July 11, 2010 | David F. Coppedge

Darwin Caught Out of Bounds

What business does Darwin have in quantum mechanics or engineering?  Wasn’t his a theory on the origin of species – that is, plants, animals and living things?  Some scientists seem intent on extrapolating his views to all of reality, including areas commonly thought to be in the domain of intelligent design. 

  1. Let’s get physical:  An article on Science Daily claims that Darwinism is a “Bridge to the Quantum World,” in that the “Darwinian Concept of Natural Selection Figures Into Theory About Core of Physical Reality.”  The point of a group of physicists at Arizona State is that Darwinian thinking provides a conceptual bridge between the quantum mechanical world, where everything is unpredictable and counter-intuitive, and the classical physics world that we experience with the senses.  How is that?

    The decoherence concept holds that many quantum states “collapse” into a “broad diaspora,” or dispersion, while interacting with the environment.  Through a selection process, other quantum states arrive at a final stable state, called a pointer state, which is “fit enough” (think “survival of the fittest” in Darwinian terms) to be transmitted through the environment without collapsing.
        These single states with the lowest energy can then make high-energy copies of themselves that can be described by the Darwinian process and observed on the macroscopic scale in the classical world.

    But does this metaphorical use of fitness and selection confuse or illuminate?  In biological Darwinism, fitness must be conveyed to offspring through genetic information.  Whatever “selecting” goes on in a quantum-level event is likely to be different with each process.  There arguably are more differences than similarities between biology and “quantum Darwinism,” whatever the term means.
        Nevertheless, David Ferry of ASU feels that the metaphor offers a “new view in the search for evidence of how the quantum-to-classical world transition actually occurs.”  The article appears to anticipate some incredulity.  “If you can wrap your mind around all this, he [Ferry] says, ‘You open the door to a deeper understanding of what is really going on’ at the core of physical reality.”  That promise has a very Gnostic flavor to it.

  2. Let’s get medical:  The word algorithm makes an awkward pair with Darwinism, the latter referring to an unguided, directionless process – the opposite of a planned sequence of problem-solving steps with a goal.  Yet New Scientist claimed that you may avoid surgery one day thanks to a “Darwinian algorithm.”  The article says, “Software that mimics Darwinian natural selection could help boost the energy efficiency of brain implants and reduce the need for surgery to replace their batteries.”  (Relax: they said brain implants, not brain transplants.)
        How can an algorithm be Darwinian?  Doctors at Duke University wanted to find waveforms in brain implants with the most efficient power consumption, to avoid costly and dangerous surgeries to replace batteries.  Darwin came to their rescue:

    Working like natural selection, the GA [genetic algorithm] takes a population of random waveforms, mutates the “fittest” of them – in this case, those with lowest energy use – and then “interbreeds” the mutated forms to make new “offspring” waveforms.  The process is then repeated through several “generations” until the optimal waveform is found.

    One thing immediately apparent is that this is artificial selection, like cattle breeding or rose breeding.  Artificial selection is a form of intelligent design, because whether or not randomness plays a role in the creation of a population of objects, intelligent agents choose among the population the traits they want for their own purposes and designs.  Natural selection does no such thing.  According to Darwinian principles, nature has no mind or direction or purpose – only the immediate need for survival in the competition for resources.  So the statement “working like natural selection” is blatantly misapplied here.  And like the quantum mechanics case (bullet 1 above), the talk of populations, mutations, fitness, interbreeding and offspring is metaphorical at best, misleading at worst.  Waveforms are not living organisms.  They have no genetic code or innate capacity for reproduction.  Darwin discussed artificial selection, but not waveforms or wave functions.

If these scientists are merely employing Darwinian terms rhetorically as figures of speech, perhaps their infractions are excusable.  But applications of Darwinian thought to areas far beyond its original domain raise questions about whether the terminology, especially when employed in searches for “the core of physical reality,” is being driven by science, ideology, or cultural mythology.

One of the main ways Darwinism survives in spite of its poor fitness as a scientific theory is due to its rhetorical plasticity.  Its advocates routinely confuse terms and misapply concepts, allowing it to escape philosophical predators amidst a thicket of smokescreens.  The territory behind Darwinian rhetoric is too often mined with equivocation.  CEH is your minesweeper.

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