Month: November 2017

Permanent Evolution

A: What is “evolution”?

B: Evolution is descent with modification.

A: “Oh? As simple as that? So……can we go home now?”

B: Slow down – sometimes simple explanations are the hardest to understand – so let me unpack this one a bit.

Evolution is the ubiquitous process through which all that was came to be all that is, and through which all that is will become all that will be. That might seem cryptic or hand-wavy, but it’s just a simple statement. Evolution is prosaic.

Evolution is not “natural selection”. Natural selection is not a “type” of evolution. Natural selection is a particular kind of constraint that shapes the consequences of evolution in biological systems. It is not the only kind of constraint that shapes biological evolution, but it’s an important one. Natural selection is one of the best ideas ever produced by hairless apes, because it explains why some of the results of evolution look the way they do (to us).

Evolution is just descent with modification. The future states of a system depend upon (are descended from) prior states. Systems (ones that are actual) are not static – future states are different from prior states. That is evolution: breathtakingly simple and utterly universal.

There are those that wish to defend the word “evolution” from this interpretation, as though it might be tarnished by it. “Following this argument,” they (might) say, “the weathering of a rock, its transformation from a boulder into sand, would be considered its ‘evolution’.” Indeed. As would the transformation of the sand back into rock, were that the sand’s fate. Evolution is prosaic.

“Change is the only constant.” A truism that happens to be true. Aristotle thought that the default state for all things was for them to be at rest. He thought energy had to enter a system in order for movement to be initiated. He used this logic to construct his “prime mover”, or “unmoved mover”, argument. Aristotle was wrong. Heraclitus (a precursor of Aristotle) was closer when he said “everything is in flux and nothing is at rest”. Modern physics refutes Aristotle’s argument – at the “bottom” all is change, all is movement. In fact, Aristotle had it precisely backwards – “energy” is required to prevent change, not to cause it, and even then it’s just a temporary preservation of some “pattern” or another. “All patterns are ephemeral!”, cries the evolutionist.

A: A bit morbid, these evolutionists…

B: Death and taxes, my friend.

Anyway, change is constant, but not all change is permissible, because future states descend from prior states. Future states are constrained by prior states. Evolution, as manifest in the actual universe, is a process that takes place across time. Yes my dear, time is real! The past constrains the future and the deepest level at which we can observe this is by considering the laws of physics themselves. Since evolution is a process in time, if evolution is ubiquitous time must be fundamental and the laws of physics therefore cannot be “outside time”. Lee Smolin hits the nail on the noggin: the laws of physics evolved. Once evolved, they constrained all future evolution. They are one of the earliest “selection pressures”.

A: Why don’t the laws of physics keep evolving then?

B: Huh? I dunno….maybe they do, but maybe they are heavily constrained by something else. I didn’t claim to know everything…..and I was on a roll, do you have to keep interrupting?

A: Sorry….

B: “That’s OK, it was a good question. Anyway, let me sum this up so we can get on with our lives:

Evolution is like this: change is constant, but every system has a set of degrees of freedom which constrain its possible future states. These are the selection pressures or “principles of selection”, or whatever semantically isomorphic phrase one wishes to coin. Different systems….

A: Semantically what?

B: “Semantically isomorphic” – it just means a different choice of words with the same meaning.

A: Well why didn’t you just say that?

B: I think my facial expression says it all right now. Aaaaaanyway:

Different systems have different principles of selection (and working these out is the hard, explanatory task of the evolutionary sciences). Selection pressures themselves evolve, of course, and the laws of physics are an example. The biological sciences have identified thousands of examples, some of which constitute “natural selection”. Systems of ethics are another example – they evolved and they constrain future evolution.

Got it?

A: Sorry what? I was just checking my Instagram feed…

B: Ah. Fair enough I guess. Have you ever read any Marx?

A: Huh? I thought we were done with all this intellectualising once you got through the evolution schtick?

B: We are, but this is funny – one of Marx’s most famous slogans was “permanent revolution!”; little did he know that reality was in a state of permanent Evolution!

A: “That’s not funny.”

B: “Oh.”

– TNWJ

NB.

This piece was originally published on my new blog Sympathetic People which is a collaboration with Johanahan Coludar. The Sympathetic People blog is also the home of the Permanent Evolution Podcast – please check it out and follow it!

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Timmy the tortoise

Slowly, steadily, he marched.

Timmy the tortoise was frightened, but he pressed forward. Behind him, felt but not seen, the giant serpent swallowed its tail. Before him, the many-branching path leading…..where?

