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Thoughts on Parameterized vs. Open-Ended Evolution and the Production of Variability

Many of the advocates of neo-Darwinism argue that abilities of evolution is obvious. The idea is that, given variability in a population, selection and/or environmental change will cause a population to move forward in fitness. Basically, the formula is variability + overproduction + selection = evolution. The problem is that the equation hinges on “variability” and its abilities to create the kinds of variations the Darwinists need.

The problem stems from the “variability” portion. What kinds of variability can happen? Let’s say that the variability is all negative? What happens to evolution then? Let’s say the variability is cyclical rather than directional. What happens to evolution then? The problem that most neo-Darwinists don’t realize is that they have assumed that “variability” will always lend them the type of variability that they want.

The problem is that the production of variability is a harder problem than most Darwinists presume. Because variability is seen in nature, and because it is assumed (usually silently) that these variations are haphazard, it follows for the Darwinist that variability must be easy to create. However, most people from the engineering professions know that this is not the case (hence the Salem Hypothesis). Because biologists work with nature, it is assumed that natural variations come easy. But engineers will tell you that variability, especially mix-and-match variability (which you get with sexual organisms) is actually a difficult achievement.

I once saw a Dilbert cartoon where a salesman was trying to sell a computer that was so easy to use, an idiot could use it. It didn’t have a keyboard or a mouse, it just had one button. Of course, the reason that is funny is because there is absolutely nothing useful that a stupid person could do with a one button machine (a complex system like Morse Code could be established, but then it is no longer simple — you have simply switched one form of complexity for another). With a one button machine, the only states you have are “pushed” and “not pushed”. If the machine is truly idiot-proof, then that means that all possible button states are accounted for. You essentially have a computer that can do two things — it can do one thing when the button is down, and something else when the button is up.

In fact, you can have a computer with a multitude of states and combination of states that is still idiot-proof. You just have to code for all of the possible combinations, and make sure that each possible state makes sense. Such an arrangement is good if you only have a limitted number of tasks you wish to accomplish, and perhaps may need a few independent arrangements of these tasks. You just have to flip the right switches and everything works out fine. In fact, even if you switch the wrong switches you will get a sensible result, even if it isn’t what you were trying to do. The reason for this is that the possible states and their interactions are preprogrammed.

But the problem is that in order to be foolproof, it is not very expressive – the system is limited in its variability to pre-coded arrangements. Any arrangement of switches is coherent, but most of the interesting parts are hard-coded, not in the arrangement of switches.

Now let’s consider a system which is slightly more programmable. Let’s say that you had a fixed set of existing tasks which could be rearranged, recombined, and repeated in fixed amounts. Now you are starting to have a semi-expressive system. This system is much more flexible than previous systems, but it is also much more open to programming errors. However, it is not yet fully programmable.

It is not until we add open-ended repetition constructs that we get a system that is fully programmable. But, with open-ended repetition, it is much more likely that small changes will result in catastrophic errors. It will also mean that rather than workable programs being very near to each other in solution space, they will instead be far apart. In the previous types of systems we conceived of, since the machine was handling all of the complex interactions, nearly every arrangement had some usable function. But at this point, most combinations will actually be unworkable, and there will be considerable distance between workable solutions. Multiple parts of the program will have to be changed simultaneously in order to jump from one workable solution to the next.

So this is why (in fairly simplistic terms) the production of structures is a bigger problem than most neo-Darwinists realize. If we want the structures to be produceable, then we have to assume that the system is parameterized (as in our first few example systems), and not open-ended (as in our last example system). However, this would mean that the majority of the interesting parts of organisms are actually pre-coded, as well as the lines for which they are variable (the number of lines of variability is probably enormous, but yet it is not open-ended – this would mean that evolution does not increase complexity). Open-ended evolution, however, cannot happen because it requires as its substrate a type of system that is too chaotic to be manipulated ad-hoc, but instead requires coordination of parts to move between functional areas.

The reason why engineers are more prone to recognize this is because engineers have to develop systems repeatedly, and know how much trouble it is to get parts to play well together. Adjusting the system requires adjusting multiple parts simultaneously, which can’t be accomplished without a guiding information system (which, in ID circles, is termed front-loaded evolution – which requires the action of an intelligent agent at the beginning) or the creativity and intervention of an intelligent agent at each step.

Most neo-Darwinists incorrectly think that ID’ers don’t understand the process of selection. That is simply not true. The difference is actually that ID’ers properly understand the problem of the generation of variability and the neo-Darwinists just take it as a given. For natural selection to work, each incremental step would need to be selectable. However, if evolution is truly occurring in an open-ended fashion, it would need to navigate a solution space in which most areas of workable solutions are completely surrounded (not just mostly surrounded – completely surrounded) by completely un-selectable space. If variability did happen on a large enough scale to make common ancestry workable (which I don’t think it did), it could only be done by front-loading the information needed for the variability at the beginning.

