Did Von Neumann Not Believe in Evolution?

over at the Panda’s Thumb

Jeffrey Shallit pointed me to a youtube video, in which David Berlinski makes the following remarkable claim: “… von Neumann, one of the great mathematicians of the 20th century, just laughed at Darwinian theory. He hooted at it.”

Thankfully, Douglas L. Theobald goes to some length to clear Von Neumann’s good name, and shows how such nonsense turns out to be … well, nonsense.  Von Neumann, one of the greats of Game Theory (and plenty of other maths) clearly believed in evolution and did substantial work in areas of mathematics that have directly affected the field of biological evolution in remarkably positive ways.

Von Neumann (from the horses mouth):

Anybody who looks at living organisms knows perfectly well that they can produce other organisms like themselves. This is their normal function, they wouldn’t exist if they didn’t do this, and it’s plausible that this is the reason why they abound in the world. In other words, living organisms are very complicated aggregations of elementary parts, and by any reasonable theory of probability or thermodynamics highly improbable. That they should occur in the world at all is a miracle of the first magnitude; the only thing which removes, or mitigates, this miracle is that they reproduce themselves. Therefore, if by any peculiar accident there should ever be one of them, from there on the rules of probability do not apply, and there will be many of them, at least if the milieu is reasonable. But a reasonable milieu is already a thermodynamically much less improbable thing. So, the operations of probability somehow leave a loophole at this point, and it is by the process of self-reproduction that they are pierced.

Furthermore, it’s equally evident that what goes on is actually one degree better than self-reproduction, for organisms appear to have gotten more elaborate in the course of time. Today’s organisms are phylogenetically descended from others which were vastly simpler than they are, so much simpler, in fact, that it’s inconceivable how any kind of description of the later, complex organisms could have existed in the earlier one. It’s not easy to imagine in what sense a gene, which is probably a low order affair, can contain a description of the human being which will come from it. But in this case you can say that since the gene has its effect only within another human organism, it probably need not contain a complete description of what is to happen, but only a few cues for a few alternatives. However, this is not so in phylogenetic evolution. That starts from simple entities, surrounded by an unliving amorphous milieu, and produces something more complicated. Evidently, these organisms have the ability to produce something more complicated than themselves.

If this man didn’t believe in evolution, I don’t know who does.

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One Response

  1. I’m guessing their is a hidden distinction here that is either being knowingly concealed or is due to incomplete communication:
    Darwin wasn’t the be all and end all of evolutionary theory, so it’s logically perfectly OK to laugh at him and still be influenced by his successors, even if it is a little mean.
    So what did he object to? I have no idea, in fact it could all be false. I’m not quite sure what he means by an amorphous milieu though, as surely the background in which an organism exists has it’s own structure. Indeed, I thought the whole point of an open system was that it ingests this structure and so rides the entropy spiral, thus not violating thermodynamics except in distribution. But anyway, I still don’t feel I have a good grasp of entropy yet, I’m just noticing a common fallacy of assuming an inactive background, something that is a danger in colonisation, engineering and scientific study alike!

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