Two centuries ago, a young Charles Darwin puzzled over the birds of the Galapagos Islands while gathering the inspiration for his theory of natural selection. Today that theory is getting a fresh look through the lens of information theory.
In essence Darwin’s theory is the process by which living things with traits favorable for reproduction in particular environments succeed in doing so. On a planet where complex biological and physical pressures are always – to some degree – in flux, natural selection leads to a steady evolution in the contest between organism and environment.
“Although the theory of natural selection is simple, it remains endlessly contentious and difficult to apply,” says Steven A. Frank, an SFI External Professor and professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at UC Irvine. He is publishing a series of articles in the Journal of Evolutionary Biology called “Topics in Natural Selection,” addressing the fundamentals of the theory.
“My goal is to make more accessible the concepts that are so important, yet are either mostly unknown or widely misunderstood,” he wrote.
For instance, instead of looking at just how individuals of a species change over time, natural selection can be seen as a way information about the environment is captured by populations of living things.
“I’m primarily looking at mathematical relationships,” he says. “The point is that the mathematical expressions of natural selection and the mathematical expressions of information theory are exactly the same, which, for some reason, has never been said explicitly, as far as I know.”
The failure to recognize that connection might arise from the history of Darwinian theory, Frank says, in which the math followed statistical theory instead of information expressions.
“The mathematical connections between natural selection and information theory are valuable because we can now see more precisely how to understand the workings of selection,” he says.
His natural selection series includes seven papers so far.
Read the paper series in the Journal of Evolutionary Biology
Frank has been inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. More here
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