The Idle Theory of Evolution

Theories of Evolution

The idea of evolution is of great antiquity. Empedocles, around 440 BC, wrote that there were once "countless tribes of mortal creatures, scattered abroad and endowed with all manner of forms," which united as chance permitted, with some combinations surviving, others not. For Empedocles, Chance and Necessity governed the world. Aristotle, 200 years later, rejected the possibility, arguing that the creatures each had a given form or nature.

Two thousand years later, with Aristotelianism in retreat, the idea of evolution regained its impetus, just as the heliocentric universe of Aristarchus (310 - 230 BC) had been revived by Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo, and Newton. In the 18th century, Maupertuis, Cuvier, and Lamarck put forward evolutionary theories - Lamarck being now remembered for his theory that characteristics acquired during a creature's lifetime were inherited by its offspring.

The Survival of the Fittest

Both the authors of the modern theory of Natural Selection, Charles Darwin And A.R. Wallace, cited the Essay on Population (1798) by the political and economic philosopher Robert Malthus as the source of their inspiration. In this Essay, Malthus had argued that the geometrical (1,2,4,8..) power of increase in human numbers, and an arithmetical (1,2,3,4..) growth in agricultural production, would regularly combine to produce famine, increased mortality, and longer hours of work.

Darwin and Wallace saw that this argument could be applied with equal force to the natural world of plants and animals. In the theory of evolution set out by Darwin, the creatures multiplied in numbers beyond the capacity of their environment to sustain them. A struggle for existence ensued, with only the fittest surviving to subsequently reproduce. Assuming a capability of the creatures to vary, and for these variations to be inherited by their offspring, a process of natural selection continually operated to suppress the least fit, and to preserve the most favourable variants. "It is," wrote Darwin in the Origin of Species (1859), "the doctrine of Malthus applied with manifold force to the whole animal and vegetable kingdoms."

In Darwin's exposition, the "struggle for existence" entailed intense competition between the creatures, in a dramatic "war of nature". Darwinism, consequently, has always had about it a strong overtone of competition, conflict, and war. The implication was that the most aggressive, violent, and competitive creatures triumphed over the rest.

Neo-Darwinism, which synthesized Mendelian genetics with the Darwinian theory of evolution, tended to emphasize reproduction instead of competition and war. The fittest creatures became those which left the most descendants in future generations. The fastest reproducing creatures rather than the most aggressive and combative gradually outnumbered slower reproducers.

Neo-Darwinism concentrates almost exclusively on genes and population genetics, to the point where the creatures themselves are merely gene-transporters, trying to maximize their genes in subsequent generations.

The Survival of the Idlest

Like the Darwinian theory, the Idle Theory of Evolution is built upon the Malthusian theory. But it is arguably truer to Malthus than Darwin's system. In Idle Theory, rising populations and falling food resources mean that the creatures simply have to work harder to survive, rather than become embroiled in a Darwinian tooth-and-claw fight for survival, and that their populations oscillate rather than remain at some stable environmental 'carrying capacity'.

Almost entirely absent from both Darwinism and Neo-Darwinism is any description of the physics of life. Idle Theory employs a physical model of life, centred on the energy used by the creatures to live, grow, and reproduce. Idle Theory is built around physical concepts of energy, work, and power, rather than economic ideas of competition and war, or the genetics of reproduction.

In the Idle Life model, the creatures are assumed to expend energy continuously in maintaining and repairing themselves, but to work intermittently to acquire and store the energy needed to power this maintenance work. They are seen as alternating between a busy state, where they work to acquire energy, and an idle state, where they perform no energy-acquiring work. The "idleness" of the creatures is the fraction of their time during which they are inactive or idle. This idleness can range from zero - continuously working to acquire energy - to near-complete inactivity - doing next to no energy-acquiring work at all.

Given a benign condition - with plentiful sources of energy in their environment, the creatures need only do a little work to acquire the energy they need to maintain themselves, and are consequently very idle. In a harsh environment, the same creatures must work much longer to acquire the energy they need, and will consequently be very busy. The limit of 'busyness' is reached when they are working continuously. If, working continuously, they are unable to acquire sufficient energy to power self-maintenance, they run out of energy, cease to maintain themselves, and die.

Zero idleness, or complete 'busyness', is the threshold of death. The nearer any creature approaches this threshold, the more endangered its life becomes. In a time of difficulty, when all creatures must work harder, some varieties or types may be reduced to zero idleness, and driven to extinction. It is the busiest, most hard-working creatures which face extinction, and the idlest which survive. In Idle Theory, natural selection means the regular extinction of the least idle creatures, and the survival of the idlest.

