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New book expands Darwin's theory of evolution

Published: 27 February 2006

In a book just published, new evidence revealed about the impact of sex and symbiosis indicates that Darwin’s famous belief that evolution proceeds only gradually is in need of revision.

In Compositional Evolution (MIT Press) Dr Richard Watson, of the School of Electronics and Computer Science at the University of Southampton, claims that Darwin’s gradualist approach of evolution is only one possibility and that certain biological phenomena provide the possibility of implementing alternative processes.

He commented: ‘Challenging gradualism has been seen as evolutionary heresy, but I show that evolution by natural selection needs to be separated from the assumption of gradual change - large adaptive changes need not be seen as evolutionary heresy’

In his book he models a number of mechanisms within natural evolution which suggest non-gradual change--such as those involved in the formation of the eukaryotic cell (from which all plants and animals are descended). His new theory shows that sex, symbiosis and other mechanisms involving the coevolution of cooperating entities move beyond the normal evolutionary dogma of ‘accumulation of small changes’.

This has important consequences for what one considers difficult for evolution, he says: ‘For example, the concept of “irreducible complexity” (believed to indicate that a system can’t be evolved) depends on the assumption of “successive slight modifications”.

‘Some systems that appear to be irreducibly complex could in fact be easily evolved by compositional mechanisms.

‘It also has implications for how we view the roles of competition and cooperation in nature,’ he adds. ‘Competition has been seen as the norm and cooperation as a weird aberration, but this is too simplistic.

‘The fact that important innovations can result from cooperative symbiosis needs to be integrated into evolutionary theory.’

Dr Watson, a member of the newly formed research group, Science and Engineering of Natural Systems at the University, has been named in IEEE Intelligent Systems’ first-ever “Ten to Watch” awards, recognising the work of new researchers worldwide; the awardees will be featured in the May/June 2006 special issue which celebrates 50 years of Artificial Intelligence. He joined ECS in 2005 from Harvard University.

His work seeks to foster interdisciplinary exchange between computer science and biology, showing how some of the deepest questions of these fields can be approached with the tools and insights of the other.

He commented: ‘Hopefully, in the same way that symbiosis has provided innovation in nature, a union of ideas between computer science and biology promises a type of innovation that neither discipline could achieve through small modifications within its own local population of theories and methods.’

Melanie Mitchell, Portland State University, says ‘This book is a work of truly interdisciplinary science; it demonstrates that the joint study of evolutionary computation and evolutionary biology can produce important results for both fields ...essential reading for …[those] who want to know how ideas from computation can create new perspectives’.

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