• StreetlightX
    2.9k
    One interesting way to undestand the specificity of evolution is, ironically, to treat it as a non-biological phenomenon, as much as a biological one. After all, if we stick to the strict definition of evolution as 'descent with modification' (the passing of traits from one generation to the next), it becomes clear that organisms are not the only 'entities' that can undergo evolution. Understood in the strict and/or broad sense above, the idea of evolution is, as it were, 'substrate-independant'. Darwin himself implicitly recognized this when he drew attention to what he called the 'striking homologies' between the evolution of species and the evolution - although he did not call it that - of language:

    "The formation of divergent languages and of distinct species, and the proofs that both have been developed through a gradual process, are curiously the same... We find in distinct languages striking homologies due to community of descent and analogies due to a similar process of formation. [For example,] the manner in which certain letters or sounds change when others change is very like correlated growth. ... Languages, like organic beings, can be classed either naturally according to descent, or artificially by other characters. Dominant languages and dialects spread widely and lead to the gradual extinction of other tongues. A language, like a species, when once extinct, never... reappears. The same language never has two birthplaces. Distinct languages may be crossed or blended together." (Darwin, The Descent of Man).

    Languages, like organic species, go extinct and die; they 'speciate' (or 'dialectize') through geographic isolation; and grammatical categories reflect the 'fitness' of a language with respect to the things it tries to get across (I won't substantiate this claim too much, other than by pointing to this paper which fills it out more). But language is only one example. One can also look at technology as another: consider the mobile/cell phone industry. One can think of cellphone models as populations of species distributed among environments, each vying for survival (based on features, usefulness, aesthetic criteria, economic considerations, advertising, etc). Any in any case, the comparison between language and technology shouldn't be so far fetched to the degree that language is indeed nothing other than a natural technology in it's own right (also see this paper which directly applies evolutionary principles to cellphone evolution).

    So far we've talked only of 'natural' systems. But evolutionary principles can also be applied to artificial ones as well, as has been done in the case of both (1) architecture and (2) circuit-design. In the case of architecture, we can program computers to generate varying 'species' of architectural designs in order to meet certain criteria (a column must be able to bear a certain load, the building must have enough windows, etc), while eliminating those generated designs that do not pass the test of - in this case - artificial selection (read more on using genetic algorithms to design things here). In circuit-deisgn, the idea is the same: get a computer to simulate a whole series of circuits (the stuff your CPUs run on) in order to come up with the most efficient design so that your computer can process things fast and with minimal resources (the 'fittest' circuit design).

    These are all just small examples from disparate fields, but I hope they begin to fill out a picture of how to understand evolution as not just an organic process, but an inorganic one as well. There are caveats to all of this of course, but perhaps they come through in any discussion that follows. The geneticist Theodosius Dobzhansky once wrote that "nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution"- and while he was undoubtedly right about this, perhaps he was being too modest; the same ought to be said of a great deal else in the world as well - that ultimately, we need to look at the world sub specie evolutionis.
  • Wayfarer
    6.5k
    But both language and architecture are junior to, or depend on, there being living species. So it’s hardly surprising that they should inherit some attributes of evolution as they’re very much living systems. So I would take issue with them being ‘non-biological’ - reading the thread title, I would have assumed it would be about the evolution of the cosmos, but it’s not, really.
  • StreetlightX
    2.9k
    But both language and architecture are junior to, or depend on, there being living species.Wayfarer

    True, but this is a matter of fact and not of principle. Were the robot revolution to occur and murder us all, the evolutionary principles would function all the same. Or, more technically, the only things that are needed for evolution to occur are (1) A target population (cellphone models, say), (2) an environment which places constraints on the growth of that population, and (3) a mechanism of reproduction (the cellphone industry). None of which entail any reference to living things. This is why I tried to emphasise that evolution, understood in it's broadest sense, is substrate independent, as a matter of principle. In fact, the generation of circuits and architectural designs using genetic algorithms is proof of exactly that.

    To make it super clear, the role of life in biological evolution is to meet criteria (3) - a mechanism of reproduction. But that it is life and not something else is a matter of contingency, and not necessity, from the point of view of evolution. As Eva Jablonka and Marion Lamb put it: "In existing organisms, which all have a nucleic acid–based inheritance system, it is inconceivable that the DNA inheritance system will be eliminated by another one that operates at a higher level. But theoretically it is possible that one heredity system can replace another. It may well have happened at an early stage in the evolution of life, during the murky period between chemical and biological evolution. Many theorists suggest that heredity during these early stages was not based on nucleic acids, and that the nucleic acid systems came later and replaced the primitive heredity systems. Maybe such a replacement will also occur in the distant future— if we create intelligent, reproducing, and evolving robots, they may eventually eliminate us. This would be equivalent to the elimination of one heredity system by another”. (Jablonka and Lamb, Evolution in Four Dimensions).
  • Wayfarer
    6.5k
    Were the robot revolution to occur and murder us all, the evolutionary principles would function all the same.StreetlightX

    That’s a big assumption.

