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The relevance of Charles Darwin in the contemporary world of viruses, climate crisis and artificial intelligence

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Prof Tshilidzi Marwala is the Vice-Chancellor and Principal of the University of Johannesburg, a member of the Namibia 4IR task Force and the author of ‘Leadership Lessons From the Books I Have Read’. He is on Twitter at @txm1971.

The notions that underpin Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution can provide us with tools to tackle the challenges of the contemporary world. His work is worth revisiting.

I have long been struck by the work of Charles Darwin. In an age when we are seeing rapid and often unpredictable changes, the notion embedded in this summation of his view in On the Origin of Species is an important one and continues to ring true: It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is most adaptable to change.

Darwin’s work makes strides in making scientific thought accessible and provides an important indication of our place in the evolutionary process, providing crucial insight into the development and evolution of humanity. In 2015, it was voted in a public poll as the most influential academic book ever written, acclaimed as “the supreme demonstration of why academic books matter” and “a book which has changed the way we think about everything”.

Elaborating on the popularity of the work, Andrew Prescott of the University of Glasgow said: “Darwin used meticulous observation of the world around us, combined with protracted and profound reflection, to create a book which has changed the way we think about everything — not only the natural world but religion, history and society.”

Darwin’s theory of evolution was conceptualised as he travelled the world as a naturalist on board the HMS Beagle. Quite simply put, the theory as outlined in this book is based on the notion of variation. Traits that differentiate species from one another, ranging from structure to colour, and even to capabilities, explain how we have evolved over centuries. Many of these variations are adaptations that have allowed species to survive. This is explained through the concept of natural selection, which makes the argument that infinite population growth is held in check by various factors — for example, access to resources and spatial limitations — which result in what Darwin terms a “struggle for existence”.

It is these adaptations and variations that give species the competitive edge that ultimately ensures survival. This not only explains how we evolve and indeed how those with stronger characteristics survive, but it also explains extinction and why some do not. As Darwin noted, the classification systems of his time already indicated a relationship between species. But his theory went to the heart of the similarities between species, exploring the crucial question of why we see so many similarities between humans and apes, for instance. One can hardly watch videos of chimpanzees engaging with their handlers or Koko the gorilla signing without making comparisons to our own species.

Darwin’s theory is the explanation of this phenomenon. As he terms it, evolution is “descent with modification” and he proposes that diverse groups of animals evolve from one or a few common ancestors. The mechanism by which this evolution takes place is natural selection. As Darwin intricately explains his theory, he also provides insight into the complexities of academia and the fightback he often received from detractors. One of the greatest hurdles he faced was one that continues today.

The notion that humans are the result of biological evolution by natural selection rather than fate and divine purpose threatened contemporary religious ideology that argued that creationism, not evolution, explained our surroundings. 

Naturally, the idea that he had to fight so vehemently to assert his theory appealed to me as an academic. Academia, after all, is where intensive inquiry occurs and it often challenges our convictions. What is compelling is to see how this work represents a fight for academic credibility.

Darwin, convincingly, stands firm in his argument. As Julia Kindt and Professor Tanya Latty of the University of Sydney poignantly argue: “Darwin had to think carefully how to convince his contemporaries of its validity. He had to defend himself against accusations of blasphemy; some of the resulting ridicule targeted him personally. The traces of this struggle are clearly visible in his work. This alone makes it a must-read for all budding scientists, both real and armchair.”

Perhaps even more intriguing is the relevance of Darwin today. Just this week, I read the fascinating case of an Argentinian woman’s body ridding itself of HIV. Doctors think the patient’s immune system eliminated the virus on its own. Tests of more than a billion of her cells uncovered no trace of the infection. Experts argue that if this process can be harnessed, it might offer a way to wipe out or effectively cure HIV. This is evolution.

Similarly, the rapid evolution of the coronavirus raises questions about the next variants, the ones we have not seen yet. Will we still be protected by our current vaccines as they emerge? Emanuel Goldman of Rutgers University argues: “The real danger is a future variant, which will be the legacy of those people who are not getting vaccinated, providing a breeding ground for the virus to continue to generate variants. A variant could arise that is resistant to current vaccines, rendering those already vaccinated susceptible again.”

Elsewhere, scientists from the University of Birmingham have argued that Darwin’s work could be the key to combating the climate crisis. Darwin observed that trees that grow in forests rich in diverse foliage and diverse plants, tend to grow much more viably than trees that are planted individually. This insight could offer a solution to governments to mitigate the worst of climate change by allowing stronger forests to draw more carbon from the air. What is apparent is that Darwin still remains relevant today, if not even more pertinent, than in his lifetime.

Darwin wrote: “Thus, from the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving, namely, the production of the higher animals, directly follows. There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.”

One of the technologies that are defining our times is artificial intelligence (AI). AI is changing the way we live, work and the very essence of our being. These changes are both negative and positive. What ultimately happens will depend on how AI technology evolves, and thus, Darwin’s ideas are at the heart of this technological evolution too.

There are many types of AI, including machine learning and evolutionary programming. In the evolutionary programme, one type of AI is the genetic algorithm (GA), which is inspired by Darwin’s theory of evolution. In genetic algorithms, new solutions to complex problems are evolved by crossover, mutation and reproduction. In this regard, randomly generated solutions in a population are mixed to create new solutions using the principles of crossover. 

Second, these new solutions are randomly changed to add new information, and this is called a mutation. Then a new population is reproduced by using the principles of the “survival of the fittest”. This GA process has been so successful that it has successfully been used to design cars, design electricity transmission and distribution lines, schedule optimum routes, and in protein design.

Darwin’s ideas are powerful and should be studied and taken seriously. Let us not be deterred by the negative and often misguided use of social Darwinism in extreme politics and racism, but use his ideas to tackle some of the pressing problems confronting our society. DM

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