Evo-Info 3: Evolution is not search

Introduction to Evolutionary Informatics, by Robert J. Marks II, the “Charles Darwin of Intelligent Design”; William A. Dembski, the “Isaac Newton of Information Theory”; and Winston Ewert, the “Charles Ingram of Active Information.” World Scientific, 332 pages.
Classification: Engineering mathematics. Engineering analysis. (TA347)
Subjects: Evolutionary computation. Information technology–Mathematics.

Marks, Dembski, and Ewert open Chapter 3 by stating the central fallacy of evolutionary informatics: “Evolution is often modeled by as [sic] a search process.” The long and the short of it is that they do not understand the models, and consequently mistake what a modeler does for what an engineer might do when searching for a solution to a given problem. What I hope to convey in this post, primarily by means of graphics, is that fine-tuning a model of evolution, and thereby obtaining an evolutionary process in which a maximally fit individual emerges rapidly, is nothing like informing evolution to search for the best solution to a problem. We consider, specifically, a simulation model presented by Christian apologist David Glass in a paper challenging evolutionary gradualism à la Dawkins. The behavior on exhibit below is qualitatively similar to that of various biological models of evolution.

Animation 1. Parental populations in the first 2000 generations of a run of the Glass model, with parameters (mutation rate .005, population size 500) tuned to speed the first occurrence of maximum fitness (1857 generations, on average), are shown in orange. Offspring are generated in pairs by recombination and mutation of heritable traits of randomly mated parents. The fitness of an individual in the parental population is, loosely, the number of pairs of offspring it is expected to leave. In each generation, the parental population is replaced by surviving offspring. Which of the offspring die is arbitrary. When the model is modified to begin with a maximally fit population, the long-term regime of the resulting process (blue) is the same as for the original process. Rather than seek out maximum fitness, the two evolutionary processes settle into statistical equilibrium.

Figure 1. The two bar charts, orange (Glass model) and blue (modified Glass model), are the mean frequencies of fitnesses in the parental populations of the 998,000 generations following the 2,000 shown in Animation 1. The mean frequency distributions approximate the equilibrium distribution to which the evolutionary processes converge. In both cases, the mean and standard deviation of the fitnesses are 39.5 and 2.84, respectively, and the average frequency of fitness 50 is 0.0034. Maximum fitness occurs in only 1 of 295 generations, on average.

I should explain immediately that an individual organism is characterized by 50 heritable traits. For each trait, there are several variants. Some variants contribute 1 to the average number offspring pairs left by individuals possessing them, and other variants contribute 0. The expected number of offspring pairs, or fitness, for an individual in the parental population is roughly the sum of the 0-1 contributions of its 50 traits. That is, fitness ranges from 0 to 50. It is irrelevant to the model what the traits and their variants actually are. In other words, there is no target type of organism specified independently of the evolutionary process. Note the circularity in saying that evolution searches for heritable traits that contribute to the propensity to leave offspring, whatever those traits might be.

The two evolutionary processes displayed above are identical, apart from their initial populations, and are statistically equivalent over the long term. Thus a general account of what occurs in one of them must apply to both of them. Surely you are not going to tell me that a search for the “target” of maximum fitness, when placed smack dab on the target, rushes away from the target, and subsequently finds it once in a blue moon. Hopefully you will allow that the occurrence of maximum fitness in an evolutionary process is an event of interest to us, not an event that evolution seeks to produce. Again, fitness is not the purpose of evolution, but instead the propensity of a type of organism to leave offspring. So why is it that, when the population is initially full of maximally fit individuals, the population does not stay that way indefinitely? In each generation, the parental population is replaced with surviving offspring, some of which are different in type (heritable traits) from their parents. The variety in offspring is due to recombination and mutation of parental traits. Even as the failure of parents to leave perfect copies of themselves contributes to the decrease of fitness in the blue process, it contributes also to the increase of fitness in the orange process.

Both of the evolutionary processes in Animation 1 settle into statistical equilibrium. That is, the effects of factors like differential reproduction and mutation on the frequencies of fitnesses in the population gradually come into balance. As the number of generations goes to infinity, the average frequencies of fitnesses cease to change (see “Wright, Fisher, and the Weasel,” by Joe Felsenstein). More precisely, the evolutionary processes converge to an equilibrium distribution, shown in Figure 1. This does not mean that the processes enter a state in which the frequencies of fitnesses in the population stay the same from one generation to the next. The equilibrium distribution is the underlying change­less­ness in a ceaselessly changing population. It is what your eyes would make of the flicker if I were to increase the frame rate of the animation, and show you a million generations in a minute.

Animation 2. As the mutation rate increases, the equilibrium distribution shifts from right to left, which is to say that the long-term mean fitness of the parental population decreases. The variance of the fitnesses (spread of the equilibrium distribution) increases until the mean reaches an intermediate value, and then decreases. Note that the fine-tuned mutation rate .005 ≈ 10–2.3 in Figure 1.

Let’s forget about the blue process now, and consider how the orange (randomly initialized) process settles into statistical equilibrium, moving from left to right in Animation 1. The mutation rate determines

  1. the location and the spread of the equilibrium distribution, and also
  2. the speed of convergence to the equilibrium distribution.

Animation 2 makes the first point clear. In visual terms, an effect of increasing the mutation rate is to move equilibrium distribution from right to left, placing it closer to the distribution of the initial population. The second point is intuitive: the closer the equilibrium distribution is to the frequency distribution of the initial population, the faster the evolutionary process “gets there.” Not only does the evolutionary process have “less far to go” to reach equilibrium, when the mutation rate is higher, but the frequency distribution of fitnesses changes faster. Animation 3 allows you to see the differences in rate of convergence to the equilibrium distribution for evolutionary processes with different mutation rates.

Animation 3. Shown are runs of the Glass model with mutation rate we have focused upon, .005, doubled and halved. That is,  = 2 ⨉ .005 = .01 for the blue process, and  = 1/2 ⨉ .005 = .0025 for the orange process.

An increase in mutation rate speeds convergence to the equilibrium distribution, and reduces the mean frequency of maximum fitness.

I have selected a mutation rate that strikes an optimal balance between the time it takes for the evolutionary process to settle into equilibrium, and the time it takes for maximum fitness to occur when the process is at (or near) equilibrium. With the mutation rate set to .005, the average wait for the first occurrence of maximum fitness, in 1001 runs of the Glass model, is 1857 generations. Over the long term, maximum fitness occurs in about 1 of 295 generations. Although it’s not entirely accurate, it’s not too terribly wrong to think in terms of waiting an average of 1562 generations for the evolutionary process to reach equilibrium, and then waiting an average of 295 generations for a maximally fit individual to emerge. Increasing the mutation rate will decrease the first wait, but the decrease will be more than offset by an increase in the second wait.

Figure 2. Regarding Glass’s algorithm (“Parameter Dependence in Cumulative Selection,” Section 3) as a problem solver, the optimal mutation rate is inversely related to the squared string length (compare to his Figure 3). We focus on the case of string length (number of heritable traits) L = 50, population size N = 500, and mutation rate  = .005, with scaled mutation rate uʹ L2 = 12.5 ≈ 23.64. The actual rate of mutation, commonly denoted u, is 26/27 times the rate reported by Glass. Note that each point on a curve corresponds to an evolutionary process. Setting the parameters does not inform the evolutionary search, as Marks et al. would have you believe, but instead defines an evolutionary process.

Figure 2 provides another perspective on the point at which changes in the two waiting times balance. In each curve, going from left to right, the mutation rate is increasing, the mean fitness at equilibrium is decreasing, and the speed of convergence to the equilibrium distribution is increasing. The middle curve (L = 50) in the middle pane (N = 500) corresponds to Animation 2. As we slide down the curve from the left, the equilibrium distribution in the animation moves to the left. The knee of the curve is the point where the increase in speed of convergence no longer offsets the increase in expected wait for maximum fitness to occur when the process is near equilibrium. The equilibrium distribution at that point is the one shown in Figure 1. Continuing along the curve, we now climb steeply. And it’s easy to see why, looking again at Figure 1. A small shift of the equilibrium distribution to the left, corresponding to a slight increase in mutation rate, greatly reduces the (already low) incidence of maximum fitness. This brings us to an important question, which I’m going to punt into the comments section: why would a biologist care about the expected wait for the first appearance of a type of organism that appears rarely?

You will not make sense of what you’ve seen if you cling to the misconception that evolution searches for the “target” of maximally fit organisms, and that I must have informed the search where to look. What I actually did, by fine-tuning the parameters of the Glass model, was to determine the location and the shape of the equilibrium distribution. For the mutation rate that I selected, the long-term average fitness of the population is only 79 percent of the maximum. So I did not inform the evolutionary process to seek out individuals of maximum fitness. I selected a process that settles far away from the maximum, but not too far away to suit my purpose, which is to observe maximum fitness rapidly. If my objective were to observe maximum fitness often, then I would reduce the mutation rate, and expect to wait longer for the evolutionary process to settle into equilibrium. In any case, my purpose for selecting a process is not the purpose of the process itself. All that the evolutionary process “does” is to settle into statistical equilibrium.

Sanity check of some claims in the book

Unfortunately, the most important thing to know about the Glass model is something that cannot be expressed in pictures: fitness has nothing to do with an objective specified independently of the evolutionary process. Which variants of traits contribute 1 to fitness, and which contribute 0, is irrelevant. The fact of the matter is that I ignore traits entirely in my implementation of the model, and keep track of 1s and 0s instead. Yet I have replicated Glass’s results. You cannot argue that I’ve informed the computer to search for a solution to a given problem when the solution simply does not exist within my program.

Let’s quickly test some assertions by Marks et al. (emphasis added by me) against the reality of the Glass model.

There have been numerous models proposed for Darwinian evolution. […] We show repeatedly that the proposed models all require inclusion of significant knowledge about the problem being solved. If a goal of a model is specified in advance, that’s not Darwinian evolution: it’s intelligent design. So ironically, these models of evolution purported to demonstrate Darwinian evolution necessitate an intelligent designer.

Chapter 1, “Introduction”


[T]he fundamentals of evolutionary models offered by Darwinists and those used by engineers and computer scientists are the same. There is always a teleological goal imposed by an omnipotent programmer, a fitness associated with the goal, a source of active information …, and stochastic updates.

Chapter 6, “Analysis of Some Biologically Motivated Evolutionary Models”


Evolution is often modeled by as [sic] a search process. Mutation, survival of the fittest and repopulation are the components of evolutionary search. Evolutionary search computer programs used by computer scientists for design are typically teleological — they have a goal in mind. This is a significant departure from the off-heard [sic] claim that Darwinian evolution has no goal in mind.

Chapter 3, “Design Search in Evolution and the Requirement of Intelligence”

My implementation of the Glass model tracks only fitnesses, not associated traits, so there cannot be a goal or problem specified independently of the evolutionary process.

Evolutionary models to date point strongly to the necessity of design. Indeed, all current models of evolution require information from an external designer in order to work. All current evolutionary models simply do not work without tapping into an external information source.

Preface to Introduction to Evolutionary Informatics


The sources of information in the fundamental Darwinian evolutionary model include (1) a large population of agents, (2) beneficial mutation, (3) survival of the fittest and (4) initialization.

Chapter 5, “Conservation of Information in Computer Search”

The enumerated items are attributes of an evolutionary process. Change the attributes, and you do not inform the process to search, but instead define a different process. Fitness is the probabilistic propensity of a type of organism to leave offspring, not search guidance coming from an “external information source.” The components of evolution in the Glass model are differential reproduction of individuals as a consequence of their differences in heritable traits, variety in the heritable traits of offspring resulting from recombination and mutation of parental traits, and a greater number of offspring than available resources permit to survive and reproduce. That, and nothing you will find in Introduction to Evolutionary Informatics, is a fundamental Darwinian account.

1,355 thoughts on “Evo-Info 3: Evolution is not search”

  1. MungMung

    Mung: So Joe, haven’t you argued that evolution maximizes fitness? Perhaps even in this very thread?

    Joe Felsenstein: No, I don’t think I have.

    The evidence is pretty clear that you have in fact so argued. You even have models.

    Do you still say you don’t think you have? Or has your memory been refreshed.

  2. J-MacJ-Mac

    Mung:
    The evidence is pretty clear that you have in fact so argued. You even have models.

    Do you still say you don’t think you have? Or has your memory been refreshed.

    Good one Mung! Selective memory…depending on what suits the evolutionary paradigm better…

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