Touching The Limits Of Knowledge

Cosmology and our View of the World


Evolution as Property of the Universe, Lead: Bill Hurd, Liz Poulsen, Dan Widrew


Summary by Rebecca McMahon:


Evolution as Property of the Universe: Process Philosophy, Evolution, Selection

The topic of discussion for the week of 2/25/03 was, “Evolution as a Property of the Universe,” led by Bill Hurd, Liz Poulsen and Dan Widrew. At the beginning of the discussion the class was asked to define the term Evolution. We were supposed to address this for only a few minutes, however the difficulty we found in agreeing on one definition ended up dominating the remainder of the class discussion. These are a few of the definitions that came up:

   • A cumulative change over time
   • A genetic change
   • A process, not just used for biological purposes—Many people in the class argued that the term was contextual. It is a word used to describe a number of things. People can evolve through their lifetime; the style of art and music evolves. While the word evolution is used mainly to discuss biological change throughout time, the definition has been altered to refer to many types of change
Change—This definition raised a number of questions because many felt it was too simple. Evolution is change, but it seems to be change in reaction to something else, sort of a directed change. It is not simply a random change at some random time
   • The unfolding or unrolling of something’s fate
   • A term historically used for embryos
   • Progress
   • Being able to trace objects to their present time
   • Trial and error process—process of learning from mistakes

Many people were confused as to whether or not the term evolution implied a goal or purpose of some type. Some argued that if evolution is an unconscious process, something that we can’t see happen unless in hindsight, then it cannot be goal oriented, since the word goal implies intention. Others argued that evolution is a process in which entities attempt to find a balance with their constantly changing surroundings. Therefore the constant search for balance is the ultimate goal of the universe.

After much debate the three leaders finally presented us with their definition, “Variations and retentions of characteristics in successive iterations with a selection mechanism.” No one was completely happy with this definition either. Every word of the definition was dissected and analyzed for further clarification. For Bill, Liz and Dan, this is what these words meant:
   • Variations—meaning a type of change or mutation
   • Retention—some type of memory storage, like DNA
   • Characteristics—self-explanatory
   • Successive iterations—the offspring, or result of mutation
   • Selection mechanism—what causes certain mutations to be perpetuated.

This clarification, however, did not satisfy the class. People were confused about what iteration was, and when iteration became iteration. Many were also not satisfied with the phrase, “selection mechanism” because they felt it applied only to biological evolution. Finally Professor Davis came up with a simple yet (in my opinion) accurate definition, “the process of things getting to be the way they are.” However, people were still not satisfied and it was quickly cast aside.

The Leaders of the discussion then attempted to shift the class away from discussion about the definition of evolution. It became apparent that it was not a subject that the class would readily agree upon. We did, however come to the collective conclusion that evolution means change of some kind and that it is a constant process.

One person in the class suggested that it was difficult for us to come up with a real definition because evolution encompasses all functions of the universe, and is too big to be simplified by human definitions. This brought up another topic of discussion that continued for the remainder of the class about whether or not evolution really is the way the universe works, and if it is a process of the universe. Bill Hurd brought up the idea of memes directing change. The presence of a meme would eliminate the purpose of changes; they would simply be random contagious ideas infecting a population.

Overall, it was a stimulating conversation in which many interesting points were brought up, but no one came to a clear understanding of what evolution truly is and whether it is a property of the universe. Of course, that is the fun of this course, the more you discuss topics that cannot be completely understood or proven, the more confused and baffled you become.