Sunday, February 12, 2012

Darwin day

Alternet reports that today, Sunday Feruary 12 marks the 203rd birthday of Charles Darwin and asks how we plan to celebrate. I gave some thought to Charles Darwin and the nature of evolution as a learning system. In a talk at Knowledge Technologies in 2002, Uche Ogbuji said humans have as much information in our brains as we have in our DNA. Keeping knowledge in our brains gives us an advantage, because for DNA to update itself with new information, the individual organism has to reproduce and die. I took this knowledge with me into First Nations justice work, and I had the opportunity to learn from First Nations people about the intimate connections between all things in the world. As they taught me, I remembered the world of abstract language-based knowledge, and I took another tentative step forward. I came to understand that the knowledge encoded into our DNA does not simply reflect us: it also reflects our environment. No one species evolves in isolation, rather and entire ecosystem evolves, moving forward and producing information about how to fit together. Our DNA and the living processes that refine it do not produce individuals or even individual species: they produce ecosystems.

What I encountered as the bleeding edge of European science, the intersection between cognitive theory and evolution, the First Nations people I worked with understood as traditions they had loved and reverenced from time immemorial. So on the 203rd anniversary of Charles Darwin, I conclude thus: like Columbus, Darwin sailed to far places and brought back information his contemporaries and successors used both for good and for ill. But can we truly call either man a discoverer for walking on ground lightly trod by others for thousands of years?

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