The problem is the production of variability, and neo-Darwinists have been assuming its veracity for so long that they have forgotten even that they are assuming it.

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17 Responses to Thoughts on Parameterized vs. Open-Ended Evolution and the Production of Variability

  1. By the way, I’ve put links to some of the more theoretical stuff behind this reasoning in my personal blog.

  2. Johnnyb, I think that this quote shows your misunderstanding of the darwinist:

    The problem that most neo-Darwinists don’t realize is that they have assumed that “variability” will always lend them the type of variability that they want.

    You see, we exist. There is a fairly clear ancestral trail from amoeba to human (cambrian explosion notwithstanding.) Enter the weak anthropic principle. If something is necessary for what we know to be the case, then whatever is necessary must have been. The variation (according to the one and only possible theory) is necessary to explain humanity’s appearance, ergo the variation happened.

    The problem with accepting the ID position is that the door is left open for other sources of variation — namely agency.

    You clearly come at this from an engineer’s perspective, a perspective that says that the theory is rediculous on its face. I come at it as a software developer, an information engineer if you will. My perspective also finds that the theory is rediculous on its face. But hey, maybe if you twiddle with the bits in my latest program, you’ll actually make it better, who knows.

  3. Johnnyb,

    It has been said here many times that the real Achilles Heel of gradualism is the lack of necessary variation to produce the different life forms and not the concept of natural selection. So what you are saying is not new just expressed differently. Allen MacNeill’s 47 engines of variation have never been shown to produce anything of substance but were brought up to handle this flaw in the theories of evolutionary biology.

    But many people here often attack natural selection like it is a bogus concept and thus give those who support ID a contrarian image rather than people who are logical and supportive of good science. All one has to do to show the possibilities of natural selection is to look at the human race and the visible variation within it and the possibilities for selection to produce change. Also artificial selection shows the possibilities of selection even though most of these possibilities are beyond the probabilities of what natural selection can do. Darwin countered this problem with the concept of deep time.

    The Edge of Evolution is essentially another way of looking at the lack of variation possible within a gene pool and is evidence of variation being the weak link in whatever form of evolution is the currently accepted version.

    So I agree with you that ID should focus on the lack of variation as the true weakness of evolutionary theory and forget about attacks on selection. They only make us look foolish except in those cases where time is an issue and there is no way there is enough time (including deep time) for selection to produce the changes required by various aspects of evolutionary theory.

    One final comment and I do not know how this fits into your analysis but the Darwinist will say there is almost an infinite number of possible combinations for systems and organisms and the ones you see are just the ones that emerged from the random process of variation and selection. Each one you see is an infinitely small likelihood but just happened to be the one that emerged. Some other initial condition or boundary condition may have produced completely different organisms and depending upon these parameters one might find many forms of intelligent life or none or maybe not even multi-cellular life. We are just the happy winners of a chaotic and random process and there is no reason that life itself had to arise let alone us. This is the reasoning that has to be combated.

  4. Ugh. The “anthropic principle” is just the same thing as saying ‘God did it’. Evidence by result is not evidence of a process. That’s like accusing someone of stealing an item, and by way of evidence you say “well, it got stolen, thus you stole it”.

    By the same rules of argument, why not say “We’re here. Thus, God intervened.” But you can’t get away with that one in this age, methinks.

    (Is the ‘anthropic principle’ even science, or philosophy, someone?)

  5. “One final comment and I do not know how this fits into your analysis but the Darwinist will say there is almost an infinite number of possible combinations for systems and organisms and the ones you see are just the ones that emerged from the random process of variation and selection. Each one you see is an infinitely small likelihood but just happened to be the one that emerged. Some other initial condition or boundary condition may have produced completely different organisms and depending upon these parameters one might find many forms of intelligent life or none or maybe not even multi-cellular life. We are just the happy winners of a chaotic and random process and there is no reason that life itself had to arise let alone us. This is the reasoning that has to be combated.”

    The problem with this reasoning, is, again, the production of variation. I agree that there are a near-infinite variety of combinations available. The problem is that what is being comined seems to be in large part predefined. Not only that, but as pointed out, in order to move from a parameterized (which would be intelligently designed) evolution to an open-ended one, you then must navigate a much more chaotic fitness landscape, where the peaks are not separated by valleys, but by canyons. This is the very nature of systems which can be programmed in an open-ended way.

  6. The idea is that, given variability in a population, selection and/or environmental change will cause a population to move forward in fitness.

    And it appears this can be falsified theoretically and empirically since radiation bombardment clearly shows declining fitness in a population under selection with increased variability.