    But that it is life and not something else is a matter of contingency, and not necessity, from the point of view of evolution.StreetlightX

    That nicely encapsulates what I think as the very worst of ‘evolutionism’ - the fact that it keeps the mechanistic paradigm which seems to ‘explain’ the processes of life, but omits the very principle which distinguishes living things from machines, which might happen to include why living things exist in the first place. It’s where Darwinism has become a metaphor that’s gone rogue.
  • StreetlightX
    2.9k
    That’s a big assumption.Wayfarer

    It's not an assumption; it's entailed by the principles of evolution. I literally spelled them out for you - or rather numbered them out for you - to show you that there is no reference to life in any of them.

    That nicely encapsulates what I think as the very worst of ‘evolutionism’ - the fact that it keeps the mechanistic paradigm which seems to ‘explain’ the processes of life, but omits the very principle which distinguishes living things from machines. It’s where Darwinism has become a metaphor that’s gone rogue.Wayfarer

    I'm not sure this really makes much sense: the theory of evolution explains the phenomenon of evolution, not 'the processes of life' (what processes?). It aims to explicate the mechanisms by which evolution (again: descent with modification) takes place (via natural selection, sexual selection, etc). It is right to say that those who look to evolution to explain 'life' are indeed barking up the wrong tree, but that's a problem with those people, not the theory of evolution itself. And in any case, I'm not trying to 'explain the processes of life' either, so I'm not sure where this is coming from.
  • Galuchat
    474
    ...the comparison between language and technology shouldn't be so far fetched to the degree that language is indeed nothing other than a natural technology in it's own right... — StreetlightX

    I agree that language and technology evolve, and that a distinction between natural and artificial selection makes sense, understanding that natural selection is a metaphor, whereas; artificial (human) selection is not.

    But my own concept of technology (applied science production) precludes equating it with language. How do you define "language" and "technology"? Instead, I view technology as a product of human language (a modelling system).

    These are all just small examples from disparate fields, but I hope they begin to fill out a picture of how to understand evolution as not just an organic process, but an inorganic one as well. — StreetlightX

    Human design (artifice) produces artificial inorganic objects (artefacta), but because human beings are organisms, the human design process is organic and evolves. Inorganic phenomena and artefacta do not design themselves or engage in selection (except in a metaphorical sense).

    So, I wouldn't view evolution as substrate-independent.
  • StreetlightX
    2.9k
    How do you define "language" and "technology"?Galuchat

    Heh, I threw that 'language as a technology' line in there as a provocation and wasn't sure if anyone would pick up on it, but the basic idea is that one of the functions of language (perhaps the most elementary, although not only one) is to enable us to communicate things which are not experienced. It can function as a tool - that is, a technology - that allows one to relate something you've never seen or touched, real or otherwise (one uses language to lie, to tell fantastic tales, etc). A precis of the idea can be found here [PDF, 3 pages], although I don't want to dwell on it too much as it is somewhat tangential to the thread. Perhaps I will start another on it down the track.

    Human design (artifice) produces artificial inorganic objects (artefacta), but because human beings are organisms, the human design process is organic and evolves. Inorganic phenomena and artefacta do not design themselves or engage in selection (except in a metaphorical sense).

    So, I wouldn't view evolution as substrate-independent.
    Galuchat

    'Design' is not really relevant though, insofar as all natural evolution takes place without any reference to design. So it cannot be the spindle upon which to adjudicate whether or not evolution is substrate independent or not. As I said to Warfarer, what is important are the minimal ingredients needed for any evolutionary process to take place (to restate: (1) a population, (2) an environment, (3) a reproductive mechanism), and none of those ingredients implicitly - that is, by necessity - entail life.
  • Metaphysician Undercover
    4.3k
    Language is a property of living beings, just like any of the various other properties. You can separate the property from the beings who possess the property, and view its evolution as "non-organic", but that's just a category mistake. Looking at the artificial as if there is no artificer, to premise that the artificial is natural is to commit such a falsity.
  • Galuchat
    474
    ...one of the functions of language (perhaps the most elementary, although not only one) is to enable us to communicate things which are not experienced. — StreetlightX

    I agree. Language is code as tool because it has functions.

