Re: Information theory, entropy, and evolution

Danny Yee (danny@STAFF.CS.SU.OZ.AU)
Mon, 20 Feb 1995 22:59:36 +1000

Steve Mizrach writes:
> Anyway, not to go into a lot of detail here, but Campbell suggests the
> rather interesting hypothesis that the main problem with the neo-Darwinian
> evolutionary synthesis is that it considers all possible "sentences" formed
> from the DNA "alphabet" to be equally probable.

> Anyway, Campbell suggests that there may be a certain redundancy built into
> DNA (evidence for which comes out of the "jumping genes" theory of Barbara
> McClintock and the Human Genome Project) - a "grammar" if you will that
> constrains DNA 'messages' and guards against errors. All possible mutations
> (reshuffling of genetic information) are therefore not equally probable.
> Some sentences are more likely than others.

This is hardly evidence against neo-Darwinism or the modern synthesis,
surely? It's no different to meiotic drive, which has been known about
for decades.

> Evolution, assumed to be ateleological, may in fact be negentropic after
> all.

It might be, but non-randomness of mutations isn't enough to give you
teleology, and the objections to teleology in evolution are much, much
more fundamental (you might like to read Jacques Monod's _Chance and
Necessity_). And you appear to be opposing "ateleological" and
"negentropic", which is just bizarre.

> It was formerly assumed that mutations were purely random, and thus
> natural selection was merely the bullet killing off every monkey that
> failed to produce a perfect Shakespeare from their typewriter. It turns out
> the monkeys working the DNA typewriters may know more than they're letting
> on.

Yes, but you can criticise narrowly selectionist views of evolution
without reaching for teleological or vitalist obscurantism. Have a look
at Gould and Lewontin's "The Spandrels of San Marco".

> Many computer scientists in the A-life field are parting with the
> neo-Darwinian synthesis. They are daring to suggest the heretical
> possibility that mutation may be *algorithmic*, and not just purely random.
> (The next blows to the neo-Darwinian synthesis will not be from Lamarckians
> or Creationists; they will be from computer scientists.)

What is, or is not useful in A-life isn't directly relevant to
understanding how life evolved on this planet. It may suggest useful
lines of enquiry, but it cannot be evidence in itself.

Danny Yee.