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Out of Control

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 evolutionary?

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 and autonomous?

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 intelligence.

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.