The process of evolution has only three steps, which appear to arise spontaneously given some stable environment and a moderate amount of variable recombination among elements within that environment. The three steps are:
- Propagation– the survivors/winners from the previous generation propagate more like themselves.
- Variation – propagation creates many variations between members of the new generation.
- Selection – members of the new generation compete for resources. The survivors/winners get to reproduce, starting the evolutionary cycle again with the next generation.
Heredity is a precondition for evolution. Since the first step is propagation and only living things propagate and all living things must have heredity, then including heredity as a precondition may be redundant.
So Many Entertaining Topics to Explore
Evolution provides an infinite variety of attention traps and distractions for the curious. Consider these few examples to get started.
The Original Learning Algorithm – Evolution can be viewed as the original learning algorithm. in which successful species learn how to exploit the environment more effectively than their competitors. AI has adopted evolution as one method for learning.
Role of Chaos in the Environment – Evolution depends upon an external environment that stays within a goldilocks zone, stable enough to allow for previous learning to be valuable, and unstable enough to allow new learning to improve survival rates.
Role of Chaos in Heredity -Within each species member, heredity requires the DNA, the history book of the species, to be very stable. Loss of previous learning will be fatal to the species. Therefore evolution has developed extensive error detection mechanisms to check and correct DNA transcription errors.
Role of Chaos in Variation during Reproduction – Within each generation, evolution wants a reasonable variation in inherited characteristics, to test for and identify possible survival improvements. Since heredity scrupulously protects the germline DNA from errors, reproduction has developed mechanisms to inject variation into the DNA of the new generation. Sex turns out to be a critical method to inject variations in DNA since the child gets half of its DNA from each parent.
Evolution of Evolution – By developing the brain in humans, has evolution put itself out of business? With humans, we have probably superseded old-fashioned evolution, and have reduced the timeframes and populations for evolution in other species. Can evolution jump from carbon to silicon, software, or even culture? Richard Dawkins created the concept of a “meme” to stimulate discussion about evolution in human culture.
Origins of Life – In his book Origins of Life, Freeman Dyson explains how life may have originated with protein strings that developed into precursors of RNA. He describes how evolution may have shaped these protein strings even before there was life. What is the minimum environment and element complexity that evolution needs to begin its work? Which came first, life or evolution? Maybe they evolved together.
Evolution and Culture – Tribes with hunter/gatherer cultures may have evolved because they had higher survival rates than individuals and smaller, single-family groups. Adam Smith might explain the success of hunter/gatherer cultures with his theory of relative advantage. Large hunter/gatherer tribes had more members, thus could support more specialization between members. More specialization gave them a relative advantage over smaller groups with less specialization.
Largest Market in the World – Evolution runs the market for survival, and every living thing must participate. More specifically, genes use specific individuals in each species to compete for the opportunity to propagate themselves in the next generation.
Cheaters – The trail of evolution is filled with creative cheaters. Some genes skip the arduous process of improving species survival to achieve immortality of the gene cluster. These cheater genes just jump into the DNA germline. Viruses are perhaps the ultimate cheaters. They cannot even reproduce in isolation. To create more viruses, they must hijack the reproductive capability of some unfortunate host. Richard Dawkins tells the story of cowbirds, who cheat by laying their eggs in the nests of other birds, thus enlisting involuntary foster parents for the cowbird chicks.
So Many Great Authors
This short list is only to get you started.
- Charles Darwin – The original. Origin of Species is still worth reading. It is an adventure story, as well as the original book on evolution.
- Richard Dawkins – author of The Selfish Gene, The Extended Phenotype, and The Blind Watchmaker. He popularized the description of “selfish” to describe the behavior of genes. In modern terms, “genes just wanna go on.” He invented the term meme, and is probably, after Darwin, the most influential person in our understanding of evolution.
- Matt Ridley – A student of Richard Dawkins, he has extended the concept of evolution into many other areas, such as technology, innovation, commerce, culture, and even government. His books include Genome, The Evolution of Everything, How Innovation Works, and The Red Queen.
- Stephen Jay Gould – author of Ontogeny and Phylogeny. He developed the theory of punctuated equilibrium, which explains why the record of life on earth shows long periods of stability, punctuated by periods of explosive change.