 

Slowly, steadily, he marched. Time passed, one foot in front of another.
Rounding a bend, Timmy saw a tiger. The tiger sat by the path, a sad and confused look on its majestic features. Timmy the tortoise was frightened, but he knew his armour would keep him safe, so he stopped to see if he could help the confused cat.
“Brother tiger,” he said, “you look vexed. But you are a beautiful, strong predator, with glossy orange and black fur, bright eyes and big teeth. Surely you are lord of your domain and all bow before you, trembling in awe. What could possibly be the matter, great one?”
The tiger stood on all fours and looked down at the humble tortoise, his bright eyes baleful. “Little terrapin, I have problems of which your puny mind could not conceive. Certainly I am beautiful, lord of my domain, and all tremble before my burning eyes, but still I am troubled. I may eat any animal I choose, even you, whose armour I could crack with one bite, any animal but one.”
Timmy was no terrapin, and he was more than a little perturbed by the tiger’s threat, but he held his head up high and asked the fearsome feline, “Which animal is that, my lord?”
“The elephant, friend turtle. Please understand, it is not that I cannot bring him down, cannot subjugate him to my will. This I can do, it is a trifle. I can subjugate any animal to my will, for my will is iron, my claws sharp and my teeth true. No, it is not that. It is only that once I bring him down I do not know what to do, for he is so huge. How does one eat an elephant?”
Timmy thought hard, knowing his life may depend on the answer he gave. He swallowed, then gave his considered opinion: “One mouthful at a time?”
“Ah.” The tiger sat heavily on his haunches, a thoughtful look upon his whiskered features.
Leaving the tiger gratefully perplexed by this kernel of wisdom, Timmy pressed on down the many-branching path.
Slowly, steadily, he marched. Time passed, one foot in front of another.
Rounding a bend, Timmy saw a man sitting dejectedly on a stump next to a small wall made of clay bricks. The wall was scarcely a metre high and a few metres long. Timmy was scared, because he knew men were even more dangerous than tigers, but he stopped by the wall and cleared his throat.
“Brother man dude,” he said, adopting lingo he felt would put the naked ape at ease, “you seem troubled. But you are a man, most resourceful of all creatures, transformer of landscapes, subjugator of nature. Surely you are lord of your domain and all bow before you, trembling with awe. What could possibly be the matter, great one?”
The man stood up, scratching his moustache and looking around for the source of the small voice that addressed him. Finally noticing Timmy the tortoise, standing with head held high a mere four inches from the ground, the man looked down with red-rimmed eyes. “Little testudine, how simple your life is. You could not possibly conceive of the troubles faced by a man such as myself. I have a vision, you see, a fantastic vision so grand and so huge. The world has never seen such a construction as that which I have conceptualised and must now bring into this world. I have been working at it all day, and see what I have accomplished!”
Timmy had no idea what a “testudine” was supposed to be, but he was a firm believer in being polite to strangers. “Indeed sir your wall is very impressive, I must confess I have seen other walls…”
“No, you stupid-small-minded-cold-blooded-reptile! The wall is nothing! Nothing!! My vision includes ten thousand walls, buildings, archways, aqueducts! It is a city, a great city where the world’s greatest minds will congregate and build the future.” The man melodramatically clapped his hand to his forehead, looking as if he might keel over in his fervour.
“Oh, I see,” said Timmy, allowing the man’s insults to slip by like water off a tortoise’s shell. “That does sound pretty amazing. What do you call this incredible architectural conglomerate that you will create?”
“I call it ‘Rome’, but I will never create it. I have worked all day – see how little I have achieved!” The man was pacing back and forth in agitation. “Little friend, I am finished! Ruined! I will be a laughing stock. What ever shall I do?”
Timmy thought hard, wanting to help the man but also nervously aware of the hammer the man had picked up and was now purposelessly swinging back and forth in the air, a hammer that might crack a little tortoise’s shell. “Perhaps it takes more than one day to build something so magnificent,” he offered, “perhaps you should work on it again tomorrow?”
“Ah.” The man stopped swinging the hammer and sat sown heavily on his stump, a thoughtful look on his moustached features.
Leaving the man gratefully perplexed by this kernel of wisdom, Timmy pressed on.
Slowly, steadily he marched. Time passed, one foot in front of another.
Timmy was frightened, but he pressed forward. Behind him, felt but not seen, the giant serpent swallowed its tail. Before him, the many-branching path leading….where?
Timmy was frightened, but he thought he saw a light in the distance getting closer, one step at a time.