Thoughts on the Evolution of Evolvability


It is early February. The other day, I observed some fresh buds on a tree. When I lived back east, I remember seeing buds on bare trees in the snowy dead of winter. I used to wonder if these trees are “preparing” for the first days of spring by starting the growth of their buds. Trees, like most plants, can adapt to variations of weather. All organisms, in fact, exhibit behaviors that appear resourceful, reactive, adaptive, even “intelligent”.

We sometimes talk about animals and plants in terms of their goals and intentions. We even use intentional language in relation to computers or mechanical machines. Even though we know a machine isn’t alive, we use this kind of language as a form of shorthand.

But there may be something more than just verbal shorthand going on here.

The Intentional Stance

Daniel Dennett proposed the concept of the Intentional Stance. When I first learned about this idea, I felt a new sense of how our own human intelligence is just a special case of the adaptive and goal-directed nature of all life on the planet.

When I saw those buds on the tree the other day, I realized that there is so much goal-directed behavior happening all over the place – in plants, animals, and even in ecological systems. Are humans any more adaptive or “intentional” than any other organism?

The Evolution of Self and the Intentional Stance

Could it be that our human brains have simply…

…wrapped a fully-evolved self around our intentions?

…that we are really no more goal-directed or intentional than any other organism…except that we reflect on it with a higher level of consciousness, and apply a fully-formed language to that intentionality?

The Evolution of Evolvability

I first learned of the evolution of evolvability from a paper by Richard Dawkins. It’s a powerful idea, and it helps to make evolution seem less magical and perhaps easier to imagine. Not only have organisms continued to evolve, but their ability to evolve has improved. An example is the evolution of sexual reproduction, which created a huge advantage in a species’ ability to exploit genetic variation over evolutionary time.

A recent article titled “Intelligent design without a creator? Why evolution may be smarter than we thought” makes reference to the Evolution of Evolvability. It helps to cast the notion of intelligence and learning as prolific and pervasive in the natural world.

It would appear that the ability to evolve better ways to evolve predates humans. (It might even predate biology).

Of course we humans have found even better ways to evolve – including ways that overtake or sidestep our own human biology. This constitutes a new era in the evolution of life on earth – an era in which technology, culture, and ideas (memes) become the primary evolving agents of our species (and possibly the whole planet – assuming we humans make the planet so sick that we have to fabricate artificial immune systems in order to keep the planet (and thus ourselves) healthy.

While many people will cast this Singularity-like idea in a negative light, I see it as a new protective organ that is forming around our planet. Biology is not going away. It is just one regime in a progression of many emergent regimes. Biology has given birth to the next regime (via Dennett’s crane), which then reaches down to regulate, modulate, and protect the regime which created it.

Evolvability is the higher-level emergent system over evolution. It is a higher-order derivative. When seen in this way, biology comes out looking like just one step in a long process.

(Thanks to Stephen Brown for editorial assistance)


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