    'Design' is not really relevant though, insofar as all natural evolution takes place without any reference to design. — StreetlightX

    Don't organisms design themselves by engaging in natural selection?
  • StreetlightX
    2.9k
    Don't organisms design themselves by engaging in natural selection?Galuchat

    No, or at least this kind of terminology is extremely awkward. First, natural selection happens to a population, and not single organisms: populations and their environment are what are subject to natural selection. Second, insofar as natural selection is something that happens to said population, it's not something that organisms 'engage in', as if it were some kind of optional past-time. Organisms can attempt, in minimal ways, to reduce (but never eliminate) selection pressure - by not parading in front or predators, say - but that selective pressure is there by virtue of any organism being alive at all. Lastly the very word 'design' is basically a minefield that any account of evolution ought to steer well clear of.

    --

    Also I realized that in my list of ingredients I left out the need for variation within populations, but that doesn't affect my overall point.
  • frank
    1.4k
    Evolution is change. Change is always recognized relative to something unchanging. If the moths evolved, the unchanging reference would be the genus and everything else above that.

    A single mountain could be said to evolve, but the species mountain?

    The evolution of life is sort of orchestral. The environment can be altered by a single animal:

    as in the case of the yellowstone wolves.
  • Galuchat
    474
    First, natural selection happens to a population, and not single organisms...
    Second, insofar as natural selection is something that happens to said population, it's not something that organisms 'engage in...
    — StreetlightX

    Then:
    1) Does natural selection also happen to populations of natural inorganic objects?
    2) Is artificial selection something that happens to artificial populations (groups of individuals)?
    3) If yes, how?
  • StreetlightX
    2.9k
    In no scientific understanding of the term is evolution simply 'change'. Evolution is descent with modification among populations. That evolution is simply 'change' is misnomer and a mistake - although a common one. It's true that behavioural change can become evolutionarily relevant but such behavioural changes must affect differential survival and/or reproductive rates in populations in order for them to be so. That's the case with the Yellowstone wolves.
  • StreetlightX
    2.9k
    1) Does natural selection also happen to populations of natural inorganic objects?Galuchat

    If and only if there is heritable variation (changes in a developmental system [population + environment] that is passed down to another generation).

    2) Is artificial selection something that happens to artificial populations (groups of individuals)?

    I'm not sure what you mean by an 'artificial population'; 'artificial' and 'natural' qualify mechanisms of selection, but not populations.
  • Galuchat
    474
    If and only if there is heritable variation (changes in a developmental system [population + environment] that is passed down to another generation). — StreetlightX

    Then, how do rocks reproduce themselves?

    I'm not sure what you mean by an 'artificial population'; 'artificial' and 'natural' qualify mechanisms of selection, but not populations. — StreetlightX

    By artificial population, I mean a population of artificial objects (e.g., French provincial tables).
  • StreetlightX
    2.9k
    Then, how do rocks reproduce themselves?Galuchat

    They don't, clearly. There is no mechanism of heritability among populations of rocks. All I've argued is that evolution can be applicable to non-organic populations, not that all non-organic populations undergo evolution.
  • frank
    1.4k
    What's the difference between modification and change?

    The Yellowstone wolves are a case of a species creating selective forces on its environment. The environment evolves. Species and environment interact.
  • StreetlightX
    2.9k
    What's the difference between modification and change?frank

    I never said there was one. But I also never said that evolution is just 'modification' either. That too would be a mistake.
  • frank
    1.4k
    Evolution entails change. Better?

    So what non-living species evolves?
  • StreetlightX
    2.9k
    Evolution entails change. Better?frank

    As a necessary but not sufficient ingredient, yes.

    So what non-living species evolves?frank

    Refer to the OP.
  • frank
    1.4k
    Language? No.
  • fdrake
    1.3k
    In this thread: people draw purely semantic distinctions which capture nothing relevant about evolution, despite a wealth of literature being available on evolution as a generalized action of selection in a space of reproductive constraints. Of which the various sorts of fitness in genetics are but one (and don't suffice for a complete characterization of evolution at any rate). Evolutionary algorithms in systems design has been a thing since before the turn of the millennium.

    Speaking evolutionary language with too much of a platonic accent: evolutionary trajectories are in part generated by instantiations of* fitness functions coupled to reproductive variation (like selection), in part generated by contingent patterns which emerged in the evolutionary heritage of a reproducing unit (like fixation/deletion in genetic drift and heredity in general), and in part generated by the whole process's reflexivity (coevolution and evolution of evolvability). There are probably lots of bits I missed out.

