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Evolution – some ideas

December 2, 2012 1 comment

One of the books included in the Encyclopedia Britannica’s Great books of the western world set is “On the Origin of Species” by Charles Darwin. And the great idea more fully developed here, than in any book before, and probably more than in any information published for many decades since, is evolution.

Today, we have many more changes to try to come to grips with, and the ideas of evolution can help, especially if we are willing to apply them broadly.

It is also true, that the book itself, the way it presents its facts and arguments, the way in which it was constructed, the purposes it was meant to serve, and the events that caused Darwin to postpone his publication and the events that catalyzed its release, are probably very instructive, with many lessons about thought, invention, creativity and potentially controversial theses.

One of the things that differentiates the Encyclopedia Britannica’s Great Books set, is the inclusion of two reference volumes called the Syntopicon, which serves as a kind of index or concordance to the entire corpus of books, making it possible to find where different authors have had something to say about the same idea. To understand how the idea of evolution can be helpful, I think it is important to see how it works, not only in the modification of genes of organisms over geologic time, but also how very similar processes are at work in several fields. Many of the best examples of evolution, and concepts invoked to explain its action are in uses and techniques of far too recent invention to have any hope of inclusion in a collection like the Great Books.

It is only in an age of ubiquitous, cheap recording technology, automatic information transcription and mechanical information distribution that we can witness some methods similar to those understood to underlie biological evolution, exemplified in non-biological systems. Though there is some precedence for the idea of evolution in economics, and other social sciences.

In Herodotus’s account of history we meet the character of Solon, the wise man of Athens, and hear of how he was unwilling to call anyone happy during his life. Solon, apparently believed that it took reflection, after the completion of someone’s life, to assess what satisfaction they knew, or what significance they had. In today’s world, it seems to me that we are a million miles away from that. And nowhere is this more true than on 24-hour rolling news TV channels. It is implied that there is too much to talk about, and never enough time. Reporters grow impatient quickly, and encourage the people they interview to give as short and unequivocal an answer to their questions as possible. Leaving aside the matter of how wisely their questions were chosen, or even how wise their choice was in picking one event to talk about over another, one person to interview as opposed to who else might have been available, I feel sure that if Solon could witness such a crime against contemplation, he would agree that no wisdom can come of this.

In a present and future-oriented culture as the one in which we live, I think it is more important that ever to remember that time is often essential for analysis. It is important to remember that acclimating to changes might not only take time but also be expensive, in terms of pain, possibly in terms of lives. This comes back to me each week, when it seems that I’m seeing advertisements from lawyers for a class-action suit against a new drug, on the grounds that it has some horrible side effects. I think of it each time I see an advertisement for a new drug, with active people smiling while they do things in sunny environments and an announcer lists several unpleasant-sounding potential side-effects. I think of these things every time I hear phrases like “beta test” or “early adopter”. The melancholy fact is that time is necessary for working out the problems in anything.

Time helps when there are persistent effects. Evolution requires the persistence of information over time.

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