In the natural world, where plants can only acquire solar radiation and animals can only forage during daylight hours, intermittent work is forced. Some published studies also provide evidence of intermittent rather than continuous work.

The methodology of Idle Theory entails constructing computer simulation models of Idle Life, rather than the study of the natural fauna and flora. These models are used study to population behaviour and the process of natural selection.

In these models, populations of plants and animals oscillate. As grazer populations rise, plant populations fall. As plant populations fall, the grazers have to work harder to find food. As grazer idleness falls, numbers of grazers die. Plant populations then recover, and the cycle begins again.

The picture of evolution in Idle Theory is generally one of long periods of indolence, during which the creatures need do very little to survive, and when new variants can appear and become established, interspersed with comparatively brief episodes of difficulty, when the creatures must work much harder to survive, and the least idle variants are driven to extinction. Almost all the Idle Theory simulations are marked by regular extinction events, in which substantial fractions of extant life forms vanish almost simultaneously.

This evolutionary scheme has some features in common with the "punctuated equilibrium" model of evolution. New variants only appear in a relatively brief period when populations are high (and most random variation occurs) and when idleness is high (when new variants are most likely to survive). Most extinctions occur simultaneously as overpopulation reduces grazer idleness. Thus changes tend to be 'sudden', with old varieties being replaced by new ones 'overnight'.

The implications of Idle Theory

The entire tone of Idle Theory is quite different from the Darwinian war of nature and the Neo-Darwinian reproductive imperative. Idle Theory's vision of evolution is much more relaxed, easy.

Idle Theory employs little genetic theory. It doesn't have any particular argument with genetics, except the view that genes explain everything. Idle Theory usually assumes some kind of random genetic variation and inheritance, but it is more interested in the lives of the resulting variants, not what caused them to vary.

Idle Theory discounts the idea of any Darwinian war of nature, partly because it argues that food resources are dispersed and hence that direct competition for food resources is thereby minimized, but also because any direct conflict for food resources entails increased energy expenditures which may easily exceed the gains resulting from any victory. "Competition" is a term seldom employed in Idle Theory.

Equally, Idle Theory dismisses the idea that rapid reproduction ensures survival, because fast reproduction entails higher energy expenditure, and consequently reduced idleness, and a greater chance of extinction.

Perhaps one of the main features of Idle Theory is the ease with which it can explain play and altruism. Although for the most part it is assumed that the creatures do nothing during their idle time, they are not constrained to inactivity. So long as they use part of their idle time to acquire extra energy, the creatures can do what they like during idle time: they can sleep, or engage in play, or they can also act altruistically to assist less idle creatures. The less idle the creatures become, the less scope they have for play or altruism. In this sense, idleness represents a degree of freedom, and the foundation of ethics.

Idle Theory makes laziness - Do As Little Work As Possible - the primary imperative of life. Any creature that sets out to do things the hard way soon dies. Those predators that set out to catch the fastest prey, rather than the slowest, are all extinct. Life isn't trying to be busy: it's trying to be idle. Life isn't trying to do the maximum: it's trying to do the minimum. In this respect, Life is no exception to those Principles of Least Action which govern so many physical processes.

Idle Theory generally sets out to explain all evolutionary developments as devices for increasing idleness. It explains the evolution of multicellular life from unicellular life by arguing that cooperative systems of cells are more idle than single cells, and hence more likely to survive. It explains social organisation in the same way, arguing that cooperative systems of multicellulars tend to be more idle than single multicellulars, and hence more likely to survive.

In Idle Theory, 'species' are regarded as islands or peaks of idleness in the 'adaptive landscape'. The explanation for the 'failure' of many natural species to evolve is that these species already occupy an idleness peak, and any variants are almost certain to be less idle, and less likely to survive. Species diversification can only occur when the general idleness of the creatures increases, and the islands 'rise' from the surrounding sea, and spread laterally, allowing less idle variants the chance to survive and themselves diversify. The cycle of increasing and decreasing idleness allows intermediates between peaks to appear and diversify as idleness increases, and to vanish as idleness falls, leaving only a few species-islands,

Equally, evolution in one direction, "orthogenesis" is explained by arguing that, for example, increases in size usually entail increased idleness. Natural selection will favour increases in size, or any other development, so long as they increase idleness.

Idle Theory

Author: Chris Davis
Last Edited: 23 mar 1998