Victus Spiritus


Imagine The Direction of Evolution

12 May 2009


Idea Blazer Kevin Kelly Challenges Us To Imagine The Direction of Evolution
After having spent some time enjoying the blog of author Kevin Kelly, I couldn't resist posting about his recent tour de force, Ordained-Becoming.  I shamelessly admit to not reading everything Kevin has written (I failed to find the time to even complete the first of two parts of Ordained-Becoming!).  When I
do find a moment to read his work, I find it's best to take a single post of his and carefully dig in.  Although I have chosen to touch on only a few of the concepts from that work, should you have any interest in the subject of evolution at all, I highly recommend the read.  You can find it in my current favorite of his blogs, The Technium (although I'm still fascinated with his series on The Swarm). The story told discusses a potential direction for evolution.  Is life on earth is changing diversity, and species complexity.   We are introduced to some of the findings of Simon Conway Morris (specialist) who began a study of obscure fossils:

"1974 Simon
Conway Morris, a paleobiology graduate student at
Cambridge University, began an intense study of obscure fossils hidden
in an obscure location: a narrow outcrop of 500 million-year old shale
crammed between two small peaks high up in the Canadian Rockies"

Paleobiology Graduate Student Simon Conway Morris' Determines Diversity May Be Decreasing?
One of his Simon's earlier conclusions suggests there was greater amount of diversity hundreds
of millions of years ago, compared to today.  This suggests that diversity has declined over time and taking this hypothesis further he posed that evolutionary forces would continue in that direction. This would foretell a future less
diverse in species. Optimal species would take hold in certain areas
but there would be a decline is the number of unique species in a specific environment.

Reviewing the Fossils, Morris Finds that Species Were Less Diverse 500 Million Years Ago
Later on Morris reconsidered his theories prompted by the work of Steven J. Gould, specifically Wonderful Life. In it Gould discusses "a fundamental contingency of evolution", an introduced random element that suggests there is no inherent direction for evolution.  Morris reviewed his earlier work and found that he had confused a few of samples that appeared wildy different in structure but were actually quite similar to their modern counterparts.

My preferred model for growth, survival, and extinction concentrates on local regions of stability with competiting populations for limited resources in a fixed environment (chaos theory).  As to the natural mechanisms for evolution and beneficial mutations, one can think of life as a long time scale search for optimal species survival traits (hardiness).

Some theorize
that evolution is increasing in complexity.  For instance look at humans compared to single cell organisms.  We are fairly complicated with estimates of between 10-100 trillion cells working in unison. In the Technium, Kelly sees Technology as the latest form of
evolution and predicts that it will become a species in of itself.  Whether or not we identify and
recognize it as "life" now is up to debate (self-replicating machines, nanorobotics, Ralph C. Merkle's work ). Today we manufacture technology.  There aren't a
lot of computers building computers, but we use a series of complicated machines
when constructing modern technology.  There's already a level of separation (or more) between us and our tools, and in the near future technology may not need it's inventor to evolve.

Take for example my portable computer/phone.  I use my iPhone all the time for a great many applications, but I don't know how the chips and
software are manufactured.  Even though I have a background in developing algorithms/software
for many years I am largely ignorant of the specific programs that make up the iPhone's core systems.  Although familiar with many of the methodologies, I realize that I can only hold a large program or two fresh in my mind before becoming overwhelmed.  Apple has created an incredible software framework/publishing system for developers to write and sell their own iPhone applications.  This framework leads back to social design and the search power of collaborative views as dominant trends for future technology design. The most successful companies will build a backbone (or the operating system) and let everyone else add to it with an easy to use set of tools.

Back in Ordained-Becoming, Kevin goes on to talk
about how there may yet be an evolutionary direction and that nature prefers certain powerful features (local attractors) like discovering the optimal proteins for light collection in eyes (it has evolved in quite a few unrelated species).  He discusses the two opposing forces on evolution,

There might be one species that dominates in a given environmental role.  But you can
see now that even as many species become extinct or are shrinking in populations, many new species sprout up.  Consider an isolated evolutionary area, for instance Australia.  They are a number of different species that developed in Australia, yet they share similarities to mammals elsewhere. Beyond the fact that they're warm blooded, young are
born living (classification traits of mammals), consider the flying squirrel and the sugar glider.  Both have developed thin membranes for coasting in the air a short periods between trees.  Also in respect to diversity consider special advantages to some of Australia's native creatures.  The Marsupials have little pouches that they carry their
young in, so they don't need a baby carriage (I couldn't resist). Because they don't require holding onto
their young all of the time, the pouch has been a survival
advantage for them.

Implications for Technology?

So what does that mean for tech? What's going to happen as technology
evolves? Is it going to be more complicated? More diverse? Is it just
going to be one big interconnected type of system (living internet)? These are the type
of ideas or thought experiments inspired by Kevin's
work. And I'm only about 2/3 of the way through his first of two
posts on the subject. Hopefully I will
have more to share on this topic soon.

The Raw Audio: