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Are there analogues of biological evolution in other fields?
David H. Bailey
Updated 31 March 2019 (c) 2019
Many creationists and others have wondered, if evolution is truly a fundamental, universal principle, why we don't see evolution in action in arenas other than biological evolution. In the absence of such nonbiological instances of evolution, they argue, the central principle of evolution in biological species is drawn into question.
Real-world analogues of biological evolution
In fact, there are numerous analogues of biological evolution in other fields of science, several of which are both intriguing and compelling. Here are some that the present author is familiar with:
- Biblical scholarship. The Bible as we have it today has come down through a long string of copies and translations -- the original manuscripts are long lost. As scholars examine documents that have been found through the years, they have found a very well-defined pattern of successive copy errors, in most cases accidental, which fit nicely into a hierarchical pattern. This information very clearly establishes which manuscripts are older than others, because it is very unlikely that exactly the same error, in exactly the same place in the copy, would arise independently in two different lines of manuscripts [Hallowell2011; Ehrman2005]. This is a perfect analogue of the reality of comment descent in biology, and also of how comparisons of mutations between species (or even between individuals) can be used to determine the underlying "family tree." For additional discussion, see DNA.
- Academic plagiarism. The copying of text or ideas of others, without explicit citation and/or permission, is considered a serious breach of ethics in the academic world. Even copying with permission is a breach of ethics in many environments, such as classroom instruction, where original, independent work is required of each individual. Nowadays many leading scientific journals and conferences employ sophisticated plagiarism-detecting software, which often can detect overlap of even a few consecutive words of text with previously published papers. Individual teachers and researchers often utilize Google searches and the like to ascertain whether written material is original. For additional details, see Peer review.
Biologist Kenneth Miller recounts how he once detected an incidence of plagiarism in one of his biology classes. He found two papers that were curiously similar, even though there were attempts to disguise the fact -- rearranged paragraphs, etc. But the clincher for the case was that each student had misspelled the same six words in exactly the same way. When confronted with this fact, the students recognized that the evidence was overwhelmingly against them, and they surrendered to the school's disciplinary system [Miller2008, pg. 100]. In this case the spelling mistakes are directly analogous to mutations that arise in biological species. And when such "mistakes" fit into a clearly hierarchical pattern, as they often do when studying mutations in biological species, this constitutes very strong evidence for common ancestry and descent with modification. For additional discussion, see DNA.
- Computer viruses. A computer "virus" is so similar to real biological processes that it has even acquired a biological name. Computer viruses are segments of computer code that are copied and transmitted from computer to computer by subverting widely available application software or even the built-in operating system [CompVirus2011]. Considerable havoc was wreaked on computer users worldwide until antivirus programs became widely available and dynamically updated over the Internet, and even now viruses are a significant hazard of the Internet-connected world. Indeed, there is concern that antivirus software is increasingly ineffective against new viruses that are being circulated [Perlroth2012]. Interestingly, computer viruses also exhibit evolution, in that most viruses are modifications of previous viruses. And the "arms war" between those devising these viruses and those at antiviral software firms developing software to combat them is very much analogous to the "arms war" fought between competing species, and even more so to the "arms war" fought between modern medical science and ever-more-drug-resistant disease organisms. In both arenas, we observe evolution in action.
- Economics. It has been recognized since the 19th century that biological evolution has much in common with economics. Both fields are described by a complex interdependence of individuals and groups of individuals. Competition for scarce resources, growth, and responses to changing environment characterize both fields. Markets act as vehicles of natural selection in the economic sphere -- unsuccessful firms lose market share when customers (individuals or institutions) recognize better value elsewhere. Both biological species and commercial entities often find it advantageous to specialize into a particular niche of their environment. And both biological species and commercial entities face potentially life-threatening changes in the environment, either dooming a species to extinction on one hand, or dooming a firm to bankruptcy and oblivion on the other. In both arenas, the "invisible hand" of competition and selection succeeds in forging a worldwide interconnected system of remarkable sophistication, specialization and effectiveness [Evolutionary2011].
Along this line, it is amusing to note that many people are highly skeptical of Darwinian biological evolution, on one hand, but nonetheless are staunch supporters of unfettered free-market economics as the optimal route for economic advancement. Needless to say, this is an utterly inconsistent position. And such persons are being additionally inconsistent if they accept the need, say, to take an antibiotic prescription through its full course, in order to prevent the evolution of highly drug-resistant pathogens, yet reject the power of evolution to shape the larger biological world over the multi-billion-year history of the Earth.
- Linguistics. It is clear that the transmission and proliferation of language has numerous parallels with biological evolution. Humans "copy" language facility from one human to another, usually from mother and father to young children, but there are often subtle differences from generation to generation, particularly if a group becomes separated from its parent society. Individual "species" (dialects) and "phyla" (language families) have formed, and, in addition, languages have become ever more sophisticated to express ever-more sophisticated ideas. Interestingly enough, it was Charles Darwin who had the original insight into this phenomenon, and even today there is no better discussion of this topic than this excerpt from his 1871 book The Descent of Man [Darwin1871, pg. 57-59]:
The formation of different languages and of distinct species, and the proofs that both have been developed through a gradual process, are curiously parallel. But we can trace the formation of many words further back than that of species, for we can perceive how they actually arose from the imitation of various sounds. We find in distinct languages striking homologies due to community of descent, and analogies due to a similar process of formation. The manner in which certain letters or sounds change when others change is very like correlated growth. We have in both cases the re-duplication of parts, the effects of long-continued use, and so forth. The frequent presence of rudiments, both in languages and in species, is still more remarkable. The letter m in the word am, means I; so that in the expression I am, a superfluous and useless rudiment has been retained. In the spelling also of words, letters often remain as the rudiments of ancient forms of pronunciation. Languages, like organic beings, can be classed in groups under groups; and they can be classed either naturally according to descent, or artificially by other characters. Dominant languages and dialects spread widely, and lead to the gradual extinction of other tongues. A language, like a species, when once extinct, never, as Sir C. Lyell remarks, reappears. The same language never has two birth-places. Distinct languages may be crossed or blended together. (2) We see variability in every tongue, and new words are continually cropping up; but as there is a limit to the powers of the memory, single words, like whole languages, gradually become extinct. As Max Muller (3) has well remarked: "A struggle for life is constantly going on amongst the words and grammatical forms in each language. The better, the shorter, the easier forms are constantly gaining the upper hand, and they owe their success to their own inherent virtue." To these more important causes of the survival of certain words, mere novelty and fashion may be added; for there is in the mind of man a strong love for slight changes in all things. The survival or preservation of certain favoured words in the struggle for existence is natural selection.
(Numbers in parentheses in the above are Darwin's footnote references.)
Computer simulations of evolution
We should also mention the burgeoning field of evolutionary algorithms, also known as "genetic algorithms." In this discipline, computer programs mimicking the process of evolution have been utilized to develop engineering designs that in many cases are superior to the best-known human efforts. Applications of this methodology have been found in aerospace, chemistry, electrical engineering, financial analysis, materials engineering, robotics, and others [Marczyk2004].
In addition, many studies have been done using computer programs to directly simulate the process of biological evolution, as a tool to better understand the interplay between mutations, adaptations, and environment. Along this line, the present author has done one study in which an evolution-like process was used to generate segments of English text that in many cases are quite similar to segments taken from real Dickens literature. For full details, see English text.
In short, the fact that biological evolution is a legitimate and scientifically valid principle of science is strongly buttressed by the fact that there are numerous compelling analogues of biological evolution in other fields of study. Many of the same characteristics apply: descent with modification, reproduction and proliferation, "genes" of one type or another transmitting information from one generation to another, and, in many cases, an increasing degree of sophistication in the result. Biological evolution is but one example of this over-arching principle.
For additional discussion, see