Einstein's Enlightenment

Chapter 2: Universal Darwinism

Design Space

Students of probability are often overwhelmed by the mind- bogglingly huge numbers routinely encountered. A classic example is the probability of a monkey typing at a keyboard and producing a work of Shakespeare by random chance. The probability of this happening is not zero but it is unimaginably small because the number of distinct ways that the 100 pages of so could be filled up with print is so unimaginably large and no particular way of filling them up is any more likely than any other. If there were as many monkeys at keyboards as there are atoms in the universe and if each monkey had been typing ten characters a second since the beginning of time, the probability of Shakespeare’s work being written is still extremely close to zero.  The amount of monkeys and/or time required is inconceivably huge.


One surprising lesson is that probability spaces can be vastly larger than any count of actually existing things. In our Shakespearean example the probability space is the number of possible combinations of typographic characters in a play of the length we are considering. If we are using a typographic set of 100 characters and the play is 100 pages long and there are 2000 characters per page there are 100200,000 possible ‘plays’. This number is inconceivably larger than the 10040 fundamental particles composing the universe.


If we dare to think not of the relatively trivial number of possible combinations of the 100 typographical characters in a play but of the number of possible configurations of the 10040 fundamental particles composing the universe we are agog. And yet it is obviously true that the particles composing the universe occupy one of those configurations.  If we could examine the path traced by the universe through configuration space since the beginning of time we would see that the path passed through the smallest imaginable proportion of possible states.


We will define ‘Universal Darwinism’ as the process whereby the universe explores design space and discovers those designs able to persist. This definition includes theories of evolution of universes, biological evolution by natural selection and meme replication as special cases. Much of evolution consists of mechanisms not usually considered Darwinian. For instance luck or contingency may play a large role. Stephen J. Gould has argued that if we were to run the ‘tape’ of life’s evolution on earth over again we would likely see a much different outcome. By far the most severe constraints on Universal Darwinism are imposed by the laws of nature. Laws of physics, for example constrain physical objects to motion along more or less continuous paths. 


Universal Darwinism

A deep understanding of any scientific subject requires knowledge of how its subject matter came to be as it is; of its history. The history of physics, astronomy and chemistry is the subject of cosmology. The history of biology is the subject of evolution by natural selection and the history of psychology, archeology and anthropology are the subjects of evolutionary psychology, evolutionary archeology and evolutionary anthropology. All of these historical branches of science rely on Darwinian mechanisms as their basic explanatory mechanism. Together these areas provide a context for all scientific subject matter; a framework that has come to be known as Universal Darwinism. Universal Darwinism thus provides a scientific explanation for all design found in the universe and a means of answering the big questions regarding how things came to be as they are. A direct benefit of Universal Darwinism allowing it to provide a key to Einstein’s Enlightenment is that an understanding of Darwinian mechanisms provides one with a powerful organizing tool for making sense of scientific knowledge.


As we look back toward the Big Bang and the beginning of time, the universe contains less complexity. No complexity rivalling the complexity of life existed prior to a certain time.  Going further back still we find a time when atoms were the most complex matter in existence. Earlier yet, atoms had not been formed from their still simpler component parts.


Evolution is the story of persistence. Many complex configurations are explored. Only a few good designs are able to persist and maintain an existence for a substantial amount of time. How these few good designs are discovered and selected is the subject of Universal Darwinism. An exploration of the details will reveal that evolution itself is evolving; evolution is progressively finding more powerful methods of discovering the goods designs.


The Second Law of Thermodynamics dictates that order and therefore complexity will, on the whole, diminish.  Evolution uses the Second Law to trade diminished complexity in some situations for the creation of increased complexity in others. For instance, the conversion of mass to energy in the sun represents, according to the second law’s accounting rules, a huge decrease of order that evolution has harnessed to produce biological complexity on earth.


Building and preserving order in spite of the Second Law is the hallmark of evolution. Evolution’s forte is the creation of extremely unlikely complex entities that are able to persist. Evolution has employed two broad strategies for persisting complexity:

1.       High energy bonding. Physical law provides four forces and a variety of niches in which these forces can operate to produce complexity resistant to disintegration. The water molecule (H2O) is such an entity. The two hydrogen atoms in this molecule have one electron apiece that form a covalent bond with the oxygen atom’s outer shell which is two electrons short.  The strength of this bond is sufficient to preserve the complexity of the water molecule in most earthly environments. It may be cycled through states of liquid, gas and solid but it remains water as it rarely encounters an energy source sufficiently strong to break its bonds. This strategy for persisting complexity may be summarized as: Build it stronger than any force in its environment and it will last.

