My research

My scientific research studies evolution, or more exactly,

the natural processes of creation -
Or more technically, natural processes that create complex adaptive organisation
(also known as 'the appearance of design');

Or if you prefer it more poetically, courtesy of Darwin, the processes that create, promote or allow endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful.

This is the big question that motivated Darwin; so it includes the process of evolution by natural selection, of course. But studying natural selection on its own is a limiting circumscription of the topic. I seek to build a better scientific understanding of how life, evolution, adaptation and learning is created, sustained and promoted in biological, physical, social and other complex systems – natural and artificial. 

I am interested in natural explanations, not supernatural ones - no Intelligent Creators or explanatory skyhooks here. I seek scientific understanding. Unfortunately, it is popular among scientists to treat this topic in a way that is ascientific - as though we are obliged to believe natural selection 'explains everything' (directly or indirectly), it is all 'done and dusted', and even discussing the issues - apart from adding detail - is scientific 'heresy' (e.g.). Evolution by natural selection occurs and the theory of how it works is correct, so far as it goes - but there are big open questions in modern evolutionary biology that natural selection is not equipped to address. These require a different way of thinking.  

One different way of thinking that I'm exploring goes like this... What if natural selection was not the whole story – perhaps not even centre stage? What if the theory of natural selection was to creation like a theory of fire is to the internal combustion engine. A correct theory, of combustion, sure; But, not a theory that explains how the engine works. What if the ‘engine’ of creative transformation was something else - a different algorithm? Then natural selection would be a part of the mechanism, but in the big picture we would see selection as missing the point (like the theory that 'electricity is necessary to make my laptop go' is true but does not explain what computation is). Perhaps then it would make sense that 'burning things' in other contexts tends not to create useful work, just destructive release of energy - but in this context, burning things produces creative transformation - and the structure of the context is actually more important to understanding how it works than the principles of energy release.

 

The theory Im working on, 'evolution by natural induction', suggests that the creative engine of adaptive transformation is less to do with things and their frequencies (although selection is in there) and more to do with the changing organisation of the relationships between things (by induction, not selection). What difference would a creation process based on this kind of principle make to the scope and nature of adaptive explanation in biology? And what difference might it make to how we see ourselves, our relationships with one another, and with everything else?

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An antidote to Universal Darwinism:
Natural Induction and worldviews 

 
 

What techniques do I use?

I build computational models and theory that investigate algorithms of creation - to build a better scientific understanding of how life, evolution, adaptation and learning is created, sustained and promoted in biological, physical, social and other complex systems – natural and artificial. This brings together methods, results and complementary ways of thinking from multiple diverse disciplines including:

  • computer science (optimisation, unconventional computing, machine learning)

  • evolutionary theory (adaptation, evo-eco-devo dynamics)

  • developmental biology (adaptation, plasticity, gene-regulation networks)

  • cognitive science (learning, memory, theory of mind, artificial intelligence)

  • complex systems (self-organisation, adaptive networks, emergence)

  • social behaviour and worldviews (cooperation, altruism, social contracts, game theory, worldviews, personal/social value systems) and

  • love: wellbeing and wisdom traditions (how to live life well, the theory and practice of being a fully-actualised self and a beautiful, radiant being that contributes to creation and lives in harmony with it….).

 

I don’t really see these as very different different topics, btw; conventional discipline boundaries are artificial. More importantly, the frustration created when these different ways of thinking bump up against each other are where the interesting opportunities for growth and transformation are to be found.

Open questions

I use these methods to work on big questions, especially those where conventional evolutionary theory struggles or cannot be applied. Such as:

  • What does it mean to be an individual? How are you more than the sum of the autonomous cells of which you are composed? (learn more)

  • How does evolution recreate itself at higher levels of organisation? How does evolution transition from one level of biological organisation (e.g. unicellular life) to a higher-level of organisation (e.g. the multicellular organism), such that adaptations now serve the reproductive interests of the whole, even when that conflicts with the reproductive interests of the individual parts that created it? (learn more)

  • What kind of system can be cognitive? What kind of system can learn something, know something, remember something, think something or decide something? What does it mean for an individual or an algorithm to do these things in comparison to a reductionist account of the component mechanisms that carried it out? (learn more)

  • What organising principles apply where natural selection does not? When natural selection acts on parts, what is the effect on the organisation of the whole, and vice versa, what is the effect on the organisation of the parts when selection applies on the whole? Can an ecosystem, a society or the biosphere exhibit adaptive organisation (even though they are not evolutionary units, and no one individual is ‘in charge’)? (learn more)

  • What ‘engineering principles’ does nature use to create such fantastically complex adaptive function? And, how can we utilise such principles to create and maintain complex systems that are agile, resilient, adaptive and sustainable – exhibiting robust macro-scale functionality without micromanaging each component part? (learn more)

  • How can societies become smarter? Under what conditions can many short-sighted, self-interest individuals organise their relationships with one another so as to cause themselves to act in a manner consistent with long-term, collective interests – and do so ‘bottom-up’, i.e. without system-level selection, design or reward? (learn more)

  • How do we find meaning for ourselves and how do we live well? If we want to create, promote or allow more love and compassion for ourselves, one another, other living things and the planet – how do we reconcile this with the prevailing Western worldview that individualism, selfishness and competition is natural and logical (c.f. “survival of the fittest” and rational individualism/objectivism)? (learn more)