caddis fly larvae) that prove these external structures are adaptations, evolved through Darwinian selection. Read The Selfish Gene or The Extended Phenotype for a more convincing explanation than mine.

So to summarize the story so far, the concepts of evolution not only apply to our genes but have been shown to apply to the creation of cooperative behaviours, potentially our subtle emotional landscapes and other aspects of our lives and society. However, it is easy enough to say that this so-called universal Darwinism is only applying to human evolution. It is also easy to apply the word evolution in the English sense (i.e., “an evolution of a product”) rather than the biological sense (survival of the fitness etc.).

So let’s look at a much bigger example. In fact, let’s look at the biggest: the known universe.

Without going into too much detail, there is a principle in cosmology known as the Anthropic Principle that states that universe seems to be fine-tuned to allow for life to exist. There are many universal constants so crucial to everything in the universe, for example if the the strong nuclear force was ever so slightly stronger (or weaker) then fusion would have created helium from the hydrogen at a quicker rate resulting in other elements not being created within stars. This would have affected the presence of water and therefore the ability for life to have ever evolved on Earth (and presumably, other planets). In short, the anthropic principle seems to (rather tautologically) assume that life exists in the Universe so that it can…observe the Universe!

Philosophy aside, it does raise an interesting question – how did the many universal cosmological constants arise in such a way that they gave birth to life. Lee Smolin has come up with a fascinating idea that expands on the idea of the multiverse (we don’t live in the only universe, but there are in fact an infinite number of other universes). He postulates that black holes collapse and tunnel into another, “new” spacetime that has slightly different physical constants of nature. Since the ability for universes to create “child” universes stem from their ability to be able to create black holes to spawn these children, natural selection would therefore evolve universes with physical constants that created many black holes.

Now, the physical constants of our universe do produce a very condusive environment for black holes to form. With this reasoning, the fact that life was able to form on Earth and elsewhere is purely a by-product of a grander evolutionary process of an infinite number of universes! Cribben summarized it as:

The idea of natural selection of universes removes life, including human life, from centre stage in the story, and offers what from one point of view is a rather bleak perspective on our existence, as no more than parasites taking advantage of the way the Universe has evolved to produce a proliferation of black holes.

A depressing but altogether fascinating hypothesis into the universality of evolution.

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2 thoughts on “Universal Darwinism: The Evolution of Everything?

  1. Fascinating read, but I disagree with your conclusion. I find the idea of being removed from the center stage of existence liberating. The idea that I’m a part of something bigger than what I define as my self is comforting in that all my egocentric fears are of no cosmic importance, so I can be free to enjoy the richness of the human experience for what it is. I feel extremely blessed to be alive at a time when we’re just beginning to realize how powerful we can be when we’re connected, and the idea that I can leave a “pheromone trail” of memes behind for subsequent generations to build upon is mind boggling. I don’t think the vastness of the universe voids human life of its meaning, but I do think it beckons us to reframe our conceptions of it.

    1. Thanks John — that’s an interesting perspective. I actually agree that the cosmic unimportance of us as individuals could be extremely liberating, but I still think many of us would still find our sheer meaningless (“floating scum on a moderate planet” is how I think Hawking once described us!) quite depressing.

      There is however other lines of thought that are probably worth exploring further that don’t necessarily ascribe any importance to *us* as entities, but believe that the universe has evolved (or otherwise been created) for live to observe it. I don’t have the time to describe it in detail here, but take a look at the “strong anthrophic principle” if you find these concepts interesting.

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