Part 1: The Classical Theory of Relativity
Classical Relativity beginsi with Galileo’s description of how a person below deck on a boat moving uniformly would not be able to tell whether the boat was in motionii. Without an outside perspective, we cannot tell if we are moving with respect to some object, usually the ground, if we are moving uniformly. For example one could be napping in a plane waiting to take off with the shade closed, wake up mid-flight, still believe oneself to be on the tarmac (no turbulence), fall back asleep and believe that the plane never moved when wakened to deplane. Without the acceleration of the takeoff or landing, or seeing the ground flying by below, a very smooth quiet flight would be indistinguishable from not moving at all. Conversely, one can be sitting in traffic not moving and see a bus slowly moving forward. Instead of the believing the bus to be pulling ahead, it is a common mistake to believe oneself to be slowly moving backwards. It’s always a small shock to realize that you haven’t moved at all, but this reaction shows exactly how we are unable to tell the difference between a uniform backwards motion and not moving at all (uniformly moving at zero speed).
This principle was used by Newton in his mechanics; later Einstein developed the Special Theory of Relativity from this Galilean-Newtonian Relativity and the law of propagation of lightiii. Noting that the concept of relativity was used by Newton is important because the basic concept of physical relativity is independent of the assumptions of those other theories. Relativity started out as, and fundamentally is, a description of something that we cannot do, i.e. we cannot tell a physical difference between undergoing one uniform motion or another.
Part 2: The Relativity of Evolutionary Biology
Relativity applies when we are unable to recognize whether or not we are moving while undergoing uniform motion. Is there a motion in biology similar to motion that existed under Newtonian Mechanics? If we think of evolution in spatial terms, say any evolutionary space-time, we could plot the changes that occur to a species on such a graph. This graph of adaptations for an organism might be considered its (absolute) fitness; the changes that occur to a species, the difference in the plots of individual graphs, would be mutations. Over generations we could plot the motion of the species, i.e. the way the species has mutated.
To show a physical motion is uniform we have to contrast it with a non-uniform motion, else we will be unable to recognize that we are undergoing any change. For physics this means we have to become jolted, or pushed, so that we feel we are no longer still (or cruising along); in biology this would mean a jolt to our fitness. If a person’s fitness were jolted, higher or lower, we would recognize such a change over the status quo. Such a person, whether with some superior ability or, conversely, some weakness, would be recognized to be different from the norm. All people have individual characteristics, or mutations, which have never before existed. However, almost all of our mutations are, in a sense, normal. This contrast between a person without any special genetic abilities or deficiencies and what might be considered normal illustrates the uniformity of mutation. We do not notice any mutations in normal healthy babies or consider them mutants, but it is exactly these normal healthy babies that will propagate the species, slowly introduce new features and hence drive evolution. Our inability to recognize uniform motion in biology is our inability to see evolution at work in every instance of biological reproduction. Therefore evolutionary biology is relative with respect to uniform mutation.
(update update: see here for an extended discussion of measuring fitness)
(update: see my ‘Consequences‘ page for a better discussion of fitness)
This result directly affects our interpretation of fitness. Fitness, as noted above, can be thought of as a location on a graphiv: ‘more fit’ individuals will be ‘higher’ on the graph than ‘less fit’ individuals. However, fitness in biology is now subject to relativity. In physics, position can only be defined with respect to a fixed body of referencev. This is to say both people have to know where Times Square is in order for one to give directions from Times Square to another place. Now, in biology, we have to use a particular mutually known example organism to describe the fitness of another organism. Hence 1) Assignments of fitness, in general, will be comparable only if they are made with respect to an agreed upon standard and 2) Though the standard should be well known, it is still arbitrary, and, as such, no absolute measure of biological fitness can exist.
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