Thursday, May 10, 2007

Directed Evolution

Five days ago I was browsing one of my RSS feeds in Thunderbird that keeps me updated on what other students in the Bioinformatics Training Program are reading and bookmarking in Connotea. Usually, this is for academic purposes, but I came across a link by Ben Good about "What if the Singularity does NOT happen?"**. I took a quick glance at the article and was enticed immediately. I remember a colleague at work mentioning to me something about this book he was reading about the future of human development and technology. I messaged him on MSN and got the name of the book, "The Singularity Is Near" by Ray Kurzeil. I reserved the next copy available at my local library and two days later I am reading about a subject that I knew nothing about a week before.

Now, I should probably hold any reviews or opinions about the book until I am finished, but something in the first chapter bothered me. Kurzweil outlines in one section "The Six Epochs",
  1. Physics and Chemistry
  2. Biology
  3. Brains
  4. Technology
  5. Merger of Technology
  6. The Universe Wakes Up
and explains that,
"Evolution works through indirection: it creates a capability and then uses that capability to evolve the next stage."
This from the surface seems like a reasonable and interesting model, but implies that evolution has a direction. This may work for the last 3 epochs (based on technology), but has the evolution of intelligence (brains) really been inevitable?

Initially, I flat out decided "No", based on the fact that if we started another "Earth" there is no guarantee that intelligent life would evolve. This is due to the fact that evolution works by random occurrences that are selected for by the environment. However, after some more pondering (on my daily 1 hour bus commute), I thought that Kurzweil's theory may have some merit. Essentially, it is the idea that given enough time (approaching infinity) that the probability of intelligent life eventually evolving will reach 1. So instead of directed evolution, maybe we can say inevitable evolution?

I am still not entirely comfortable with this idea, but if I had wanted to increase my personal assurances I would have read a textbook!

**The singularity is an event in the near future where computers will become more intelligent then humans and will result in a drastic change in our society.


Benjamin Good said...

First, you may want to retitle this post because "directed evolution" has some pretty strong connotations that I'm not sure you really want. Its generally used to refer to a case where a person intends to evolve something via some sort of in vitro or in silico evolutionary algorithm. Perhaps we are creatures in some one's petri dish, but if so, what are they trying to create?

Now, semantics and gods aside, you're touching on an interesting and fundamental question here. We observe that complexity seems to be increasing as evolution unfolds on earth. Is this an inevitable consequence of evolution in general or is this simply an accident of the particular selective forces operating thus far on Earth? Is it even true?

Morgan Langille said...

I agree "directed science" may confuse the scientists, but for lack of a better term (and maybe to gain a few extra readers) I will leave it as is.

I think that the observation that complexity (or order) has increased with evolution on earth is valid. Does/would it happen in all situations given enough time? ... I really don't know!