Tuesday, July 31, 2007

"Thermodynamic selection"

Fred Hapgood writes the meeting announcements for the Nanotech Study Group in Cambridge, Mass. Here is one of his recent suggested topics:

John Whitfield has written an interesting exploration of the idea that what we call natural selection might be just a subset of thermodynamic selection -- in his terms that in at least some cases, survival of the fittest is better understood as survival of the likeliest.

Thirty years ago or so, as part of my introduction to Conway's Life, I was shown the intersecting output of two glider guns set maybe a million clicks apart. When the streams of gliders met they would create a cloud of Life smoke, which would initially be kept in a tumbling instability by the constant inrush of gliders. After some long period of time, the cloud would evolve glider eaters - - two little patterns that would sit in the middle of the cloud and eat the gliders as they arrived, thus allowing the cloud to cook down to a stable state. It seemed wonderfully biological at the time, but as the sainted Bill Gosper explained to me, all that was involved was the law of irrepeatability -- those states that could not recur, did not. Everything followed from that.

Ever since I have wondered just how far that law could be pushed -- how much biology it explained. The article [linked to] below pushes these thoughts further than I have ever been able to. Recommended.

"Survival of the Likeliest?" by John Whitfield in PLoS Biology

The Whitfield article also links to more interesting articles along these lines.

--Steve Witham

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