What Does Evolutionary Computing Say About Intelligent Design?
by Karl D. Stephan
Abstract—When Charles Darwin proposed his theory of variation and natural selection in The Origin of Species, he unwittingly provided the intellectual foundation for what has recently become a thriving subfield of computer science. Evolutionary computing arose from artificial intelligence research in the 1960s by computer scientists such as Lawrence Fogel and John Holland. Holland was one of the first to show that the genetic mechanisms of variation, reproduction, and selection are peculiarly suited to deal with certain problems whose characteristics make them difficult to solve with conventional approaches (Holland, 1975; Holland, 1992). In the decades since, dozens of books and hundreds of papers have been published on the subject, ranging from theoretical advances in the genetic algorithms used in evolutionary computing to practical applications in molecular modeling, mechanical and electrical engineering, and even investment strategies.1 Evolutionary computing today is much more than a twinkle in the eyes of a few computer scientists. In its wide range of successful applications, it is one of the relatively few concepts in artificial intelligence which has actually lived up to the hopes of its early proponents.
Does the practical success of evolutionary computing say anything about the theory of natural evolution? Beyond that, we can ask a more specific question: does evolutionary computing give support to the contention that variation and natural selection alone are inadequate to explain the origin and variety of life? This contention is often referred to as the “intelligent design” hypothesis, since it denies that nature, unaided by intelligence, is capable of producing the plethora of present life forms on Earth. Before we begin to answer either of these questions, we shall first describe evolutionary computing in enough detail to elucidate some of its basic approaches. Then we shall point out the parallels and differences between the trajectory of information in evolutionary computation, and the way information is stored, modified, and used in in natural biological systems such as bacteria. At that point, we will be prepared to address the two questions above.
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