Are there analogues of evolution in other fields?

Many creationists and others have wondered, if evolution is truly a fundamental, universal principle, why we don’t see evolution in action in arenas other than biological evolution. In the absence of such nonbiological instances of evolution, they argue, the central principle of evolution in biological species is drawn into question.

In fact, there are a number of analogues of biological evolution in other fields, several of which are both intriguing and compelling. Here are some that the present author is familiar with:

  • Biblical scholarship. One interesting example along this line is recent work comparing various manuscripts of the Bible, particularly the New Testament. The Bible as we have it today has come down through a long string of copies and translations — the original manuscripts are long since lost. When scholars examine these documents, they find a very well-defined pattern of successive copy errors, in most cases accidental, which fit nicely into a hierarchical pattern that establishes very clearly which manuscripts are older than others Hallowell2011; Ehrman2005]. This is a perfect analogue of how mutations can be used to determine the hierarchical “family tree” of biological species.
  • Computer viruses. A computer virus is so similar to real biological processes that it has even acquired a biological name. Computer viruses are segments of computer code that are copied and transmitted from computer to computer by subverting widely available application software or even the built-in operating system. Considerable havoc was wreaked on computer users worldwide until antivirus programs became widely available and installed, and even now they are a significant hazard of the computer-Internet world. Information on how computer viruses work is available in numerous online sources, including an excellent Wikipedia article [CompVirus2011]. The analogue with evolution isn’t as good, though, because the “copies” generally do not exhibit errors that can be taken as mutations over time. However, the “arms war” between those devising these viruses and those at antiviral software firms developing software to combat them is very much analogous to the “arms war” fought between competing species, and is also analogous to the arms war fought between modern medical science and ever-more-drug-resistant disease organisms.
  • Economics. It has been recognized since the 19th century that biological evolution has much in common with economics. Both fields are described by a complex interdependence of species and even individuals within a species. Competition for scarce resources and customers, growth, and response to changing environment characterize both fields. 20th century economist Milton Friedman noted that markets act as vehicles of natural selection in the economic sphere — firms compete for customers; unsuccessful firms lose market share and subsequently either go bankrupt or have their assets acquired by a competitor. Both biological species and commercial entities face potentially life-threatening changes in the environment — climate change for species and fundamental new technologies or lifestyle changes for firms. In both arenas, the “invisible hand” of competition and selection succeeds in forging a worldwide system of remarkable sophistication, specialization and effectiveness [Evolutionary2011].

    Along this line, it is amusing to note that many creationists and others who are skeptical of biological evolution nonetheless are staunch supporters of unfettered free-market economics as the optimal route for economic advancement. At the least, such persons are being intellectually inconsistent in defending Darwinian processes in one arena but denying them in another. And they are being additionally inconsistent if they accept the need, say, to take an antibiotic prescription through its full course, in order to prevent the evolution of highly drug-resistant pathogens, yet reject the power of evolution to shape the larger biological world over the multi-billion-year history of the earth.

  • Linguistics. It is clear that the transmission and proliferation of language has numerous parallels with biological evolution. Humans “copy” language facility from one human to another, usually from mother and father to young children, but there are often subtle differences from generation to generation, particularly if a group becomes separated from its parent society. Individual “species” (dialects) and “phyla” (language families) have formed, and, in addition, languages have become ever more sophisticated to express ever-more sophisticated ideas. Interestingly enough, it was Charles Darwin who had the original insight into this phenomenon, and even today there is no better discussion of this topic than in his 1871 book The Descent of Man [Darwin1871, pg. 57-59]
  • Plagiarism. Biologist Kenneth Miller recounts how he once detected an incidence of plagiarism in one of his biology classes. He found two papers that were curiously similar, even though there were attempts to disguise the fact — rearranged paragraphs, etc. But the clincher for the case was that each student had misspelled the same six words in exactly the same way. When confronted with this fact, the students recognized that their case was lost and surrendered to the school’s disciplinary system [Miller2008, pg. 100]. In this case the spelling mistakes are directly analogous to mutations that arise in biological species. When such mutations fit into a nice hierarchical pattern, as they do in biological species, this constitutes very strong evidence for common ancestry and descent with modification. For additional discussion, see DNA.

Computer simulations of evolution

We should also mention the burgeoning field of evolutionary algorithms, also known as “genetic algorithms.” In this discipline, computer programs mimicking the process of evolution have been utilized to develop engineering designs that in many cases are superior to the best-known human efforts. Applications of this methodology have been found in aerospace, chemistry, electrical engineering, financial analysis, materials engineering, robotics, and others [Marczyk2004].

In addition, many studies have been done using computer programs to directly simulate the process of biological evolution, as a tool to better understand the interplay between mutations, adaptations, and environment. Along this line, the present author has done one study in which an evolution-like process was used to generate segments of English text that in many cases are quite similar to segments taken from real Dickens literature. For details, see English text.

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