What is evolution

Evolution has fascinated me ever since I learned about it. I spent some time thinking about it, what it really is, what its purpose is, what its limitations are. As many people, initially I anthropomorphized evolution, almost making it into something by itself intelligent, purposeful. I quickly realized that evolution is nothing else than a statistical process related to survival bias — it’s a manifestation of the fact that over time, as species compete for resources, the random mutations that happen to improve the odds of one species surviving will become dominant. We, the outside observers, will see this as the betterment of species, but evolution is nothing more than an epiphenomenon.

Evolution becomes interesting when we consider the role humans play in it. People believe that the shape of our hands enabled us to create and use tools which had a tremendous evolutionary advantage (these tools were a de facto extension of our bodies; they could be produced, used and discarded well within the lifetime of an individual). This ability led to an emergence of intelligence, which ultimately obviated the need for mutations: instead of waiting for a random mutation to take place over many generations to adapt to changing conditions, humans can adapt much faster through being smart. If a new Ice Age hit the planet, instead of waiting for mutations to occur that would offer some protection from the cold (such as thick fur), humans can simply leverage their ability to use tools to build dwellings that protect them from the cold, or skin animals to wear their fur.

In a way, in an age of intelligent creatures, evolution is obsolete — i.e. humans will no longer need to evolve since the mutations no longer carry significant comparative advantage. At a risk of making evolution into something it’s not again, one can say that evolution made itself obsolete, since the emergence of intelligence happened through an evolutionary process (whether intelligence is a necessary step in the evolution of species is an entirely separate and fascinating question; I’ll probably come back to it at some point).

As the epiphenomenon of evolution has been replaced by the phenomenon of intelligence, the prerogative of survival has been replaced by the mission of betterment. This “betterment” is simply an extension of the work of our tool-building ancestors, who perceived problems and use the tools to solve them. The creation of more elaborate and abstract tools allowed humans to solve more and more fundamental problems that they face, an, in an extreme, also prevent future problems (so, in my view, string theory is no different than a sharpened stick that our ancestors used to kill animals). And as intelligent creatures attempt to achieve progress at an ever-increasingly faster rate, they begin to reach for more and more fundamental devices, eventually imitating nature itself. The next step for intelligent creates, in my view, will be the mastery of genetic engineering — the human body being the kind of ultimate tool at his disposal (at which point mutations will be replaced by direct changes to the human DNA in order to fulfill specific goals). Eventually humans will breach the final limitation, that of the biological medium. In that final breakthrough, what is natural will be replaced by what isconceivable (a very primitive example of this is artificial intelligence).

As we see, more primitive (and constrained) processes are replaced by more advanced ones (either those that take less time to effect a change, or those that break down more limitations). In a way, then, we’re dealing with an epiphenomenon of meta-evolution, the “survival” of large-scale processes observed in species.

It’s easy to misunderstand evolution. E.V., somebody I respect, said that evolution as the natural move toward better should be understood as the greatest single force in the universe. He also said that outcomes consistent with natural laws (“good” outcomes) will likely lead to rewards and this is why we should all be striving for achieving outcomes contributing to evolution (as the latter is the fundamental natural law). I think it’s a somewhat superficial understanding of evolution as something special — an instance of the aforementioned anthropomorphizing of evolution. There is nothing special about evolution other than it being an example of how some processes in the Universe that tend to increase entropy can exhibit patterns consistent with evolution.


Evolution as a greedy process

Evolution is a statistical process coupled with individuals’ mutation that, when viewed at a very high level, creates the impression of progress of species over time. Species evolve from one state to another that gives them immediately higher survival value. It is impossible to evolve to a state through an intermediate state that may be of lower value.

Hence, evolution is a greedy process, always aiming to incrementally provide value. This means that many “features” of species which could be extremely beneficial may never appear through evolution because they would necessitate going through an intermediate stage: in other words, evolution is susceptible to local maxima.

Arguably, this is why species never evolved to have wheels, which we now know to be the most efficient mode of transit. No incremental process can create a wheel (I should imagine that additional arguments may point to the fact that such a wheel would be difficult to maintain).


Invariants of evolution

Evolution has no “plan”, that is, the progress is rather random and depends on a number of conditions in nature. Still, are there any invariants of evolution? That is, are there features that evolution always produces (or produces provided that some criteria are met)? Is photosynthesis a necessary process for species to adopt (in other words, does evolution always produce green organisms?) Similarly (and this is of course a million dollar question) is intelligence an invariant?

I believe the answer to both questions is yes, not because there is some higher purpose to evolution but because, simply put, photosynthesis and intelligence are the most efficient mechanisms at particular modes of operation (vegetative state, and being a hunter-gatherer, respectively). Unlike wheels, they can appear through an incremental process. The only conditions are sufficient sophistication and competition. For photosynthesis–directly using a virtually unlimited energy–is a great solution to the problem of limited resources for immobile organisms; similarly, intelligence is an answer to species reaching physical limits of body construction (further mutations won’t make the species faster, or stronger). However, intelligence is an expensive feature to develop which is why I think it could only have been possible after increased competition between species made cooperation within a species beneficial, which allowed to specialization and thus easier mutations towards intelligence.

I am not an evolutionary biologist and so the above paragraph is simply my theory. It will be difficult to come with proof of it (or a proof to the contrary) because, as with all epiphenomena, the system that would need to be analyzed to gain the threshold level of understanding is too large for us to currently tackle.