Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Evolution: Part I: The Basics

Sorry for reposting old material, but I finally got to the point in the game theory Topic where I could do the bit on the evolution of cooperation (thus making evolution its own Topic), and I figured I ought to break up the first evolution post and make it a bit less wall-of-text-y. Game theory will return in four weeks unless I see something shiny and deserving of its own Topic.
The following material is flagged Green Level. It is intended to reflect material that the author believes to be a matter of consensus among experts in the field. This belief may be incorrect, however; and as the author is not an expert and does not have an expert fact-checking the article, errors may creep in.
First, let me explain what the theory of evolution actually says, since this is the most common point of disagreement. There are things (such as living beings, although a semi-controversial application of the theory called memetics posits that this can be expanded to include abstract information as well, and a type of robot called a von Neumann machine that constructs copies of itself would also count) that can "copy" themselves, which we will call replicators. Sometimes, when a replicator makes a copy of itself, it makes a small mistake, called a mutation. Sometimes, this mutation has no effect beyond possibly changing the effects of future mutations, such as a mutation in a set of "junk DNA" or in the comments of a piece of code. Sometimes, the mutation is neither harmful nor helpful, such as a change removing a vestigial organ. Sometimes, the mutation is harmful, such as a vertebrate forming without a DNA sequence coding for brain tissue. But sometimes, once in a great while, the mutation is actually useful, such as increasing how well the organism can process food.
Now, suppose that our mutant is in a place where its mutation is useful. Suppose that we're talking about a bear in a cold region that has fur better able to trap heat, or the like. That bear is going to find it a little bit easier to not freeze to death, and as such will have a slightly better chance of leaving copies of itself in the next generation of bears.
(As an aside, it is important to point out that a beneficial mutation is one that is beneficial in that specific environment. A bear with heat-trapping fur is at a disadvantage if taken to a place hot enough that water boils quickly, just as a heat-repelling one is at a disadvantage if taken to a place cold enough that all water is frozen. This will be important later on, when we talk about speciation. It will also be on the test, so I do hope you are taking notes.)
Now then, we have a bear in generation X with a 0.1% better ability to handle cold environments. This bear has a copy in generation X+1. Now, let us look at what that copy can do. Since it is a copy of the original bear, it also shares that 0.1% better ability. And if that bear manages to put copies in generation X+2, they will also share the improved ability to handle the cold, and so on. And eventually, those small chances add up. If in generation X+2 this improved ability saves one of the mutant bears, that means that there will be more of the bears with this ability in generation X+3. And this continues for a while.
But there is another factor: cold is not the only threat to the bears. Hunger is also a problem. Eventually, the bears hit a limit on the number that their food supply can support. With this limit in place, and the steadily growing number of bears able to handle cold, eventually the entire population of bears becomes able to handle the cold.
(Note that simple probability indicates that eventually, the bears with the higher survival rate would displace the bears with the lower survival rate, even if there were no population cap. This takes even longer, though.)
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