Saturday, January 17, 2009

Darwin bicentennial

It's been 200 years since the birth of Charles Darwin, and 150 years since the publication of The Origin of Species.

I highly recommend these four segments on BBC's In Our Time, which include some of the most insightful expert commentary (particularly segments 3 and 4) I've heard recently.

My favorite Darwin-related books are The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins and Darwin's Dangerous Idea by philosopher Daniel Dennett. Dennett writes

"Here, then, is Darwin's dangerous idea: the algorithmic level is the level that best accounts for... the diversity of species, and all of the other occasions for wonder in the world of nature. ...No matter how impressive the results of an algorithm, the underlying process always consists of nothing but a set of individually mindless steps succeeding each other without the help of any intelligent supervision." (p.59) ***

Now let me make a controversial remark in light of Dennett's observation. Because the true working of evolution is best understood as an algorithm (requiring, at least, some idea of a fitness landscape in a space of high dimensionality), a deep understanding is impossible without mathematical sophistication. See, Fisher, Hamilton, Haldane, Wright. The mindset of such people is often quite different from that of the typical biologist, who delights in diversity and detail as opposed to unifying principles and mathematical simplicity.

See the Darwin family tree for evidence of hereditary genius (Galton was Darwin's cousin and pioneered statistical ideas like correlation, regression and the normal distribution).

*** I'm quite sure Dennett appreciates that this comment can be applied to intelligence itself (AI) as well as to evolution ;-)

10 comments:

Anonymous said...

being familiar with population genetics, molecular evolution, and phylogenetics, i can attest that these fields have been long dominated by statisticians and computer scientists or biologists with similar mindsets. however, i would conjecture that many wet biologists have an incomplete understanding of evolution because of a feeling that knowing the general premise of natural selection is sufficient.

at a personal level... as a second year computational biology student, i feel that statistics that has been most crucial to my understanding of evolution.

Anonymous said...

"understanding of evolution"

As a pragmatist, I say and understanding of anything which is completely useless is no understanding at all.

How has "the theory of evolution" made my life better? How is it used?

Anonymous said...

infectious diseases? cancer? both are phenomena that are described by the "theory of evolution."

Anonymous said...

to wit:
http://www.hhmi.org/biointeractive/cancer/cancer_evolution.html
http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v414/n6865/full/414751a.html

Anonymous said...

"infectious diseases? cancer? both are phenomena that are described the 'theory of evolution'."

This is an infuriatingly simple-minded answer.

Cancer adapts to chemotherapy.
I know that.

Microorganisms adapt to antibiotics.
I know that.

HIV adapts and only by keeping its population low enough can it be prevented from evolving --- why the three drug cocktail works.
I know that.

BUT!!! The cocktail idea does not require any understanding deep or shallow of evolution. IT'S OBVIOUS.

Have any "evolutionary theorists" contributed to curing a cancer?

Have any "evolutionary theorists" discovered new antibiotics?

CW said...

"As a pragmatist, I say and [sic] understanding of anything which is completely useless is no understanding at all." -- Anonymous (9:40 AM)

Countless understandings have been achieved in science which are of no practical (pragmatic) use except, in many cases, to other scientists.

Overlooking for the moment the mind-numbing obtuseness of the remark quoted above, how exactly do you define "useful", Anonymous? Did general relativity constitute "no understanding at all" until it found application to the Global Positioning System and advanced navigation of interplanetary spacecraft? Are interplanetary spacecraft no technological achievement at all because they don't have any obvious relevance to societal problems down here on Earth?

Carson C. Chow said...

I think that a distinction should be made between natural selection and evolution. While the former could be thought of as a local optimization problem the latter is more general. Kimura's neutral evolution scheme is a perfectly viable means for evolution and there is no optimization. Evolution could occur just by diffusion.

Actually, the triple cocktail treatment for AIDs works because HIV replicates extremely fast and would adapt to any single intervention. It turns out that it can't adapt to three interventions fast enough to survive.
This was discovered by mathematical modeling of viral dynamics.

Anonymous said...

"mind-numbingly obtuse"

This is a good adjective for theoretical scientists.

"Are interplanetary spacecraft no technological achievement at all because they don't have any obvious relevance to societal problems down here on Earth?"

You got it. They are merely very expensive entertainment.

GPS can be done as well without GR.

"This was discovered by mathematical modeling of viral dynamics."

Right. I know that.

BUT the idea for the cocktail didn't come from mathematical modelling, just like the steam engine didn't come from thermodynamics.

"Actually, the triple cocktail treatment for AIDs works because..."

Another example of confusing understanding why something works with finding what works.

Almost everything theorists do is and will be no more than sophisticated entertainment.

valiance. said...

directed to Anonymous @ 11:16

how would pragmatists have known how to treat HIV without an understanding of evolution? How is the cocktail idea "obvious" without ANY understanding of evolution?

Anonymous said...

How is it obvious? If it isn't obvious to you, I don't know if it can be explained.

Developing anti-retroviral drugs $100 billion

Giving three medications instead of one $0.

Knowing evolutionary theory is the totally useless toy of academic parasites PRICELESS.

Does any drug company employ an evolutionary theorist?

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