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My primary reason for reading Origin is its historical significance. It bothers me that humans, until as recently as Darwin, did not seriously ask about the origin of species despite interacting with its members every day. That this revolutionary idea should have occurred to one person as opposed to many in an incremental fashion, is far from obvious – and extremely interesting retrospectively. Are there any other such revolutionary ideas that’ll later be trivial to everyone?

Darwin supported his argument meticulously by observations, made by him and others, and their sheer number is so mind boggling that I fell asleep more times reading this book than any other. It amazes me how he summoned up so much enthusiasm to study and compare the most boring habits of some of the dullest creatures.

There is no reason to read this book to understand natural selection – our knowledge now is a far more superior and complete. I had already read The Selfish Gene, had already experienced the profound “OMFG! That’s Brilliant!” reaction that rapidly morphed into a “Duh! Isn’t that obvious?” . Yet, Origin was an enthralling read for the most part, with many opportunities to pause, wonder, daydream, extrapolate, apply the theory to modern humans and computers, and so on.

This is a fairly long book about a seemingly tautological argument. I highlighted a large number of lines and took down a few notes on my kindle. A short summary of my observations, and a few quotes to give you the taste of what most of the book is like, follows.

1. Variation – Darwin appreciated that variability exists in nature,
but he did not seem to explore the causes or consequences – which is understandable as genetics was ahead of his time.

“It may seem fanciful, but I suspect that a similar parallelism
extends to an allied yet very different class of facts. It is an old
and almost universal belief, founded, I think, on a considerable body
of evidence, that slight changes in the conditions of life are
beneficial to all living things.”

“Again, both with plants and animals, there is abundant evidence, that
a cross between very distinct individuals of the same species, that is
between members of different strains or sub-breeds, gives vigour and
fertility to the offspring.”

“Dominant species belonging to the larger groups tend to give birth to
new and dominant forms; so that each large group tends to become still
larger, and at the same time more divergent in character.”

“Widely ranging species vary most, (…) and varieties are often at
first local,–both causes rendering the discovery of intermediate
links less likely. (…) And if there be any variability under nature,
it would be an unaccountable fact if natural selection had not come
into play.”

2. Cooperation – Darwin appreciated that environment in the form of
sunshine, water, temperature ( non living stuff ), wasn’t the primary
reason for success of life in its complexity, and that inter-species
interaction is a large cause. However, he talks about competition,
much like Dawkins, but not much about cooperation, like Lynn Margulis. I
think cooperation is much less apparent when you just look at the
phenotype. It seems to me that it is more widespread on the smaller
gene level with microbes and viruses exchanging chemicals frequently, and
hence completely understandable why Darwin was unaware of it.

“This long appeared to me a great difficulty: but it arises in chief
part from the deeply-seated error of considering the physical
conditions of a country as the most important for its inhabitants;
whereas it cannot, I think, be disputed that the nature of the other
inhabitants, with which each has to compete, is at least as important,
and generally a far more important element of success.”

“Bearing in mind that the mutual relations of organism to organism are
of the highest importance, we can see why two areas having nearly the
same physical conditions should often be inhabited by very different
forms of life; for according to the length of time which has elapsed
since new inhabitants entered one region; according to the nature of
the communication which allowed certain forms and not others to enter,
either in greater or lesser numbers; according or not, as those which
entered happened to come in more or less direct competition with each
other and with the aborigines; and according as the immigrants were
capable of varying more or less rapidly, there would ensue in
different regions, independently of their physical conditions,
infinitely diversified conditions of life,–there would be an almost
endless amount of organic action and reaction,–and we should find, as
we do find, some groups of beings greatly, and some only slightly
modified,–some developed in great force, some existing in scanty
numbers–in the different great geographical provinces of the world.”

3. Ontology of god – Darwin did not comment much on Man, but he did
make strong rational arguments against creation, and understood the philosophy of science.

“Why should all the parts and organs of many independent beings, each
supposed to have been separately created for its proper place in
nature, be so invariably linked together by graduated steps? Why
should not Nature have taken a leap from structure to structure? On
the theory of natural selection, we can clearly understand why she
should not; for natural selection can act only by taking advantage of
slight successive variations; she can never take a leap, but must
advance by the shortest and slowest steps.”

“But many naturalists think that something more is meant by the
Natural System; they believe that it reveals the plan of the Creator;
but unless it be specified whether order in time or space, or what
else is meant by the plan of the Creator, it seems to me that nothing
is thus added to our knowledge.”

4. Altruism – Darwin identified and seemed to have understood the
conundrum posed by “selfless” individuals of the ant of the bee
communities. Since his argument is at the species level, it was easier
for him to reconcile the selfless acts of a few “slave” members as
beneficial to the species. Dawkins’ must have had a tougher time as
his arguments were at the genetic level, but even that was resolved
when it was shown that slave members had a different gene composition
that made it advantageous for their genes to die in the service of the
queen’s genes.

