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Thursday, December 22, 2011

Evolution: Refinement vs. Prediction

Evolution: The changes that will have the greatest effect on the longest future... and what it takes for those changes to survive the present long enough to make it there.

That sentence describes evolution better than any attributed to Darwin. The refinement-on-a-scheme process Darwin described is only the metabolism, the power plant, that fuels evolution. "Fitness" in the present is the necessary evil, not the goal of evolution. Evolution is not the struggle for the right beak shape. That kind of refinement-on-a-scheme only gets you the biggest slice of the local pie. Refinement makes for a powerful now, a perquisite for a powerful then, but it is self limiting. Resources spent adapting to the now are resources not available for adaptation to the future. It is ironic to have to utter these words, but evolution isn't about the here and now. No, evolution is about the biggest there and the longest then. If your purpose is to facilitate the future, you are in the prediction business. So let's re-write our definition.

Evolution: The development and selection of better and better prediction schemes.

However, a prediction scheme is useless unless it can get you from what works now to what will work then. What ensues, is a tug-of-war, a tight-wire-walk, in which an evolution scheme must support both refinement in the now and prediction of the future. The causal implications are complex. Refinement is antithetical to prediction. While the finch is involved in the struggle for a better beak, the larger sphere of resources, the whole of the universe over the longest spans of the future, go ignored and un-tapped. You might argue that a bird doesn't have the capacity to understand the universe or the concept of resources or the maximization of exploitation to which all evolving systems must ultimately compete, and you would be, after a fashion, correct. That is the magic of evolution, the evolving thing doesn't need to understand the process it is engaged in. So long as there are enough individuals and these individuals are each even just slightly different from each other, selection will direct change towards better and better survival and better and better prediction schemes. Changes that promote survival are the easy part. And yet, even though it often works against survival in the present, the capacity to predict will win in the long run.

Darwin can't be faulted for not seeing the big picture. He had to lay down the ground work and the groundwork in evolution is survival. Beak shape is an easily to observe population variance in finch morphology. But beak shape variation is no different than leg length variation, or protean variation, or cognitive and behavioral variation. Critics of evolution in general or Darwin argue that he never actually explained "…the origin of species". Implied in that challenge is a description of a process that results in qualitative changes; animals vs. plants for instance. And this is because he chose to explain his theory through the more overt and obvious adaptations that fall into the category of refinement or fitness in the present. The larger picture of evolution must be told as a conflict between refinement and prediction and that would have been an impossible sell to an already suspicious victorian audience.

Randall Lee Reetz

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