Books : reviews

Bruce H. Weber, David J. Depew, James D. Smith.
Entropy, Information, and Evolution: new perspectives on physical and biological evolution.
MIT Press. 1988

Can recent developments in thermodynamics and information theory offer a way out of the current crisis in evolutionary theory? One of the most exciting and controversial areas of scientific research in recent years has been the application of the principles of nonequilibrium thermodynamics to the problems of the physical evolution of the universe, the origins of life, the structure and succession of ecological systems, and biological evolution. These sixteen original essays by evolutionists, ecologists, molecular biologists, physical chemists, physicists, and philosophers of science provide the best current summary of this developing research program.

Chapters in the book’s first part – by Steven Frautschi, David Layser, and Dilip Kondoputi – explore the application of the second law of thermodynamics to physical evolution and the origins of life. Those in the second part – by Lionel G. Harrison, Lionel Johnson, Eric D. Schneider, and Jeffrey S. Wicken – take up the thermodynamics of ecology and evolution; Johnson and Wicken criticize neoDarwinian orthodoxy and present alternative theories relating thermodynamics to evolutionary ecology. In the book’s third section, E. O. Wiley defends the theory that phylogenetic evolution may be predicted from a general version of the second law reformulated in terms of information theory, and Daniel R. Brooks, D. David Cumming, and Paul H. LeBlond also defend that controversial theory. The book concludes with a series of essays that evaluate these contributions and point out their implications for biology, philosophy, and the social sciences.

Bruce H. Weber, David J. Depew.
Evolution and Learning: the Baldwin effect reconsidered.
MIT Press. 2003

The role of genetic inheritance dominates current evolutionary theory. At the end of the nineteenth century, however, several evolutionary theorists independently speculated that learned behaviors could also affect the direction and rate of evolutionary change. This notion was called the Baldwin effect, after the psychologist James Mark Baldwin. In recent years, philosophers and theorists of a variety of ontological and epistemological backgrounds have begun to employ the Baldwin effect in their accounts of the evolutionary emergence of mind and of how mind, through behavior, might affect evolution.

The essays in this book discuss the originally proposed Baldwin effect, how it was modified over time, and its contribution to contemporary empirical and theoretical evolutionary studies. The topics include the effect of the modern evolutionary synthesis on the notion of the Baldwin effect, the nature and role of niche construction in contemporary evolutionary theory, the Baldwin effect in the context of developmental systems theory, the role of the Baldwin effect in computational cognitive science biosemiotics, and the emergence of consciousness and language.