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.”



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!


Billy and the daemons.

Later that “day” in hyper-dimensional space, Billy bumped into Laplace’s Daemon, who was looking dejected.

“Hey, LD, what’s up?” Billy asked, cheerfully.

“Oh, hi Billy,” the daemon rumbled. His voice, almost subsonic, sounded hollow. “I’m feeling a bit low, to tell the truth.”

“Cheer up LD, what’s wrong?”

“I feel pretty useless, Billy.”

“Oh come on.”

“I’m not good at anything…”

“That’s nonsense LD! You know the position and velocity of every particle in the universe! That’s pretty awesome!”

“I thought so too, but now I don’t know…”

“What happened?”

“I failed to predict the outcome of the US presidential election…”

“Oh, bummer…but you’ve predicted a lot of other stuff correctly, right?”

“Well, not as such, no…”

“But…I thought prediction was your whole thing LD?”

“So did I…but I’ve never actually tried to predict anything before now.”

“Wow – isn’t that what you were created for?”

“I guess not. I guess I was created as an intuition pump like some smart arse philosophers have claimed…oh man, this sucks – I was so determined to try,” the daemon let out an almighty sigh. “Ha! ‘Determined’!” he suddenly shouted, slapping his daemonic thigh ironically.

“What’s an intuition pump LD?” chirped Billy, his ears ringing. He’d missed the joke but was always excited to learn new things.

“It means I was created just to convince people that prediction was possible in principle. You know, to show people how obvious and logical determinism is and how incoherent the idea that puny creatures like them could have ‘Free Will’ is,” the daemon made little bunny ears with his daemonic fingers as he pronounced the words “Free Will”, “…but I never really thought to test my powers.” He paused, shaking his daemonic head, “I mean, it was so obvious!”

Suddenly, Tegmark’s Daemon appeared in a puff of mathematics.

“Hi TD!” chirped Billy, whose irrepressible chirping was starting to get on the daemonic nerves of Laplace’s Daemon.

“Hi Billy! Hi LD – I hear you’ve had a spot of bother bit of predicting the future old chap,” said the newcomer.

“Bloody hell,” growled the older daemon, “everybody knows… I’ll be a laughing stock at the next meeting of the Council of Daemons.”

“Cheer up mate,” replied TD, trying to console his friend, “it’s not your fault. You just don’t know anything about quantum indeterminacy, that’s all.”

“What’s that?” asked LD, without enthusiasm.

“Would you like me to show you?”

“Not really…”

“Yes!” exclaimed Billy, who knew it was rude to interrupt when daemons were talking to each other but was unable to contain his excitement.

“Excellent!” said Tegmark’s Daemon, ruffling Billy’s hair affectionately before opening his daemonic mouth and spewing forth a huge jumble of equations. While he explained them to his eager young student, Laplace’s Daemon picked his daemonic teeth disinterestedly with his daemonic claws.

Some “time” later, when Tegmark’s Daemon had finished his daemonic explanation, he turned to his fellow daemon and said, “So now you know, LD – it’s a bit harder to predict the future than you thought, because you have to analyse all possible universes and work out which one you’re in! You couldn’t possibly have known…”

“Whatever,” grunted the downcast daemon, brusquely interrupting his younger colleague.

Tegmark’s Daemon shrugged his daemonic shoulders, “OK chaps, I’m off then,” he said, and promptly disappeared in another puff of mathematics.

“Fucking precocious upstart,” muttered Laplace’s Daemon, alone with Billy once more.

“I feel bad for you LD,” said Billy, “but you have to admit, that was pretty cool!” The boy was beaming in the afterglow of the brief encounter with his favourite daemon – Tegmark’s.

“Piss off, kid.”

“Aw, don’t be sore LD. What are you going to do now?”

“I don’t know…probably start a psychic hotline.”




Art: William Blake’s “The Number of the Beast is 666”