Tuesday, 3 March 2009

Darwins Dangerous Idea

I stated on Facebook that I am studying memes and I got lots of queries from my students and an ex student asking me what memes were. I was even on live chat giving some of them an extemely brief overview. A student of mine from last year asked what are memes? Then wrote on my wall before I could reply:

A meme is a unit or element of cultural ideas, symbols or practices; such units or elements transmit from one mind to another through speech, gestures, rituals, or other imitable phenomena. The etymology of the term relates to the greek word mimema for mimic. Memes act as cultural analogues to genes in that they self replicate and respond to selective pressures.
Taken from: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Meme.

It didn't matter that he had Googled it and taken it from Wikipedia, I was happy he had bothered to actually do the search!

I've also had an interesting debate with a colleague at work about Darwins Theory of Evolution. He studied Geology at University and fully embraces Darwins theory. What I struggle to get an understanding of is; where did we originate from? Not the species... just how did we come into being. He was attempting to explain that before the 'big bang', there was no concept of time, there was nothing. His words were... 'It just is', but being the curious creature that I am.... I cannot accept that from nothing.... came everything. It is an infinite question that I cannot find a solution to....

I am currently mentoring a trainee lecturer and he kindly told me about 4 on Demand. He said that he watched Richard Dawkins series on Darwin the other night and that I might find it interesting. I registered for 4oD last night and watched Part 1, but was too tired to carry on and watch Part 2. Part 1 was interesting, but I am hoping that Part 2 will be more enlightening. It was intriguing to see the author of The Selfish Gene talk avidly about a topic he is obviously so passionate about.

I have stumbled across a couple of interesting ideas/theories while reading Chapter 2 of Darwin's Dangerous Idea, that I feel the need to do further research on. I do feel that I am getting further away from memes, but still want to pursue the diversion of looking into the 1798 Essay on the Principle of Population by Thomas Malthus. For a brief overview for now, the wikipedia search quotes that:

The book An Essay on the Principle of Population was first published anonymously in 1798 through J Johnson (London). The author was soon identified as the Reverend Thomas Robert malthus. While it was not the first book on population, it has been acknowleged as the most influential work of its era. Its 6th Edition was independently cited as a key influence by both Charles Darwin and Alfred Russell Wallace in developing the theory of natural selection.

A key portion of the book was dedicated to what is now known as Malthus' Iron Law of Population. This pessimistic theory suggested that growing population rates would contribute to a rising supply of labour that would inevitably lower wages. In essence, Malthus feared that continued population growth would lend itself to poverty.

One immediate impact of Malthus' book was that it fueled the debate about the size of the population in Britain and led to (or at least greatly accelerated) the passing of the Census Act 1800. This Act enabled the holding of a national census in England, Wales and Scotland, starting in 1801 and continuing every ten years to the present. Taken from Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/An_Essay_on_the_Principle_of_Population.

It would seem that we may ultimately be leading to a 'Malthusian Catastrophe' as the Worlds population heads towards exceeding its ability to produce food for all. An interesting article in The Wall Street Journal - New Limits to Growth Revive Malthusian Fears by Justin Lahart, Patrick Barta and Andrew Batson,

(http://online.wsj.com/article/SB120613138379155707.html) states that 'Today the old fears are back. Although a Malthusian catastrophe is not at hand, the resource constraints foreseen by the Club of Rome are more in evidence today than at any time since the 1972 publication of the think tank's famous book, "The Limits of Growth".' They provide the reader with a poignant quote from the think tank:

'If the present growth trends in World population, industrialisation, pollution, food production, and resource depletion continue unchanged, the limits to growth on this planet will be reached sometime within the next 100 years.' The Club of Rome Think Tank, 1972.

I agree with Dennett, that this Malthusian way of thinking is grim, but feasible; but Darwin took from it what he needed in order to help him make headway with his theory.

Dennett (1995) says that: '...the idea that Darwin needed from Malthus is purely logical. It has nothing at all to do with political ideology, and can be expressed in very abstract and general terms. Suppose a world in which organisms have many offspring. Since the offspring themselves will have many offspring, the population will grow and grow ("geometrically") until inevitably sooner or later - surprisingly soon, in fact - it must grow too large for the available resources (of food, of space, of whatever the organisms need to survive long enough to reproduce). At that point, whenever it happens, not all organisms will have offspring. Many will die childless. It was Malthus who pointed out the mathematical inevitability of such a crunch in any population of long term reproducers - people, animals, plants (or, for that matter, Martian clone machines, not such fanciful possibilities were discussed by Malthus). Those populations that reproduce at less than the replacement rate are headed for extinction unless they reverse the trend. Populations that maintain a stable population over long periods of time will do so by settling on a rate of overproduction of offspring that is balanced by the vicissitudes encountered.

This is the foundation of Darwins 'Dangerous Idea', that natural selection would ensure that future generations of species were more appropriately armed to deal with the rigours of life that they would ultimately be faced with.

The other theory that seems quite intriguing is
Panspermia. The idea that life on Earth may have originated from seeds from another part of the Universe.... I will save that for another day though!

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