2.      Replication. Biological evolution supplemented high energy bonding with replication to preserve complexity. As long as an organism can replicate at a rate faster than it dies and disintegrates it will persist. This mechanism has been remarkably successful in that it has preserved a wide variety of biological forms for over three and a half billion years even though an individual organism lived for only a short period. Recently evolution has supplemented biology’s genetic replicator with the cultural memetic replicator. Ideas that have the ability to be copied faster than they disintegrate form the substance of culture. The replicator strategy for persisting complexity may be summarized as: Make copies faster then they are destroyed and it will last.


While cosmology usually explains the ‘evolution’ of the early universe in terms very different from Darwinian evolution there are recent cosmological theories predicting the evolution of universes much like ours. Lee Smolin, a leading cosmologist, postulates an explicitly Darwinian process, cosmological natural selection, as responsible for producing the current state of the physical universe.[i]


Our universe is a Goldilock’s universe, ‘just right’ for producing stars, complex chemistry and life. At the foundations of the best physical theories, which describe our universe to exquisite accuracy, are 35 arbitrary parameters supplying  values for some basic properties like the masses of fundamental particles such as the electron and proton. These parameters are not predicted by the theory but rather their values have to be obtained from measurements and then be inserted into the theory. If the values of the fundamental parameters were only slightly different no complexity would ever have formed in our universe. Nothing more complex than hydrogen gas would exist; no stars, no galaxies no life.


So why are these basic parameters of our universe so precisely tuned to produce stars, galaxies and life? Cosmological natural selection provides an answer to this question.[ii]


 A common theme of Universal Darwinism is that progression through design space is cumulative. This means that once a stable, complex state is achieved it becomes a building block in the formation of yet more complex entities. Given our ‘just right’ universe, protons, neutrons and electrons become the building blocks of atoms, atoms are the building blocks of molecules, molecules the building blocks of life.


A second common theme is that at each level only an extremely small subset of the possible designs is able to have an existence for any appreciable time. An example is provided by the few hundred stable isotopes that compose matter.


The ‘just right’ universe predicted by cosmological natural selection bestowed the potential for complex matter to form. All that remained was for designed space to be explored and the stable or persistent configurations found. When the universe had expanded and cooled enough to allow quarks to condense into hadrons, the two most common hadrons were protons and neutrons. Groups of protons and neutrons can bond together to form atoms. Atoms are distinguished as elements by the number of protons they contain. Each element can have many isotopes with the requisite proton count but differing in their neutron count. As pure possibilities in design space there are an infinite number of isotopes. In reality only a few hundred are able to exist. Matter that was able to find and occupy these stable niches survived in their stable complex forms. Matter that explored configurations as unstable isotopes had only a brief existence in those states before reducing again to their component parts. Most components eventually found a niche in stable isotopes.


The range of molecules in existence is highly reduced from the range of pure possibilities in design space. With life this principle is also true. As Richard Dawkins noted ‘However many ways there may be of being alive, it is certain that there are vastly more ways of being dead, or rather not alive.’[iii]


 These two themes of cumulative complexity and a small subset of stable designs span the breadth of Universal Darwinism.  With the evolution of chemistry to life an important new evolutionary principle appeared. Prior to life, the evolution of matter into more complex forms was due to new inherent properties of matter being exposed by properties of a changing environment. Evolving matter contains no variations; every atom of a given element is precisely the same. The only variation having evolutionary consequences was the environment of the evolving matter. The formation of atoms occurred only when the universe cooled to the extent where its ambient energy level, tending to tear atoms apart, became weaker than the strong nuclear force which binds atomic components into atoms.


Biological Evolution

Complex organic molecules can only evolve in special benign environments. The early planet earth provided an extremely favourable environment for chemical evolution. Conditions, especially temperature, were optimal for the development of complex chemistry. Much of the planet was covered in liquid water, an ideal medium for promoting many chemical interactions. In less than a billion years chemistry evolved to the level of complexity required to support life.