    Come to think of it, we can probably use Avida to prove that the above presumption known as “Dennett’s Algorithm” is theoretically unsound…Avida has a radiation setting…

    PS

    JohnnyB, great to finally meet you at the BSG/ICC in Pittsburgh! Too bad Jason Rosenhouse declined to get his picture with you, I, and Bevets at the creationist conference. Jason attends more of these creationist events than I do!

  7. Good post johnnyB. I’d say some simulation runs are in order, giving empirical support to the understanding that more open-ended the programming, the greater the number of states that will be unworkable. This approach looks promising.

  8. The “anthropic principle” is just the same thing as saying ‘God did it’. Evidence by result is not evidence of a process. That’s like accusing someone of stealing an item, and by way of evidence you say “well, it got stolen, thus you stole it”.

    No, its like saying everything in the room is still there except for the money and the jewelry. Therefore, a tornado didn’t blow it away; someone stole it, but we don’t know who.

  9. Atom – I’m currently working on that.

    See: Evolving Algorithms

    It’s an early stage work right now, but this is the system I plan on using for testing.

  10. On &7. Obviously, the first paragraph from AvonWatches should be in quotes.

  11. johnnyb,

    Cool deal. What language and platform are you using for your system? Are you planning on parceling out portions of functionality in an open-source manner, or is this a private project?

    Keep us informed to the progress of it.

  12. It’s open-source under the MIT license. It’s done in Ruby, which is slow, but allows for lots of tinkering with the instruction set to see how the instruction set influences the evolution of algorithms.

  13. Jerry: “One final comment and I do not know how this fits into your analysis but the Darwinist will say there is almost an infinite number of possible combinations for systems and organisms and the ones you see are just the ones that emerged from the random process of variation and selection. Each one you see is an infinitely small likelihood but just happened to be the one that emerged. Some other initial condition or boundary condition may have produced completely different organisms and depending upon these parameters one might find many forms of intelligent life or none or maybe not even multi-cellular life. We are just the happy winners of a chaotic and random process and there is no reason that life itself had to arise let alone us. This is the reasoning that has to be combated.”

    This is often offered as a clinching argument for NDE. Observed complex specified information in the body systems of a given highly adapted animal is just one possible result out of innumerable others, so it is really not so improbable to find at least some animal to have evolved. But this ignores the constraints in sequentially building such a complex system that ensue once the process begins. Once a particular adaptive evolutionary path began according to the fossil record, not just any adaptively advantageous mutations were needed to continue the process leading to just any animal design. In cetacean evolution, for example, once the transition to ocean life began, the number of possible adaptive mutations was drastically curtailed. Very specific ones were needed, because the constraints of engineering design allow only a few possible optimal solutions out of the entire spectrum of possible ones. For instance, once living in the water, the optimal solution to the sensor problem for the mammal given its basic design and environment was biological sonar. This kind of system has also been found optimal by human engineers. The dolphins are optimal in this respect (and in many others) rather than being just any animal design able to live in the ocean.

  14. Avonwatches:

    (Is the ‘anthropic principle’ even science, or philosophy, someone?)

    I think it essential to separate between the weak and strong anthropic principles.

    The weak anthropic principle generally states that if a particular condition must have existed for the observed effects to be valid, then the fact that the observed effects are there is proof that the condition existed. The weak anthropic principle, then, is just basic logic. The weak anthropic principle is recognized by science.

    The strong anthropic principle makes the stronger statement that the only way that all of the weak anthropics could have come about is by intention. If, for instance, any of the 18 or so fundimental constants of physics were in any way different, there would be no part of the universe that would have any place that could support life as we can conceive of it for any extended period of time — etc, etc. As there are a whole lot of circomstances that had to be “just right”, and as all of that “just right” actually happened, it must have been intentional.

    As you might clearly see, the strong anthropic principle is not part of mainstream science.

  15. @7 + 13.

    I understand now. I meant how we/people decide there was only one possibility (Darwinism/God/x) and then attribute a result as evidence of the process… but that’s what you said originally, with regards to perspective :/

    /ignore Avonwatches

  16. bFast, one little quibble…

    The weak anthropic principle, then, is just basic logic.

    I think the best that can be said about the Weak Anthropic principle is that it is maps a consistent relationship. It doesn’t prove anything, it just says the idea of a condition being necessary for an observance makes the observance of the condition unexceptional.

  17. However, if evolution is truly occurring in an open-ended fashion, it would need to navigate a solution space in which most areas of workable solutions are completely surrounded (not just mostly surrounded – completely surrounded) by completely un-selectable space.

    It would be good to find out how much the Darwinists would agree or disagree with that statement.

    If they agree, then they affirm an ID-friendly position. If they disagree, they need to justify the reason they disagree.

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