Saturday, February 14, 2009

Evolution: Darwin's modification by descent

There's something of a flood of media relating to Darwin, as it is the bicentennary of his birth and 150th anniversary of his book On The Origin Of Species. Even something in it for me, as I heard on the radio part of a 1987 event featuring successive addresses by Richard Dawkins and Stephen Jay Gould. They both downplayed any beatup notion that there was any fundamental dispute between them, while emphasising their different perspecitives on their field. Still it was fascinating to listen to them both.

Although I am largely not one for hero-worship, Darwin must be given strong credit for introducing ideas that were revolutionary and prescient. On the latter, he broadly predicted the existence of a mechanism for evolutionary inheritance with modification, without knowing what shape it would take, and decades before it was widely verfied and accepted.

As part of the radio programme, I heard someone give a Darwinian characterisation of genetic variation as "copious, small and undirected". One of Darwin's revolutionary points was that evolution is paradoxically "neither random nor intentional". Not intentional, in that there is no overarching will at play that can make decisions about the process. And although the fodder for variation is random mutation, the effects are not, as species survival is directed by the totality of its environment.

Someone in that broadcast commented drily that although Darwin was inspired by Adam Smith's economic theory of numerous single players in a market vying for their own survival, Smith's theory "didn't work". Now that may be a bone of contention for some, but the purity of Smith's vision relied on equal players in a market where no monopoly develops - and we all know that in the absence of a directed force (ie a government), the natural tendency of capitalistic markets is towards monopoly. The analogy was imperfect; nevertheless it is the mark of a significant mind to be able to associatively draw from other fields to forge new understandings of one's own.

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