    Evolution is already severed from the living, as it operates on the population** rather than the individual, in this sense evolution is already an abiotic process. More precisely, it is indifferent to its substrate - be they early salts congealing themselves into enclosed units that spawn more condensation nucleii, those selfsame vesicles near thermal vents making use of the energy in their environment to adapt quicker and viral condensation/replication strategies, those thermodynamic pioneers who had the first vestiges of auto-catalysis in salts and amino acid precursors, or their eventual codification into replicating machines with functional components... Only the last step, always the last step, is life as we have ever observed it.

    Evolution, as a generative process, has forever begun in the nonliving.

    *
    (spatio-temporal localisations or more generally metric spaces of parameters of)

    **
    or even more precisely, populations as a whole, subpopulations, and any heritable property. All of which thought in terms of some relational closure of reproduction (subpopulation-subpopulation interactions can be evolved and then transmitted back to the population level, hence the possibility of symbiosis and parasitism
  • StreetlightX
    2.9k
    Hah, I'm glad you're so staunchly of the same mind - I think the idea that evolution is suprabiological is still not something that is part of the popular science education of most people, so it does jar a little to acknowledge evolution as substrate independant. I was trying for a gently-gently approach but that'll do too, lol.
  • frank
    1.4k
    Evolution, as a generative process, has forever begun in the nonliving.fdrake

    There's a clear definition of nonliving? Pfft.
  • Πετροκότσυφας
    853
    he same ought to be said of a great deal else in the world as well - that ultimately, we need to look at the world sub specie evolutionis.StreetlightX

    Why do we need to do that? What's at stake in thinking the nonliving in evolutionary terms?
  • fdrake
    1.3k


    Why would we need a clear definition of living or nonliving to study evolution?

    Regardless:

    At some point you'll probably come to the realization that philosophy doesn't have to begin with the definition of terms in most circumstances (try reading Sam26's exegesis of Wittgenstein thread if you are unfamiliar with both, it's excellent). Regardless, whether an organism is alive (or is an organism) doesn't matter for any question relating to how evolution works and specifically what it works on. That evolution operates on a far broader set of processes than 'living' ones isn't something that comes from an analysis of the term 'is alive', it comes from studying how evolution works and what it works on.

    Evolution gave rise to life's precursors, the living emerged from the nonliving at some point. Some point before the mechanisms of heredity in genes (have to come from somewhere) and cell organelles (have to come from somewhere). Our mechanisms of heredity also evolved...

    No matter how you slice the terms, evolution still works on things like replicating salts acting as condensation nucleii trapped in fatty vesicles - selecting for things like membrane permeability and molecular stability of molecules that enact (better and more prolifically, more efficiently, less deleterious - don't burst the bubble!) vesicle formation, it worked on them before the symbiosis of mitochondria occurred, before eukaryotes and archea split (why else would they split if evolution was not active?). If you want to make 'being alive' necessary for 'can evolve' as a matter of definition, fine, bite the bullet of the consequences that there are living software programs in some labs at this moment.

    Also note that this is a matter of definition irrelevant to studying the conceptual structure and real properties of evolution.



    One of the reasons thinking of the nonliving as continuous in some senses with the living, to my mind at least, is that evolutionary thinking methodologically refutes some kind of pure aprioristic thinking - the idea of a categorical distinction existing a-priori in some realm of ideas is a lot different from thinking with the immanent genesis of such a distinction (and basing your thinking around tracking the conceptual structure of the genesis).
  • frank
    1.4k

    You asserted that evolution starts with the nonliving. Was I incorrect in assuming you meant something by that?

    Evolution gave rise to life's precursors,fdrake

    Your confidence in this strengthens my suspicion that projection is at work. Nothing a little Plato wouldn't shed light on. :)

    Or Kant, which you'll probably need to find a definition for nonliving.
  • fdrake
    1.3k


    I have a spare chicken around here somewhere. ;)
  • frank
    1.4k
    Awesome talking to ya. LOL.
  • Πετροκότσυφας
    853
    One of the reasons thinking of the nonliving as continuous in some senses with the living, to my mind at least, is that evolutionary thinking methodologically refutes some kind of pure aprioristic thinking - the idea of a categorical distinction existing a-priori in some realm of ideas is a lot different from thinking with the immanent genesis of such a distinction (and basing your thinking around tracking the conceptual structure of the genesis).fdrake

    I'm not sure this answers my question. For example, there are moral reasons in thinking the living in evolutionary terms. The way we categorize living things has all sorts of implications for the lives of these things. What's at stake in thinking of cell-phones through the categories of evolutionary theory?
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