Study: Evolution may be smarter than previously thought

"Learning theory enables us to formalize how evolution changes its own processes over evolutionary time," researcher Richard Watson said.
By Brooks Hays   |   Dec. 18, 2015 at 10:47 AM

SOUTHAMPTON, England, Dec. 18 (UPI) -- New analysis suggests evolution is more sophisticated, intelligent and capable than previously thought.

Researchers at the University of Southampton, in England, say their latest work shows the process of evolution is able to learn from previous experience -- allowing natural selection to better anticipate future benefits and produce intelligent designs.

The new understanding is made possible by a unique approach to theoretical analysis, whereby two seemingly disparate systems or theories are bridged.

In this instance, scientists aimed to compare, contrast and unify the theory of evolution with learning theories, like those that describe the secrets of neural networks or the deep-learning algorithms used to design artificially intelligent systems and robots.

Researchers say drawing formal analogies between the two theories can help them see how patterns from one apply to the other, potentially solving problems and closing gaps in scientific understanding.

"Darwin's theory of evolution describes the driving process, but learning theory is not just a different way of describing what Darwin already told us," Richard Watson, a Southampton professor and evolution expert, said in a press release. "It expands what we think evolution is capable of. It shows that natural selection is sufficient to produce significant features of intelligent problem-solving."

Most scientists describe the process of evolution as "blind," being simply the product of random variation and unable to predict or anticipate the future. But Watson says the latest comparative analysis suggests otherwise.

"Learning theory enables us to formalize how evolution changes its own processes over evolutionary time," Watson explained. "For example, by evolving the organization of development that controls variation, the organization of ecological interactions that control selection or the structure of reproductive relationships that control inheritance -- natural selection can change its own ability to evolve."

In other words, theories of intelligence suggest the evolutionary process is more than just random variation. There is a method to the madness.

"If evolution can learn from experience, and thus improve its own ability to evolve over time, this can demystify the awesomeness of the designs that evolution produces," Watson said. "Natural selection can accumulate knowledge that enables it to evolve smarter. That's exciting because it explains why biological design appears to be so intelligent."

The latest research was published in the journal Trends in Ecology and Evolution.

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