This process of chemical evolution evolving greater degrees of complexity in specialized environments reached a new level of sophistication with the advent of life. Life may be defined by its replication of exact instructions for building an environment where specific, complex chemistry will occur. That environment is a life form.  A life form achieves its chemical complexity by providing a specific environment where an enormous number of specific chemical reactions are many orders of magnitude more likely to occur than in any other environment in the universe. In this respect, life forms are reliant on the same universal mechanism required for complexity as pre-biological systems; an environment where physical laws capable of producing complexity can dominate. In fact a biological organism may be seen as a controlled environment designed to allow only a certain select subset of complex chemical reactions to occur.


With replication evolution takes on its full Darwinian meaning. Replication can never be perfectly exact. As replication is inexact, variations are introduced. A competitive advantage is gained by those variations best able to survive and replicate even in a constant environment. We don’t have exactly the same complexity persisting, we have an evolving complexity persisting.


Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection explains the evolution of life forms.  As he demonstrated, biological evolution is an algorithmic process. This means anything meeting a simple set of conditions will evolve in a manner similar to life. These conditions are:

1)      Reproduction; the ability to make copies and thereby increase population size.

2)     Heredity; the ability to pass traits to copies. This is inherent in the usual meaning of the word ‘copy’ and may be redundant and unnecessary as a separate condition.

3)     Variation; differences in heritable traits that affect "Fitness” or the ability to survive and reproduce leading to differential survival. Differences in heritable traits are inescapable. Reproduction is a form of communication where information is encoded, copied and reconstructed. The science of communications, produced during the 1950s, has proven error free communications impossible. Differences in heritable traits are implied by reproduction. Differential survival means that not all copies can equally well survive, often as a result of limited resource in the environment required to maintain the copies. Those best able to access and harness the environmental resources will preferentially survive and make copies.


Natural Selection is based on the differential survivability of inherited characteristics. Each generation inherits characteristics from their parents and in each generation there is some random variation in these characteristics. Some variations will bestow greater reproductive success on their bearers than will others. The individuals possessing adaptations or variations bestowing greater reproductive success will propagate more offspring, offspring tending to have these parental characteristics as well as exhibiting some variations of their own. In this manner each generation tends to accumulate adaptations that bestow reproductive success.


The Darwinian algorithm will produce evolution in any system conforming to these three simple conditions. The direction in which the system evolves is determined by which variations bestow survival. In other words the system will become better at surviving and will accumulate adaptations that assist its survival. What those adaptations are is hard to predict and depends heavily on the environment in which the system is evolving.


Adaptations are entities produced by evolution that result in reproductive success. They achieve this result because they contain knowledge of the world in which they exist and how to persist in it. When we say ‘A cell knows how to convert glucose to energy’ we are referring to the adaptation as a form of knowledge. This concentration of knowledge in entities designed through replicator based evolution is one of the most startling emergent phenomena to have occurred in the universe. It is the only known source of knowledge and all forms of knowledge, even religious, were created by this process.


Biological evolution represented a huge advance in Universal Darwinism’s search of design space for the discovery of persistent designs. With replication it provides a feedback mechanism by which designs are tested, the persistent ones kept and tinkered with to further probe design space. For example it has been estimated that the fully functioning fish eye evolved from light sensitive skin in approximately 400,000 generations. This is assuming that each generation averaged variations in their eye design of 5 parts in 100,000 or .005 percent, not a lot of variation. A better eye bestows an advantage on its bearer in the struggle for survival and reproduction. In each generation those with variations producing a slightly better eye would tend to survive and pass on the slightly better design, with slight variations, to the succeeding generation. It is in this manner that processes conferring persistence can be rapidly accumulated by biological evolution.

Cultural Evolution

The most complex entity in the known universe is human culture.  Six billion human beings each with an extremely complex nervous system are bonded together in numerous overlapping cultural networks of religion, custom, economics, knowledge and authority. Culture has transformed the planet marking it with signs of agriculture, logging and urban activity.  Could this entity have been produced by biological evolution alone? The short answer is clearly no. The past three thousand years, during which culture has experienced explosive growth, is too short a period for genetic orchestration. What then? An expanding body of evidence suggest the answer is ‘Memes’ as first described by Richard Dawkins[iv] and subsequently championed by many other researchers. Memes are cultural replicators or in Dawkin’s words:


"tunes, ideas, catch-phrases, clothes fashions, and ways of making pots or of building arches. Just as genes propagate themselves in the gene pool by leaping from body to body via sperms or eggs, so memes propagate them self in the meme pool by leaping from brain to brain via a process which, in the broad sense, can be called imitation."[v]


Researchers have used meme theory to explain many details of cultural evolution. In essence memes are replicators like genes that evolve in accord with an algorithm very similar to the Darwinian algorithm. There is not a consensus on the exact mechanism of memetic replication, what would be to memetics as DNA is to biology, although at least one detailed proposal has been offered.[vi]


A growing consensus in the social sciences concludes that cultural evolution is accomplished via Darwinian processes. There is still a good deal of debate as the exact nature of these processes. Memetics is a contender in this debate and explains cultural bodies of knowledge as meme complexes that evolve following the Darwinian Algorithm. A general Darwinian framework for explanations of the evolution of cultural knowledge is Evolutionary Epistemology.


