Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Seeing ourselves as eddies in the stream of entropy

Of the hundreds of essays written to commemorate the 200th anniversary of Charles Darwin's birth, I think one of the most engaging is offered by Matt Ridley in the Spectator magazine. A few clips:
Living beings are eddies in the stream of entropy. That is to say, while the universe gradually becomes more homogeneous and disordered, little parts of it can reverse the trend and become briefly more ordered and complex by capturing packets of energy. It happens each time a baby is conceived. Built by 20,000 genes that turn each other on and off in a symphony of great precision, and equipped with a brain of ten trillion synapses, each refined and remodeled by early and continuing experience, you are a thing of exquisite neatness, powered by glucose. Says Darwin, this came about by bottom-up emergence, not top-down dirigisme. Faithful reproduction, occasional random variation and selective survival can be a surprisingly progressive and cumulative force: it can gradually build things of immense complexity. Indeed, it can make something far more complex than a conscious, deliberate designer ever could: with apologies to William Paley and Richard Dawkins, it can make a watchmaker.

Malthus taught Darwin the bleak lesson that overbreeding must end in pestilence, famine or violence — and hence gave him the insight that in a struggle for existence, survival could be selective. But the notion that, with random variation, this selective survival could then generate complexity and sophistication where there had been none before, that it is a cumulative and creative force, is entirely his. It is also one that applies to more than the bodies of living beings.

Technology is a case in point. Although engineers are under the fond illusion that they design things, nearly all of what they do consists of nudging forward descent with modification. Every technology has traceable ancestry; ‘to create is to recombine’ said the geneticist Fran├žois Jacob. The first motor car was once described by the historian L.T.C. Rolt as ‘sired by the bicycle out of the horse carriage’. Just like living systems, technologies experience mutation (such as the invention of the spinning jenny), reproduction (the rapid mechanisation of the cotton industry as manufacturers copied each others’ machines), sex (Samuel Crompton’s combination of water frame and jenny to make a ‘mule’), competition (different designs competing in the early cotton mills), extinction (the spinning jenny was obsolete by 1800), and increasing complexity (modern cotton mills are electrified and computerised).

Software inventors have learnt to recognise the power of trial and error rather than deliberate design. Beginning with ‘genetic algorithms’ in the 1980s, they designed programmes that would experiment with changes in their sequence till they solved the problem set for them. Then gradually the open-source software movement emerged by which users themselves altered programmes and shared their improvements with each other. Linux and Apache are operating systems designed by such democratic methods, but the practice has long spread beyond programmers. Wikipedia is a bottom-up knowledge repository and, though far from flawless, is proving easily capable, even in its first flush of youth, of matching expert-written encyclopaedias for accuracy and reach. It grows by natural selection among edits.

The internet is an increasingly Darwinian place, where decentralised, self-organising sophistication holds sway: swarm intelligence is the fashionable term. Trey Ratcliff, founder of a computer games company in Texas, tells me he feels more like a victim than a designer of technology’s evolution: ‘saying Edison invented the phonograph is like saying a spider invented silk’.


  1. Hi Deric,

    As you say Ridley's piece is engaging, but more as a study of a deeply conflicted writer than as an opinion about Darwin.

    This may be his only (veiled) public statement about the failure of Northern Rock, which he seems to attribute to "weather-like vagaries of mathematical chaos". He has railed for years with a political world view polarized to libertarian (government is a parasite, marxists are everywhere, global warming is bunk, etc). Now he has erased his chairmanship from his CV, and (with hereditary wealth intact) returned to his career as a science writer.

    While his biological writing is excellent he must reconcile his extreme ideology for "bottom up" evolution and economics with what he sees as "dirigiste" control. He has blinded himself to the stabilizing control of hierarchy in any biological system, including the economy.

  2. Charles Darwin has rarely been bigger. In the midst of the 200th anniversary of his birth and the 150th anniversary of the Origin, there is little doubt as to the continued relevance of his ideas regarding evolution and natural selection. Yet a lot has changed since the original publication of the Origin; the advances made in the mid-20th century towards a modern synthesis connected Mendelian principles of inheritance to Darwin’s work thus bolstering the field of evolutionary biology. In light of such developments, the question remains: do Darwin’s ideas, in their original form, have any worth today? Can one still derive some sort of value from reading the Origin outside of pure historical value? I would argue yes. Darwin’s On the Origin of Species is a beautifully written and curiosity-packed piece of work; despite the aging of some of the ideas, just reading about how Darwin develops his careful argument for the validity of evolution is worth the price of admission.
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