Something Is Missing: Evolution Meets Reality with ALIFE
Here's some exciting news from the UK, where 300 biologists, computer scientists, physicists, mathematicians, philosophers and social scientists from around the world have gathered "to address one of the greatest challenges in modern science: how to create a genuine artificial life form." ("Can we make software that comes to life?" Telegraph)
Despite the image of Wall-E (with the amusing caption "self-aware computers such as Pixar's Wall-E are surprisingly tricky to put together" -- no, really? Every nerdy kid who ever tried to make a robot in 6th grade science camp could tell you that), the focus of the story is on evolution and -- wait for it -- the failure of Darwin's theory to explain complex creatures.
Using computer programs to test evolution, researchers are learning that natural selection lacks the creative power to evolve complex life -- and so they're looking for answers.
Researchers thought that with more computer power, they could create more complex creatures - the richer the computer's environment, the richer the ALife that could go forth and multiply.
But these virtual landscapes have turned out to be surprisingly barren. Prof Mark Bedau of Reed College in Portland, Oregon, will argue at this week's meeting - the 11th International Conference on Artificial Life - that despite the promise that organisms could one day breed in a computer, such systems quickly run out of steam, as genetic possibilities are not open-ended but predefined. Unlike the real world, the outcome of computer evolution is built into its programming.
They might do well to learn from Biologic's Stylus program. But I digress.
His conclusion? Although natural selection is necessary for life, something is missing in our understanding of how evolution produced complex creatures. By this, he doesn't mean intelligent design - the claim that only God can light the blue touch paper of life - but some other concept. "I don't know what it is, nor do I think anyone else does, contrary to the claims you hear asserted," he says. But he believes ALife will be crucial in discovering the missing mechanism.
Dr Richard Watson of Southampton University, the co-organiser of the conference, echoes his concerns. "Although Darwin gave us an essential component for the evolution of complexity, it is not a sufficient theory," he says. "There are other essential components that are missing."
One of these may be "self-organisation", which occurs when simpler units - molecules, microbes or creatures - work together using simple rules to create complex patterns and behaviour. [Emphasis added]
Of course, no one would dare consider the possibility of design (especially not with that straw-man description), but it looks like a few brave souls may be willing to admit, in the face of the evidence, that Darwin's theory really is not sufficient to explain life.
"Evolution on its own doesn't look like it can make the creative leaps that have occurred in the history of life," says Dr Seth Bullock, another of the conference's organisers. "It's a great process for refining, tinkering, and so on. But self-organisation is the process that is needed alongside natural selection before you get the kind of creative power that we see around us.
"Understanding how those two processes combine is the biggest challenge in biology."
I should say so.