The direction is which these systems evolve is determined by what comprises fitness. In other words the system will become better at surviving and will accumulate adaptations that assist its survival. What those adaptations are is hard to predict and depend heavily on the circumstance in which the system is evolving.


Most cultural bodies of knowledge, including both Science and Religion meet the conditions required of Darwin’s algorithm. To see this, let’s examine how science fits within this framework.

1.                   Heredity. How can science be said to have heredity? New science is often introduced in the form of an article in a scientific journal. Even though these articles are original research they assume a huge body of knowledge widely shared in the scientific community. This knowledge is more firmly established and less speculative than the new ideas. New science can be said to inherit this body of knowledge.

2.                  Reproduction. New science can be seen as a clone of the parent body of knowledge with some small variations. If successful this small variation of knew knowledge will be reproduced in the minds of other scientist, in books and in other storage devices.

3.                  Variation. The ‘fitness’ of variations introduced by the new science will determine whether it lives or dies. If it provides a more elegant explanation and is better supported by the evidence, it will become an accepted part of the parent body of knowledge, if not it will be ignored.


The major aspect in which meme evolution differs from biological evolution is in its increased ability to rapidly scan design space and discover persistent designs. Memes are replicated each time they are re-played in a human brain, each time they are replayed with small variations that explore neighbouring areas of design space. An individual replicates countless memes during their lifetime whereas they are biologically replicated a single time in each generation. Again meme replication is a method of Universal Darwinism that has accelerated its relentless exploration of design space, exposing those designs that can persist.


Memetics as a theory of cultural evolution is still vying for wide acceptance, but I find it a very appealing interpretation. There are now a wide range of theories of cultural evolution placing Darwinian mechanisms at their core. Regardless whether Memetics comes to be the consensus view in no way challenges the role of Darwinian mechanisms as the moving force in culture evolution though memetics nicely exemplifies the approach. Richard Dawkins, one of last century’s great evolutionist and one of its great popularizers invented Memetics in the last chapter of his ground breaking Selfish Gene. He merely recalled that Darwin’s algorithm of evolving systems had nothing specific to say about biology. The well known algorithm, first formulated by Darwin, states that any system that undergoes replication in an environment imposing variable survivability on individuals inheriting variations of traits as a result of that replication will evolve an ability to be better at surviving. Dawkins then speculates that seeing as how many cultural items of knowledge are replicated or learned or imitatated that perhaps the world contains a second replicator, other than the biological replicator, and he called that replicator a ‘meme’. His observations are close to self evident; there clearly is some Darwinian process driving cultural evolution. Whether Memetics will turn out to be the explanatory framework best suited to explain this Darwinian process remains to be seen. However Memetics is a powerful explanatory aid in understanding cultural evolution.


Bringing a second replicator onto the scene raises a number of questions. What happens when you have two replicators operating? Do they work in harmony? Do they work in opposition? Clearly to begin with they had to operate in harmony. Biological survival was predicated on apdatations; forms of knowledge provided by the biological replicator. If the cultural replicator were to mess with that knowledge it wouldn’t convey an advantage on its possessor. Our clearest evidence for a cultural replicator operating with early man is the archaeological record of his tools. They show clear patterns of the evolutionary branching and tree structure. We can conclude that if two sets of tools used by two groups of people are sufficiently similar then the peoples making them had most likely been in contact; they had learned from each other. Some form of imitation had occurred.


The knowledge of how to build these tools conferred superior survivability on their possessors; biological and cultural replicators were tightly coupled. Biological traits that helped the cultural replicator like a bigger brain were favoured and cultural traits that helped the biological replicator like more effective procurement of food or better mates were also favoured.


