British agricultural revolution gave us evolution by natural selection

This Wednesday, I gave a talk on algorithmic biology to the Oxford Computing Society. One of my goals was to show how seemingly technology oriented disciplines (such as computer science) can produce foundational theoretical, philosophical and scientific insights. So I started the talk with the relationship between domestication and natural selection. Something that I’ve briefly discussed on TheEGG in the past.

Today we might discuss artificial selection or domestication (or even evolutionary oncology) as applying the principles of natural selection to achieve human goals. This is only because we now take Darwin’s work as given. At the time that he was writing, however, Darwin actually had to make his argument in the other direction. Darwin’s argument proceeds from looking at the selection algorithms used by humans and then abstracting it to focus only on the algorithm and not the agent carrying out the algorithm. Having made this abstraction, he can implement the breeder by the distributed struggle for existence and thus get natural selection.

The inspiration is clearly from the technological to the theoretical. But there is a problem with my story.

Domestication of plants and animals in ancient. Old enough that we have cancers that arose in our domesticated helpers 11,000 years ago and persist to this day. Domestication in general — the fruit of the first agricultural revolution — can hardly qualify as a new technology in Darwin’s day. It would have been just as known to Aristotle, and yet he thought species were eternal.

Why wasn’t Aristotle or any other ancient philosopher inspired by the agriculture and animal husbandry of their day to arrive at the same theory as Darwin?

The ancients didn’t arrive at the same view because it wasn’t the domestication of the first agricultural revolution that inspired Darwin. It was something much more contemporary to him. Darwin was inspired by the British agricultural revolution of the 18th and early 19th century.

In this post, I want to sketch this connection between the technological development of the Georgian era and the theoretical breakthroughs in natural science in the subsequent Victorian era. As before, I’ll focus on evolution and algorithm.

What was the British agricultural revolution? Was it even seen as a revolution in its own time or recognized only in hindsight? For this, we can turn to Victorian texts. We can see a description of the revolution directly in Darwin’s writings. For example, in his October 1857 letter to Asa Gray, Darwin writes: “[s]election has been methodically followed in Europe for only the last half century” (the emphasis is original).

‘Methodical’ is key. And the innovation that Darwin is alluding to originated in Leicestershire with Robert Bakewell and was popularized by Thomas Coke, 1st Early of Leicester.

Bakewell built a mechanistic approach to agriculture. Not the replacement of farm workers by machines, but the methodical scientific approach to agriculture. The introduction of methodical inductive empiricism.

In particular, Bakewell is most remembered for the Dishley system — known today as line breeding or breeding in-and-in. Prior to Bakewell, livestock of both sexes was kept together in fields. This resulted in natural assortment between the livestock and did not easily produce systematic traits in the offspring — to the casual onlooker, the traits in the offspring of these populations would be diverse and seemingly random. Bakewell seperated the sexes and only allowed deliberate, specific mating. This allowed him to more easily and rapidly select for desired traits in his livestock.

During the 35 years from Robert Bakewell inheriting his father’s farm in 1760 to his own death in 1795, he developed several new breeds of livestock including new kinds of sheep, cattle, and horses.

It was apparent to any observed that these were different variations on species. For example, they produced more wool, gained more weight more quickly, and were easier to work with than prior livestock. During Bakewell’s lifetime, the average weight of bulls at action is reported to have doubled.

The Dishley system — i.e. Bakewell’s algorithm — clearly produced new varieties. The puzzle was now an algorithmic one: was a human breeder required to implement this algorithm, or was this always taking place even without human intervention.

Thus, in recognizing (artificial) selection, Darwin was not extracting an implicit algorithm from a long-held human practice. Rather, he was taking an explicit algorithm advocated and practiced by his contemporaries. In the On the Origin of Species, Darwin explicitly acknowledges Bakewell’s demonstration of variation under domestication, and even discusses the branching of Bakewell’s variations under the breeding of different farmers (Buckley vs. Burgess).

Darwin’s contribution to Backewell’s algorithm was abstracting it: recognizing that the agent that implements the algorithm is irrelevant. We don’t need to have Robert Bakewell or another agriculturalist do the selecting. Instead, we can have a distributed agent like the struggle for existence. It is this algorithmic abstraction that allowed Darwin to revolutionize how we think about nature. But it was the latest technology of his day that led him there. Darwin took a human algorithm and asked if it can also explain nature.

Bakewell’s contribution to the technology of agriculture and influence on the future of evolutionary theory extends beyond breeding. He also established experimental plots on his farm to test different manure and irrigation methods. This practice was part of the inspiration for John Bennet Lawes’ establishment of the Rothamsted Experimental Station in 1843 for carrying out long-term agricultural experiments. Their 1856 Park Grass Experiment is still ongoing. But the station is perhaps best known for its theoretical contribution to evolutionary biology during the 14-year tenure (1919–1933) of Ronald Fisher. While at Rothamsted, Fisher developed the statistics and population genetics of the modern evolutionary synthesis to make sense of the data from these ongoing evolutionary experiments.

And the inspiration on evolution from technology was not limited to agriculture. Steam engines — the other new tech of the day, and one whose study I’ve already compared to computer science on TheEGG — also make an appearance in the first publication of natural selection in 1858. In his section, Alfred Russel Wallace writes that the “action of [natural selection] is exactly like that of the centrifugal governor of the steam engine, which checks and corrects any irregularities almost before they become evident.” An analogy to another recent technology; this one introduced into common usage by James Watt in 1788.

It is easy to imagine history as going from idea to technology. But I think this is often an anachronism. Rather, technology can lead foundational ideas. The tools we build to understand and develop technology can often form the basis for the abstractions and analogies that create new theoretical, philosophical, and scientific ideas.

Today, we should look at the computer — the big technology from the last 50 years — not as just a practical tool. We need to recognize the principles and mathematics underlying algorithms and computation not as just technological aids but as means to fundamentally transform our understanding of nature. And as with Darwin and Wallace, I propose that we focus that transformation on our understanding of biology. Maybe the computing revolution will give us algorithmic biology as the next development in our understanding of the world around us.

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About Artem Kaznatcheev
From the Department of Computer Science at Oxford University and Department of Translational Hematology & Oncology Research at Cleveland Clinic, I marvel at the world through algorithmic lenses. My mind is drawn to evolutionary dynamics, theoretical computer science, mathematical oncology, computational learning theory, and philosophy of science. Previously I was at the Department of Integrated Mathematical Oncology at Moffitt Cancer Center, and the School of Computer Science and Department of Psychology at McGill University. In a past life, I worried about quantum queries at the Institute for Quantum Computing and Department of Combinatorics & Optimization at University of Waterloo and as a visitor to the Centre for Quantum Technologies at National University of Singapore. Meander with me on Google+ and Twitter.

3 Responses to British agricultural revolution gave us evolution by natural selection

  1. Bob Apposite says:

    Probably also has something to do with Slavery.

  2. Pingback: Introduction to Algorithmic Biology: Evolution as Algorithm | Theory, Evolution, and Games Group

  3. Pingback: Daily Bookmarks to GAVNet 06/18/2019 | Greener Acres Value Network News

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