The Evolvability of Science
I thought I would herald in a new change of pace with my next few blog posts. You could call it a series of blog posts as they will revolve around the same theme. I enjoy themes and I’d imagine any scientist that is passionate about what they do probably is as well. After all, most of the time, we really do like it when things are explained in fairly simplified patterns. As a science communicator, we thrive on patterns and on a certain amount of predictability. Of course, the very nature of science is anything but predictable. That said, when explaining science to a general audience…themes doth prevail!
To kick off then, what is Evolvability? In a given natural system (most commonly a biological population), it is the nature is the ability of said population to generate adaptive genetic diversity for which natural selection is able to act on. Taken through to its logical conclusion, this means that certain populations must surely have the penchant to be more disposed to evolving than others. Is this a theory that we can find evidence for in nature? While I can’t claim to be an expert on this topic – far from it – I would imagine so! That said, the focus of this post is not natural systems…but something more methodological.
Namely, just how evolvable is science itself?
It goes like this: imagine that Evolvability and fitness are defined in this context as a field’s ability to generate more sub-fields, survive in terms of generating a higher research output and, perhaps slightly more counter intuitively, cross-fertilise information across other scientific disciplines to help bolster their own fitness. Is this really as counter intuitive as it may first seem? I don’t think so. Rather than being inherently competitive (which, don’t get me wrong, science can certainly be!), science thrives on collaboration and teamwork as opposed to fields wiping out other ‘competitor’ fields. It isn’t a huge leap of logic to then state that a scientific field which is successful in fuelling other scientific fields is fit, in the sense that it is passing some of its ‘genetic material’ (we’ll call research ‘genetic material’ in this sense) onto another ‘species’ of a scientific field. That said, I do not mean to say that Evolvability is the same as ‘success’. The ability of a scientific field to be able to evolve, I believe, does not directly correlate with its success because of the changes in environmental conditions. As shall be illustrated, Evolvability will be a unique trait of its own. That is not to say that it has no effect or influence on ‘success’, I do not dispute that there is a relationship. Just that such a relationship shall not be the focus of this investigation.
To say that the rate of change and progress in science recently has been exponential would certainly be on the mark. In a little over 100 years, we have seen some of the most formidable discoveries bear fruit and change the way we understand and interact with the world around us. We have seen two world wars, which have catalysed scientific discovery in their own right. We have also seen the Cold War act as a catalyst for scientific discovery, with the great space race allowing humanity to put the first people on the moon. Even beyond that, quantum theory has made quite a few (quantum) leaps and has helped to revolutionise how we understand the workings of the universe at the quantum level. To be sure, science has been a heavyweight contender in the ring of achievements and, whilst there are still so many more things to garner knowledge about, we should be impressed by the sheer tour de force science has shown.
Implied in this is the evolutionary branching that has occurred in science, not just recently, but also since the inception of science as a discipline. Owing to the fact that, in evolutionary biology, we see periods of relatively low evolutionary output (i.e. fewer new species generated) as well as periods of relatively high evolutionary output (i.e. a greater number of species generated, such as during the Cambrian Evolution). This trend can also be applied to the sciences. It is not a huge leap of logic to suggest that certain periods of time yielded a higher output of scientific fields than other periods. The interesting question would be why these periods yielded greater rates of evolution. We thus start to move towards the notion that scientific fields/disciplines can be treated as distinct species. In the absence of genetic material, we can use research output as a proxy. After all, more successful scientific field would have a greater pool of adaptive research material that they produce. This would ultimately have an effect on their evolutionary fitness and Evolvability, provided that adaptive in this sense means garners and provides ample opportunity for more research.
In the next few posts, I will seek to further explore the notion of scientific disciplines as closely related, but fairly distinct, species that exhibit certain traits of Evolvability. With this comparison drawn, I will seek to create a hypothetical theory which could give rise to a fresh perspective for studying how scientific fields interact with each other. The final post (or two) will be exploring the practical applications this could have and hopes for future studies on the topic.