“Finally, it may not be a logical deduction, but to my imagination it
is far more satisfactory to look at such instincts as the young cuckoo
ejecting its foster-brothers,–ants making slaves,–the larvae of
ichneumonidae feeding within the live bodies of caterpillars,–not as
specially endowed or created instincts, but as small consequences of
one general law, leading to the advancement of all organic beings,
namely, multiply, vary, let the strongest live and the weakest die.”

“for if on the whole the power of stinging be useful to the community,
it will fulfil all the requirements of natural selection, though it
may cause the death of some few members.”

5. Falsification – I think it is important to note that when a
groundbreaking theory is introduced, it should make some substantial claims
that are against common knowledge. Although Darwin did not tackle all
the implications of his theory in this book, he did make remarks
which, at that time, would perhaps have been considered quite bold.

“hence there seems to me to be no great difficulty in believing that
natural selection has actually converted a swimbladder into a lung, or
organ used exclusively for respiration.”


Today, I’d like to talk about the idea of permanence from an ontological standpoint. The issue i’m concerned with is the ease with which we talk about the existence of something independent of time. I will make observations in common subjects and move on to less general ones.

Richard Dawkins’  book The Selfish Gene theorizes the gene-centric view of evolution where its phenotypes,  you and I, are carriers of genetic material on which selection happens. After reading the book, I was left with a feeling of inferiority in the manner of a helpless subordinate. The feeling might have well been due to a strong sense of associating my self with my mind (“I am the most abstract thought I can think”) as opposed to computing my identity by weighting several well regarded societal good-to-haves. In any case, it is true that certain patterns of A, T, C, G have been very successful over 4 billion years over other patterns of nucleotides . It is true that some biological structures like warm blood or vertebrae or neurons have been more successful than other structures. On the other hand, it is also true that some elements are most abundant in the universe than others – hydrogen and helium for obvious reasons, iron for a more interesting reason ( watch BBC Atom ). Hydrogen atoms are almost as old as the universe, younger by about 300,000 years. Atoms, neucleotides, genes, proteins, organs, individual organisms, species and many distinct layers in between all have existed for different time periods with each comparable layer exhibiting a non-uniform pattern in its space of all possible patterns. All right. With these observations in mind, let us ask some questions :

Q. What is the purpose of life?

A. 101010 due to some random effects in Douglas Adams’ neural connects.

Q. No, seriously. If I think of myself as a computer, as I most often do, what function f(x) do I optimize?

A. When I read Dawkins, one answer immediately seemed to be a perfect match – “Procreate as much as possible to optimize the survival of all your children”, or “Don’t disappoint the genes that formed you”. This explanation of what we’ve unconsciously been doing all along applied very well to the people around me. People and non-human animals spend a majority of time directly or indirectly in search of a mate, or finding resources for the upbringing of a young one. For them, f(x) is necessarily in terms of their gene patterns; “phenotypic” residues ( for ex. intellectual contributions ) have very short life spans. I suspect their strategy of having as many kids as possible is a way to produce future computational instances that can continue crunching on their f(x), just as they had been of their ancestors’. All of this is fine, but I think there was a very very crucial event in the 1800s, that changed the whole game. In On the origin of species, Darwin clearly explained this in great detail. We now know roughly the characteristics of f(x) that was being optimized, and in my opinion this knowledge has significantly altered that f(x). It is the measurement problem. World human population is expected to decline. Populations in developed countries, presumably with “wiser’ people, are already on the decline. Genes that evolved to code for a human phenotype are probably not going to live the longest. Why then should I consider the spreading of my genes as my primary purpose?

Q. So, what has this f(x) become?

A. It can be whatever you want it to be. I realize that doesn’t mean much as it quickly reduces to the problem of free will vs determinism, which is really non-problem. What I mean by that, is f(x) doesn’t have to be continuous. Every once in a while a “level-crossing” feedback loop is completed – f(x) becomes complicated enough to model the previous version of f(x). At that point what appears to be a linear growth of complexity encounters a spike. A black swan. In practical terms, what I’m trying to say is that we as humans seem to be beginning to learn that “permanence” or “longevity” of something is a worthy candidate for optimizing. Genetic configuration is not primary anymore. Welcome, gays, lesbians and smart people who don’t want to have kids. Your bodies ( including minds ) have figured out a way to experience the pleasure of sex, possibly created and selected as a major driving force of survival, without procreation. Find your new thing that has a larger value of permanence – contribute to the scientific body! That is the higher being!

I wanted to talk a lot more about permanence in Mathematics. About universal quantifier “for all”, about Continuum hypothesis, about Mathematical platonism etc. I wanted to mention our quest for permanence in Physics – of virtual particles and an obsession with finding theory of everything,  Maybe if time permits some other time. Good Night folks!

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