Friday, December 14, 2007

What Evolution Means

Evolution doesn't mean what you think it means. It's an emergent property of systems, a high level phenomenon. As stated by Darwin in The Origin of Species, if a system has the following three qualities:

1. Geometric ratio of increase
2. Mutation
3. Selective Forces

then transitions in the makeup of the population will take place. It makes no sense to say that one organism is more evolved than any other organism because organisms don't evolve. Only populations do that. At best, we can say that an organism is more adapted to its environment than another organism. We can't even say that a population is more evolved than another population, unless we also state that what we mean by "evolved" is "more adapted to a particular environment".

The other big term is "evolving". This makes sense if we view the term as "being selected for traits which the majority population does not posses", but even that's a muddy definition. What people really mean is "better in a good way". Unfortunately, there isn't a good existing word for this, so evolution was taken in. There's a strong need for that sort of word too, especially in this era of constant innovation and change. In part, the problem was exacerbated by the co-opting of biological terms by the tech industry; they refer to their technology and programs in terms of generations (especially videogames - I'm ready to strangle the person who came up with "next-gen" as a buzzword). While I might accept calling these generations, they lack the first two criteria of evolution. We could, however, refer to evolution when looking at the population of gadgets, as the population fits all three criteria (selection in this case being market forces).

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