Culture proved to be our greatest aid in survivability and its operation is fast. Human habitation of arctic lands is arguably one of our great achievements. We did not have the warm fur required to survive in that climate and development of a biological solution (growing a thick fur coat) would have taken many generations. Instead we saw the fur on the polar bear and thought of ways that would allow us to wear it. Now the polar bear is the largest land predator in the world[vii]. It is one of very few animals who will stock a human. The bear’s intelligence tells him that, all things being equal, a human is a large source of foods with little ability to defend itself or flee. As it turns out all things are not equal, humans have empowered a second replicator that rapidly evolves their tools. The bear sees us as lunch but in the end we wear his fur coat. The new replicator delivers power in a much shorter time span than does the biological one.


And yet the new replicator was subservient to the biological one. The ideas it produced had to contribute to biological survival otherwise you would be out competed. The freedom of the new replicator was constrained to support biological survival. It is hard to picture the Inuit hunter as a free thinker. All his efforts, physical and mental, had to be focused on survival. Any attempt to decouple his thoughts from his survival would not be rewarded.


Robert Wright in his book Nonzero outlines a compelling scenario of cultural evolution. He sees the evolution of culture continuing the trend of biological evolution towards greater complexity and he recognizes the importance of memes in this process. In Wrights terms all evolution, including cultural evolution, consists of finding ways to elude the second law of thermodynamics to create increased complexity. In cultural terms this entails cooperative behaviour between people that produces win-win or nonzero outcomes. The evolution of memes facilitates the formation of ever more complex cooperative units and is the essential glue that holds them together. Memes evolve knowledge essential to activities such as tool making, food production, religion, governance and information processing provide strength to human cooperative units and determine the outcome of their competitive interactions with other human groups. In this manner competition between human groups selects for the most successful memes; memes aiding increased cooperation within the group leading to increased wealth and power.


Wright maps out successive levels of group complexity that have evolved over time: bands, tribes, chiefdoms and states. Each increased level of complexity requires an increased level of sophistication in the knowledge contained in its memes to enable the intensified cooperative endeavour. Bands are small groups of usually closely related individuals with little social hierarchy. They assist each other in the production of large tools such as canoes, in conflicts with other bands and in hunting and gathering food. Tribes involve larger numbers of people from a wider variety of family groups and have a slightly more complex social structure. Often leadership will reside in a ‘big man’ who is responsible for organizing cooperative projects such as the building of fish traps or small irrigation systems and in turn might receive a larger portion of the proceeds. Chiefdoms consist of numerous villages joined in political subordination to a central chief. Chiefs are endowed with religious and military power and commands strict obedience. Chiefdoms typically employ agriculture and engage in large scale public works projects such as irrigation and the building of temples. States have all employed agriculture, have centralized leadership with the power to raise armies and claim a monopoly on the use of force within the chiefdom. Most have employed sophisticated information processing facilities including literacy and bureaucracy and many maintained a high speed communication system such as networks of runners carrying messages. Most also have had a state religion.


With the evolution of the state has come a substantial increase in division of labour. At this level of social complexity people tend to become less generalist in the nature of their skills and instead focus on a speciality. Each speciality is supported by the evolving knowledge of its own set of memes. The more advanced the state the smaller the proportion of its people directly involved in procuring the basic needs of survival through agriculture, hunting or other means. Our memes have come to include more abstract forms of knowledge and in this arena have become increasingly decoupled from the constraints imposed upon memes by biological requirements.


In many ways the process of cultural evolution is near to the completion of a lengthy phase. Having evolved the sustainable complexity of human groupings through the phases of bands, tribes, chiefdoms and states we are now in the situation where a global state is forming. Competition between states is winding down and becoming increasing replaced by cooperative activity through international organizations. The main political challenge as understood by the main contenders during the last half of the twentieth century was how to win a global war. In the end after staring mutually assured destruction in the face for decades we gave up and have largely abandoned war as the final arbitrator of competitions between global powers.



horizontal rule

[i] Smolin, L. (1997). The Life of the Cosmos. Oxford University Press

[ii] L. Smolin, 2004, Scientific alternatives to the Anthropic principal, preprint

[iii] Dawkins R. (1986) The Blind Watchmaker, Penguin Press

[iv] Dawkins R. (1976).The Selfish Gene. Oxford University Press

[v] Dawkins R. (1976).The Selfish Gene. Oxford University Press

[vi] Aunger Robert (2002). The Electric Meme. The Free Press

[vii] Polar Bear International. http://www.polarbearsalive.org/facts3.php. Last viewed March 15, 2005