Open any book on evolution, and the pages flow with stories of
change. The terms adaptation, speciation, mutation are all the jargon of
transformation -- of differences over time. Through the language of change,
which evolution science has given us, we tell our history as one of
alterations, metamorphosis, and novelty. "New" is our favorite word.
But rare is the book on evolution theory that tells the story of
steadfastness. The index will not list stasis, or fixity, or stability,
or any of the jargon of permanence. Despite the overwhelming fact that
evolution spends almost all of its time not changing very much, teachers
and textbooks are silent on the ways of constancy.
The dinosaur is the undeserved emblem of unwillingness to change. We see
the towering beast in our mind: with slack-jaw stupidity it gawks at the
birdy things flittering around its sluggish feet. Don't be a dinosaur!
we admonish the timid. Don't be steamrolled by progress! we tell the
slow. Adapt or flatten.
When I type in the word "evolution" into my library's online card
catalog I get a list of book titles such as these:
The Evolution of Language in China The Evolution of
Music The Evolution of Political Parties in Early United States The
Evolution of Technology The Evolution of The Solar System
It is evident that "evolution," as used in these titles, is a common
vernacular term meaning incremental change over time. But what in the
world doesn't alter gradually? Nearly all change around us is
incremental. Catastrophic change is rare, and continual catastrophic
change over long periods is almost unknown. Is all long-term change
Some people take it that way. The charter of the Washington Evolutionary
Systems Society, a lively national association of 180 members in the
science and engineering professions, considers any and all systems as
evolutionary, "placing no constraint on the type of system to be
explored.... All that we see about us and experience are the products of
ongoing evolutionary processes." A perusal of the topics they consider
evolutionary -- "evolution of objectivity, evolution of business
firms" -- prompted me to ask Bob Crosby, the Society's founder, "Are there
any systems you don't consider evolutionary?" His reply: "We don't see
anywhere where there isn't evolution." I have tried to avoid using this
meaning of the word in this book, but I haven't been perfect.
Despite the confusion about the word "evolution," our strongest terms of
change are rooted in the organic: grow, develop, evolve, mutate, learn,
metamorphose, adapt. Nature is the realm of ordered change.
Disordered change is what technology has been about until now. The
strong term for disordered change is "revolution" -- a type of drastic
discontinuous change peculiar to human-made things. There are no
revolutions within nature.
Technology introduced the concept of revolution as an ordinary mode of
change. Beginning with the Industrial Revolution, and its spillovers the
French and American Revolutions, we've seen an uninterrupted series of
revolutions brought on by technological advances -- the revolutions of
electrical appliances, of antibiotics and surgery, of plastic, of
highways, of birth control, and so on. These days, revolutions, both
social and technological, are announced weekly. Genetic engineering and
nanotechnology -- technologies which, by definition, mean we can make
anything we desire -- promise revolutions daily.
But daily revolution, I predict, will be headed off by daily evolution.
The last revolution in technology will be to embrace evolutionary
change. Science and commerce now seek to capture change -- to instill it in
a structured way -- so that it works steadily, producing a constant tide of
microrevolutions instead of dramatic and disruptive macrorevolutions.
How can we implant change into the artificial so that it is both ordered
The science of evolution is no longer valuable only to biologists, but
to engineers as well. Artificial evolution arises in our environment;
but just as important, the study of evolution (both natural and
artificial) rises in our esteem. Alvin Toffler was the first futurist to
bring to public consciousness the fact that not only are technological
and cultural things changing fast, but the rate of change itself seems
to be accelerating. We live in a world of constant change, and we need
to understand it. We don't understand natural evolution very well. With
our recent invention of artificially natural evolution, and its study,
we can understand organic evolution better, and we can better manage,
inocculate, and anticipate change in our made world. Artificial
evolution is the second course in a new biology of creatures, and the
first course in a new biology of machines.
The goal is to make, say, a car that adjusts its frame and wheels to fit
the kind of road it's on, to make a road aware of its conditions to
repair itself, to make a car factory flexible to produce a personalized
car to fit each customer, to make a highway system aware of traffic to
minimize it, and to make a city learn to balance the traffic it absorbs.
Each of these impute to technology the ability to change itself.
But rather than continually pump in bits of change, we'd like to implant
the intact heart of change -- an adaptive spirit -- into the core of the
system itself. This magic ghost is artificial evolution. In stronger
doses evolution breeds artificial intelligence, and in dilute form it
promotes mild adaptation. Either way, evolution is the broad
self-guiding force that machines still lack in larger doses.
The postmodern mind accepts on faith the once disturbing notion that
evolution is blind towards the future. After all, we humans are
incapable of anticipating all our future needs -- and we claim to be above
average in the looking-ahead department. The irony is that evolution is
even more ignorant than we knew: it is blind both coming and going.
Blind not only to how things might be, but also to how they are now and
were in the past. Nature doesn't know what it did yesterday, doesn't
care. It keeps no audited record of successes, of smart moves, of things
that helped. We -- all organisms -- are a historical record of sorts, but our
history is not easy to unravel or decipher without great
An ordinary organism hasn't the faintest notion of the details operating
in its lower levels. A cell is a bimbo in terms of what it can relate
about its own genes. Both plants and animals are small pharmaceutical
factories, casually churning out biochemicals that would make Genentech
drool, but neither a cell, nor an organ, nor an individual, nor a
species keeps track of these achievements -- what produces what. "It works,
why worry?" is life's deepest philosophy.
When we contemplate nature as a system we don't expect consciousness,
just bookkeeping. As far as anyone knows, there is one law biology keeps
sacrosanct: The Central Dogma. The Central Dogma states that nature does
no bookkeeping. More accurately it states that information travels from
gene to body, but never sends an account in the opposite way -- from the
body back to the genes. In this way, nature is blind about its past.