a materialist theory of early evolution

Posted in science by Stephen Becker on November 2, 2008

I think Rob alerted me to this article a long while back –


Woese’s main theme is the obsolescence of reductionist biology as it has been practiced for the last hundred years, with its assumption that biological processes can be understood by studying genes and molecules. What is needed instead is a new synthetic biology based on emergent patterns of organization. Aside from his main theme, he raises another important question. When did Darwinian evolution begin? By Darwinian evolution he means evolution as Darwin understood it, based on the competition for survival of noninterbreeding species. He presents evidence that Darwinian evolution does not go back to the beginning of life. When we compare genomes of ancient lineages of living creatures, we find evidence of numerous transfers of genetic information from one lineage to another. In early times, horizontal gene transfer, the sharing of genes between unrelated species, was prevalent. It becomes more prevalent the further back you go in time.

. . .

Now, after three billion years, the Darwinian interlude is over. It was an interlude between two periods of horizontal gene transfer. The epoch of Darwinian evolution based on competition between species ended about ten thousand years ago, when a single species, Homo sapiens, began to dominate and reorganize the biosphere. Since that time, cultural evolution has replaced biological evolution as the main driving force of change. Cultural evolution is not Darwinian. Cultures spread by horizontal transfer of ideas more than by genetic inheritance. Cultural evolution is running a thousand times faster than Darwinian evolution, taking us into a new era of cultural interdependence which we call globalization. And now, as Homo sapiens domesticates the new biotechnology, we are reviving the ancient pre-Darwinian practice of horizontal gene transfer, moving genes easily from microbes to plants and animals, blurring the boundaries between species. We are moving rapidly into the post-Darwinian era, when species other than our own will no longer exist, and the rules of Open Source sharing will be extended from the exchange of software to the exchange of genes. Then the evolution of life will once again be communal, as it was in the good old days before separate species and intellectual property were invented.

. . .

This picture of living creatures, as patterns of organization rather than collections of molecules, applies not only to bees and bacteria, butterflies and rain forests, but also to sand dunes and snowflakes, thunderstorms and hurricanes. The nonliving universe is as diverse and as dynamic as the living universe, and is also dominated by patterns of organization that are not yet understood. The reductionist physics and the reductionist molecular biology of the twentieth century will continue to be important in the twenty-first century, but they will not be dominant. The big problems, the evolution of the universe as a whole, the origin of life, the nature of human consciousness, and the evolution of the earth’s climate, cannot be understood by reducing them to elementary particles and molecules. New ways of thinking and new ways of organizing large databases will be needed.

Read the rest, it gets even better.

I’ll write some more on this soon.

For more information on the materialist philosophy which meshes with this new biology, read De Landa (esp 1000 years of nonlinear history and intensive science/virtual philosophy), Deleuze, Guattari, Reiser (Atlas of Novel Tectonics, for an architectural take on all of this); or ask me.
For more information on the biology, especially Evolutionary Developmental Biology (Evo-Devo) you will have to ask my lady.


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