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Evolution is not Religion

Religions need magic

Let me state first what I think evolution is.

It is an algorithmic process that has replicating entities, a bit of variation in the replication and a selection pressure that means that some replicants replicate more often. This process happens again and again and again, and after many repetitions the entities are better adapted to the selection pressure than their ancestor.

Daniel Dennett calls this algorithm the evolutionary algorithm.
The evolutionary algorithm is capable of exploring a vast design space and over time finding a design that is marvelously capable of existing given the demands of selection pressure. Darwin first discovered the evolutionary algorithm in biology and called it Natural Selection.

Natural Selection has been confirmed with many threads of evidence so many times that it is no longer reasonable to doubt it.

It is no more a theory than gravity is a theory. Its an accurate description of how one aspect of reality works that is both predictive and explanatory. It is the explanation that turned biology from a categorizing study into a unified science. The evolutionary algorithm is not limited to biology.

Any situation that involves a loop of replicating entities, a bit of variation and selection pressure will see those entities evolve.

Technology is one such area. Clearly machines evolve to become better and better suited to their purpose. But is this improvement really an evolutionary one?

Why not say that the improvement in cars is the result of continuous application of human intelligence to a problem?

First, I think that saying this in no way contradicts evolution. After all, it is human intelligence that is replicating the cars, and dreaming up the variations, and then selecting the best variations for future replication. But in designing cars humans face a problem of finding the best design in a vast design space. Most of the designs in that space are of little use. But since the design process is evolutionary it fairly quickly homed in on wonderful mechanical devices, that are marvels of intricacy and efficiency.

If people weren't using an evolutionary process to develop better cars, if they were just being smart and finding the best design without evolution being involved, then why didn't these smart people find contemporary mechanics right off? Fashion provides another example of an evolutionary situation.

A designer produces a popular new style and other designers try variants to see which variant will be the most popular. But if fashion is evolutionary why doesn't fashion home in on a best style the way that machines home 12in on a best sort of mechanics? Well consider the selection pressure on fashion one of the prime criteria is to be new, last year's fashion is boring, so fashion rewards more radical variation than mechanics.

The thing that works in fashion is the ability to attract attention, not durability and fuel efficiency. But even in fashion, the evolutionary exploration of design space turned up some durable designs. Once high heels were invented no amount of rationalizing about how practical flat shoes are could override the head turningness of high heels.

We see this especially in Second Life where high heels don't extract a discomfort cost, and have therefore become quite extreme and common.

Evolution can usefully inform many things of interest, from how our minds work to linguistics to wondering why our universe has the fundamental parameters it has. We can look at a situation and wonder how the evolutionary algorithm might be involved.

Its not enough to say that 'Its evolution'. Thats just handwaving. You have to show that the elements of evolution are present. That there are replicating entities, a bit of variation in the replication and a selection pressure that means that some replicants replicate more often. If we can't find all three of those elements then invoking evolution gets us noplace.

Another thing to consider is that though our brains may have been formed by one evolutionary process that has given us certain primeval attitudes and though our thoughts may be created within our brains by another evolutionary process (maybe) does that help us understand each other? Not much. We are people existing in the world and interacting with each other.
Thats not an evolutionary situation.

Evolution can help us understand ourselves and our world, but it won't help us understand why some body did a particular thing, or whether something is good or bad, or the meaning of a poem, or the beauty of music. Evolution may help us know how we understand, but it can't tell us what we understand. Evolution is no guide, and evolution is no god that must be obeyed. Evolution is not a religion, its a powerful and useful idea.

What do you think?

Star I present regular philosophy discussions in a virtual reality called Second Life. I set a topic and people come as avatars and sit around a virtual table to discuss it. Each week I write a short essay to set the topic. I show a selection of them here.

I've been thinking and reading about philosophy for a long time but I'm mostly self taught. That is I've had the good fortune to read what interests me rather than follow a course of study. That has it's limits of course but advantages. It doesn't cost as much and is fun too.

My interests are things like evolution and cognition and social issues and economics and science in general.